Q&A: L.A. based Nina Revoyr talks about writing socially conscious adventure novel ‘Lost Canyon’
Los Angeles is home to many great storytellers, but Nina Revoyr is one of its finest scribes, with a deep understanding of the city’s histories and textures that has lent itself to some wonderful books. Her fifth and latest, “Lost Canyon” (Akashic: 320 pp., $26.95), is a literary adventure novel with a thriller twist, featuring four Angelenos on a backpacking trip that does not go according to plan.
The adventurers come from different backgrounds — there’s Gwen, a black South L.A. native working as a youth counselor in Watts; Oscar, a Latino real estate agent with a young daughter; Todd, a white lawyer with a stilted marriage; and Tracy, their gung-ho, cocksure, half-Japanese, half-Idaho white personal trainer, who leads the trip, endangering them all with a series of unwise, hubristic decisions. Even as the backpackers leave civilization behind to follow a remote, nearly forgotten trail with only a hand-drawn map to guide them, their stories and perspectives come with them, shaping the choices they make — their very ability to adapt and survive.
Off the grid, communing with nature, with no one else to bother them or hear them scream, they encounter a marijuana garden and a menacing human presence in the pristine mountains. The novel pulses with both beauty and terror, and the struggles of these characters, their physical and mental reckonings, are enough to make readers sweat without getting off the couch.
Revoyr sat down to discuss her new novel at a coffee shop in Glassell Park, the neighborhood where she’s lived for 16 years. She will be reading at Skylight Books at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 3.
There’s something incredibly rich and evocative about the way you describe both nature and the physicality of your characters against these stunning backdrops. Do you have a lot of experience adventuring in the great outdoors?
I love to hike and backpack and occasionally try to climb mountains. I would say I’m an experienced hiker and intermediate-level backpacker.... I started to hike in the Sierra about 15 years ago, and at that point it was day hikes. They would get longer and longer and I’d get frustrated that I had to come back. Then I started to explore the local mountains and realized we had great places to go here too. There’s something really magical about being in a place that is so much bigger than you.
Most of your book takes place in the Sierra, and yet it is very much like a novel about Los Angeles. How does L.A. fit into this book and your body of work?
Los Angeles is the subject that never stops giving. It’s constantly evolving, it’s so deeply interesting and contradictory, and it has so many pockets within it that could in themselves be different cities. And so many of the most important things that are happening in the country are happening here. Poverty, community-police relations, immigration, gentrification, environment, development — it’s all happening here in bold type.
I try to tell stories that haven’t been told before or that present characters or parts of the city that don’t often appear in fiction. I’ve written about places like Inglewood, Crenshaw, Little Tokyo. In this book I got to write about areas very close to my heart that I spend a lot of time in — Glassell Park, Highland Park and Watts. Part of what I try to do in writing about these places is to upend general perceptions of them and to show their complexity and their beauty.
“Lost Canyon” is a social novel, or at least a socially conscious one. What came first — themes or vehicle?
They came at the same time because I’m very drawn to adventure stories, but I’m also constantly thinking about race. There’s no way I could’ve done one without the other. As with all of my books, what I really thought about was, who are these people? Who would go on this trip? And then I just started having fun with what they could stumble into. I knew I wanted to include different parts of L.A. and that I wanted a multiracial group of people, similar to the mix of people in my own life.
It was that small microcosm that allowed me to explore — how does each character’s racial background and class background influence how they see things, and how they are seen? All four of these characters can see the same situation very differently. How they react to these things is a direct output of their own experiences, which is what we see every day in this country, in all these big issues we’re grappling with around race. When Todd, the white Westside lawyer, comes over to Mount Washington, for example, the other characters think the neighborhood’s really nice while he wonders if it’s safe to leave his car there.
When people think of California, they think of diversity, they think of integration. But according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are more hate groups in California than in any other state. It’s interesting that all this diversity and retrograde views on race all exist in the same space.
You seem to write very comfortably across race — in fact, of your four hikers, the only point of view you don’t enter is that of the half-white, half-Japanese woman. What are the challenges of doing this?
Unless everything you write is completely autobiographical, each one of your characters is an act of imagination, and each character involves you taking the leap to imagine the world from their point of view. So I write across race, I write across gender, I write often from people who on the surface do not appear to be a direct reflection of me. But I also write characters who do reflect the day to day world I live in, both professionally and personally.
This novel is just roaring with danger, imposed by both man and nature. Yet it also embraces the fully lived life. I guess my question is—should I ever leave my house or not?
There’s danger everywhere.... In terms of being outdoors, sure, there’s risk, but that’s part of the appeal — the risk forces you to be truly present. It may really matter whether you take this trail or that trail. It may really matter whether you put on a rain jacket or stop to refill your water bottle. There’s something that’s definitely a little scary but also exhilarating about feeling that each decision has a consequence.
Maybe a few more things happen in the book than on a regular backpacking trip — I threw in both the greatest hits of the mishaps I have had and the mishaps that I fear could happen. But the real danger for these characters is not presented by the wilderness. It’s presented by other people.
Cha is the author, most recently, of “Dead Soon Enough.”
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