I’ve always loved stories about class: it’s the great American topic,” says Nina Revoyr, listing some of the favorite reads of her youth: The Age of Innocence, Great Expectations, The Great Gatsby. “The juxtaposition of those daily struggles that I and my family had with those of people who have so much more is fascinating to me.”
In A Student of History (Akashic, Mar.), Revoyr’s sixth novel, Rick Nagano, who is working on his dissertation in the University of Southern California’s graduate history program, is hired to transcribe the handwritten journals of the reclusive elderly scion of one of Los Angeles’s oldest and wealthiest families. Nagano—from a blue-collar Japanese-American family down on their luck—finds himself escorting her to the high-society luncheons, parties, and fund-raisers that fill the calendars of the city’s moneyed elite. Although he is drawn into a nexus of privilege and power, it’s a world that he doesn’t really understand and to which he does not belong.
Revoyr, 49, who herself is Japanese-American, says she wrote A Student of History because “I wanted to have my own take on the American story of class that also deals with race.” And, she adds, since she is fascinated by history, she wanted to write a story in which she could incorporate the historical record into the storyline to emphasize the past’s continuing influence upon the present, just as she has done in her five previous novels.
Having lived in Los Angeles for much of her life, Revoyr says she set A Student of History there for good reason. “When you think of L.A., you think of Hollywood. But there’s a difference between ‘street people’ [a high-society term for the descendants of L.A.’s founding families] and ‘show people’ [celebrities]. L.A. is stratified not just by money but by history, lineage. That was the ‘aha moment’ for me.”
Noting that she researched L.A.’s early history by reading contemporary accounts about some of the city’s more well-known founders, Revoyr praised them for their “frontier spirit” after encountering “epic tales of people fighting bison.” She wanted, she explains, to capture within the pages of her novel a sense of the kinds of people who made their fortunes in land or oil while building L.A.
Although Revoyr denies that the novel is in any way autobiographical, she admits that “many elements of Nagano’s experience that are mine,” including growing up blue-collar with a parent who was an electrician while attending elite private schools. After being recruited by Yale to play basketball and graduating from there in 1991 with a BA in English, Revoyr went to Cornell, where she received her MFA in 1997.
Revoyr acknowledges a literary debt to The Great Gatsby, but she thinks that Nagano is more akin to Pip in Great Expectations. “Like Pip, Rick finds himself in a different world, where he doesn’t quite know the rules, and gets in way over his head,” she says. “Rick and Pip both use their access for their own betterment. They, in some ways, contribute to their own downfall. If Rick had been a pawn, or a victim, that would have been too easy. He’s sympathetic, but at the same time, he makes some choices that contribute to what happens.”
Revoyr is adamant, however, that A Student of History is not “an indictment of wealth” but rather an indictment of people who think that their wealth gives them license to treat others badly, noting, “It’s not that privilege is bad: it’s what you do with it.”
The novel was inspired by a conversation Revoyr says she had during a business lunch in one of Downtown L.A.’s posh private clubs, at the height of the 2011 Occupy movement. Her lunch companion pointed out the window at a crowd of Occupy protesters in front of City Hall and said that they were protesting at the wrong place, adding, “They really should be protesting here.”
That remark, Revoyr says, prompted her to realize something she hadn’t really considered before: “The real decisions aren’t made in government buildings; they’re made in private spaces. Expressions of power are often kept well out of sight. It’s not just about money: it’s also about access.”
Noting that her writing process has varied with each book, and that each novel emerged from a what-if question she posed to herself, Revoyr explains that, after deciding to write about L.A.’s “golden families and their interactions,” she hit upon the plot device of a young man transcribing a journal for an elderly socialite. “What if you put a young protagonist from Rick’s background into this situation where he is working for this rich lady? And what happens when he meets a young lady who asks him to do things he probably shouldn’t do? Those were the dynamics I wanted to play with. But I didn’t know what he was going to find; I didn’t know what was at stake.”
Recalling that she initially wrote 20 pages, set them aside, then wrote another 20 pages and set those aside, picking up three years later where she’d left off to finish the novel, Revoyr says that the novel took her more than a decade to complete. “It’s kind of ironic,” she adds. “My two shortest books took the longest to write.”
Wingshooters (2011), Revoyr’s fourth novel, which took her, sandwiched between other projects, 20 years to complete, is the tale of a Japanese-American girl’s encounters with bigotry in 1970s rural Wisconsin. Revoyr’s other novels—her debut, The Necessary Hunger (1997), which she calls “quite autobiographical”; Southland (2003); The Age of Dreaming (2008); and Lost Canyon (2015)—are all set in Southern California; she and her parents moved there from Wisconsin when she was nine years old.
Revoyr lived in Tokyo until she was five. Being biracial in Japan and then in the rural Midwest, she notes, made her feel “very isolated from an early age,” as neither community was a welcoming one for mixed-race children. She explains that a desire to create a more inclusive world than the one she grew up in prompted her to write. “I just love creating stories,” she says.
Revoyr says that, though A Student of History revolves around weighty themes such as race, class, and how the past impacts the present, she wants people to enjoy it. “The picture of L.A., the dynamics between the characters, the interactions between Rick and his academic advisor, the whole episode of Nagano driving up the central coast... I want people to have fun with this book. I had so much fun writing it.”