An interview with Jon Raymond [writer]
conducted by Ramona W. DeNies
(Read Part I. here)
THE BELIEVER: Portland really is changing, and fast. In the last ten years or so, whole neighborhoods have been razed and rebuilt, fancier, native populations are in flux, and meanwhile people continue to move here in droves from across the U.S. What’s going on here, do you think?
JON RAYMOND: : Somewhere around 2003 or 2004, Portland discovered ambition. You can almost pinpoint it to a certain moment. But I’ve always quibbled with the idea that Portland was so easy; it’d be much easier to go to New York and tap into the thousand industries that are waiting to use your creative energy. The idea of Portland prior to 2003 was really bound up in a kind of loser ethos; Portland was the kind of place where people came to disappear, or get stuck. In the 1990s there were not that many people here taking writing that seriously. Music was more the bedrock of Portland’s creative life. The art bubbled up on top of that. Portland is a strangely prolific incubator of the little mayflies that appear and then go away. That’s since flipped; now Portland is a place where people might come to get discovered. It’s only recently that a writing “community” has really emerged. Though I’ve never gravitated much toward hanging out with other writers.
BLVR: You hang out with a lot of artists and also film types, I imagine. Why not writers?
JR: There’s a sort of banality to that imagined conversation; you’ll have your ideas, I have mine. I’m not at the point anymore where I need to talk about it. But there’s also this part of me that’s still intimidated by other writers. They’ll have read a lot more books than I have, maybe. Oh, I don’t know what I’m talking about.
BLVR: Ok, but I don’t get that you have much ego wrapped up in your writing life. Is there a competitive edge somewhere in your personality that I’ve totally missed seeing?
JR: Undeniably ego is wrapped up in the enterprise! Issues of recognition, fairness, invitations, publishing hierarchies. It’s impossible to deny that ego is part of writing. A lot of people want to be writers for the fantasy of it, of being interviewed like this, of vindicating their own childhood. There’s a Walter Benjamin quote I use in just about every workshop I teach. The gist of it is that every writer writes to prove that his or her childhood was not in vain. A lot of people don’t even read and want to be writers. But I maintain that when writing is working, it’s much more of an undoing of ego, of selfhood. If one can get absorbed in the work of it, which is hard enough, really, then you have to forget about ego for a while. Ego might goad you into doing more and better things, but it’s not at the heart of writing. It has to fall away.
BLVR: I stand corrected. Ok, so when did you first decide that writing was your ticket to a validated childhood and invitations to the best parties?
JR: Well, I remember drawing some long-haired poet as a kid, like Byron or Shelley, on a mountain with lightening behind them. So the fetish was always there. In my twenties, for a brief period in the 1990s, I was still trying to figure out what kind of writing I wanted to do. I tried other more pop forms of writing that never saw the light of day. One forgets, thankfully. I wouldn’t want to revisit Portland of the 1990s, though I know many people from then that continue to produce. Though I wasn’t massively happy with my creative life then, there was a kind of tribal way of living. I’d have had a great time if I’d have had a better idea of what I was doing at the time. But I really didn’t have my shit together. College high theory led me into video, art criticism, editing and curating, attempts at creating. I was painting, too. I had this idea I could do all of it.
BLVR: And when did you hone in on narrative fiction, novels and short stories?
JR: There was a moment that came in the later 1990s, I could almost pinpoint it, and some of it had to with a friendship I had at the time with Miranda July, who had not done all the college, who had not discarded narrativity in her work in the way I was taught was the sophisticated way of making things. There was a kind of Gothic pleasure principle going on in the writing and the performing that she was doing at the time. It was partly through watching some of her early stuff that made me think there was a storytelling element that was missing from my avant work. So in my mid to late twenties I decided to pursue that; attempt something juicier, put all my eggs into fiction writing. That meant not doing the filmmaking I was doing at the time, really elaborate cable-access stuff. Yet somehow I’ve ended up doing a lot of film stuff anyways. That’s just one of those ironies I guess.
BLVR: What did you study in college?
JR: My thesis at Swarthmore was about a French altarpiece from the fifteenth century, one of nine pieces that hung in a Carthusian monastery. Weirdly, I was doing this interview with Lars Larson recently, much as you’re doing this interview with me, and at one point he made a joke about people majoring in French art history, and how ridiculous that would be for someone to do. Guilty as charged. At Swarthmore, though, you could pretty much be studying anything and you’d still be studying the post-Structuralists: Lacan, Derrida.
BLVR: Lars Larson is still on the air? That sounds kind of fascinating: the author of a new novel on Oregon organic farming and new age spirituality interviewed by the talk radio host of Right on the Left Coast. I’m casting my vote now for a Jon Raymond story about that. Unless you’re already working on something new?
JR: I haven’t committed ink to paper yet, but I am extremely pleased to be moving on to new fiction. There are a few film projects in the works: another Kelly Reichardt film, and a Todd Haynes project that we hope will be shot starting next year. But fiction is…well, there are levels of concentration that you’re not ever really asked to get into outside of fiction. Writing is just a more holistic way of thinking. You could write a nonfiction article on William James, or new-agey spiritualism. But fiction isn’t just made up stories; it’s a way of thinking that’s not philosophy or economics or anthropology, yet you can take all these themes on. Fiction is the center of my writing life. It does take a certain metabolism to come to the table every day, but I respond to the fact that it’s so difficult. I have a kink for difficulty.