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The Age of Dreaming

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The Age of Dreaming explores the history of Los Angeles, the heady beginnings of the movie industry, and the interplay of race and celebrity.

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Interview with Nina Revoyr on The Age of Dreaming

How did you come up with the idea for this novel?

I work in a building that was once the home of a silent film star, Mary Miles Minter. Her career ended when she got caught up in a murder scandal in the early 1920s. For me, this was an incredible gift. The first year or so I worked in “the mansion,” I used to sit in my office late at night—it had probably once been a bedroom or closet—and imagine what it was like all those years ago, when the building had been a private home and not the headquarters for a nonprofit organization. By chance, I was also living at the time about a block from the real Silent Movie Theater. All of this got me interested in the silent film era, and then I discovered that there had actually been a Japanese silent film star. This was fascinating to me—it seemed incredible that a Japanese man could be a major star at a time when there was such virulent anti-Japanese sentiment. But even with these real-life inspirations, I couldn’t find a way into the story until I had some personal stake—until I made it, in some sense, about me.

Are you a movie fan? What’s the appeal of silent films?

I’m a fan of good movies, particularly older ones and independents, and I do like silent films. Silent films have a lot in common with poetry. With silent films, so much is accomplished with suggestion and imagery. The viewer—like the reader of poetry—has to bring his or her own experience and interpretive powers to bear; the process is more interactive than it is with “talkies.” You can’t lay back and be passively receptive, with poems or with silents.

Besides the films themselves, I’m very drawn to the romance of the silent film era. There was a great sense of excitement and possibility in the air that mirrored the energy of the beginnings of Los Angeles. Even though the period saw its fair share of excess and drama—wild parties, drugs, a lot of rough characters—it also had a certain innocence. Wide-eyed people, a lot of them working class, came from all over the country to be a part of what was happening, and the movie industry was so new that it didn’t yet have the self-consciousness and self-importance that it has today.

And the stars of that era were such characters—larger than life in all the best ways. Mary Pickford was a pretty incredible figure—she was not just America’s most beloved actress; she was also a kick-ass businesswoman and studio head. And Gloria Swanson practically invented the concept of fabulous. She dressed in crazy, beautiful outfits, and broke all the rules. There’s a great story about when she was coming back to the U.S. from Europe with her new husband, a French nobleman. She sent a telegram ahead to Adolph Zukor that said: “Am arriving with the Marquis tomorrow. Please arrange ovation.” And yet she had a sense of humor about the whole thing, too, or she couldn’t have poked fun at herself years later in Sunset Boulevard.

Your protagonist, Jun, who was once a silent film star, is decades past his prime at the start of the novel. Was it difficult writing from the perspective of a 73-year-old man?

Not at all. Jun’s voice is just an exaggeration of my own. And the issues he’s grappling with are issues that were relevant to me—the struggles of living a creative life, the difficulty of recognizing and embracing love. Besides, I felt like a crusty old man for most of the time I was writing the book. And apparently I often acted like one, too.

What appealed to you about Jun as a character?

I was intrigued by the problems that must have been posed by—and faced by—the real-life Japanese film star, Sessue Hayakawa. I mean, this guy was not only a movie idol but also a major sex symbol. Women swooned over him, literally; there were reports of women fainting in theaters. And this was at a time when Japanese in California could only live in certain neighborhoods, and were barred from owning land, were seen as a major threat to American racial and economic power. There were groups pushing not only for the total exclusion of Japanese immigrants, but also for a constitutional amendment barring U.S. citizenship to anyone of the Japanese race.

And all of this made me wonder—under what circumstances could a man of color become a star in a time of such intense racism? What would it cost him, both professionally and personally, to achieve that high level of fame?

But beyond all the social questions, I wanted to explore something more general. We meet Jun when he’s in his seventies, but he stopped acting when he was thirty, when—for various reasons—he hit a bunch of obstacles. And I wondered—what happens to someone when they stop doing what they love? What do they turn into? At the time I started writing The Age of Dreaming, I was in my early thirties, I couldn’t sell my second book, I hadn’t written in over a year, and I thought my writing career was over. It was pretty easy for me to imagine what I’d feel like in my seventies if I never tried to write another book.

