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Between the Covers Jon Raymond Interview

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Name certain writers and you immediately think of the geography they plumb.  Roth and Newark, Munro and rural Ontario,  Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha county.   This holds true for Oregon writer, Jon Raymond, as well.  A self-professed “regionalist,” the Pacific Northwest is inextricably woven into Raymond’s work which often explores the ways people and place mutually inform each other.  The distinctive, peculiar  economies that sprout up in the Northwest, the ways emotions get projected upon the land by its inhabitants, the unspoken hopes of the people who feel called to move there,  Raymond continues to build a literature that could take place nowhere else.

Jon Raymond is the author of the novel  Half-life, and the short story collection,  Livability, which won the Oregon Book Award’s Ken Kesey Award in Fiction in 2009.   It contained two stories that became the critically acclaimed movies Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy. Jon Raymond was also the screenwriter for the film Meek’s Cutoff (the three movies together make up director Kelly Reichardt’s “Oregon Trilogy”) and for the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet.  Formerly an editor at Tin House, his writing frequently appears in ArtForum, BookForum and other publications.  Raymond’s new novel, Rain Dragon, follows a couple who leave the rat race in L.A. to reinvent themselves on an organic farm in Oregon. 

DN:  The book opens with a couple from L.A., Damon and Amy, who are looking for a reboot in their lives.   They’re driving north to the Pacific Northwest  and they arrive at a farm called Rain Dragon in Oregon that they decide to throw in their lot with.  Tell us what Rain Dragon is all about and why it is appealing to our protagonist.

JR:   I think the goal that they are following is one that quite a few people share, to somehow start a new life, to be born again, as it were.  This particular farming fantasy is a particularly pervasive and widespread one and it has become even more so over the years I was writing the book.  For me, the idea of Rain Dragon, this particular farm, came from a few different places.  Part of it was inspired by Nancy’s Yogurt, the idea of this very homegrown dairy yogurt farm.  I’ve always loved Nancy’s yogurt and the Ken Kesey connection to Nancy’s also.  But as the writing went along farther it became a more diverse and strange place.  In the end I came around to thinking of it as almost an Enron of artisanal organizations.  There is a little bit of everything going on there.  And everyone at this particular place is competing with themselves to see what will be the breakout product.  It became a microcosm, in a sense, of a Portland economy, an economy based on very small-scale productions but with an eye towards sustainable profit making.  Trying to get at some of the dramas of bringing a product to the public sphere.

DN:  It’s interesting that you mention Enron because I found that Rain Dragon was a strange hybrid between, on the one hand,  a corporate model with the onus on the individual to pull himself up by his bootstraps and prove his worth, and also with that corporate emphasis on verticality with regards to growing the business.  And, on the other hand, a sort of utopian, nonhierarchical, horizontal model with a philosophy of interdependence, that is sort of glommed on to the corporate model.

JR:  Exactly.  To me that has become the corporate model that we live with today.  You can’t really understand West coast capitalism without that sense of horizontal happenstance and grooviness.  To think about Silicon Valley and the ways in which people are motivated to thrive in that world.  Or locally, the Wieden and Kennedy ad agency, where there is this great emphasis on the individual and the individual tapping their creative potential but also with the eye to market forces in some kind of way.  I was definitely thinking a lot about people like Steve Jobs or Larry Ellison, or for myself there’s another of the corporate guru guys named Dee Hock who founded the Visa card and lives in Olympia.  And to hear him talk he is the most psychedelic sounding freak you can imagine and yet what he is directing his freakiness towards is arch-capitalist endeavor.  To me that is where we live now.  It’s now what happens.

DN:  Very early in the book, the protagonist’s girlfriend, Amy, she seems to find a home at Rain Dragon in the traditional sense.  She gets involved with beekeeping.  She immediately steps in and feels in sync with the community.  Whereas our protagonist, Damon, really struggles with any of the traditional farming skills. He falls back on his PR skills from back in L.A. which end up becoming a real asset for Rain Dragon, and also become a focus of the book. The head of the farm wants him to find ways to share the wisdom of Rain Dragon with corporations that may not have any of that psychedelic grooviness, including lumber companies or paper processing plants.   So they begin working on group awareness seminars for corporations.  Do these sort of seminars really exist?

JR:  Oh my God, they exist so massively.  My dad is an organizational management consultant.  He was for a very long time.  One of the inspirations for this book was an episode that I witnessed him experience back in the 80s of him training a large California energy company using incredibly esoteric, practically mystical, ideas about how organizations should work and how humans should interrelate with each other.  It was interesting because it was a huge debacle.  The workforce really revolted in that case.   But it was a very large scale instance of this kind of consciousness raising entering the corporate sphere.  In other instances I think it is a much more successful graft that goes on there.  The industry of life coaching and seminar production, in a sense it is one of our region’s great crops.  There are so many people with slightly varying ideas, varying technologies of bringing people into open contact with each other, that it is one of our main grassroots industries I would argue.

