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LAist Interview: Nina Revoyr

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Born in Japan as the only child of a Japanese mother and Anglo American father, novelist Nina Revoyr now makes her home in Los Angeles. Nina mines childhood experiences living in South Central to craft exquisite novels about the historical interrelationships between Angelenos of Asian American and African American descent. Indeed, her second novel, Southland, literally explores the historical connection between the two communities as the book's protagonist tries to solve a family mystery involving her grandfather's secret will and a 40 year old murder case that awakens memories of the internment of Japanese American citizens and Japanese nationals during WWII and the Watts Riots. The Los Angeles Times named the novel one of the best books of 2003. Nina's work has been featured in many magazines, newspapers, and radio shows, including the Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair, and NPR's Weekend Edition.

Nina is focused on Los Angeles's future as well as its past. She is Vice President, Development and External Relations at theChildren's Institute, Inc, a nonprofit that helps children who have been affected by violence in their homes or communities. Nina raises funds for the organization and also directs its communication programs, including print and web materials.

Age and Occupation:
36, Novelist

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How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you live in?
I first moved to LA with my dad in 1979. We lived in Hermosa, and then in Culver City, which I really felt was home. I left for a few years for school and a 2-year teaching stint in Japan, and returned for good in 1998. I live now in Glassell Park.

Why do you live in Los Angeles?
For the mountains, the ocean, the sun, the wonderful mix of people, the food, and the baseball (both Angels and Dodgers). For the sense that anything is possible here. Definitely not for the traffic.

What is your latest project about?
A Japanese silent film star in the 1910s and 20s. The silent film industry was developing at the same time that Little Tokyo was growing. It was fun to mix and match the various pioneers.

What surprises you about Los Angeles?
It surprises me that, in such a culturally diverse city, people are still so deeply divided. People won't drive over to check out another part of town.

Many of your stories revolve around the history of cross-racial relationships between Asian Americans and African Americans in Los Angeles, what fascinates you about this particular cultural exchange?
It facinated me initially for personal reasons--because my own social group as a kid was largely black and Japanese. When I realized that similar friendships had been forged decades before, in more precarious times, I was blown away. I also think that the history of Crenshaw, for example, is something that should be studied and celebrated. Often when we hear about different races interacting, it's about strife. But people are also able to cooperate, to forge real ties, usually when they have a common stake in something.

Is there a similar cultural exchange going on in today's Los Angeles?
It's happening on small levels all the time. I'm not sure, though, if there's the same kind of stable neighborhood where two or more racial groups are really in sync with each other.

As a published writer with a day job, how do you balance writing with a 40 hour a week job? Does your day job inspire your writing?
I wish it were 40 hours! It's often a whole lot more than that....

In terms of balance, I'm still trying to figure it out. But I'm pretty religious about keeping my non-job time free for writing, which means that I don't do much else.

No, the job doesn't inspire my writing; it's more like it gives me a mental space away from it. But sometimes the things I encounter through work are helpful, or spark something. For example, I got interested in the silent film era because I work in a building that used to be the home of a silent film star.

What's your preferred mode of transportation?
Walking. But like most Angelenos, I actually really love my car.

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How often do you ride the MTA subway or light rail?
Maybe once every couple of months. Definitely not enough.

What's your favorite movie(s) or TV show(s) that are based in LA?
Well, I loved "LA Confidential," "Devil in a Blue Dress," and "L.A. Story." Also "Stand and Deliver." As for TV shows, I have a deep and twisted love for "The L Word."

Best LA-themed book(s)?
There are too many to mention, but I just read John Fante's Dreams From Bunker Hill and fell in love. I liked it better than Ask the Dust — it has a wonderful, nostalgic, dream-like quality that suggests both discovery and loss.

Share your best celebrity sighting experience.
Running into Forrest Whitaker at the very dingy 7-11 down the hill from my house. It's just not the kind of place you expect to see an actor. It was also fun seeing Ellen DeGeneres with her first post-Anne girlfriend. I had a car full of friends from out of town, and they acted like I'd arranged Ellen's appearance especially for them. I seem to see celebrities only when I'm entertaining out of town guests.

In your opinion, what's the best alternate route to the 405?
Moving to the east side.

What's the best place to walk in LA?
My own neighborhood — the hills of Glassell Park. It's so calming, and the views are incredible. I can see the ocean, Century City and the Getty on one side, then downtown and Long Beach, then the San Gabriel mountains, then over to Glendale and the Valley. And when we get a lot of rain, like we did last winter, we can also see our own houses sliding down the hill.

It's 9:30 pm on Thursday. Where are you coming from and where are you going?
I just walked the dog, and now I'm in for the night. If it's some time between April and October, I'm drinking a beer and watching baseball.

If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?
Any time from about 1910 to 1970. I'd love to have seen the growth of the city and the glamour years of the '20s and '30s.

What's your beach of choice?
Maybe Topanga — because I love the backdrop of the hills. I like beaches that are quieter — like the beaches at Big Sur up north.

What is the "center" of LA to you?
I actually do see downtown as the center. It's got business, food, more and more art and music. And it's got the sports centers — Staples and Dodger Stadium. I go down there a lot; I'm only a few minutes away. We eat in Little Tokyo at least once a week.

Is there an "LA" child personality?
More than one. Because of my work (I work at a nonprofit), I see a lot of kids who are really struggling and who have seen violent, horrible things. They appear older, wiser, and sadder than their years. But then you get the other extreme, the spoiled rich kids with everything. I see them, too. And those two sets of kids seem like they're from different worlds.

If you were forced to live in a neighboring county, which would you choose? Ventura County is a wussy answer.
All neighboring counties are wussy.

If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?
I have to say I love my own neighborhood — I love the mix of people, the crazy individuality of many of the houses, and the views. I could do with a bit more square footage, though.

Outsiders stereotype Los Angeles as a hard place to find personal connections and make friends. Do you agree with that assessment? Do find it challenging to make new friends here?
I don't know. I never leave my house.

What is the city's greatest secret?
That it's full of incredibly smart, interesting, unique, ambitious people. That it's a real place.

Drinking, driving. They mix poorly, and yet they're inexorably linked. How do you handle this conflict?
I make my girlfriend drive.

Describe your best LA dining experience.
Sprinting out of my high school at lunch time to beat the crowd driving to Tito's Tacos (in Culver City). I've moved on to fancier establishments--but there's still nothing that compares to the pure joy of a Tito's burrito.

What do you have to say to East Coast supremacists?
If you hate L.A. as much as you say you do, stop moving here.

Do you find the threat of earthquakes preferable to the threat of hurricanes and long winters?
No. They scare me shitless. I was here for the Northridge earthquake, and since then, I no longer sleep naked in California.

Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?
In Missouri.