Nina Revoyr looks inside the outsiders

Special to The Times

YOU don't hear folks touting the virtues of Compton too often. But where some might view the city as an incubator of crime and poverty, Nina Revoyr sees a land of comity and cultural richness.

"Compton is a very romantic place for me," said the novelist, who was eating brunch at Auntie Em's, a hipster-magnet restaurant near her Eagle Rock home. "Historically, Compton's had an organic blend of Japanese and African American culture. You would see black families there designing Japanese gardens in their yards. I just love the idea of people finding a common stake in something larger than themselves."

This is not idle chitchat for Revoyr; it's an organizing principle for her art and life. As an empathetic chronicler of the dispossessed outsider in L.A., Revoyr is endlessly fascinated by the ways in which Los Angeles has acted as both a lure and a repellent for those seeking a fresh start. In her three novels, she has traced the messy intersections of lives that have been transformed by the complications of cultural and racial identity.

Revoyr's latest book, "The Age of Dreaming," is something else altogether, as the novelist turns for the first time to Hollywood -- specifically, the silent-film era -- to excavate the question of race in the earliest days of Hollywood.

An unsolved murder lies at the heart of the story, but the book is really a multilayered examination of how Hollywood has always welcomed the alien as an insider. All of the main players in the book have taken on new personas within the comforting womb of the movie business. There's the protagonist, Jun Nakayama, reared in a traditional Japanese family that has renounced his new persona of rakish movie star; Elizabeth Banks, the glamorous sex bomb who can never quite efface her Midwestern roots; Ashley Bennett Tyler, the imperious director who cloaks himself in the mannerisms of the parvenu; and Nora Minton Niles, the Shirley Temple innocent who's a puppet for her domineering stage mother.

"In a larger sense, people come to L.A. to reinvent themselves," said Revoyr, who is of Japanese and Polish American descent. "At that time, at the beginning of the silent-film era, there was a kind of innocence, a bravado among the participants. It was that exciting sense of possibility, that anything could happen if you were in the right place and had the ambition to make it happen."

The urge to refashion one's identity plays into Revoyr's fascination with the idea of cultural assimilation, of wanting to both fit in and stand out at the same time. But as the novel demonstrates, the players within the Hollywood machinery are no more immune to the illusory nature of the place than the ticket buyers themselves. So it is for Nakayama, a giant star who finds his popularity waning as American attitudes toward the Japanese begins to curdle after World War I. So painful is this fall from grace that Nakayama constructs a firewall that keeps him in a suspended state of denial.

Every picture tells a story

PLACING her story in the silent era was not Revoyr's original intention. In fact, she had an entirely different idea in mind for the book. But the city's history crept up on her in an insidious way. She was really just going about her business when it happened. A vice president of external relations for Children's Institute, a nonprofit devoted to helping single fathers in need, Revoyr works in a vintage building in the mid-Wilshire district that once belonged to silent-film star Mary Miles Minter. "Just being in that building, you can't help but feel the tug of its history. There are pictures of Minter all over the building. I would just stare at those photos and daydream."

Minter was a silent star who was a suspect in the unsolved 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor, a story that was first told in Sidney Kirkpatrick's book "A Cast of Killers." Using this story, as well as the real-life story of Japanese silent-film star Sessue Hayakawa, Revoyr fashioned the narrative that became "The Age of Dreaming." (Nora Minton Niles, who may have had a sexual dalliance with Ashley Bennett Tyler, is the fictional version of Minter in the book.)

The northeastern L.A. neighborhood of Eagle Rock, which still retains many of the buildings that were built in the early part of the 20th century, was another place where Revoyr could conjure up the ghosts of the city's past. "Walking around my neighborhood evokes so much of what I wanted to capture in the book," she said.

Pamela Beere Briggs, who teaches at UCLA Film School, recently featured Revoyr in a documentary called "Mysterious California," a film that explores how four California writers use the state as a character in their novels.

