Folks are never going to just change their mind about something because you tell them they should. They are going to change their mind because they feel a stake in it. Art is a tremendous way to create that kind of stake because it enables you to enter the experience of another person and see the world through their eyes. – Nina Revoyr
Nina Revoyr was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Polish-American father. She grew up in Tokyo, Wisconsin, and Los Angeles, and attended Yale University. She received her MFA from Cornell University and is the author of five novels. Her first two, The Necessary Hunger and Southland, are set in urban, inner-city Los Angeles, and the third, The Age of Dreaming, is set in Little Tokyo and Hollywood during the silent film era. Her fourth novel, Wingshooters, takes place in rural Wisconsin during the 1970s. Lost Canyon, her latest novel, follows four diverse urbanites from various Los Angeles neighborhoods into the mountains of the Sierras. The weekend adventure turns into a challenge of survival as her protagonists come face to face, not only with the forces of nature, but also with unexpected human encounters fraught with prejudice, avarice, and the territorial desperation of drug trafficking. Lost Canyon’s high-energy adventure encompasses the inspiring beauty and raw ugliness of both natural and urban landscapes, while subtly considering the complexity of such contemporary issues as intolerance, ethics, and social diversity.
Ms. Revoyr is the Executive Vice President and CEO of Children’s Institute, Inc., a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that serves children and families affected by poverty, violence, and trauma. The Children’s Institute is currently raising funds for the new Watts Children Center, a multi-service facility designed by LA architect Frank Gehry. The new facility, described as “a beacon of hope in the surrounding landscape,” is slated to open in 2019.
Revoyr graciously spent over an hour with me via Skype one evening in March 2016, discussing her latest novels, the writing life, social activism, and the importance of art.
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Carrie Kellerby: Much of Lost Canyon seems to be culled directly from your personal experience in your community, your work at the Children’s Institute, and the cultural challenges you see every day. But Lost Canyon is not the first book you’ve written that addresses subjects like racial and economic diversity. In fact, all your books deal with difficult social issues. Would you talk about how you make the connections between your life, your work, and your writing?
Nina Revoyr: The things I care about, the things that are preoccupations, the things that drive me in both my work and my writing are similar, but I tend not to write directly about my actual job because while it’s important and interesting to me, it is mostly administrative. It’s just not compelling enough to be the fodder of good fiction. In fact, I think it’s been good for me to have separate existences. They are definitely connected, but they emerge through very different processes. The novels, for example, deal with things indirectly. I’m not one of these authors, like the police officer or the attorney, who comes home from work and writes crime fiction. It’s also different than teaching. I have taught, and I love teaching, but it makes writing the job too. The pressure on academic writers, particularly for those who are in tenure track positions, is intense. I think I would find that difficult. I also think the separation between what I do for a living and my writing allows me to keep reading as pleasure as well. And I think that’s important for me. Reading is still a way I can step into another world and lose myself in something other than the everyday world. Some of my academic friends talk about looking forward to a time when reading can once again be a pleasure for them. So I feel fortunate because my job allows reading and writing to remain a joy.
It was important for me to show that the environment that someone works or lives in has an effect in shaping them. So you have these characters that come from very diverse backgrounds, different genders and different races, and they all have this collection of different life experiences, which leads them to read situations a certain way and also leads people to respond to them a certain way. They all make assumptions about each other.
CK: To get away from the pressures of their respective environments, the four main characters of your novel go on an extended weekend hike into the Sierras. They don’t really know each other, but they all work out at the same athletic club, and their physical trainer Tracy organizes the excursion. But rather than get away from it all, it’s almost as if they bring the urban environment and all the complexity of social interaction with them. They continue to operate, on the trip and when they reach their destination, from their urban experience. What does this say about cultural assumptions?
