Occasions for Wonder
By Leslie ParryAugust 24, 2015
Since her first novel, The Necessary Hunger, appeared in 1997, Revoyr has written steadily — with great nuance and insight — about the intersections of culture, sexuality, race relations, and gender roles. Her books often traverse the tight-knit communities of Los Angeles, from the Crenshaw district in Southland to the rarefied atmosphere of Hollywood in The Age of Dreaming. And yet her novels defy easy classification: they are page-turners that plumb history, character studies fraught with suspense, hard-boiled visions rendered in warm tones. Fundamentally, they are generous ruminations on what it means to belong. And it’s precisely this — the ability to write with lyricism and compassion about complex, often painful truths — that has made Revoyr one of the city’s great storytellers. In addition to writing, she also works for a nonprofit organization that aids children affected by violence, poverty, and neglect. Recently we chatted via email about her new novel.
LESLIE PARRY: You were already deep into another novel when you decided to write Lost Canyon. What gave you the inspiration and confidence to jump ship and follow this project instead? And how was the process of writing Lost Canyon different from your previous novels?
NINA REVOYR: I’d been working on another project for two years, but it felt very forced. There was no joy in it. And I think that joy, at least for me, is a critical part of the writing process. If I’m not excited about what I’m doing, why would anyone else be?
I remember the exact moment when I decided to abandon that book. I was hiking alone in the Sierras at about 10,000 feet, completely exhilarated, thinking: this landscape, this feeling, is what I should be writing about.
Then I went home to Los Angeles. Usually in the fall I read a lot of outdoors and survival writing, as a way of vicariously being in the wilderness after my summer trips are done. This time, instead of reading adventure books, I set out to write one.
The writing happened organically — which was a huge relief after the frustrations of the failed project. It was as if the characters had just been hanging around, waiting for me to notice them. I haven’t had this much sheer fun with a book in years. And this was also the first book I’ve set essentially in the present day — which also made the writing different, and exciting.
Your novels exquisitely capture the shared history of Los Angeles and its myriad intersecting cultures. While tensions of race and class are often associated with urban density and sprawl, your last two books follow those tensions into more idyllic (or at least idealized) American landscapes: a small Midwestern town in Wingshooters, the majestic California wilderness in Lost Canyon. Even beyond city turf, the backpackers of Lost Canyon are forced to confront issues of territory, identity, and survival. What were the challenges of writing about the fears and prejudices of four different urbanites, especially when they find themselves in such extraordinary circumstances?
Probably the biggest challenge for me — but also the source of the real excitement — was blending two things that don’t usually go together: adventure fiction with racial and social concerns. I wanted to write an adventure story — but one that featured a multiracial set of characters, both women and men, reflective of the world as I know it. James Dickey was definitely on my mind — but so was James Baldwin.
So I imagined a mix of people with disparate lives, from vastly different parts of Los Angeles. Oscar’s Latino, from Highland Park. Todd’s a white Midwesterner who now lives in Brentwood. Gwen is African American and works in Watts. Tracy, their trainer, is half-Japanese, half-white, and lives in Mount Washington. Through them, and the early chapters set in Los Angeles, I wanted to explore how race, class, and gender affect how we experience and perceive things — and how we are perceived.
But questions of race and class don't disappear just because the scenery changes. When these people leave the city, they take their backgrounds with them. Others make assumptions about them based on race. And there are several instances where they respond very differently to things they encounter — what one person thinks is charming or neutral, another understands to be menacing. The group faces situations where they have to react to threats, and a wrong interpretation could be deadly. And yet they are all so different in how they see things — even how they see each other — that there’s not always an obvious choice.
In many ways, the transcendentalist view of nature — as something sacred and exalted, a pathway to self-discovery — still looms large in the American imagination. Gwen initially scoffs at that kind of grandiosity: “[She] wasn’t going on this trip to find herself. She was going to find the mountains.” While there are moments of genuine rhapsody in Lost Canyon, there’s also an intense awareness of the grittier, physical aspects of being in the wild: the exertion, the pain, the tedium, the hunger. What helped you shape such a visceral, intimate portrait of the human body?
I’m an avid hiker and I love to go backpacking. Carrying a pack through the mountains makes you very aware of your body: when it feels strong, how it changes, and, especially as you enter middle age, the plethora of annoying aches and pains. You’re constantly moving — negotiating trails with steep drop offs, trudging up or downhill, setting up camp, rinsing clothes, cooking dinner. It is demanding and exhausting, and there’s not a lot of time for reflection.
But this doesn’t take away from the magic of being in the wilderness. Nature is sacred and exalted, and what Gwen is getting at is that she wants to be part of something beautiful, something larger than herself. She’s looking outward instead of inward. She understands that the mountains are not there for our benefit — that when you’re in the wilderness, it’s not about you. And yes, of course, people feel restored and transformed by their time in nature. But that comes, at least in part, by giving yourself up to your surroundings and being humble enough to feel a sense of awe.