DN:  We’re talking a lot about corporations.   The idea of the farm, the structure of the farm, and Damon’s attempt to translate the farm’s wisdom into a corporate program, are all foregrounded in the book.  But it feels like even though that is what is happening on the surface, what’s brewing underneath is the question of what is going on with his relationship with Amy.  This feels like the heart of the book and its engine.

JR:  There are a lot of conceptual ideas that brought me to this material.  But it turned out that a lot of it was boring  in a fictive environment.  There is only so much talk about consciousness raising you can do before it starts to wear out.  So, yeah, there is another engine to the book, a romantic engine, a somewhat classic boy-girl story I guess.  I was interested in cutting into their relationship a few steps in,   concentrating less on the big pyrotechnics of meeting each other and falling in love, and concentrating more a few steps down the road when it is commitment time and people are wondering if they can envision a future together.  To me that is where some of these things intersect, both in a group consciousness raising situation and a private relationship the question you are faced with is: what is our destiny together?  Can we envision our future together in some kind of way.  I wanted to cross those currents and do one in a professional sense and one in a romantic sense.  The romantic one is obviously where the emotional heat is.

DN:  And going to Rain Dragon feels like a litmus test for this relationship,  whether they’re going to make it in the future, in the next step of their relationship. 

JR:  Exactly.  Are their new lives going to involve each other?  Their old life did but will their new dreams sync in some way?  That’s something you have to deal with in relationships all the time.   They take a certain leap of faith.  A lot of our popular culture is about this sense of meeting the one person and just knowing.  I know that our lives are forever going to be together and we are going to live happily ever after.  But I wanted to do something different where it was much more confusing than that.  Like, we could keep stepping backwards into this thing and seeing if it continues to work.  To me it reflects more how people I know develop a relationship.

DN:  It’s sometimes said that one can find the seeds of everything that unfolds later in the very beginning of the book.  Rain Dragon opens with Damon and Amy spotting an owl on a jungle gym.  They take it as a sign, an omen of sorts which is just the first of many instances of magical thinking in this book.  And the owl is a symbol of Oregon, or the Northwest, and a great representation of that intersection between the corporate and the utopian worlds.  The enemy of the timber industry and also the emblem of environmentalism in the Pacific Northwest.    Having it be the first thing they see when arriving in Oregon seems to presage what comes later with the farm.  

JR:  That’s funny, I’ve never actually thought about that precisely.  It’s true it does link, in some ways, to the eventual work they are going to do.  Yeah, that’s funny.

DN:  And that the characters are looking to nature for answers.  That seems to be a theme in a lot of your work.  Characters looking to nature to see about changing something about themselves inside.

JR:  And also projecting one’s own emotions onto nature.  I think that is what is happening here.  They are projecting their fears and concerns, and their optimism on to the land.  I think the land in literature has always functioned as that kind of tablet for people’s projections.

DN:  Most of your work takes place in the Northwest.  Is that a happenstance thing, the material you have in front of you because you live here, or are there specific themes the Northwest brings to the forefront that you are particularly interested in working on?

JR: I’d say both.  In some ways the Northwest is the hand I got dealt.  My family moved here when I was young.  I grew up here, went to high school here.  Just so much of my experience is here.  It’s the place I know most intimately and for the kind of writing I want to do it just provides more images and more stories.  I’ve been able to watch certain peoples’ stories unfold here for decades and you never know when something is going to happen that is going to click it into an inspirational form.  That said, there was an almost arbitrary choice for me at a certain point to really invest my own imagination in this particular place.  To me there is a certain politics to it and it does actually bear some relationship to the politics of small-scale farming.  There is the sense that you deal with your own local backyard,  that you try to do things in your own community that make it better, that you figure out what you like and try to make more of it in your small sphere.   To me that has political ramifications in the way that so much of the DIY culture of our region implies.

DN:  With this book and a lot of your other writing as well,  I think of the pioneering spirit, the edge of the New World, the end of the Oregon Trail, a place where you can project your dreams.  And in Rain Dragon, which deals so much with projects,  it feels like Damon even falls into the idea of viewing how to be with Amy or stay with Amy as a project.  It feels like the language of it becomes a strategizing language.  

JR:  Totally.  We have generations now of very developed vocabularies about human consciousness in this region and I think it does infiltrate so much of our thinking, about corporate commerce but also just about our personal lives. The way people now are equipped to talk about themselves and their relationships in this very nearly practical, mechanical kind of way through things like est or LifeSpring or any number of sensitivity trainings that almost everyone has done, through yoga even, I think that is how people talk about themselves.

DN:  It really resonated in this book.  You could see how he wasn’t separating out how he was viewing bringing Rain Dragon to the next level and bringing his relationship to the next level.

JR:  [laughs]  Yes, exactly.  “To the next level,”  exactly.  The next big thing.  Yeah, I’ll be curious to see if and how people in other regions of the country comprehend it.  To me, this is exactly what you see out your front door all the time, so much part of our environment.  I have no idea if it would make sense to someone in Memphis or someone in Boston.  I think these kind of discourses are maybe much more exotic in those places.