The women in Jun’s life—Hanako, Elizabeth, and Nora—could not be more different. Could you comment a little about them?

Well, Nora Niles is really a girl, a teenager who’s pushed and controlled by her mother’s ambitions. She’s a sweet, dreamy kid who’d probably be doing something else if her mother weren’t so intent on her becoming a famous actress. And Harriet, her mother, is a typical stage mother—an awful, pushy woman who makes not only Nora miserable, but also all of the people who work with her.

Elizabeth Banks is like many young women in Hollywood at that time—a Midwestern girl from a working-class background who came to Hollywood to seek movie stardom. She’s beautiful and glamorous, a bit rough-edged—beloved by men but not accepted by the society types who looked down their noses as “picture people.” And unfortunately, her dependence on drink is pretty typical, too.

Hanako Minatoya provides a counterpoint to Jun. Even though she’s the one who helps get Jun into pictures, she’s not caught up or even particularly interested in the world of Hollywood. She runs her own theater company, and is more focused on her craft—and maintaining artistic freedom—than she is on pursuing stardom. She has a self-possession and a purity that both draws Jun in and scares him. I think he’s a bit awed by Hanako, as am I.

Your last novel, Southland, depicted LA in the 1940s through the 1990s. This book goes back even further, to the 1910s and 20s. What role does the history of Los Angeles play in your work?

I love writing about LA—uncovering its history, and all the unexpected ways that different stories and neighborhoods and individuals intersect. Part of what’s so interesting, in this city that supposedly has no history, is how much history there actually is, and how layered and interrelated all the stories are. The silent film industry, for example, was developing at roughly the same time as Little Tokyo. There was a huge cultural and social divide between the downtown business elite on the one hand, and the free-living “picture people” on the other. There was also tremendous racism against Japanese—institutionalized, sanctioned, openly practiced racism. LA’s District Attorney, for example, was the head of the Anti-Asiatic Society. Reading all that history, it became so clear to me that the seeds for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II were planted several decades before.

Are some of the issues related to race and movies in The Age of Dreaming still relevant today?

Absolutely. Jun is a movie star, but there are limits to the roles he can play. He most often plays villains, and he can never get the on-screen girl. There is another actor in the novel, Steve Hayashi, who plays a lot of comic “houseboy” roles. Obviously, neither of these options allow the actors to play fleshed out, complex characters.

In a lot of ways, not much has really changed. Asian characters in movies and on t.v. today are still largely confined by these same definitions. They’re sinister bad guys, or martial arts heroes, or comic figures. Jackie Chan is a combination—a comic martial arts hero. And we still get the most amazing and offensive caricatures. Look at the character of Miss Swan on “Mad TV”—a white woman in “yellow face,” a ridiculous figure. Even a progressive show like “The L Word”—which I otherwise love—had a heavily-accented, over-the-top crazy Asian character who was completely played for laughs. Every time I see a characterization like this, it’s really depressing. And it’s still extremely rare for an Asian man to be a lead actor, or to be presented as a powerful, attractive figure whose appeal is not based solely on some assumed “mystery” or savagery. This is part of why I was so drawn to writing about Jun. Asian men are often portrayed as asexual. I wanted to depict an Asian guy who was handsome and sexy—and to make it clear that everybody knew it.

The Age of Dreaming is very different from your previous two novels, Southland and The Necessary Hunger. Were you nervous about taking on such different material?

In some ways, you’re right, this book is different. My first two books are set in the inner city, focus on relationships between Japanese-Americans and African-Americans, and have main or significant characters who are gay. This novel is set in Hollywood, features two Japanese characters who move about in a world that’s mostly white, and has a protagonist who’s not only a straight man, but a bit of a playboy. So on the surface, yes, this is a departure for me.

But on the other hand, this book deals with the same themes as the other two novels. For example, what you do, or don’t do, when faced with the key moments in your life—and the consequences of those choices. The challenge and necessity of stepping forward into love, and the cost of shrinking away from it. How you fit in, or don’t, with the world around you; how you develop or hold back from a larger community. And then, of course, the history and stories of LA, my beloved and maddening city.



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