NR: Well, it says that we make them. And that those assumptions, the kind of shorthand way we have of thinking about things or people, is not ultimately useful, or not complete, in terms of understanding who people are. Each of the main characters in the book comes from a different part of Los Angeles. Several of them come from places that you don’t normally read about in a loving way—not in fiction anyway—and not in a way that shows the complexity and beauty of the environment as well as the challenge. It was important for me to show that the environment that someone works or lives in has an effect in shaping them. So you have these characters that come from very diverse backgrounds, different genders and different races, and they all have this collection of different life experiences, which leads them to read situations a certain way and also leads people to respond to them a certain way. They all make assumptions about each other. With Lost Canyon I got to take some of the social and racial dynamics of Los Angeles, which of course, mirrors the social and racial dynamics of our country, and create a little microcosm. They have to figure out a way to work with each other, [to] depend on each other, to trust each other and get past those assumptions about one another for the sake of their own survival.
CK: And they do, for the most part. It’s faulty, but they do. Take Gwen, for example. She makes missteps, but her transformations are pretty compelling. The book is written from three different perspectives, Gwen’s, Oscar’s, and Todd’s. Gwen’s trajectory was, I think, the most dramatic to watch. She ends up defying the assumptions made about her by the others. She also has clear ethical lines that, even under stress, she won’t cross. Yet, they do all end up working together in their own ways. How did you see Gwen develop as a character in the novel?
NR: Gwen grows in so many ways, and she really became the heart of the book. She’s the one who has her assumptions about her own limitations. She thinks she can’t carry a backpack, and she’s not comfortable in herself or in her body. And all the folks she’s going with pretty much think the same thing about her. Someone even expresses the thought that she’s the weakest link. She even has that doubt herself. So what happens for her over the course of the novel, through danger and hardship, is that she transforms and gains strength and confidence. It was fun to get to see her blossom like that. And yes, she does draw those ethical lines, but her adherence puts them in danger. She doesn’t want to take certain kinds of actions, whereas, some of the other characters are more inclined to take things in their own hands. However, her ethical choice not to take things to logical extremes, and the fact [that] she gets the others to go along with her, means that some other trouble befalls them.
The kind of shorthand way we have of thinking about things or people, is not ultimately useful, or not complete, in terms of understanding who people are.
CK: It’s interesting that you say, “It was fun to see her blossom like that.” How well do you know the characters at the start of a book?
NR: When I start a book, I usually start with a character or a set of characters and a question. I take the time of writing the book to figure out the answers to that question. The simple question with this book was what would happen if a group of really different people were thrown into a dangerous situation in the woods and had to fight for their lives? At the beginning, going into the trip, I did have a good sense of who these characters were, but I didn’t know what would happen. They had tests I had planned that I knew were going to happen, and then some other things that just happened. So over the course of writing the book, I got to know them, and they got to know each other. But no, I didn’t know what was going to happen with some of the characters, like Gwen. That’s part of the joy. I never want to have too clear of an idea of what’s going to happen at the beginning, or it strangles the project. I have to have a sense of mystery to keep my own interest sparked.
CK: In an interview with Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), you mentioned that you had spent two years writing a novel that had lost its fun and was no longer working. How did the abandonment of the previous book affect the writing of Lost Canyon? Had you already severed your emotional commitment to the previous project, or were you flirting with Lost Canyon while working on the other book?
NR: I had severed it. Though I am often poly-amorous when it comes to books, I am often working on two at a time, so that when I get tired of one, or reach a wall with one, I can pull out the other for a while. But that wasn’t what happened here. I had worked on one book for a couple of years, but it just wasn’t alive. Like my other books, that one was more historical in nature, but it wasn’t working. I had even taken several months off after Wingshooters and the book tour to really get going on the work for that book. I was writing, producing the pages, but it just didn’t feel alive to me. Finally, I decided I needed to set it aside for a while. So I took a backpacking vacation. What you read in that interview was true: I was in the high Sierras when the idea struck me that I should be writing about what it felt like to be out there. So the door was cracked open, and this other idea for another book walked right in. And it arrived almost whole. If you’re lucky, maybe once or twice in a career, you are struck by lightning like that.
CK: Can you talk about how this book is different than the past ones, and was that part of the “lightning strike” of that original inspiration? For example, did you know right away it was going to be an adventure?
