Interview with Jon Raymond [writer]
When Jon Raymond taught a fiction workshop of mine a few years ago at Portland State University, he’d lope into the room sporting a hunter orange cap and down coat, worn to a dull sheen. Raymond’s workshop coincided with the 2008 publication of his short story collection, Livability, and the premiere of Wendy and Lucy, the second feature film he co-wrote with director Kelly Reichardt. This spring, Raymond will publish his first new novel since 2004’s The Half Life. Due out April 2012 from Bloomsbury, Rain Dragon follows a young California couple as they negotiate their transplantation to an organic farm in Oregon.
Now in his early 40s, Raymond met me this past November at downtown Portland’s Tugboat Brewery, fresh from the Emmys. Mildred Pierce, the HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet that Raymond co-wrote with director Todd Haynes, had been nominated for 21 awards—a subject we raised and dropped within a few sips of our pints, moving on to Neil Young, California spiritualism, the “loser ethos” of his hometown, and French altarpieces. - Ramona W. DeNies
Jon Raymond: The Emmys were really more fun for my family and friends watching than for me. Though the swag rooms were interesting. The people I end up dealing with are still from the same small world. Not that it’s a huge sacrifice to be screenwriting. But novels are what I put the most stock in, am most invested in. A fairly brutal act of will is required to complete something like a book. I don’t know how pandering you want this to get, but just the books themselves, it would be nice if they were more read, more lucrative. Screenwriting is easier, compared to the heavy lifting of prose. Almost relaxing. It’s fun to be on a team, where other people depend on you; that’s an itch that doesn’t get scratched by fiction writing. And there’s a lot of plausible deniability with the films. For a book, there’s no hiding—you’re the sole proprietor. I had dinner a few weeks ago with Paul Auster, of all things, and I found it gratifying that he said much the same thing.
The Believer: I looked up The Half Life and Livability on Amazon’s bestseller list. So, they’re at 1,572,556 and 79,836 respectively. That’s an encouraging trend, right? How do you feel about Rain Dragon?
JR: I started Rain Dragon well before Livability, so it’s been dragging on. It’s been a real struggle. God willing, people will like it, though I’m nervous, to be sure. I don’t feel like the book’s going to be a humiliation, deplorable or evil, but I don’t know if it achieves its goal or not. It might be a “small book.” I’m okay with that. Any way I can think of not to worry about what I put out there is helpful. It might not be good, but I think about Neil Young. He puts stuff out, good or bad, goes where he has to go, and lets other people sort it out. That’s what I aspire to. The other model is Jeffrey Eugenides – a book every ten years. He must be a wreck.
BLVR: It doesn’t read like a small book to me. It’s still sinking in. So your main character, Damon, he’s open to communal farm life. But while his girlfriend gets increasingly absorbed into the farm, he doesn’t show much aptitude. So he turns to his L.A. ad-man experience, taking the farm’s message out into the world through consciousness-raising seminars. It’s a curious twist. It’s like he’s evangelizing. But for what?
JR: I was interested in knowing how people construct a sense of identity, as a couple, and I felt that this is fundamentally a spiritual pursuit. This was a big avenue for me going into Rain Dragon. As I started it, I was reading a lot of Walker Percy and Graham Greene, writers I respect, and who are both very devout in their ways. Greene was Catholic, extremely pious in a way I don’t really understand. Greene and Percy worked out their religious issues on the page in a way that made me wonder whether I was somehow lacking. There’s a book I encountered called California Spiritualism; I thought, oh, this is my religious upbringing. It’s not as weak or lame as it might sound; it’s somewhat viable. I wanted to write about new age spiritualities in a way that others might write about Catholicism; manifesting own’s own destiny is a theme that circulates in the book.
BLVR: This is a West Coast spiritual phenomenon that we’re talking about?
JR: Self-actualization idealogies are baked deep into our DNA here – the tools of the encounter group, the meta-communication that started in the 1940s and 50s, the Erhard Seminars Training of the 1970s. The Landmark Forum we have now stems from EST. With organic farming and its progressive ideals, there is some kind of intellectual relationship between these worlds. And the vocabulary is now steeped into coporate America, it’s how businesspeople now talk about projects: whose vocabulary is most powerful, whose “technology” is most effective. Silicon Valley was built on this new-agey sense of spiritual achievement. Steve Jobs was a pure product of this consciousness-raising.
BLVR: So in Rain Dragon, there is this rigorous pursuit of manifesting one’s destiny. I feel like that theme is also present in the The Half-Life, with your teenage protagonists living on a Portland commune in the 1980s. In The Half Life there’s also just plain manifest destiny, with the backstory of the Oregon Territory. Your latest film, Meek’s Cutoff, follows pioneers on the Oregon Trail. Are you conscious of certain recurring elements in your fiction and film?
JR: Well, Rain Dragon and The Half Life obviously share overlapping geography and trace some overlapping history. There are structural similarities between the two novels as well—people being lost, having to find their way out of situations with incomplete information. That wasn’t conscious though. They open the same way—arriving here in Oregon, from California. I was interested in the idea of veering off from the same starting place: that part was conscious. I read what I felt was a gratifying review of Meek’s Cutoff that connected the film to some of the stories in Livability, made a connection between imperialism, how people change a place. That’s in Rain Dragon, too, a history of place that all of the characters participate in.
BLVR: When you think about your books and films collectively, do you want them to work together to communicate something larger?
JR: I do see all my works as part of a whole piece. This is something that doesn’t get talked about in workshops—establishing themes that one can work with over time. In workshops, every story is it’s own thing. But one has to think bigger than that; what will sustain you over time, take many angles for you to fill in. There is a political utility to thinking about what happens in your own backyard. For example, in Livability, the story “Young Bodies” is one of my favorites. For a long time I wanted to do a story about two people trapped in a mall overnight. The story drives to a scene – it’s really just a few lines – where a young Russian girl who works at a mall gives this other mall worker a blow job, and she’s thinking about history in this very angry, pessimistic way. I feel like I was able to get to pretty candid place about some of the darker aspects of class and human nature in that scene. It’s funny, though. The story’s been optioned by a guy in Australia, and should it get made down there I don’t know if she’ll be Russian anymore. I don’t know what kind of Russian expat population Australia has. But to my mind, Kendra, the girl, is very much a creature of Russian nihilism. I guess they could substitute some other backstory. But to me, there’s a certain flavor of Russian negativity that’s kind of integral to her character. We’ll see what happens.