Q&A With Nina Revoyr by Ellis Avery
Author: Edit Team
March 27, 2012
“…I do believe in the importance of story, of narrative. I always try to create a sense of urgency; ideally the reader will be pulled along, will want to know what happens next.”
Named one of “Ten Titles to Pick Up Now” by O: The Oprah Magazine, Nina Revoyr’s new Lambda nominated novel is at once a breathtakingly beautiful hymn to the American outdoors—and to the bond between grandfather and granddaughter—and at the same time a chilling snapshot of race in this country. Wingshooters serves as a stark corrective to lazy, cozy assumptions that racism doesn’t exist in the North the way it does in the South, or that lynching ended with the Civil Rights Movement. It is also an aching, lonely, sure-handed portrait of small-town lesbian girlhood.
It’s 1974 in Deerhorn,Wisconsin, where Tokyo-raised nine-year-old Michelle LeBeau has been sent to live with her father’s parents while her father, a Deerhorn native, pursues her runaway mother, a Japanese exchange student whom he met in college. Michelle, called Mikey by her beloved grandfather, Charlie LeBeau, is the first person of color ever to live in Deerhorn until the fall of 1974, when an African-American couple, a nurse and a substitute teacher, arrive to work in the expanding local hospital and to teach at Michelle’s school.
Until the arrival of the Garretts, Michelle is the object of relentless hostility, which only slackens because it has been redirected toward—and redoubled against—the black couple. When schoolteacher Mr. Garrett sees that Michelle’s grandfather’s best friend has been brutally beating his son and reports the abuse, Deerhorn convulses against the Garretts, with sadistically tragic results.
Award winner Ellis Avery (whose novel The Last Nude was published by Riverhead in January) interviews Revoyr, author of the Lambda Literary Award-winning Southland (Akashic Books, 2003) and LA Times Book Prize finalist The Age of Dreaming (Akashic, 2008), as well as The Necessary Hunger (Simon & Schuster, 1997).
I’ve read all your novels, and it seems like something happened to you as a writer between your first and second books: suddenly, the leisurely pace of the first has been replaced by an urgency and absence of slackness that has typified your fiction since, perhaps most so in Wingshooters. What happened?
I’m not sure, but thank you for thinking so! If there’s a difference, it may be as simple as me becoming a more effective storyteller. And I do believe in the importance of story, of narrative. I always try to create a sense of urgency; ideally the reader will be pulled along, will want to know what happens next. In the case of my second and third novels, I try to do that through a pseudo-mystery structure. In the others I’ve set up a situation or series of questions that I hope will drive the story. Because I so often deal with issues or themes that might be considered “heavy,” and because some of my books—like yours—could be considered “historical,” it’s sometimes easier to bring readers along if the story is suspenseful or entertaining.
On a related note, Wingshooters is the shortest of your four novels. What was it like for you to write shorter this time around? Did the book come to you as a short novel from the outset? Did you cut the final version down from a longer, earlier version? Or did you “edit in the camera” before you wrote it down?
I’ve always been attracted to short, compact, efficient books, like A River Runs Through It, and Montana, 1948—both of which influenced Wingshooters. The directness, the compression, can help create a kind of intensity that’s harder to achieve with longer novels. There was never a longer version of Wingshooters—other than me cutting out some waste, it was always meant to be a short book. Ironically, though, this book took the longest to write—or at least to be fully realized. It started out as a short story I wrote in college, and then I wrote different chunks of it at various times. The last half of the story came to me in a quick rush a couple of years ago. So in one sense, I wrote the book in maybe two years. But in reality it came together over twenty.
All of your novels display a kind of melancholy that strikes me, because of my background in Japanese literature, as concerned with the heartbreaking transience of the things one loves. It’s a pleasure to see this melancholy (or mono no aware or however you prefer to describe it) become steelier and subtler as you grow as a writer. In The Necessary Hunger, Nancy tells us over and over again how sad she is that high school basketball won’t last forever, while in Wingshooters it’s enough to offer an apparently gratuitous scene of Michelle’s dog playing goofily in the snow to intimate to the reader that he’s a goner. (So sad!) Are you conscious of how the way you convey your sense of transience has grown and changed, or has this development been going on behind your back?
It’s funny, I’ve never thought about transience as a theme in my work; I’ve considered it to be more about regret. But you’re absolutely right. I think I’ve been influenced in ways I don’t always realize—not just by Japanese literature, but also by my years in Japan, both as a kid and as an adult. And I was reminded during my travels this year of how much I was also shaped by the Midwest.
