Twisting History to Tell Universal Truths

Readers often wonder how much of an author’s real life ends up in their novels. In 2013 in the Virginia Quarterly Review, novelist Nina Revoyr described how she combined elements of her life with the real lives of silent-film era actors Sessue Hayakawa and Mary Miles Minter in her book The Age of Dreaming. Revoyr had become obsessed with their stories and used history to explore her own struggles with regret, fear and self-doubt, because, she said, it was easier “to pour my own deepest feelings into a character who appeared to be vastly different than myself.”

But despite the large backdrop against which it is set, the story ultimately centers on one flawed man. And the core of his feelings, and failings, are my own. When I assumed his voice—when I became Nakayama—I was able to explore and depict feelings of frustration, of sadness, of failure that I could never have admitted to as myself. Jun last appears in a film when he is thirty years old—the exact age I was when my own writing came to a halt. As I imagined an old man who hasn’t acted in forty years, what I was really exploring was this: What happens to someone when he stops doing what he loves? What does he become? How would I feel later on in my life if I never tried to write another book? And what if my abandonment of writing had nothing to do with a lack of ideas or bottom-line-driven publishers but was instead just a failure to persevere?

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