Proximal Qualities: An Interview with Author Jonathan Raymond

Interview by Casey Bush and Tom Webb

Note: This interview is reprinted from issue #29 of The Bear Deluxe Magazine (spring 2009).

Jonathan Raymond doesn’t live alone. He has a new daughter, a “girlfriend/baby mama” and numerous creative colleagues around the country. But more so, Raymond lives in a world of common experience and imagination, where your stories are his stories, your friends are his friends, and people struggle collectively to find meaning and subsistence. Through his writings and other pursuits, Raymond Parallels historical trends with modern experiences, often wrapping them within natural, yet constructed, landscapes–be they an ad hoc dumpsite in a national forest or a parking lot in a rural community. Place is as much mental as physical for this mid-career artist out of Portland, Oregon. His recent credits include the short story collection Livability (Bloomsbury, 2008), co-writing the films Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy (both based on his stories), and the novel The Half-Life (Bloomsbury, 2004). He is an editor at Plazm and Tin House, and his art writing has appeared in Art Forum and American Painters. He received his B.A. in art history from Swarthmore College and an M.F.A. from The New School. The Bear Deluxe caught up with Raymond at a park on Northeast Portland this past spring.

TW So here we are at Irving Park; can you talk a little bit about your relationship to this park and the neighborhood?

JR I have a few nodes. I feel like I’m right in the middle of a web of different things. Down the street over there there was a house I used to spend a lot of time at. It was the Bugskull back in the early to mid-’90s. It was a very important site of just hanging out and being with other interesting people. Then I have an ex-girlfriend who lived over there, so I spent a lot of time over on Failing Street. And actually I love that that street right there is Klickatat Street, which to me has that Beverly Cleary kind of valence to it. So there is stuff in every direction.

TW So what’s on the front burner these days?

JR Well, there are a few front burners. A couple of screenplay projects are moving along. I wrote a screenplay for Kelly Reichardt, who is the director who adapted stories out of Livability. In this case I just wrote a straight screenplay for her that is also Oregon based, but it is more of period thing. It is about a lost wagon train in the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, based loosely on an actual story of a wagon train that tried to take a shortcut across the Eastern Oregon desert and ended up getting lost out near Bend and Burns. Hopefully that will shoot this fall. And then I am also helping Todd Haines, the filmmaker, adapt the novel Mildred Pierce into a miniseries. And then I have a novel I’ve been nursing along for awhile.

CB Can you describe what that’s about? You don’t have to give out trade secrets.

JR If only I knew any. It’s about a couple who moves to the general Portland area in the early ’80s to work on an organic yogurt farm and end up getting involved in corporate management training processes. They become instructors. It is about trying to find satisfying work for the main character and at the same time a romance story.

CB Potentially a horror story though.

JR And at times it has been a horror story, but at this point it no longer is. It has gone through so many phrases now that it is hard to remember how it started, but it is kind of about alternative organizational management techniques–if that sounds like a real fun novel.

TW I remember in those early management stages here at the magazine, I read The One-Minute Manager. And their main caution is, make sure that everyone reads The One-Minute Manager. You can’t be the one-minute manager if no one else has read the book.

JR It is a huge discourse, this kind of stuff, and it is like a kind of alternative language that is invented in different ways.

CB And produces such great literature as Who Moved My Cheese?

JR And this was my mistake, as it turns out. My thought is, there must be worthwhile metaphors and writing in these things, but in fact,  most of them are just really shitty. Who Moved My Cheese? is a good example of just such a terrible text; I can’t believe how simple-minded this whole thing is, and yet it does help people.

CB The relationship of your work to movies and images in general is obvious, just because your stories have become movies. Somewhere I saw that you have this favorite Greek word about the joy of putting images into words. Are you writing with movies in mind?

JR Yes and no. “Ekphrasis” is a beautiful word: the joy of describing images in words. I feel like people try to draw this big distinction between what’s in movies and what’s in literature, and that there is some real proprietary element, that there is some corruption that movies do to books, but what I think is often the case–they are really bound at the hip.