To get back to your question, though. No, I don’t think I’ve been aware of how my sense of transience has changed. But I do know that the sadness in the books is always linked to, and made possible by, the existence of joy. The joy is about different things in each novel—sports,Los Angeles, art, love, a connection to the natural world. All of my books are love letters, to something—as are yours, really. But it’s exactly that love, that sense of connectedness, that makes the possibility of loss so difficult. Yet by the same token, when you come out of some difficult place, the happiness you experience is more meaningful because of the suffering it took to get there. I love Nina Simone’s version of “Here Comes the Sun” for that very reason—you can hear the hell she went through in order to get to her moment of light.
In Southland, you do a masterful job of writing from multiple points of view, while part of the heartbreaking beauty of your other three novels, including Wingshooters, lies in the limitations of each one’s point-of-view character.
Thank you, Ellis. Really, you have been too kind! I always struggle with exactly how to tell a story. Each book, in some sense, instructs me how to write it. The multiple perspectives in Southland, for example, happened by accident. In the first draft, the story was told entirely through Jackie, the young contemporary lesbian law school student. But I realized that in order to tell the story of the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles, and the historical bonds between African-Americans and Japanese-Americans, we needed to meet the relevant characters where and when they lived. And so I wrote all the chapters set in the past. For the other books, a first-person narrator made sense—in Wingshooters because I wanted the story to seem personal and intimate, and in The Age of Dreaming because I had so much fun with the voice of Jun Nakayama, the former silent film star, who ultimately has to come to terms with his own self-deception.
I noticed that Michelle’s grandfather’s friend Earl, who murders Mrs. Garrett in the end, was a more frightening and more real-feeling character than the racist coach who favors his son over more talented players in The Necessary Hunger or the racist cop who murders four African-American boys in Southland. Do you think that Earl is more frightening and fully-realized because you choose not to inhabit his point of view, as you do in the case of the cop in Southland, or because he abuses his son rather than favoring him, as the coach does in The Necessary Hunger? Or for some other reason?
I think part of it is simply that Earl has a bigger place in Wingshooters than the other characters do in their respective books. He’s a more fully drawn character in general, and so his actions and threats probably carry more weight. Besides that, because of my job, I have a pretty good understanding of the dynamics of child abuse. Hopefully that resulted in a more complex depiction of Earl and his family.
In The Necessary Hunger and Southland, you focus in part on the extent to which Japanese-American characters choose to be counted among people of color through the relationships they cherish with African-Americans and other people of color. In The Age of Dreaming and Wingshooters, you focus more on how “coloredness” is imposed on Japanese and Japanese-American characters by the white world. If you think you’ll return to similar issues and characters in future work, which direction do you imagine leaning next?
I think it could be argued that “coloredness,” or otherness, is imposed on all people of color. The Japanese-American characters in my books all face racism—and where choice comes into play is how they deal with it. Jun in The Age of Dreaming does not want to acknowledge that the types of roles he’s allowed to play (basically savage or clown), or the women it’s acceptable for him to date, or the places he can live or eat, are influenced at all by racism. He wants to believe that, as a movie star, he’s above such limitations. In my first two books, there’s a much more explicit connection, and identification, between Japanese-Americans and other people of color. This stems partly from L.A.’s restricted covenants and housing patterns, particularly in the Crenshaw district, which was one of the few areas where blacks and Japanese were able to live. I think what really shifted between my earlier books and my later ones was that the first two were set largely in inner-city Los Angeles, while the third was set in fancier parts of L.A. in the early 1900s, and the fourth took place in Wisconsin. This is largely reflective of the fact that it’s been hard for me to write about the city I actually live in—it’s like trying to write a love letter to a person who’s sitting in the room with you. But yes, there’s still a lot of unexplored territory in L.A., and a lot of shifting racial dynamics. I’ll definitely get back to those things in my work. But on the other hand, I like to do something new with each book, so I may end up going in a different direction entirely.
I read in your bio that you are the executive vice president of a large child and family service agency in Los Angeles. How much of your week or year do you get to spend writing fiction? How do you make the most of that time?
It’s almost impossible for me to write on days when I go to work, so the bulk of my writing takes place on weekends and holidays. My boss and colleagues have been extremely flexible and understanding. Often I can compress my work week so I don’t go in on Fridays, and I take several weeks off in the summer. I’m grateful we’ve been able to figure this out, because I really like having my day job. I work with amazing, committed people, and I get a sense of meaning from the work itself. And when I spend the week doing other things, getting out of my own head, I go back to my writing with energy and happiness. Also, while I never write about my job per se, it has influenced my books at times. I already mentioned how my understanding of child abuse was shaped by my job. And the idea for The Age of Dreaming came from the building I used to work in, which was the home of a former silent film star. It’s definitely been a challenge to balance everything, but on the other hand I’ve never done well with a lot of unstructured time. I’d probably go nuts if I were any less busy.