Nina Revoyr: How I Write

"The first draft is like throwing a hunk of clay onto the wheel. It’s literally getting down the raw material, and revision is my way of going back to shape something from that."
By Alicia Anstead | Published: January 28, 2013


Nina Revoyr is the author of four books, most recently Wingshooters. The story  takes place in Wisconsin where the main character is the child of a white father and Japanese mother. Revoyr was born in Japan, raised in Wisconsin and lives in Los Angeles. Her novel’s setting and theme seem autobiographical, but her goal was to push beyond her own story and into unknown territory. In 2011, the book was named one of the “Ten Titles to Pick Up Now” by O: The Oprah Magazine, and it has been compared to To Kill a Mockingbird. But Revoyr’s is a distinctive voice. “Writing for me is going to equal places of pain and places of joy,” she says. Wingshooters may be about the difficulty of the outsider experience, but it’s also about sports, faithful dogs and the conflicts and connections of family life. Turns out, Revoyr is a Green Bay Packers fan and has two dogs: Russell, an English springer spaniel (pictured here) and Ariat, a border collie. We asked her to tell us more about her writing life. And her dogs.

Why: I write for the same reason I started to read, which is to keep myself company. When I was a kid, I was very isolated. When I read, the characters in books were my friends. Writing novels became a way of continuing that.

Routine: I write first thing in the day before the world creeps in and interferes, before I check email, before I interact with anybody. Having a very structured schedule keeps me on track.

Revision: The first draft is like throwing a hunk of clay onto the wheel. It’s literally getting down the raw material, and revision is my way of going back to shape something from that. Some writers think revision is arduous, but for me it’s the best part of the process. The first draft tends to happen fast. I write longhand. I type it. I print it out, and go to work on the printed pages and do that over and over and over again. The revision takes three to four times as long as the first draft. It’s a repetitive process that can’t be rushed because I don’t always know what I’m getting at or who the most important character will be until I have that first draft down. I have to trust that if I go with it, further levels of depth and meaning will reveal themselves.

Not knowing: That was the hardest lesson for me to learn because I’m a very controlled person. I have many things to balance, a very busy schedule, two careers – three when I am teaching. So uncertainty is not easy for me. I’m an ultra planner. To say, “OK, I’m going to start something, and I don’t know where it’s going to go” is a huge leap of faith, but I’ve discovered if I am not willing to take that leap of faith, then what I do ends up being stilted.

Inspiration: It tends to be a nagging question that I can’t let go of, a situation or circumstance I need to figure out. I don’t start a book thinking I’m going to get across this message, or that I have this particular story to convey or answers to give to the world. It starts with: I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know the answer to this question and I really want to know. For example, with Wingshooters, I actually did live in Wisconsin for a while as a child, but then I moved. The question for that book was: What would have happened if I’d stayed?

Influences: Many. The writer I look to the most is James Baldwin. I love Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Rick Bass, Norman Maclean, Wendell Berry. Each of my books has a set of writers who influence it, but Baldwin is the giant in my consciousness.

Advice: Read. Read everything you can. Pay attention to what you read in terms of how stories are told and sentences are put together. Really engage with and really care about something in the world. It’s when you bring your own love – whatever you love in the world, whether it’s nature, dogs, stamp collecting – that’s what’s really going to engage people.

Dogs: They help my writing. They help my everything. It’s impossible to be around them and not smile. It’s impossible to stay in a bad mood when a silly dog is doing hijinks in front of you. Russell, the springer, likes to sit on my feet while I write. And they sometimes suffer through having to listen to me when I have to prepare for a reading.