CB I just read The Half-Life, and I was astounded at how much you took on in the book. I thought, now wait a minute, what is this book about? With the main character being Cookie Figowitz in 1830, I thought, like wow, there must be some mistake in this edition I have. But it is so purposeful. You don’t want the modern person to forget certain aspects of that period hat had some relationship today.

JR Absolutely, and to me anytime you’re writing about the past or anything really, you are imposing contemporary interests and attitudes onto the past just by nature. And for me the period when the Cookie story takes place was an interesting time in the region’s history.

CB But it was almost prehistoric. I have read a lot of stuff from that era, and I wondered how you got so much detail for the Fort Vancouver, the beaver trappers and then the Chinese part. Either you’ve been quite a student of history or you’ve used certain texts.

JR Certain tests and then also some of it is a little bogus.

CB But that doesn’t really matter.

JR I don’t think it does that much; I think it is an imaginative work.

CB Did you read Washington Irving’s Adventures of Captain Bonneville?

JR  No.

CB Lewis and Clark?

JR I didn’t really read much Lewis and Clark because that was before. There were a couple of books that were haphazardly found. There is a book called Soft Gold that I found really helpful. What I was interested in with that was thinking about the early fur trade as the original multinational corporate endeavor, which it was. And there is just a real fascinating time before the wagon trains started rolling, before the gold rush years when the Oregon Territory was basically a corporate entity. There were battling corporations that were carving up the area and governing it to some degree, but what is superimposed on that are old tribal affiliations and then a real weirdly diverse population. There were people in the Columbia basin from Spain, from Polynesia, from Russia, from America, from France. It was very small but a strangely cosmopolitan society that was happening there, and to me that has always been a much more interesting period than the Manifest Destiny time. The Manifest Destiny stuff, which gets so celebrated as the kind of original story of the region, is basically a story of imperialism and just absolute devastation. And arguably the fur trade was too.

TW The New York Review of Books looked to hail your writing as representing a new voice for the Pacific Northwest, or from the Pacific Northwest or about the Pacific Northwest. But I considered these just American stories as opposed to Pacific Northwest stories. Do you feel, moving forward, that you’re writing from the sensibility of the Pacific Northwest?

JR Right. That was a funny article. It was flattering and great, and I’ll take it. And I think Jonathon Raban has a particular essay that he’s been writing in different kinds of forms; I think the book and the movie allowed him to continue writing about the Northwest and the Northwest landscape like he has been doing–for me–really eloquently and interestingly for a while. So I do take it with a grain of salt. I am glad to have provided him grist for this ongoing essay, and I am totally happy to go with him on some of his tangents.

I am interested in writing about the specifics of stuff around myself and I am also interested in linking the life that myself and my friends and family are living to larger historical currents. For me, growing in a region, it was always an interesting thing to relate one’s own life to boarder national and international historical events and currents. It always felt like things arrived here in belated sort of half-assed fashion. Oh, if I’ve heard about it here then clearly it happened a long time ago somewhere else. You are just getting echos of things.

It is interesting and strange for me living in Portland that Portland in a sense has become producer of culture, and in some ways people view Portland as ahead of some kind of curve. My own theory of that has to do with Portland having been so far behind the curve that it finally appeared as if it is out in front. Because Portland never let go of certain progressive attitudes and interests that were written off by a lot of people starting about in 1980, it now suddenly appears that it is a leader. Does this make any sense?

TW It seems like your characters in various Livability stories, that perhaps they are all living in the same world.

JR That would be my hope. My hope was thinking of them as neighbors. I really did think a fair amount about Winesburg, Ohio, which is a series of stories about this small town in Ohio. In that collection you see the same characters from different angles. But I like that idea that the geography has some proximal qualities for these stories.

CB One story that didn’t fit exactly is the “Suckling Pig,” but maybe it is one of the strongest stories in the collection, That is more of a Lake Oswego story.