Deliverance is about four middle-aged white guys of the same social class. I wanted to create an adventure story that was more reflective of the world as I know it: racially and economically diverse. I also wanted to write a book that was both an adventure novel and a social novel, together.NR: Most of my other books have been based on past events. Traditionally, they have story lines that jump back and forth in time and fairly complex, or fractured, narrative structures. I think part of the reason this one came out the way it did was that the energy had been building from the frustration of the other book, which was again, a complex historical novel. So when I got this idea, everything about it happened like a slingshot. I wanted it to be as straight as could be. And I did want it to be an adventure story. In fact the book I had in mind was James Dickey’s Deliverance. I loved that book. I wanted to do that kind of book, but differently. Deliverance is about four middle-aged white guys of the same social class. I wanted to create an adventure story that was more reflective of the world as I know it: racially and economically diverse. I also wanted to write a book that was both an adventure novel and a social novel, together. I had not necessarily seen that done before.
CK: Having your urban hikers stumble onto the pot plantations in the Sierras is an effective plot device and makes for a compelling story, but I also feel it may not be as simple as it appears. What are some of the connections between the wilderness pot plantations, drug trafficking, and the concerns your characters grapple with in the “safety” of their urban environment?
NR: Well. You can’t get away. You cannot escape from economic difficulty, racism, or environmental concerns. So there are pot fields that are grown on public lands, wilderness areas, and there is definitely an interconnection between what is happening there and the gang activity and the drug activity that is happening in Highland Park and Cypress Park, where Oscar lives. And of course, Gwen is aware of the devastating impact of drugs on the lives of the young people she works with. These things are all interrelated and connected. California is incredibly diverse. It is so beautiful, but there is a lot of drug production here too. According to Southern Poverty Law Center, it is also the home of more hate groups than any other state in the United States. And it’s hard to think of all that prejudice and all that diversity happening in one place. On the other hand, it’s kind of a microcosm of what’s happening across the whole country.
CK: I had no idea about the hate groups. I find that as depressing as listening to some of the current political rhetoric. Is there hope for change? Do you think we humans will ever develop the skills or mindset to move beyond these kinds of fears of difference?
NR: Even with all the tough stuff and difficulty that happens in my book, it’s still optimistic. The dynamic between the characters and what happens when they come back are all positive. And I believe the ways that their eyes open to each other is actually very hopeful. So I believe, and I try to demonstrate this with my books, that if people are given a real opportunity to interact with each other, to start to see each other as people, they will come to realize that they all have more things in common than not. They want a lot of the same things. They want the best for their children. They want opportunity. When people are able to actually interact with one another, their minds and hearts start to change. In my book Wingshooters, part of the difficulty was that in rural Wisconsin there was no exposure to difference. I can’t imagine that some of the vitriol in some of our current politics would be said if people got to know others on a person-to-person basis. So part of it is exposure, and part of it is openness to exposure, which might be the more difficult part. I also think that some of the high volume of negative rhetoric is a result of fear—the last gasp of folks who think they are losing something in a rapidly-changing world.
CK: Well, I think one of the things that many of your books accomplish is that they seem to show a way through the difficulty. A path. Lost Canyon was fairly positive, but Wingshooters was pretty dour. How do you incorporate the navigation of the reader through the difficult situations you depict? Does that play into the responsibilities of the artist?
I write about race and inequality and injustice, but ultimately I am an optimistic person. I think it’s important that while we depict the ugly dark side of life that it’s just as important to embrace the beauty and the joy.NR: I write about a lot of things. I write about race and inequality and injustice, but ultimately I am an optimistic person. I think it’s important that while we depict the ugly dark side of life that it’s just as important to embrace the beauty and the joy. And even in a book like Wingshooters, where there was so much dysfunction and trauma, there was also a lot of beauty and joy. So in that book there is the beauty of the natural landscape, there’s the dog, and the relationship between Mikey and her grandfather. I think that a big part of the role of the artist is to show the way through. You know, James Baldwin was probably one of my biggest influences as a writer. No one wrote more eloquently about racism and poverty, about incredible systemic prejudice in the country. Yet, there was also joy and optimism in his work. There was a trying to get through. I want to show the hard things, but I also want to show that there is a way through.
