Studying the City of Angels: A Conversation with Nina Revoyr

By

Nina Revoyr’s newest novel, A Student of History, is full of research, detail, lush descriptions, and visual place-setting. She’s a fiction writer with an eye for reality set in a dream-like world, often in her home city of Los Angeles.

Revoyr is the author of six novels, including The Age of Dreaming, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Southland, a Los Angeles Times bestseller and “Best Book” of 2003; and Wingshooters, which won an Indie Booksellers Choice Award and was selected by O, The Oprah Magazine as one of “10 Titles to Pick Up Now.” Revoyr lives and works in Los Angeles. Read an exclusive excerpt from A Student of History here.

I recently talked with Revoyr about her inspirations, her characters, and the role of class and friendship in her latest book.

***

The Rumpus: I happened to have just reread part of The Great Gatsby with my teenage daughter when I read your book. There are so many interesting correlations. Did you model the book on The Great Gatsby? Or was part of it influenced by Fitzgerald’s book? 

Nina Revoyr: There were definitely lessons I took from The Great Gatsby, including how Fitzgerald depicts the excesses of the roaring ’20s and the carelessness of the hugely wealthy. Also, I loved how he compresses so much into such a tight, efficient narrative. There’s something about that kind of compression that really ratchets up the tension. But while Rick Nagano does share some characteristics with Nick Carraway and even Jay Gatsby, I see him as more like Pip from Great Expectations. Rick, like Pip, is a young man from a working class background who finds himself moving through a world where he doesn’t belong. And as in Great Expectations, Rick has complicated relationships with two appealing and difficult women, the eccentric, wealthy older woman and the aloof, attractive younger one.

Rumpus: Was there a moment or instance that inspired you to write the book?

Revoyr: There was no singular moment. But over the years, both through living in Los Angeles and going to Ivy League schools, I’ve been exposed to some very wealthy people. And people carry that wealth quite differently. Some are gracious and use their privilege for good; some seem unaware of how privileged they are—or worse, they embrace their privilege as proof of superiority. I grew up lower middle class, with blue-collar roots on both sides of my family, and so being exposed to this kind of wealth was really shocking to me, especially when I first went off to college. I was interested in capturing that dichotomy, the difference between what most people experience and the rarified world of high society. There’s also a distinction between old and new money, the idea that class isn’t just about wealth, but also lineage. And I was drawn, as ever, to history, and to the idea of LA’s founding families, the steel and oil and railroad barons, the real estate tycoons, the people who shaped the city and whose descendants are still influencing the world today.

Rumpus: Why was Mrs. W—’s full name not revealed?

Revoyr: Sometimes having an unnamed character, or a character identified only by an initial, can increase the sense of mystery around her. In this case, not naming Mrs. W— also underscores the idea of the invisible hand of power. Part of what I’m trying to depict in this story is not just the excesses of wealth, but the unchecked and often unknown influence that the Mrs. W—s of the world can have behind the scenes. I like the idea that Mrs. W—, for all we learn about her, never gets unmasked, that she might quietly still be pulling strings that none of us can see.

Rumpus: Los Angeles is such a moving, changing character in your books. What’s your relationship to the city?

Revoyr: I love Los Angeles. It’s a great place to be a writer, or just a resident, because so many of our country’s most urgent issues are playing out here—whether it’s the environment, or development, or immigration, or race relations. It’s a mosaic of many distinct areas; it’s made up of people from all over the country and world; it’s vibrant and stimulating, maddening and exhausting. And it’s also a place of tremendous juxtaposition and paradox—we have an incredibly diverse population, and there’s poverty and struggle, and then there are these pockets of unbelievable wealth. Setting the story in LA also enabled me to write about race. I love stories of class. In many ways class is a fundamental American theme. But often those stories don’t include race as a factor. Rick isn’t just a blue-collar kid hanging out with the rich folks. He’s an Asian kid whose family’s from a Japanese-American and African-American neighborhood, who still lives in a gritty South Los Angeles neighborhood. And as he starts to socialize with Mrs. W—’s set, he’s often the only person of color in the room.

Rumpus: I live in Madison and also wanted to hear about your Wisconsin roots. Did you live there?

