By Brian Libby
It’s a bright late-May morning at southeast Portland’s Stumptown Coffee as Jon Raymond is interrupted from eating his bagel by drummer Janet Weiss of the great alt.rock/riot grrrl band Sleater-Kinney and its successor, Wild Flag (each fronted by Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein). “We were doing a show at the Crystal [Ballroom] across the street that same night,” she says about Raymond’s recent reading at Powell’s, “and I wanted to peel back the curtains and listen for you.”
Raymond, the writer behind such acclaimed books as Livability and acclaimed movies like Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy & Lucy, embraces the friendly conversation, but after Weiss leaves he discourages my suggestion that this was a quintessential hip-Portland moment, or that together he and Weiss represent creative-class royalty in a city teeming with young musicians, artists and writers eager to make their mark.
“It’s funny: when we first moved here in 2005, Emily had not lived here before,” Raymond says, referring to his partner. Raymond, a Lake Grove, Oregon, native, had lived with her in New York while receiving a graduate degree in creative writing from The New School. “She said, ‘I can’t believe how much people in Portland talk about Portland. I think this may just be an exceptionally navel-gazing small city.’ I’ve definitely gotten bored of the whole creative-class conversation. The world has become interested in Portland. It’s not fun to talk about something being talked about that way. We’ve lost whatever underdog status we might have had.”
But don’t expect the author to leave anytime soon. “I’m too West Coast of a person,” he explains. “I feel sort of entrenched here. But it waxes and wanes. Portland can be that way. Now that the summer’s here people are out and it’s more exciting. But you can go through experiences where the walls close in. I think that’s the way it is with one’s home.”
Raymond’s new novel, Rain Dragon, continues the writer’s exploration of characters seeking a kind of secular spiritual fulfillment as they migrate to Oregon. The book begins with the two protagonists, Amy and Damon, lost somewhere east of Portland as the wooded Cascades give way to outer suburbs. An owl swoops in front of their car, they argue about what kind of omen it foretells.
“I’d already told her that I didn’t believe in signs, that I doubted that God, or the Goddess, or whatever you called the organizing consciousness under the teeming colors of the visible plane, played these kinds of games of hide-and-seek with Its creation,” he writes. “For a second, as the owl’s flat faced cocked in a new direction, it almost did seem like it was on the verge of telling us something—like it might open its beak and utter some cryptic prophecy, some gnomic riddle. But of course nothing happened…until finally, awkwardly yet elegantly, it unfolded its wings. From the small body unfurled almost six feet of dappled brown feathers. The gorgeous royal robe ruffled and shook, spraying sparks of rain, and with a slight hop the owl lifted off into the early-morning gloom.”
After graduating from Lake Oswego High School in 1989, Raymond studied at Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia before returning to Portland for a stint in journalism, writing and editing for Plazm magazine, then returned to the East Coast to pursue fiction-writing full time in 2000.
“I think there was a leap of faith I made,” he remembers. His first novel, The Half Life, appeared four years later, but his work for Portland director Todd Haynes was proving just as fruitful. By the time Raymond’s 2008 short-story collection, Livability, was published, one of its stories, “Old Joy,” had already been made into a movie in 2006 by director Kelly Reichart (whom Haynes introduced to Raymond), and another, Wendy & Lucy (also directed by Reichart) was about to be released. Both films were highly acclaimed, prompting Raymond and Reichart to collaborate on a third feature, 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff. And Haynes and Raymond collaborated on the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce.
Even amidst that meteoric rise, which continues today, Raymond remains cautious, or at least unwilling to rest on his laurels. “Surviving as a writer means an insane improvisation and a terrifying prospect,” he says. “I still don’t feel like I’ve reached the level of, ‘Yes, this will work in perpetuity.’”
Brian Libby: Your writing often makes note of the role that landscape, such as the mountains and beaches surrounding Portland, can play in one’s life—a kind of spiritual cleansing.
Jon Raymond: I totally believe in that. Even in this demoralized nature we have surrounding us—every resource has been extracted like eight times—it can be like divided and kind of shrunk but it can’t seem to be like destroyed in a way. There is some sort of natural spirit that you can commune with even now.
Nature is also, of course, a common theme for a lot of Oregon authors, such as Ken Kesey in his novel Sometimes A Great Notion. Are you a fan?
That book is incredible. His nature writing is out of control. It’s a much more rugged, engaged nature writing that he does for sure. It’s a more primal nature experience he’s describing. He really gets at some kind of major archetypal western figures in that book. (Portland writer/teacher) Charles D’Ambrosio talks about it as our Odyssey. It’s such a mythic story for this region.
Who are some of your other writing influences?
I feel like my fiction shows the influence of a thousand people depending on who is on that month’s reading list. I feel like a reading experience in my late 20s was Sherwood Anderson and his book Winesburg, Ohio in terms of how I wanted to write fiction. It was inspiring not necessarily stylistically but in a philosophical way: doing something in a regionalist mode in conversation with other places and with a larger audience in mind.
If there’s a connecting thread thematically between a lot of your works, it seems to be a quest for a kind of secular spirituality. Does that ring true to you?
