GUEST INTERVIEW BY DENISE HAMILTON
Nina Revoyr was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a white American father, and grew up in Tokyo, Wisconsin, and Los Angeles. She is the author of The Necessary Hunger and Southland and her books have been Los Angeles Times bestsellers, Book Sense 76 picks, finalists for the Edgar Award and winners of the Ferro Grumley Award and the Lambda Literary awards.
Revoyr’s new book, The Age of Dreaming, recounts the story of a Japanese silent film star in the early days of Hollywood and forty years later, as he faces the hard truths of his past. While inspired by the story of a real-life actor named Sessue Hayakawa, Revoyr has created a compelling fictional character and breathed new life into a forgotten and little known slice of early Hollywood through her use of vivid detail and atmosphere.
Q: This book reads to me almost like literary archeology. I’m an LA native and a former L.A. Times reporter and so I delude myself that I know the history of this place. And yet I had no idea of the vibrant Japanese theater world that existed here in the early days of the 20th century. What drew you to the Sessue-type character and also the actress Hanako, whose poise, elegance, independence and doomed love for Jun inform the book?
A: I was intrigued by the fact that there was a famous Japanese movie star and sex symbol at a time of such virulent anti-Japanese prejudice. In the early 20th century, Japanese couldn’t own land, Japanese kids were barred from public schools in San Francisco, restricted covenants were in effect, and various groups were pushing for the complete exclusion of Japanese immigrants. And yet it was in this environment that Sessue Hayakawa became an A-list star. I was interested in what it would cost someone, both professionally and personally, to achieve mainstream success in that context.
More fundamentally, though, I wanted to imagine what becomes of someone who stops doing what he loves. Unlike Hayakawa, my protagonist, Jun Nakayama, stops acting altogether when he’s thirty. This, for me, is what the book is really about. I started writing The Age of Dreaming at a time when I was very discouraged about my work. My second book was being rejected everywhere and I hadn’t written in over a year. I just imagined what I’d feel like later, in my 70s, if I never tried to write another book.
The Hanako character is, in many ways, the counterpoint to Jun. She acts purely for the joy of the work itself; she doesn’t get caught up in other people’s notions of success. Jun recognizes that Hanako has a certain authenticity and purity that he doesn’t—which is why he’s both drawn to her, and intimidated. She’s not a success because her work gets a lot of attention, but because she keeps doing what she loves. And Jun’s real failure is not the loss of his stardom but his inability to press on in the face of obstacles.
Q: Did being Japanese-American give you any insights into that world?
A: Yes, my own background did help me enter Jun and Hanako’s world—not just the fact that I’m half-Japanese, but that I lived in Japan and moved to Los Angeles. I understand the sense of possibility in L.A. and in America; the feeling of breaking free of old restrictions. But I also understand what it’s like to be a person of color in largely white artistic world. There are still certain expectations of what stories can be told, and how. And people don’t always get what you’re trying to do.
Q: Was it hard to find the voice for a 73-year-old? Where did you have to go in your head to channel the distant, almost depressive, formal disengaged tone?
A: Jun’s voice was not that hard to enter. I tend to have my own uptight tendencies, and I’ve been accused of being a crusty old man myself. And of course many of the emotions Jun tries so hard to contain—about his art, about his boneheaded choices in love—are emotions that I’m all too familiar with. Jun may, on the surface, seem very different than me—but in some ways, this is the most autobiographical novel I’ve written.
Q: Why did you choose first person?
A: Because I wanted to put the reader right in the middle of Jun’s self-deceptions and denial, his carefully constructed persona. And then I wanted show very intimately how those constructs fall apart. Jun struggles so hard to keep a lid on the secrets of his past, and on his own emotions—but they all wriggle through in the end. He finally begins to acknowledge why his career fell apart, and to understand his own actions and their consequences. This was important to me. I love Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, but unlike Ishiguro’s unreliable narrators, who tend to be witnesses, Jun is an active participant in his own downfall.
