Proximal Qualities

The Bear Deluxe Magazine interviews Jon Raymond

Republished here by permission. Visit ORLO for more information on The Bear Deluxe.

Writer Jon Raymond moves words and images across timeless settings
Interview conducted by Casey Bush and Tom Webb, The Bear Deluxe Magazine
June 1, 2009

Jonathan Raymond doesn’t live alone. He has a new daughter, a “girl friend/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 (publisher, date), co-authorship of the films Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy (both based on his stories) and the novel The Half-Life (publisher, date). He is an editor at Plazm and Tin House and his art writing has appeared in Art Forum and American Painters. He received his BA in art history from Swarthmore College and an MFA in something from The New School. The Bear Deluxe caught up with Raymond at a park in Northeast Portland this past spring.

TW So I was going to ask about Irving Park. You said you loved Irving Park, so maybe 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 spent a lot of time hanging out at. It was the Bugskull house; there was a band named 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 let’s jump ahead a bit. What’s on the front burner?

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 a couple of 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 very 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. So there is that, and she is currently casting and moving along. Hopefully that will shoot this fall. And then I am also helping Todd Haines, the filmmaker, adapt the novel Mildred Pierce into a mini-series, more of a five-part short TV mini-series. That novel has been made into a movie before back in the ’40s with Joan Crawford. I have actually never seen the movie, but the novel is an amazing novel; its
one of my favorites. And then I have a novel I’ve been nursing along for a while. I had hoped I would be able to publish it before the short stories, but as it turned out the short stories have gotten done before the novel. So the novel continues to percolate, and my great hope is that it will be getting done in a decent time frame.

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 organizational management training processes. They become instructors. And so in my mind it is kind of about love and work. 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 Potentially a horror story, and at times it has been a horror story, but at this point it no longer is. It has gone through so many phases 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 at the magazine, I read The One-Minute Manager. And their main caution is: make sure that everyone else 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 whole kind of alternative language that is invented in different ways. Each one of these management discourses is its own little language system.

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

JR Exactly. And this was my mistake as it turns out. I had thought there must be something people get out of these books. 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.

TW After reading your short stories and some of your other work, I found a real sense of realism in your writing. Then I was thinking about Plazm. Plazm to me is about surrealism, so are these the two sides of your emotional…

JR Plazm is such a collaboration; it really is the product of so many minds and influences. So much of the DNA of Plazm is Josh Berger, who is the presiding designer and creative force, and also Tiffany, who has a lot of her own distinct interests and enthusiasms, and then just all of the artists and writers and designers who end up playing some kind of part in it. Yea, it is surreal in that it’s housing so many different things…

CB In the last issue in 2007, the editors had an introduction about Collective Memory. So in reading your short stories and your novel I see some impulse on your part to contribute to the collective memory, not just the 1820s or the wagon train novel but the setting for Livability and the modern part of The Half-Life have all these references to, I don’t know, is it the Reagan administration? I could see you writing this stuff in 2002 and saying, well, things are bad now but, hey man, 1985 was just one year after 1984, and it wasn’t a good year.

JR Well, right. I think you’re uncovering some sort of secret autobiography in there. My family moved to Oregon in 1979, and interestingly enough, we moved up here because my dad got a job with a solar energy company that then immediately ceased to exist when Reagan come into office. It depended on Carter-era funds, and so then we moved up here.

CB So this is Tina’s mom?

JR Exactly, this is very much a story of my family. But yea, I am interested in some of the ways that legacy Reaganism has certainly carried us up to very recent history. I think there is a long cycle of conservatism.

CB So you take a chance in dating some of your writing by throwing those references in there, in that at some point somebody is not going to remember. So you must be doing it consciously, taking a little swipe at Coors here and there, things that you don’t want people to forget: that they were pigs. And they bury Reagan with honors, but certainly the rest of us remember.

JR I have no problem with dating things that way. I feel almost any good writing is dated in that way; it is of its general time in one way. You like to go back and read Balzac because it really shows you what that Parisian culture was like.

CB Or Stendahl to know that people were really that alienated from their society in 1830s.

JR If it’s not grounded in those specificities, then I don’t know exactly what’s left. Otherwise I don’t know what there is to write about. You have to be describing something, otherwise it becomes vaporous and abstract.

CB I just read The Half Life several weeks ago, 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 that had some relationship today—the relationship between Cookie and Henry and King Lu and then Tina and Trixie in the present—but also this whole paranoia that ends up in Trixie’s death. The Chinese massacres that occurred are not unrelated.

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 interesting for a lot of reasons; it was an interesting time in the region’s history.

CB But it was almost pre-historic. 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 which seemed very rich in detail. Either you’ve been quite a student of history or you’ve used certain texts.

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

CB That’s only clear to the real historians among us. 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; that was about the early beaver trade. 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 In your novel there is a very strong setting in the Pacific Northwest, and to a certain degree in your short stories at least with the names of places. And the New York Review of Books wanted 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. 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 that 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 that he is writing about the region, 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 up in a region, it was always an interesting thing to relate one’s own life to broader 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 these echoes 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?

CB So there is one interview that I read that suggested that you saw yourself as a chronicler of small town America. You had an interest in Sherwood Anderson, and so is Portland small town America?

JR That’s a good question. It is definitely not a city. I think when Portland starts thinking of itself as a city it gets into a lot of trouble and gets really pretentious about itself and 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. As a city it is incredibly lacking and boring, but I think it is part of the city’s conversation with itself as to what it is. The kind of boosterism that would set Portland up as a world-class city to me seems like a real dead end. That is what has got Seattle. I mean, maybe Seattle is great, I don’t know, but like…

TW Careful, we do have some readers in Seattle.

JR Along with the war between Seattle and Portland. But Sherwood Anderson is an interesting and constructive example. I really do love Sherwood Anderson, and I think Winesburg, Ohio 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 about 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 a
regional fiction that is socially engaged that has stepped outside the bingo parlor or the bar, to me is less evident. I’m sure there are people doing it, but it in a way that history gets written up, it just seems like it’s tapered off, so if you try to write about small town life you have to look at a more national mentality, a larger system.

TW It seems like your characters in Livability, 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 Kurt is not unrelated to Benny.

R That they know each other. That would be my hope.

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

JR It’s like 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 sort of thing that is being described by that.

CB Are you going down to Burns?

JR I hope I get to go visit. I think it is an interesting jump. I think it does follow some of the same themes. It’s a road movie also in the way that Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy are aborted road movies or frustrated road movies. Again the story of this particular wagon train is a broken road story, although I like the idea of pushing it into a different time and place.

The area between Burns and Las Vegas is the least populated stretch of the continental United States. It is really truly empty out there.

CB You show a lot of knowledge of trees and plants of the Pacific Northwest. I wonder where you got to know that stuff or did you take it from other sources? I wondered if you read HL Davis at all.

JR He is a beautiful nature writer. HL Davis is a great one but also Kesey is phenomenal. To read Sometime a Great Notion just for the nature writing is mindboggling. The truth is that I don’t know that 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 mean I like it. 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 an Edward Abbey. There isn’t that sense of an interest in the ecosystem but it is more of a visual language kind 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 a 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 Just because I have a little bit of the science background 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 was disappointed but I didn’t know where you were going to take it. 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. And Tina and Trixie: their story was tender and even just the day they spend doing LSD on 82nd Avenue. 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 impression that friendship was a sort of under-scrutinized literary trophe, 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.
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