CK: You mentioned the beauty of nature in Wingshooters. In your last two books, nature seems to provide an almost reflective surface for the human action. Can you tell me how you choose the setting for your books and what role you think setting plays?
NR: As I said, I start with character and a question, and that will often present the place. Once I know what that setting is, I think it’s critical to get that sense of place right. You want your readers to be able to see and sense and smell and feel and understand the physical world that your characters inhabit. Otherwise, it’s just a vague backdrop. And those settings are important because they shape character and experience inside the book. In some cases, they can even be a kind of character. And it’s not about describing every little detail, every leaf on the tree or crack in the sidewalk, but about capturing the right bits of detail, like a well-crafted line drawing. The details I used in Lost Canyon, for example, include very specific details about different neighborhoods in the city. The details of the trip in the Sierras all come from specific things I saw on different hikes in different areas there. I had been recording these things for years, not knowing what I was going to do with them. Fortunately, when it came time to write the book, I had a whole collection to draw from, which I was then able to weave into the book.
CK: You have a professional career, a marriage, and an accomplished writing life, which includes appearances and interviews like this one, yet you seem to handle your busy life with a great deal of grace. How do you manage to balance everything and consistently bring novels to completion?
I’m not sure, I just do. I write, but I don’t write on the days I go to work, because my job is too time consuming and demanding. That means I write on weekends, holidays, and vacations. Occasionally, I will be able to tack on a Friday afternoon or Monday morning, but it’s mostly just the time away from work. But I’m also pretty strict about that. I don’t fudge it. If I’m not working, I really am writing. Right now, I’m still percolating. I’m taking a bit of a break from writing, so I have my weekends. And I’ve been able to play, go to brunch, whatever. It’s been nice. But when I’m in a working groove, that all goes by the wayside. My weekend mornings are reserved for writing. That means when I’m on a project, I also can’t go out late on a weekend night because I have to get up early to write. And the only thing I really make an exception for is hiking, because I do have to get that in too. But it is hard, and it has gotten harder over the years. That’s maybe one of the biggest downsides of not having an academic kind of job—I don’t get summers off or three weeks at Christmas to write. It’s a challenge.
CK: It sounds like you are very consistent about it though. How did you develop such intense discipline?
NR: I don’t really think of myself as that disciplined. It’s just become such a habit. And I think that one of the things that contributed to the consistency was my training as an athlete. I played basketball in high school and college, and I had to get up really early and be at the gym every day. That got me used to doing a little bit every day in service of a greater goal. That kind of habit of practice directly translated into writing for me.
Art creates empathy and a way to identify with someone you thought was very different… Art is effective in changing the way people approach the world.
CK: While many recognize that your fiction is hard to classify, some talk about your work in terms of LGBT fiction and some label you a regional writer. What do you think about these labels?
NR: Oh, I don’t mind as long as I’m multi-labeled. I’ve been called a Los Angeles writer, a mid-western writer, LGBT writer, historical, noir. My critics have put me in a lot of boxes, and those boxes become shorthand and, just like the assumptions we talked about earlier, they can be used as a way to dismiss. I am fortunate because I have become a part of so many boxes. So I don’t mind about the labels. I’m proud to have written deeply about a place I truly love, or about issues I really care about it. I feel I have given voice to stories that don’t usually get told. Really, I’m just happy to be read, and that people are finding my books.
CK: You worked with Head Start and with the Los Angeles school board before working with the Children’s Institute, so it appears that you have focused your career on advocating for opportunities for children, the most powerless of the powerless, in some sense. Was this a deliberate career path for you?
NR: When I was growing up here in LA, I knew a lot of people who had the same, and more, intelligence, capacity, talent, but who may not have had the opportunity to go to college or to have a productive career because they had so many other factors working against them, like living in traumatic situations, not having solid parents, or not having a good education. It was striking to me how many kids were lost, were just given up on. A lot of these kids, had they had the right opportunities or support, might have gone on completely different trajectories. And so I wanted to do what I could so that kids would have the opportunities and support that they deserve. So what drives the work is the recognition of the real inequities in play, the obstacles that face kids in poverty, especially.