Still, occasions for wonder don’t happen only in the wilderness. I feel wonder almost every day, right here in the city: at the hummingbird that buzzes me when I’m out with the dogs. At the night-blooming cactus off our deck. At the clouds over the mountains, and our crazy beautiful sunsets. It’s a matter of really noticing the world around you.
Is there a particular myth about the city, or about Angelenos themselves, that you're inspired to complicate, deepen, question?
There are myths about the city related to Hollywood and superficiality, or alternatively, to violence and gangs. But I’m not really interested in dispelling myths. I’m interested in reflecting the city I know. While Lost Canyon is a mountain book, it’s also an LA novel, and it was fun to write about three areas of the city — Highland Park, Watts, and Brentwood — that aren’t usually part of the same conversation. Highland Park and Watts are neighborhoods in transition, and I wanted to explore those dynamics, and also to show the beauty and complexity of urban core areas that aren’t normally represented as beautiful.
I think Los Angeles will always be my muse. All of these different cultures and histories and influences are coming together, sometimes creating conflict, sometimes affecting or even changing each other in unexpected ways. Los Angeles is vibrant and frustrating and ever-evolving; I try to capture all its messy reality. I love it with the same intensity that I love the wilderness, and the pull of both, the attempt to reconcile both, plays out in this novel.
One of the things I love about your novels is that they don’t fall neatly into any one category. If pressed, I might describe Lost Canyon as “nature noir.” Tracy has certain elements of the femme fatale — there’s a magnetism about her, an energy that pulls these disparate people into her orbit. It’s not a traditionally sexual allure, but definitely something of the body. She’s the one who leads them (wittingly or not) into danger, and she’s the only major character for whom we do not get a close POV. How did this character — so compelling, and yet so mysterious — factor into your original drafts? And how did her role in the story develop?
I was intrigued by the idea of a leader who draws people into doing more than they would on their own, who pushes them to be their bravest selves. And I wanted to make that character a woman. Tracy harangues the others about how desk-bound they are, how out of touch with their bodies. And it’s true — when you’re constantly chained to your computer or phone, it’s easy to lose a sense of yourself as a physical being. But if the others have too little faith in their bodies, Tracy has too much. She doesn’t accept that there is reason to be cautious in the wild, and she’s a bit casual about the dangers they face.
Still, the characters are drawn to her because they like being pushed a little. Tracy’s attracted to risk, and risk can be exhilarating. It demands that we’re completely present in a way we might not be otherwise. There’s often something admirably alive about a person like Tracy — but also maybe just a bit crazy.
I never seriously thought of Tracy carrying the story as the others do. Narratively, each chapter builds on the others so that you get this forward movement. I was thinking of As I Lay Dying as I structured it, but unlike in that book, where the mother finally speaks to reveal secrets from the grave, you never get Tracy’s point of view. The other three characters are very thoughtful, but I wasn’t sure how introspective she would be. She’s more drawn to action — and so it made sense to keep her as a central, mysterious figure, one that the others never quite figure out.
Your last four novels have been published by Akashic Books. How did that longstanding relationship begin, and how has it evolved over the years?
I was introduced to Akashic through a mutual friend. Akashic published Southland, my second novel, and I’ve been with them ever since. They liked the blend of elements in that book — history, race, sexuality, an unsolved murder — and they really got my work. I appreciated that and still do.
My relationship with Akashic now is similar to what it was then. We work closely on every element of the production of a book, and there’s a personal touch that I’m not sure would be there with a bigger publisher. Over the last decade, they’ve gone from being a tiny press to a longstanding Indie publisher with a lot more visibility and reach. Both Akashic and the distributor, Consortium Books, have been amazing. I feel lucky to have a publisher who truly understands my books, and stands behind them, and works so hard to get them into the hands of readers.
Now that your fifth book is out in the world, what would you say has been the one of the most surprising or gratifying aspects of the writing life so far?
I’m continually surprised by how unpredictable the process of writing is. I can spend two years on a book getting absolutely nowhere, and then veer suddenly and have something new come into being. This has happened more than once, and I’ve learned to trust it — to not get overly frustrated if something’s not working, and not assume the well has run dry.
The other thing I’ve realized is that I will probably never have what people consider a typical writer’s life. I have a demanding full-time day job that’s unrelated to writing or teaching, and I used to think that this was somehow counter to my life as an artist. It’s taken me years to realize that my day job, rather than taking away from my writing, has actually helped it. It allows me to escape my own head. It provides structure and a way to have tangible accomplishments in the years between new books. It exposes me to people and situations that I might not encounter otherwise, and gives me the satisfaction of helping others. The biggest challenge it presents is on my time, but I’m more productive when I have too much to do. My job and my writing create a necessary friction that brings energy and urgency to both. The combination makes me busy and tired for sure, but I feel lucky to have so much to care about.
Leslie Parry is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, The Cincinnati Review, and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, among other publications. Her first novel, Church of Marvels, was published by Ecco in 2015. She lives in Chicago.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!