Jon Raymond is the author of the novel The Half-Life and of the recently published short-story collection Livability. He is also the co-writer of two films directed by Kelly Reichardt, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy–both adapted from stories in Livability. He is an editor at Plazm magazine, and his writing has appeared in Bookforum, Artforum, Tin House, The Village Voice, and other publications. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
James Warner: Most of the stories in Livability feature illusions that are brutally shattered. Reading “Old Joy,” I shuddered at the terrifying wisdom in the line “What is sorrow but old, worn-out joy?” The narrator, a man who has settled down in Portland–he’s even more settled in the movie version–travels to a hot springs with his friend Kurt, who has remained a rootless drifter. You are fond of such characters, but do not refrain from passing judgment on them–Kurt is guilty of not giving back to the community. He may be far-seeing, but at too great a cost. This strikes me as one of the least likely stories in the book to have become a movie–would it be fair to say that the ending of the movie version hints at some form of redemption for Kurt, as the ending of the story version does not?
Jon Raymond: First of all, you’re right: no one but Kelly ever would have imagined making this story into a movie. And I have to say, I still find it incredible that she did.
Secondly, regarding the ending, I think that’s interesting that you find a hint of redemption in the film version. You’re not the only one, by any means, and at moments I can almost get there myself. It’s such a placid film, I find my interpretations kind of drifting into new places every time I watch it. But that said, I usually find the end of the film pretty rough. The small glimpse we get of Kurt wandering the streets alone suggests to me a person far more damaged than we’ve even comprehended thus far, and certainly more damaged than I imagined when first writing the story. I’m afraid for that guy.
And finally, just a note on the title line about old joy: one could almost say the story is an elaborate framework for that sentiment alone. It took a lot of figuring (and ultimately, improvisation on Will Oldham’s part) to find a place for the sentence in the movie, as in the story it occurs in one of the characters’ heads.
JW: “The Wind” is the story of a young boy who is manipulated into fighting another boy–the action comes wrapped in the context of a dying man’s creation myth. I understand that the part about the fight stems from a boyhood experience?
JR: It’s true–I was in fact forced to fight a kid in my neighborhood as a form of entertainment for the older kids. And as in the story, we only had one set of boxing gloves between us. And as in the story, I lost. I find this to be one of the stranger stories in the collection. I still don’t entirely understand the connection between the fight and the creation story. Though I’m pretty sure one exists.
JW: Perhaps part of the connection is to do with our dependence on forces beyond our control? Of course, the elusiveness of the connection is important to the story–the old man possesses knowledge that he longs to communicate to his grandson but, as so often happens with the attempted transfer of wisdom between generations, the boy is unable to extract anything helpful.
JR: Yeah, I think that’s definitely part of it. I always imagined that the grandfather’s story would only penetrate the boy’s consciousness at a much, much later date. I also think I wanted to put the child’s social problems in a more cosmic context, beyond that of mere misunderstandings between kids in a neighborhood. And also I just wanted to write a weird creation story. For many drafts, the old man talked kind of like Gertrude Stein, but that never really worked. He finally had to meet the story half-way.
JW: Alissa in “The Coast” is another one of your characters, like Kurt, who never settled down out of principle. The man narrating the story is simultaneously attracted to Alissa and haunted by the memory of his dead wife, whose spirit represents the Oregon coast for him. Did you know all along that this story would end the way it does?
JR: More or less. I knew the note it would end on. From the start, I imagined this one as a kind of romantic wish-fulfillment story. And as with most literary wishes that get fulfilled, the outcome is different than anticipated. In this case, the character’s wife unexpectedly dies, granting him the guiltless opportunity to pursue an affair with an old flame. The result of that affair, though, is not the wonderful adventure and blossoming of new love he’d imagined, but rather the heavy, belated recognition of his genuine love for his wife. I was also hoping to capture the weird, haunted landscape of the Oregon coast, where I’m convinced some kind of death spirit resides.
JW: “Benny” is about a tweaker, another drifter character. Issues of community and responsibility loom large in this collection. I was often reminded of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but while that book evokes the lives of people trapped in a small town, you portray a more far-flung community, and a world where getting out of a rut may entail being thrown into the void. Have you know many Bennies?
JR: Benny is definitely a composite of numerous people I know, none of whom are necessarily full-fledged Bennys themselves, but who taken together could form a pretty convincing derelict. The genesis of this story is really all about the structure. Once the idea occurred to write about a guy in search of an old, wayward friend, I realized I suddenly had a vessel for a whole handful of anecdotes that I’d been collecting over the years.
Also, I’m so glad you mention Winesburg, Ohio, since it’s one of my absolute favorite books, and a definite source of inspiration for this collection. I agree with you that it (Winesburg) evokes a certain small-town claustrophobia, but I’d also argue that in some ways Winesburg lets the outside world in to a much greater degree than more recent trends in "realist" fiction. Unlike, say, Raymond Carver or Richard Ford or many other chroniclers of small towns and ordinary lives, Anderson always seems to have an eye on larger socio-historical developments of his time (or the times leading up to his time). The rise of industrialism, shifting ethnic demographics, the call of the city. (I might be thinking more of his novel Poor White here, but I think it applies to the stories, too.) In any case, I’m interested in a somewhat fallow tradition of regional modernist writing that deals with regular people living outside of major media centers, but that also cares who’s president. You never really know who’s president in a Carver story. (Actually, I guess you don’t know in most Anderson stories, either.)