Q: Had you seen many silent movies when you started this book? Were you a fan of the genre? What is it about them that captivates us?
A: I hadn’t seen any silent films before I started writing this book, but yes, I’ve become a fan. There’s a subtlety and beauty to silent films that’s quite different from the movies of today. To me, silent films have a lot in common with poetry. Both forms rely heavily on suggestion and imagery, and both depend on the readers or viewers to bring their own interpretive powers to bear. Both forms demand a more active engagement—you can’t just lie back and receive silent films the way you would, say, most TV shows.
I was also very drawn to the era itself. Many of the early people in film—actors, directors, producers—came from nothing and rose to stardom. In the Teens and early Twenties, it seemed like anything was possible. There was a sense of energy and optimism around the silent film industry that mirrored the energy and optimism of Los Angeles. And of course the qualities that drew people to Los Angeles then still exist today. People still come here—from all over the country, from all over the world—to reinvent themselves, to create better lives.
Q: You must have done a ton of research?
A: I did the bulk of my research after I’d already written a couple of drafts. I knew about Hayakawa, and I knew about the William Desmond Taylor murder, which is basis of the murder of Jun’s director. But there’s an extent to which too much research can be unhelpful, because you feel restricted by fact. I needed to find my own way into the story; to make it, in a sense, about me. Once I’d done that, then I went back and did research to fill in the holes—what cars people drove, for example, or when the war bonds were released.
Q: Do you outline and plot? Did you know where the Jun character was going?
A: No, not really. In general, I don’t start writing because I have answers. I start writing because I have questions, which I hope to answer through the course of working on the book. In this case, again, I had two main questions: What is it like to achieve fame and success in a world that doesn’t really approve of you? And what happens if you stop doing what you love—what do you become?
I did know, however, that I wanted to draw parallels between the past and present. In both this book and my last one, I incorporate a lot of history. And I wanted to show that history doesn’t stay safely in the past; that it can bear upon or be repeated in the present. Jun’s very conditional stardom, for example, wasn’t only a reality of the 1920s. A lot of what he is coping with early in his career is still relevant to actors of color—or artists of any minority group—today.
Jun is shocked, for example, that he’s ultimately offered the same kind of role in 1964 that he played a half a century before. But I’d argue that things aren’t all that different today. Asians in Hollywood are still largely confined to certain kinds of roles: the comic figure, the martial arts figure (Jackie Chan is both), the bad guy, the brute. It’s still acceptable for there to be a character in yellow face—like the Miss Swan character on MAD TV. And then there’s “Lust, Caution,” which I saw recently and actually really dug. But the Tony Leung character is both beautiful and violent, and his sexiness is completely linked to his brutality. Those same qualities could describe a lot of the characters that Jun played, and also Hayakawa.
Q: Two of your three novels feature a murder mystery and in fact, while you’re a literary writer, your last book Southland was also a finalist for the Edgar Award, named after Edgar Allen Poe and bestowed by the Mystery Writers of America. Do you consider yourself a crime writer manqué? A la John Banville? What is it about a murder that allows writers to frame the story?
A: I consider myself a writer who absolutely believes in strong, complex characters and compelling plots. For me, that’s sometimes meant building a book around a mystery structure, and sometimes not. But the concern with story and character is always there. Margaret Atwood once wrote a wonderful piece for Best American Short Stories about what she looks for as a reader, and it basically boils down to wanting a good story that is urgently told. Sometimes people try to create an artificial division between writing that’s concerned with language or technique vs. writing that is “about” a particular issue. But the books I like most are concerned with all of these things. They’re beautifully written and technically interesting, but they are also about something larger then themselves. They’re stories that hold my attention, that need to be told.
