Nobody writes about the Northwest like Jon Raymond. From his gorgeous short stories— Livability is one of the finest books about the region to be published in the last two decades —to screenplays for films like Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy to novels like Rain Dragon, he’s perfected the art of writing about the lush vividness of Northwest nature, the peculiar mannerisms of Northwest people, and the sprawling wet-concrete grace of Northwestern cities.
Raymond’s latest novel, Freebird, is a departure on many levels. It’s set not in Portland or the surrounding wilderness but in sunny Los Angeles. While many of his stories are deeply personal and interior, Freebird is an overtly political book, by which I mean it’s interested in the social constructs that make society work. It’s his funniest, broadest book.
But it is still, at heart, a Raymond book, propelled by his gorgeous sentences and thoughtfully structured. Raymond’s work feels like a conversation with the reader: rather than blowing you away with raw showmanship, he invites you to slowly recognize the beauty of what’s going on around you.
Freebird is about a family in flux: a grandfather who survived the Holocaust, a mother considering an ethically shady business deal, a bored teenager who gets robbed, a soldier trying to reacclimate with American society. Readers will find pieces of themselves in all of them.
Raymond reads at University Book Store tonight at 7 pm. I talked with him on the phone about Freebird, about California, and about the many horrible readings he’s had in Seattle.
I started reading this book a couple weeks ago and then I had to set it aside because a deadline got in the way. I couldn't wait to pick it back up again. This never happens with novels, but in between my putting the book down and picking it back up and getting back into it, it somehow felt like it became even more politically relevant in that couple of weeks.
Novels almost never feel more relevant with the passage of time. It’s really quite remarkable. Does it feel that way to you?
Yeah. I’d say definitely. I can't say I'm pleased that its topical relevance has become more pointed since the writing happened. I wrote it mostly in 2014 and 2015. It definitely preceded the rise of Trump, Trumpism and all our current troubles.
But it was always conceived as a political book, and a book about specifically American politics. The characters were very grounded in some of my ideas about American political polarities.
I always knew that the family was in a sense a representative of an American family. I knew that they were creatures of politics and they thought about politics. I assumed it would just have a more general relevance, you know? Now, some of the rage that is carried in that book feels pretty widely shared in this moment.
Has its unexpected relevance changed the way that you read from the book, or the way that you feel about the book?
I don't think it's changed the way I feel about it. I haven't done too many readings from it yet. I did read from it on Inauguration Day and I read an assassination chapter, which I had been looking forward to doing for a long time. In a way it was almost overly on point. It didn't offer too much relief from the reality that we all share and that we go to fiction to find. It didn't create much of an alternative worldview.
But I'm excited about the book. I like reading from it. It hasn't altered too much for me.
There’s certainly more satire in here. You use the word “fun” to talk about the book and it feels like you're enjoying reading from it a little more. Especially the parts involving a deal for the rights to control graywater.
Some of the books in the past have definitely flirted with the morose, and I think with the film stuff too. For whatever reason, certain comic parts of my personality haven't really been exercised that much. For this book, I really wanted it to have a different and more fun, more vibrant feel. I wanted it to oscillate more wildly. I wanted it to bounce more.
It was a fun writing experience, I have to say. There was laughter and there were tears. For me, it was a good experience. Whether or not it's fun for other people I can’t say.
I think it absolutely comes across. You write so beautifully about the Northwest and Portland is in this book, but only as a distant place. I was wondering, with the setting of Los Angeles, if you were working outside your comfort zone, maybe in sort of the same way you were talking about with the fun and the humor?
Yeah. Absolutely. I feel like I've been pretty reverent about writing about the region for a long time. I guess, between the books and the movies, I just got to a point where it wasn't that exciting for me to write about Douglas fir trees and ferns anymore. You know?
That might change again, but I did want to expand the theater of operations a little bit. It had become a little claustrophobic to just keep walking the same ground.
For me, California certainly is a continuance of the culture up here. It's distinct, but it is still a west coast civilization. Also, I have family roots in California and so I feel comfortable representing it in some way.
Did you feel like you were being boxed in as a regional writer or was it just a general difficulty with writing the same region?
More like just, I think, a little bit of malaise, a sort of tapping the same thing over and over again. This book was coming more out of some family stories and histories that didn't feel quite as tethered to the place, you know? It could have happened in a variety of locations, so I just took the opportunity to vacation for a while.
I guess not being tethered to a place is a perfect sensibility for a story set in California.
Yeah. Right. The possibilities of that.
You were known for a while for your moments of quiet epiphany, at least in your screenplays and from your short stories. This book has a lot of action to it. I'm wondering if the broader nature of this book works as a response to the screenplays you've written?
I just think of a feature film as closer to a story than a novel. I feel like [films] are traditionally suited for smaller, more human-sized moments and a more quotidian reality. I guess for me a novel is a place where things can become more exaggerated and more, I don't know, out there in some way.
In a way, this novel is structurally pretty similar to my first novel, The Half Life, which also had multiple story lines and traveled to China and had strange time jumps and stuff like that. I think there's something in a novel that needs bigger engines in a certain way, you know? It’s funny because in some ways this book is more typically full of action, it’s more cinematic; but obviously the writing I've done for movies is not like that.
I just wanted to do something more muscular and dynamic this time. I feel like it there was a greater pleasure principle going on for me on some level.
Okay. I feel like I could sit down and ask you about your sentences forever, but I’ll let you go. I hope your reading goes well.
Thank you so much. I really do appreciate the attention. Yeah, I'm looking forward to reading in Seattle. Seattle's been a funny place to read, I'll just admit.
Oh yeah? Really?
Yeah. Probably my worst reading experience was in Seattle so I'm hoping this one changes the dynamic.
Can I ask about that?
Yeah. The first time I read in Seattle it was for my first novel and I read at Elliott Bay. I think I had two people show up, one of whom was a Unabomer-type guy who was getting out of the rain. I didn't even end up doing the reading. We had sat around and talked about writing in a very small group. I remember him telling me that he had been working on the same screenplay for 50 years.
That's five-zero, not 15?
It must be the best screenplay ever written.
Then I came back for Bumbershoot one year and read from a story that ended up becoming the Wendy and Lucy movie. I made the mistake of reading a blog afterwards or something, some guy talking about the reading. He called me an “assclown.” That’ll be in my head for the rest of my life. I’ll always be wondering exactly what an assclown is. I have never fully comprehended what that insult meant, but it stuck with me.
Then the last time I was up there, I read again at Elliott Bay, at the new location, and had two people show up. One of whom was an old high school friend of mine and the other one ended up asking me one of the most offensive questions I've even been asked at a reading.
Again, I didn't read. We just talked. By this time the Wendy and Lucy movie had been made and Meek's Cutoff, also with Michelle Williams, the actress, in it. This guy's main question for me was, "Have you ever fucked Michelle Williams?"
Oh my fucking god. That was so offensive on so many levels.
Oh my god.
I know! I know! Anyway, Seattle has been rude to me, but hopefully this year will a different experience.
Oh my God. And yet you keep coming back. That's incredible. After the third one, I would have said "that's enough of Seattle for me."
Basically, they're spaced apart enough that I kind of forget them and then I come back again.
It’s probably not my place, but I’d like to apologize on behalf of Seattle. I've been at a few readings where the audience has sucked, but never that bad. We're much better than that, usually.
Actually it's become kind of amusing. I'm on a very funny streak.