Revoyr: I did! I lived in Madison when I was in second and third grade. I’d lived in Central Wisconsin before that, with my grandparents, and even after my dad and I moved to California when I was nine, I’d go back to stay with them every summer until early high school. When I came back to Wisconsin in 2011 after the publication of Wingshooters, I realized how much living there had shaped me, the Midwestern work ethic, the impatience with pretense, the love of the natural world. I still have family in Wisconsin, mostly around Oconomowoc. And I remain a rabid fan of the Packers.

Rumpus: Rick is at once a researcher, an academic, but also becomes a reporter and detective, and is also half Japanese. Is he you, in a way?

Revoyr: I have a lot in common with Rick. I have blue-collar roots. My grandparents worked in factories and meat-processing plants; my stepfather, like Rick’s, was an electrician. When I went to college—at Yale—it was a really big deal for my family. And so I’m definitely familiar with the ways that education can seemingly catapult you into a different class. Except you never do really leave that past behind, nor would I ever want to. I’m deeply proud of my family background, the grit and hard work; I’m constantly trying to live up to the examples they set. And maybe this is where I diverge from Rick. He is ambivalent about his family origins and tries to distance himself. He loses himself in his dealings with Fiona Morgan especially, thinking he might gain entrée into her world. I have no such illusion.

Rumpus: Someone once told me we should have friends older and younger than us, and I like that perspective. Rick and Mrs. W— create a kind of non-traditional friendship. What do they learn from each other?

Revoyr: Theirs is really the key relationship in the book, a more genuine, complex, and even tender connection than Rick has with anyone else. And Mrs. W— is probably my favorite character. She is difficult and demanding, a seeming misanthrope and bigot, and she uses her wealth to some unsavory ends. And yet she’s also her own person, sharp and unique, and generous and caring in ways she doesn’t like to admit. Rick, in some sense, underestimates her humanity; he fails to see beyond his image of her as a rich lady. But Mrs. W— latches on to him because she’s lonely. All her wealth doesn’t change the fact that’s she’s estranged from her family, that her social connections are shallow, that she’s isolated up in her mansion. Rick doesn’t recognize any of this, really; he’s too caught up in Fiona to pay attention. So I don’t know that he learns the lesson he should, until too late. And as for Mrs. W—, she will probably not want to hire another research assistant.

Rumpus: I loved how you brought natural beauty and the environment into scenes. But then other areas, like Mrs. W—’s house, seemed otherworldly in its nature, the smog lifting, the temperature changing. How did you decide where to use the outside world as a setting and what does the physical difference of her house mean? 

Revoyr: I’m a huge lover of the natural world, and have written about it increasingly in my books, the Wisconsin countryside in Wingshooters, the Sierra Nevada in Lost Canyon. In A Student of History, it was a thrill to write about the Central Coast, where Rick goes on an ill-fated errand. I wanted to show the vastness of that area, and of the Central Valley, too—in contrast with the ephemeral nature of human life. As for the scenes in the city, I’d say that nature is differential in LA. It’s absolutely true that wealthier areas are much greener than less well-off places. There’s simply more green space, and more irrigation. It’s also true that as you get closer to the coast, and into greener areas, it gets cooler and the quality of the air improves. That said, I definitely wanted to underscore those elements at Mrs. W—’s mansion. I wanted to make it clear that Rick was entering a different world, where not only the structures were different, but even the natural world itself.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about clothes. It seemed what people wore became kind of their uniforms and a sign of their place in society. How do you see clothes as symbolic?

Revoyr: This was actually hard for me, because I generally don’t pay much attention to clothes. But there was no way I could write about this set of people without describing their clothes, or as you rightly say, their uniforms. The ladies only wear things by high-end designers, and are always trying to outdo each other. Their outfits are outrageously expensive, which of course signifies their ability to afford them. On the other hand, Rick is a Gap and thrift store guy, so it’s a whole new experience for him to be fitted for clothes—and then he quickly gets used to it. My own sensibility is pretty much like Rick’s. Except I do have one recent indulgence, which is Allen Edmonds shoes, another Wisconsin connection, made in Port Washington.

Rumpus: What can we learn about guilt, and lies, from Rick?

Revoyr: It’s important to me that Rick’s not simply a victim. I wanted him to have a hand in his own downfall. He gets in over his head and starts to believe he might actually become a part of Fiona’s world, and I think we learn a few things in the process. First is that you can’t escape who you are, or where you come from, and ultimately, that’s not a bad thing. Second is that lesson we always learn and re-learn: that desire, whether it’s for a person or for a different kind of life, isn’t always the best impetus for making decisions. Finally, the trajectories of several of the characters show the danger of making money your master. It’s not necessarily having money that makes Fiona and her set so problematic; it’s that she values money and status above all else. And Rick, too, falls under the illusion that having money and access will solve all his problems. They don’t. And Mrs. W—’s story demonstrates that wealth does not guarantee happiness.