JR Right. But I wanted to hit the affluent suburban area. It is part of the same area, and having grown up in Lake Oswego, I did want to have a Lake Oswego story of some kind. I was pleased with the Raban article mentioning that idea of a matrix dance that people have–it being an extension of their urban experience and then they go to the Coast or go to the mountains for some kind of communing with nature (but really just an outlying area of the one they’ve already been in). So in as much as the Coast and the mountains are also a greater part of the greater city, I think Lake Oswego is also an important part, Like they are all facets of the same thing.

TW So one of the words used today is “exurban.”

JR It’s a better way of saying suburb. I do like it. Also, in the Raban article I had never heard of the word “Metro-natural,” but I found that to be a hilarious coinage. It makes sense to me that there is some kind of thing that is being described by that.

CB So there is one interview that I read that suggested you saw yourself as a chronicler of small-town America. Is Portland small-town America?

JR That’s a good question. It is definitely not a city. I think Portland starts thinking of itself as a city it gets into a lot of trouble and it is destined to fail as that. But as a small town I think it is one of the most amazingly rich, prolific kind of wonderful small towns you could imagine.

Sherwood Anderson is an interesting and constructive example. And I think Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson is one of my top favorite books. And this could also be a sort of specious argument, but in my own mind, Winesburg, Ohio is the kind of regional modernist project that occurred in the first half of the century, part of the task of chronicling the arrival of modernity to the provinces. I like the fact that Sherwood Anderson was pals with Gertrude Stein and was in conversation with the whole Parisian scene of writers but was interested in reporting from a different place. I think Willa Cather in a similar way, and you can look at that kind of regional writing like Faulkner and Ken Kesey in similar manner. To me, that kind of writing is tapering in a way when you get to the ’80s and Raymond Carver and that kind of ’80s minimalism. The idea of regional fiction that is socially engaged, that has stepped outside the bingo parlor or the bar, to me, is less evident.

CB You show a lot of knowledge of trees and plants of the Pacific Northwest. I wondered if your read H.L. Davis at all.

JR He is a beautiful nature writer. H.L. Davis is a great one but also Kesey is phenomenal. To read Sometimes a Great Notion just for the nature writing is mind-boggling. The truth is that I don’t know much about nature. For me it is an aesthetic experience, like an aesthetic in linguistics. There are ways I can know things about nature for about as long as it takes for me to get it onto the page. I am not a big nature kind of person. I like being in this region as you just absorb certain things, but I have to say I don’t have a big affinity for nature like Edward Abbey. There isn’t that sense of an interest in ecosystem, but it is more of a visual language type of thing. I’m sort of ashamed in some ways that I’m not some John McPhee person who just knows how the fish spawn and everything, but I have more practical relationship and I like certain sounds.

CB But you are pretty certain that there is a Death Spirit hanging out over the Oregon Coast?

JR I am certain about that. It is an aesthetic thing. It has to do with myths and darkness and fog and energy waves.

CB I kept thinking The Half-Life was going to be about carbon dating, but what your book is really about is friendship and the fact that we don’t live life alone. The Skeletons are holding hands in the swamp. I thought it would be Henry and Cookie in the swamp but yet it was King Lu. The most tender parts of that book were in the Crow’s Nest and also passing the smoke through the wall in the jail. That was tender, tender stuff. What you were writing about was friendship.

JR The science and stuff was very subsidiary. But I like the general metaphor of carbon, that a thing over time returning back to an equilibrium with the rest of the world. There being some sort of fiction to a thing having just its own identity. Eventually a thing does degrade back into some sort of oneness, and to me that ended up being the metaphor. I really did want it to be about friendship. At the time I was sort under the the impression that friendship was sort of under-scrutinized literary trope, although subsequently I have revised that. So like Huckleberry Finn or the epic of Gilgamesh, friendship is kind of occurring, an evergreen type of thing.