JW: “The Suckling Pig” masterfully condenses all of human nature into one day that spirals out of control. The image of the suckling pig, to which you return at the end, aroused quite a frisson. What I take away here is that life is nasty, brutish, and short, but also delicious–please comment!
JR: I think that’s a great summation of the main character Tom’s basically fun-loving, nihilistic world view. He’s a well-to-do, second-generation Chinese divorce living in a suburban milieu not so different from the one where I grew up, capable of both real generosity and real sadism, both of which impulses stem from his basically Libertarian ethos. I’ve had people tell me he’s the most charming character in the book, and also the biggest asshole, and hopefully both are true. In any case, he offered a way into some issues of race and class in suburbia that I’ve been wanting to explore for awhile.
The image of the suckling pig came from a party a friend threw a few years ago. She served a suckling pig and it was kind of impossible not to think of it as a baby.
JW: “Words and Things” describes a relationship between a woman who is an artist, Jen, and a man who is an art critic, David. David fails several tests–he is good neither at manipulating objects, nor at naming dogs, nor even apparently at art criticism. Yourself an art critic, you have often been involved in projects juxtaposing words and images, as in your work as editor for Plazm. Is Jen right to think artists are more in touch with reality than writers are?
JR: No, I don’t think she’s right. Which is to say, I don’t think anyone’s all that much more in touch with reality than anyone else. I do, however, think she and David have different ways of gauging reality, though, and you’re right, it probably stems from my own experiences in the world of art over the years. As an art writer, I’ve always been interested in how language transforms an object under description, and how objects can demand certain kinds of language. To me, there are some interesting questions involved in the act of describing, and some really sweet pleasures. One of my favorite Greek words is ekphrasis, which means "the joy of describing a visual image in words."
For what it’s worth, this is probably the oldest story in the collection, about ten years old, and it’s also among the most autobiographical. It’s funny, though. As autobiographical as this story might have been at its inception, I read it now and the characters seem more allegorical than any of the others.
JW: “Young Bodies” is about class. Kendra tries to seduce Bryan, who has something she does not have–a code of living, a set of illusions maybe, that preserve him from certain forms of degradation. Who ideally would play these people if this story became a movie?
JR: I’m lousy with actors. I hardly know anyone’s names. But I will say this: when I was writing this story, I was thinking a little bit about those recent Jud Apatow movies. The way the people talk, the general drift of time, even the lighting, as I see it in my mind, vaguely resembles some of the scenes in Superbad or Knocked Up. I guess "Young Bodies" is like a not very funny Apatow movie. Maybe the kid who delivers the Burger King in the story could be that fat kid in Superbad, I forget his name.
And I think you’re right about Bryan. He has both a code of living and a set of illusions and they are basically one in the same. He’s a privileged suburban liberal with all the fixed ideas one might imagine, and to Kendra, a first generation Russian kid, he looks hopelessly naive. Which is not to say she doesn’t admire him in a way, and want to get with him.
JW: Because we want our children to believe they can succeed, it is painful for us to observe them noticing our own failures. In “New Shoes,” Dan’s daughter selects a pair of shoes, while Dan waits for the call back that will determine whether or not his movie gets made. “Only film-making was meaningful, and his failure in that realm threatened his very inner glue. He had arrived at the perimeter of his selfhood, and sadly it was not as far out as he had hoped.” I want to ask something like–is Dan doing something wrong, or is his attitude wrong, or does capitalism require us to be like Dan?
JR: I think Dan just isn’t that lucky. He strikes me as a smart, principled, talented guy who simply hasn’t gotten some of the breaks that other equally talented people have. I mean, I think he could easily make a movie as good as the vast majority of crap out there. So no, I don’t think his attitude is off. And I don’t even think capitalism is really hurting him that badly. I just think that like any artist, he has gnawing self-doubts. He hasn’t been recognized in the way he once imagined being recognized, and so, within the parameters of identity he’s set for himself, he construes his life as a failure. I think this is an insecurity-cum-rolling-identity-crisis that most creative people can relate to. And I imagine they can also relate to his money problems.
JW: With “Train Choir,” you somehow managed to pull off a dog story that’s both completely unsentimental and utterly heartbreaking. How did the story change for you as you developed it into the movie Wendy and Lucy? Also–this is kind of a Californian question–my ex-wife wants to know how she can best find a movie role for one of her dogs. Do you have any tips on that?
JR: The story didn’t change too much in the translation to film, probably because it was conceived for adaptation from the start. I wrote this one with Kelly’s needs in mind, and in conversation with Kelly, so the story kind of flowed right into the script when the time came. Kelly made a few additions and subtractions–the police station scene, for instance, is much longer in the film, while the encounter with the scary guy in the park, is much shorter–but overall the basic blocking and emotional turns are fairly identical.
As for canine acting, I don’t know. Lucy, the dog that plays Lucy in the film, belongs to the director. One big reason she was cast was because she tends to destroy Kelly’s apartment when left alone, so she had to be on set anyway.
JW: In many of these stories, your hero or heroine makes a decision to act responsibly, according to his or her best understanding of what that entails, and is rewarded with loneliness. This is a very Western story arc–isn’t this one reason that Livability feels so strongly rooted in that tradition of regionalist literature?
JR: That could very well be. I’d never thought of it that way before. In fact, it never quite occurred to me that all the characters ended up lonely, but sure enough, thinking it through, that’s kind of undeniable. I wonder if I could shift terminology slightly, though, and cast them more as lonesome? Lonely feels more existential to me. Lonesome has more yearning involved, and seems more Western, as you mention. I’d hope that these characters fall more on the lonesome side of things.