"Nina treats place as a physical, emotional, historical entity," Briggs said. "Then, she weaves that perspective into a tale that travels between the past and present, painting a three-dimensional map of Los Angeles. How I saw and felt about Los Angeles was not the same after reading [Revoyr's previous novel] 'Southland.' . . . She showed me so clearly how place has the power to inspire story and story has the power to keep place alive."

"The Age of Dreaming" takes up Jun Nakayama's story when the once-great star of the silent era has deliquesced into a forgotten star, living alone and ruefully pondering both the transcendence and tragedy of his past. When an enterprising young journalist named Nick Bellinger tracks him down and asks for an interview, Nakayama is flattered but wary. As it turns out, Bellinger does have a hidden agenda: He wants Nakayama to act in a film that he has written with Nakayama in mind.

This turn of events sends the novel spiraling down into the recesses of Nakayama's past, as Revoyr flashes back and forth between the glittering scenes of his Hollywood years and the internal storms of Nakayama's present life. Will the comeback unleash the terrible secret that he has harbored for decades -- the very thing that cut short his career in 1922, at the peak of his powers? "I wanted my character to be an active participant in his own demise," Revoyr said. "Then the question became, how do you suppress that?"

The book's plain-spoken, almost affectless writing style mirrors Jun's character. "I was greatly influenced by the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, particularly 'The Remains of the Day,' " she said. "I wanted Jun to have that buttoned-up, restrained voice."

"The Age of Dreaming" had been inspired in part by the story of Sessue Hayakawa, a mammoth silent star of the teens who worked with Cecil B. DeMille but whose career, like Nakayama's, came to an abrupt halt in 1922. It wasn't until many years later that Hayakawa enjoyed a renaissance as the sadistic Japanese POW commander in the 1957 Oscar-winning film "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

"Hayakawa was a troubled soul," Revoyr said. "There were certain rules when he acted. He couldn't get the girl in the end, for one. He invariably played the heavy or the villain, and he had to make sacrifices for the white actors in his films. There was also a lot of criticism from Japanese who thought he was playing to cultural prejudices about their people."

Just as her protagonist has to suffer the fate of someone forced to stop doing what he loves at a young age, so Revoyr was confronted with that possibility when she was unable to find a publisher for her second book, 'Southland,' a densely plotted novel about race relations in the caldron of mid-60's L.A. "I started writing 'The Age of Dreaming' when my own writing was in doubt," she said. " 'Southland' was rejected by 20 publishers over a two-year period. It paralyzed me. I thought there might be a chance I would never write again.".

A breakthrough

THEN, the small New York imprint Akashic decided to publish "Southland" (Akashic is also the publisher of "The Age of Dreaming"). "Akashic absolutely saved me," Revoyr said. "In retrospect, I'm glad things happened the way they did."

Revoyr encounters no such trouble these days. She is at work on her fourth novel. She would not reveal what she is writing about, but it's safe to say it will touch upon many of the same issues that have consumed her over the last decade.

"I'm just fascinated by the way people interact," Revoyr said. "I'm not just interested in their differences, but their human commonalities as well. What is the thing that binds us together? The one thing that I have addressed in all of my work is, how do you forge happiness out of the material of your everyday life?"

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday, April 29, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction Pamela Beere Briggs: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about novelist Nina Revoyr said that documentary filmmaker Pamela Beere Briggs teaches at UCLA Film School. Briggs has a masters of fine arts from the school but does not teach there. For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday, April 30, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction Nina Revoyr: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about novelist Nina Revoyr quoted her talking about the virtues of Compton. It should have said Crenshaw. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 04, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction Nina Revoyr and Pamela Beere Briggs: An article last Sunday about novelist Nina Revoyr incorrectly said that documentary filmmaker Pamela Beere Briggs teaches at UCLA Film School. Briggs has an MFA from the school but does not teach there. Also, the article quoted Revoyr talking about the virtues of Compton. It should have said Crenshaw.
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