DN:  You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you consider yourself a regionalist.  When I think of other writers from the Northwest, the most obvious example, Raymond Carver, I don’t think of him as a regionalist,  I don’t feel the place in the same way that I do with your writing.  I was curious if there are Northwest writers you look to as examples of regionalism or are you looking to other regions,  like, say, using Faulkner as a prototype,  for what you do.

JR:  I think more the latter.  Though there are certainly Northwest writers that I love.  Ken Kesey, or H.L. Davis before him.   And I do think of Raymond Carver as regional in a sense.  There are times driving out Highway 30 to Astoria where I’m like “oh yeah, this is Carver Country alright.”    But I think my own vague theories of regionalism don’t grow out of  Northwest regionalists specifically.  Faulkner is a great example of someone who wrote about their place in ways that were incredibly universal and bizarre.  And for me a huge person is Sherwood Anderson who slightly predates Faulkner and who wrote about the Midwest in ways that were very resonant to me.  He was very attentive to his particular place but also in conversation with other places.  He was a regionalist without being provincial.   It was a modernist regionalist movement in the first half of the last century that could describe a lot of different people, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Steinbeck.  You could talk about so many people identified to a particular place.  In some ways that’s just how literature works, you associate a person with the little geography they stake out.  In a sense there really isn’t a choice to it at all.  It just kind of happens.

DN:  You mention Sherwood Anderson who would write stories that interlinked.  Your stories aren’t explicitly interlinking but I get the sense of your novels and short stories, that you almost have a view of a larger thing happening as you are doing the smaller parts of it.  Like you are building the Jon Raymond ecosystem.

JR:  Certainly with Livability I wanted to create a batch of stories that felt like neighbors to each other, that characters in a particular story could cross paths into other stories.  In Winesburg, Ohio that literally does happen.  That doesn’t happen explicitly in Livability  but I wanted there to be that sense of people crossing each other’s paths off-stage in some kind of way.    I think a lot of people who go through workshop processes with their writing start to conceive stories in particular as very discrete items, and that every story is its own little nugget or jewel.  But I find it more interesting to think of them in ways that add to each other, or to conceptualize them in a broader way.  It helps me figure out what to write next, who’s going to be the next interesting person.  I don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single time.

DN:  You have this quote from Livability, from the story Old Joy, “What is sorrow but old, worn-out joy?”  I’m sure a lot of people have brought this quote up with you because it is so beautiful, but it also feels like a great encapsulation of Rain Dragon.  The idea of this couple starting out wide-eyed, with an open vista, all hope.   But as the joy keeps going it becomes sorrow.

JR:  It’s funny in the writing of this,  this book took awhile, for whatever reason, to write,  in the writing of this we switched from the Bush era to the Obama era and it was an interesting thing to suddenly be entering this era of hope and change.  I’m an innately cynical person, so I was like “okay, this shoe’s gonna drop really fast here.”  It’s funny,  I feel like that sense of hope or joy  almost inherently exists in the past.  At least in my life it is very rare to experience the presence of those things, which is not to say they don’t exist, it’s almost like they exist only as a kind of retrospective item.  That sensibility definitely informs this book.  I’m pleased if that happened for you, that’s great.

DN:   A lot of books that I think are really great, I think the hardest part to land is the ending.  And you did a great job with it, in a way that was surprising, and both satisfying and open-ended, with that feeling of the story continuing after the book ends.

JR:  I did want to have the sense that we were seeing one cycle of a person’s path.  The book is constructed on a seasonal basis.  It begins in the winter, goes through the spring, the summer and comes back, and I think that sense of going through a whole circle of a year and hopefully the next year is going to be different but also it’s going to be inherently the same, I hope that sense of cycles and continuation happens somehow in there.

DN:  Can you share anything about what you are working on now?

JR:  Yeah, gladly.  There is a script I wrote with Kelly Reichardt.  We’ve done three movies together, Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy, and Meek’s Cutoff.  And now there’s the fourth.  The script is basically done.  I won’t say too much but it’s kind of an ecoterrorism caper movie.

DN:  It sounds like a big departure.

JR:  It’s kind of a departure, yeah.  Our feeling was that it would be fun to do something a little more muscular. God willing, that will happen.  You never know.   And I’m working on a script right now with Todd Haynes.  We wrote the Mildred Pierce script together.  It’s an update of films like Meet John Doe, Face in the Crowd, even Network if people are familiar with that, an everyman who becomes a spokesperson for some grassroots political movement and then gets mangled by the apparatus of the Big Media.  So we are doing that, updated for the contemporary Tea-party, viral video age.  The script is coming along and again, God willing, it’ll go.  And then I’ve got some other fiction I’m working on on the side too.

DN: Sounds like a full year.

JR: It could be.  It could be good.  You just never know with these things, if they’re really going to happen or not.  Again, it’s like a positive thinking thing.

DN:  Exactly.  Magical thinking!

JR:  You magically think and occasionally it happens, you know?