CK: Frank Gehry recently designed a new center for the Children’s Institute in Watts, and it is slated to break ground in 2018. It is estimated that the center will serve approximately five thousand children affected by poverty, trauma, or violence. But the problems facing these children are not strictly isolated to Los Angeles. Isn’t this a national crisis? Do you believe that, as a nation, we are addressing these problems effectively?
I’ve been called a Los Angeles writer, a mid-western writer, LGBT writer, historical, noir. My critics have put me in a lot of boxes, and those boxes become shorthand and, just like the assumptions we talked about earlier, they can be used as a way to dismiss. I am fortunate because I have become a part of so many boxes. So I don’t mind about the labels. I’m proud to have written deeply about a place I truly love, or about issues I really care about it. I feel I have given voice to stories that don’t usually get told.NR: You’re right, the challenges facing Los Angeles are also facing the whole country. And no, I don’t think we are dealing with the problems particularly effectively. What is encouraging though is that there are effective models out there. There are efforts that are working. What is working needs to be bottled and replicated. I’m thinking particularly of a Jesuit boys’ school in Watts that has sent, for the past seven years, all of their graduates to college. One hundred percent. They’ve done this not by just providing them with education, but by acknowledging their social and emotional issues as well. They also provide kids with internships to various offices throughout Los Angeles so that these kids get to go downtown or to Century City to work. This enables these kids to envision another reality—another future. That is actually the biggest barrier for these kids, bigger than poverty, bigger than violence. Many of the kids that we serve cannot imagine a different kind of life. That’s a big part of why we are building the Frank Gehry building. It will be a place of services, but it is also a place of beauty and magic in a community where there is not enough. There will be spaces for the therapeutic work that we do, but there will also be a dedicated art room, basketball court, computer lab, teen center, and resources to develop the skills needed for success, like getting a job. Jobs are important. When you have a community where there is very little employment, it feeds into the general despair. Folks who are well-employed don’t really understand this problem, or that dignity is tied up in being able to work. A job enables someone, of course, to live, but it also provides an important sense of identity. I think that’s also one of things I address in Lost Canyon, by showing the lives and work of people who aren’t normally seen in fiction. To show their humanity.
CK: How effective do you think art is in bringing awareness to social concerns? Does art work that way?
NR: Absolutely. In fact, I think that art works better than anything else. Folks are never going to just change their mind about something because you tell them they should. They are going to change their mind because they feel a stake in it. Art is a tremendous way to create that kind of stake because it enables you to enter the experience of another person and see the world through their eyes. That capacity is something that doesn’t really exist in other realms. Art creates empathy and a way to identify with someone you thought was very different. I think that art is very effective in changing the way that people approach the world.
CK: That being said, how important is it that we keep arts in public education?
NR: Hugely. History, nonfiction, science can tell you the what, when, and where, but it doesn’t tell you the why or the how. That is what the arts provide. It gets behind the curtain, the motivations and causes. It gets to the thing behind the action so that the actions can be understood. And when students are only drilled, and are not given exposure to arts, to inventiveness, to creativity and playfulness, they become one sided. It works like a muscle that hasn’t been used. When creativity becomes atrophied, it makes it very difficult to respond to situations in the world, to the intangible things that make up this experience—the magic of the world. One of my favorite stories is about Steve Jobs attributing a calligraphy class he took in college to the design aesthetic of Apple products. At the time it seemed like a totally useless thing to practice, but it ended up having a huge impact on a global scale. He makes the point that you can’t connect the dots going forward; you don’t know where things will lead. You can only connect the dots retrospectively. So I think playfulness, experimentation, openness, and being really present in your life and environment is hugely important.
Nina, one last question. Despite your full plate, are you going to get some rest and relaxation as the weather warms? Any plans for backpacking the remote canyons of the Sierras this summer?
NR: I am. I’m going in July for about a week, and it’s actually a vacation. I will not be doing any work. I can’t wait.
She is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts, and the faculty advisor and co-editor of the Arts and Graphics department at Lunch Ticket.
She teaches freshman composition at Colorado Mesa University, has just finished her 200-hour yoga teacher training, is a freelance journalist, and spends way too much time gardening.