Our recent Los Angeles Issue (No. 119) featured an essay by novelist Nina Revoyr titled “Postcard from L.A., April,” a meditation on mortality, privilege, and mindfulness during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In it, Revoyr reflects on her past encounters with illness and other threats to life—severe lung damage following chemical exposure, a cancer scare, plummeting sixty feet down the face of Mt. Shasta—in order to contextualize her experiences of the pandemic as they occurred in April 2020 in Los Angeles. Having intimately faced her mortality, Revoyr recognizes certain comforts that accompany L.A.’s stay-at-home orders. While she acknowledges she is in a more fortunate position than most, she presents her own journey through the pandemic as one that has inspired gratitude within her, heightened her perception of surrounding beauty, and put her in conversation with the present.
Nearly a year later, as the COVID-19 pandemic reaches unprecedented heights in Los Angeles and in the United States, we spoke with Revoyr to ask how the perspectives reflected in “Postcard from L.A., April” may have evolved.
ZYZZYVA: As a resident of Los Angeles myself, I’ve been acutely aware of the ways in which the COVID pandemic has worsened relative to how things were in April of 2020. In “Postcard from L.A., April,” you express that the often precarious nature of life puts you intensely in the present. How have your feelings related to this sentiment evolved since last spring?
Nina Revoyr: I still feel like I’m living intensely in the present—but that present is lot tougher now. In the early weeks of the pandemic, many people assumed that we’d be “back to normal” by summer. That was clearly wrong. Nine months later, hundreds of thousands of people have died, we’re back—or still—in limited lockdown, countless people have lost their livelihoods, there’s widespread food and housing insecurity, and our health care system is overburdened. L.A. County is now the epicenter of the disease, and someone’s dying here every six minutes. Add to that a national reckoning around race, intense political upheaval, and the specter of violent right-wing insurrectionists, and it’s as challenging and unsettling a period as we’ve seen in our lifetimes.
I’m in the very privileged position of being okay physically and financially, and, because of my day job, spending most of my time working to address the inequities that COVID-19 has deepened. Back in April—when most of the known sick in L.A. were still wealthy white folks on the Westside who had recently travelled—I wrote that the disease was likely to ultimately ravage low-income communities of color. And of course it has. It’s affecting more and more people I know. I feel a deep sense of urgency about this—there’s just a huge amount of suffering. So I am still very much in the present, but it’s not my own personal present. It’s our present moment in in L.A. and California, and nationally.
Z: What you said about occupying a sort of “collective” present rather than a personal present in the current moment resonated with me, and I’m sure with other readers as well. Can you speak to the challenge of straddling these two “presents”? Have you found a way to anchor yourself in both, simultaneously?
NR: Not really, and honestly that’s okay. It’s a historic time, and I’m fully engaged in it. I think the challenge is not getting overwhelmed, and it’s definitely been harder, with the surge in cases and the political tensions, to find happy distractions. But I try to grab moments of escape. Just this week, I went down to the beach at sunrise and was treated to a squadron of pelicans—that’s actually what a group of them is called—flying so close to the water that it looked like they were skating on it. I’m obsessed with pelicans, herons, and all dinosaur-like birds. Seeing them gave me joy for the rest of the day.
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Z: Nine months (give or take) into the pandemic, how has your experience of living/working at home changed since last spring?
NR: In some ways it hasn’t. I sit in the same chair in the kitchen—I did buy a better chair—and spend many hours every day in video meetings. One of the hard things about working at home is creating a demarcation between “work” and “home”—and I’ve tried to get better about that, even through little things like putting away my computer and headphones every evening. But again—I am very, very lucky to have a job, and to be in a position to work from home, and I don’t forget that for a moment.
But I am definitely more restless than I was last spring. Since I’m high-risk, with asthma, we’re still being very cautious. We haven’t socialized or seen our families; we don’t go into businesses or stores. And that’s hard. I’m someone who draws a lot of energy from being around other people, and I miss that for sure. I miss being able to go out and just grab a beer with a friend.
Last spring I did go for a few hikes, once the trails opened up—but they were so crowded that I didn’t feel comfortable. So now we walk in our immediate neighborhood. I’m grateful we can do this, but even that isn’t carefree, since there’s limited adherence to mask-wearing in our area. Going for walks is a bit like playing Frogger: we’re constantly stepping into the street, shifting sideways to avoid someone, rushing through when there’s an opening.
All of that said, there are also real blessings to being home so much. I sleep more than I used to. I’m eating healthier. I’m home with my spouse every evening. It’s definitely been a nice antidote to the over-scheduled life I led for so many years. And something else I really cherish: our Border Collie is fifteen years old, and it’s been a gift to spend so much time with her at this stage of her life.
Z: Do you feel that living through the pandemic has altered your relationship to your own writing or to the process of writing itself?