I strive to achieve that kind of narrative urgency in all of my novels. You want to create that sense of “What happens next?” and that is definitely one of the appeals of a mystery structure. Sometimes readers are more willing to go along with serious social and racial themes if the story is compelling, a la John Sayles’ wonderful movie Lone Star. With both Southland and The Age of Dreaming I also had protagonists who were simply not going to look at their lives unless faced with something drastic, like an unexplained death. But in both my first book, The Necessary Hunger, and the new book I’m working on now, I try to create that sense of urgency in a different way—by setting up a set of circumstances that result in heightened tension and lead to some kind of climax or resolution.
In general, though, I think that the definitions of “literary” fiction and genre fiction are not that useful anymore. Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain wrote incredibly beautiful sentences and some of the most evocative fiction you could ever hope for. And now you have literary writers like Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon writing books that are essentially mysteries. Chabon and Susan Straight are nominated for Edgars this year, as I was, as you mentioned, for my last book. But I’d argue that even beyond these “literary mysteries,” many other novels incorporate elements of a mystery structure. Look at novels like Beloved, or The Remains of the Day, or Possession. Each of these books is built around a central hidden secret that is revealed through the course of the story.
Q: Were you daunted by the idea of writing a Hollywood novel? It’s one of the most over-examined topics, and I say this as someone who’s just written a Hollywood novel set in 1949 and struggled with how to find a fresh angle. And yet you did it beautifully!
A: A little, because it’s not a scene or an area that I’m deeply familiar with—certainly not in the way I know the inner city. But I approached Hollywood as more of a backdrop than a subject, if that makes sense. The book’s themes of race, the weight of history, the choices you make at key moments in your life, of love and loss, are things that I’ve addressed before. So the issues I was dealing with weren’t really that new; they just took place on a different canvas. And maybe it was a bit less daunting for me because of the distance of time. No one alive remembers what things were like in 1915, so it’s easier to imagine, to project.
Q: Did you struggle with the architecture of the novel? It’s an extremely delicately constructed tale, in which you dole out information at precisely timed intervals. And it all leads up to something quite unexpected. There is a difference between what the reader knows and what the narrator admits. Was that tricky? How did you determine what to reveal when?
A: I love the whole structuring aspect of writing a novel. It’s a huge challenge, but really, it’s so much fun. It does involve a lot of rewriting—as well as constantly adding on and adding in. I tend to write in layers, and grow the book from the inside out: each time something new gets put in, there’s a domino effect, and I have to add other things elsewhere. It’s not a fast or efficient process, but I do hope it helps create a book with a certain complexity and internal logic. The trick then, of course, is to make it all look effortless and inevitable.
I don’t tend to outline my own books as I’m writing them—but I will sometimes create detailed outlines of books I’ve already read, specifically so I can study the structure. This was especially important, for this book, in terms of when and how to reveal information. Jun is an unreliable narrator not only in that he withholds information, but also in that he doesn’t always understand the significance of the things he knows. And he discovers certain important facts at the same time the reader does. But what he finally learns has nothing to do with what the plot appears to be about. As with Southland, I start out with a big social and historical landscape—and yet the revelations end up being very personal and intimate.
Q: What’s next?
A: A very different and much shorter book. The present is in Los Angeles—but the events of the story take place in rural Wisconsin in the 1970s. It’s about a mixed-race Japanese-American kid who’s the only person of color in a small town—until a young black couple arrives and all hell breaks loose. It deals with family, identity, loyalty, and masculinity and violence. There’s a lot of joy in the story—I wanted to capture my love of the outdoors, of baseball and dogs. But it’s also the darkest book I’ve ever written. For this one, I read a lot of Norman Maclean, Wendell Berry, Larry Watson—all those guys who write so lovingly about both the land and social issues. For me artistically, I really try to do something different with every book. My model in this respect is Pat Barker, whom I love, and who’s always reinventing herself. It’s more fun for me if I don’t really know if I can pull off what I’m trying to do. If I’m not at least a little nervous, I’m probably not pushing myself enough.