Rumpus: Some say that people don’t fundamentally change. But, does money change people?

Revoyr: I think it does, yes, or at least it can. On the one hand, if you’re fundamentally decent, you’ll probably stay that way. Langley W—, Mrs. W—’s grandfather, is remembered as being a big-hearted guy, before and after he gained his wealth. And if you’re fundamentally a jerk, that probably won’t change, either. But either way, money does have the danger of removing you from some of the troubles of everyday life. The challenges of other people, especially low-income people, can become very abstracted, unless you work to stay close. And money can also create the illusion that it itself is the answer to everything. At one point Rick says to Mrs. W— “Money can’t solve everything.” To which she replies, “Of course it can.” And she believes that, but it isn’t true, not even for her.

Rumpus: I recently worked on a radio show about work, and one thing we focused on was that many highly educated, smart people (teachers, professors, journalists) are making less money and have more uncertain benefits than well, almost anybody. You portray the teaching profession as grand but poor (which makes it a great study of class struggle) Is this unfair? Can it change?

Revoyr: I think there are teachers or youth counselors in all but one of my books. Teachers are my heroes. They kicked my ass when I needed it, and saved me. My wife, who’s a writer and college professor, also taught elementary school. There’s no question that education is undervalued, as are educators. I’m a huge sports fan and ex-jock, but it’s completely unbalanced that we pay athletes such ridiculous sums but teachers and journalists can’t make enough to afford rent in major urban areas. It’s been amazing to see the heightened focus on public education inspired by the recent wave of teachers’ strikes, including the one here in LA. The teachers have rightly raised awareness of the need to reduce class sizes, to ensure that there are enough nurses and librarians and counselors. At the same time, the financial challenges of school districts are real and there will have to be some major changes at the state level to ensure that public education is being adequately funded. But I also don’t want to lose sight of the vast numbers of folks who are at an entirely different level of struggle, those who have very low-wage jobs with few or no benefits; those who’ve been involved in the criminal justice system and are trying to work at all. And again, LA is at an interesting moment, where we have a booming economy and all this wealth on the one hand, and then many people who are struggling to meet their basic needs; who are a step away from homelessness or are already there. It is this juxtaposition that I see and deal with every day in my job, and it’s unacceptable that a city and country as wealthy as ours still has so many people living in poverty.

Rumpus: This book felt modern yet really could have happened in almost any time period. How did you make it feel like that?

Revoyr: Well, I’m glad to hear that, thank you! I think part of it is that I wrote the book over the period of a decade, which definitely affected how I dealt with time. But I also wanted the story to feel like it could happen in any era, as I think class is a timeless issue. And of course Mrs. W— and Fiona are from old LA families, so there’s a built-in sense of history. There are some clear markers of it being a current story, the references to tech millionaires, etc. And we happen to be in an era when the kind of income inequality depicted in my book is especially extreme. But the story, the relationships, the allure of the lovely woman, all of those things could happen at any time.

Rumpus: I know you have a full-time day job in addition to being a writer. How do you balance the two?

Revoyr: I work in philanthropy, on an effort related to poverty and economic mobility. But the challenge of juggling two lives is the same. One the one hand, it’s hard time-wise and energy-wise. But on the other, I truly love to do both. I write mostly on weekends and holidays, when I can give it my full attention. That’s not enough, it’s never enough, but I do the best I can. And the great thing about having a job that’s not related to my writing is that when I do get to write, it’s a joy. I’m truly blessed to get to do two things I love. This is one way that I’m privileged, something more important than material wealth, and I am grateful for it every day.

***

Photograph of Nina Revoyr © Monica Almeida.


Shannon Henry Kleiber is a producer for the nationally distributed public radio show To the Best Of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. She is a former staff writer and columnist for the Washington Post and the author of two nonfiction books, The Dinner Club: How the Masters of the Internet Universe Rode the Rise and Fall of the Greatest Boom in History and On My Honor: Real Life Lessons From America’s First Girl Scout. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin and can be found on Twitter @shannonkleiber. More from this author →