That has been a recurring thing, some of it intentional and some of it accidental. The Half Life opens with two sets of people arriving in the region, separated by 150 years or so: an early-1980s migration from California and then an 1820s fur-trapping expedition. Obviously, people coming to the West or to the Northwest for some kind of reinvention or self discovery is one of the main narratives of this place: a way to start a new life. I started Rain Dragon pretty soon after that book. I explicitly wanted the beginning of that book to echo the other book: the sort of drive into this region is sort of similar. But then I wanted to bend off in a different direction.
That had been an explicit similarity. But then something like Meek’s Cutoff, which opens with a wagon train in search of food, I didn’t realize it until later. I don’t know how it didn’t occur to me. It does go off in a different direction ultimately. But people lost on a journey has been a fertile starting block for me. It might be worn out for me at this point. But for the last while that the idea of being lost in your life, I guess I could relate to that. “Lost in the wilderness” is kind of the operative metaphor in my life.
Why is that?
I feel like that is a contemporary conundrum for people: how, in such a deeply bureaucratized society we live in, to have a sense of actual destiny in your life, a sense that there is a fate that you’re submitting to just beyond the perceived luxury of being a middle-class person in America. I think it’s amazing to me how much of a struggle it is for everyone I know to find satisfying work, to commit to a relationship, the things one in different eras may have taken for granted but today is existentially traumatizing.
You mentioned starting Rain Dragon all the way back when The Half Life was completed, eight years ago. Was it a difficult book to write?
It was difficult. Working on it “sporadically” was accurate. Thankfully, there are intervening things that got finished, but this was a particularly difficult one. For a variety of reasons, I think. It turned out to be difficult for me to sustain a first-person thing for a whole novel. That’s not something I think I’ll do again, although it seemed appropriate for this journey. Other than that, I don’t know why it was difficult. Sometimes it just became a real slog. It took long enough to write that historical circumstances even changed: we went from the Bush era to the Obama era and that had an effect: it altered the tone, in a way. I’m really grateful that it is now out of my hard drive.
Taking time out for three movie scripts must have had an affect on getting the novel done.
I think this book would have gone faster if not for the movie stuff. Or maybe it would have been worse. I’m certainly grateful for all the movie stuff. But that’s part of the writing life: being an opportunist and going through the door that opens up. I’m finding myself interested in doing more journalistic stuff these days because it sounds exciting to go out and talk to people. Novels and screenplays are very gratifying but also they’re solitary. Writing can be a tool for so much stuff, it’s a shame not to use it in all those ways.
What’s next for you after promoting the new book?
The last five years or so have been really busy, and I’ve had ongoing projects I’m in the middle of to some degree. With this book coming out I’m stepping out into some fairly blank landscape for the first time. There are multiple projects I want to do, in different levels of completion or at least beginning already. I do like to have a roadmap, in theory, for the coming few years. But I also know that that stuff can be revised at any particular time. Depending on a lot of things, either positive—maybe something will drop into my lap—or to make some money, because fiction doesn’t pay the bills. There are so many contingencies that are so unknown. In a perfect future, there are like four books I want to get done in the next few years. We’ll see if the universe cooperates or not.
How do you see the challenge of screenwriting versus traditional prose for novels and short stories?
The screenplays are just so much easier, actually. You’re writing an outline basically, with a few lines about where you are. Whereas in fiction you’re having to create this continuous breath and do the job of evoking a whole world and consciousness. I think it’s categorically more difficult.
Obviously they share certain elements. Along with the screenplay there are structural issues that are identical to fiction in many ways. The fiction I write is more realist, and there are certain narrative transitions and beats and paces that are synonymous. And there’s obviously dialogue in both, and I think it’s fairly comparable skill. But with the screenplay you’re delivering a blueprint that will be flushed out by an army of really talented people, whereas with fiction you’re the head of every department: costumes, location scouting, framing. It’s really a one-person job.
With the film stuff I love it because it’s fun to be on a team and have people need something people and have conversations with the director and other people involved. I’ve been lucky to do both, because they sort of scratch different itches.
Before long, Raymond has two young daughters to pick up from daycare and a book tour to think about. The bagel has been all but devoured. Yet for a man whose last big project before Rain Dragon was co-writing the screenplay to Todd Haynes’ Emmy-winning Mildred Pierce adaptation for HBO—about a woman in the Great Depression struggling to survive parenthood and various betrayals—he seems more a mellow traveler than star-crossed neurotic. Raymond’s characters—be they denizens of a wagon train heading west, an Angelino yearning for the wealth she lost, or two hipster friends camping in the Oregon wilderness—seem to be always reaching for something elusive, beyond their grasp, or at least their comprehension. Yet Raymond seems to sail on an even keel his characters do not.
As we head out of the cafe and down Belmont Street, I ask one final question, about whether he expects a New York Times Book Review slot or other traditional measures of publishing-world success and relevance. He discourages the idea, as if following such day-to-day temptations is no better than a false shortcut like that of Meek’s Cutoff. If his characters begin Rain Dragon worrying about whether their encountered owl was a good or bad omen, Raymond seems content to quietly marvel at its wingspan and where it might fly.