NR: It’s too early to tell. Despite last April’s essay, I’m generally not an “in the moment” writer. I need time and perspective to make sense of things, to let events and my own responses to them get distilled into fiction. We are living through such an intense moment in our history, and it’s both impossible for me to gain the distance I need to think about the now, and strange to try and think about anything else, because the now is so consuming. I’m sure all of this is going to affect and alter me, and my writing—I just don’t know what that’s going to look like yet.
For whatever reason, my reading has definitely been affected. I spent much of 2020 rereading books I really love. These books were as varied as Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon; Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins; Hari Kunzru’s White Tears; Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth; James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time; Michael Cunningham’s The Hours; Judith Freeman’s Red Water; Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies, A Love Story; Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being; and many more. They provided a particular comfort—like spending time with old friends. And their beauty and complexity both inspired me and maybe helped remind me that whatever we’re going through at any particular moment is part of a larger sweep of time and history.
Z: What sort of beauty or lessons have they brought you, either when you first read them or more recently?
It does strike me that most of the books I named deal, in one way or another, with time. And I’m sure there’s something to that—about how what happens in the present continues to reverberate in the future, but also, ultimately, no matter how dramatic, gets absorbed into history.
That said, I love the books for different reasons. With White Tears, for example, what seems like a straightforward story about two young white kids in their twenties becomes an unexpected, inventive, deep, and downright scary tale about white appropriation of Black culture. It definitely underscores the idea that the past is always with us. It’s original and captivating and disturbing.
Red Water is about three of the wives of John D. Lee—a Mormon pioneer who was executed for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857. I love the way that history is told through the stories of individual people; the sense of landscape and nature; the meditations on faith. The middle section follows one of the women, disguised as a man, as she tracks down the thieves who stole her horse; it’s one of the most stunning—and moving—adventure stories I’ve ever read.
I’ve read The Unbearable Lightness of Being several times and have always loved it—for its complex love story, its philosophical musings, the active, involved voice of the narrator. And like Red Water, it features a beautifully portrayed dog. But reading it this time, I was much more aware of the political and historical backdrop of the story: the Soviet occupation and oppression of Czechoslovakia. Things like control of the media and the suppression of dissidents seem particularly relevant now.
Beautiful Ruins shifts between past and present, Southern Italy and Hollywood. It’s a story of love, young idealism, the compromises of adulthood—and the refusal to let go of dreams. It could so easily have been cynical, and it has more than a bit of sadness—but ultimately what draws me to this book is its big-heartedness and joy. It’s not common to find a novel with so much joy.
And I can’t help but mention Song of Solomon. It’s one of my favorite Toni Morrison novels, and I admire it for the way it deals with race, and history, and legend; I love the character of Pilate. But the reason I picked it up again after more than twenty years was because I learned from the Morrison documentary that she’d written it in the wake of her father’s death. My dad—to whom I was very close—passed away suddenly two years ago. Somehow knowing she’d written this book after losing her father made it land for me in a different way.
Z: Toward the end of the essay, you make note of all the beauty present in the world (hummingbirds, lemon trees, double rainbows) in the midst of the pandemic. What forms of beauty have you witnessed in the world recently?
NR: I’m definitely still noticing the sky—the sunrises and sunsets, and cloud formations, and variations in color and light. And I’ve learned, through my neighborhood walks, where to get the best views of the San Gabriel mountains—which we used to be able to see from our old house in Glassell Park. Now, one of my regular walks involves going to the highest point in the area, where there’s a beautiful view of downtown L.A. set against the backdrop of the mountains. Looking out at them is like staring across the room at a lost love.
I also went on two backpacking trips last summer, in the Eastern Sierras. Usually I go with friends but because of the pandemic, I decided to go on my own. I camped near lakes, with ridiculous views of the surrounding peaks, some covered with snow, some sheltering glaciers. These mountains have been there for millennia: in the earliest available photographs of them, they look exactly the same. It’s overwhelmingly beautiful, and the silence—not really silence, since you can hear rivers flowing and birds singing and fish leaping out of the lakes at dusk, but more a lack of human noise—is profound. There’s something about being there, in the midst of such grandeur, that helps me put things in perspective. It reminds me of the bigger scheme of things, of the power of time. This moment—in my life, and in the life of our country—will pass. It is difficult, and we’ve got a ways to go, but it will get better. My appreciation of the beauty in the world—back in April, and now—isn’t just about distraction. It’s about finding those moments of exhilaration and peace to help fortify me for the challenges.
Finally, I’ve been moved by the beauty of people—from the frontline health care workers who’ve worked tirelessly to care for the rest of us; to the poll workers who helped ensure that our democracy survived; to the teachers who’ve been creative in keeping their kids engaged and learning; to the local nonprofits who’ve provided food and shelter to families in need; to the countless acts of kindness that folks have bestowed upon others through this difficult and isolating time. It’s so easy these days to focus on all the conflict and ugliness—there’s so much of it. But there are also many, many people who are behaving in big-hearted, generous and heroic ways. That gives me hope for the future.