Catching up with Jon Raymond, the writer behind Old Joy

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Back in the late ‘90s I lived in Portland for a brief spell. At the time, Old Joy writer Jon Raymond was editing the magazine Plazm, and I contributed some articles on subjects such as a band with a robotic drummer. Occasionally, he and I would have lunch or go to a party or a movie, sometimes with Miranda July, who was just beginning to make short films. Intelligent and easygoing, Raymond was thinking about art and writing in ways that contributed something new to the local culture.

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Before returning to San Francisco to work here, I spent one of my last evenings in Portland seeing Permanent Midnight with Raymond. We were two of maybe three or four people in the theater, and we knew going in that the movie was probably going to be lousy. There was something drolly funny about discovering how deeply unfunny it was – Ben Stiller as Jerry Stahl, ugh; the Alf imitation, double ugh. The same sort of warm, low-key humor I remember from that night out informs and frames the events and non-events of Old Joy, Kelly Reichardt’s excellent new movie, adapted with Raymond from a short story he had written.

For a five year period, Raymond lived in New York, where he also completed the novel The Half-Life. But he’s recently returned to Portland with his girlfriend, where – along with assorted weird freelance projects, such as being paid to name a golf course – he’s resumed work at Plazm, which is now publishing annually. I recently caught up with him by phone.

Guardian: Billed as "Slats Grobnik," you worked with Todd Haynes on Far From Heaven. Is that how you first got to know him, and what kind of role did he have in the making of Old Joy?
Jon Raymond: Todd has proven to be a great godfather to many projects. Todd and Kelly are old friends, she actually worked with him on [1991’s] Poison.
Todd moved to Portland in 2000, I think, about nine months or so before I moved to New York. It was a good time for him, he was excited to be here – it was a sort of antidote to all the New York hassles he’d been dealing with, and he had this great entry into summertime Portland. The whole punky culture --

G: Backyard parties?
JR: Yeah, the bikes and barbecues. Then when he went back east again for Far From Heaven he asked me to be his assistant on that movie. I think he wanted someone on set who was not all caught up in [the production], so my job ended up being incredibly easy – I just had to drive him to and from set, get him lunch, and more or less be a voice of sanity.
There are many different routes that an assistant to the director job can take, and this was about the easiest, because Todd’s such an incredibly nice and generous person. It was a great 5 or 6 months of hanging out, which just made our friendship all the more solid. In that time, I also ended up meeting Kelly [Reichardt, Old Joy’s director].

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G: Were you writing during that period?
JR: I was writing Half-Life then, but I took a break from it to work on Todd’s movie. That was helpful -- it allowed me to step away.

G: Had you done the Old Joy book before you began working with Kelly on a movie version?
JR: Kelly had read Half-Life and she dug that, but she only had a small amount of money to make a movie with. She was looking for something to adapt and asked if I had any short stories. I had just written that short story for the book, so I sent it to her.
She was into it. One of her main requirements, actually, was that it would be small and cheap to make, and also that it would have room for her dog to appear in it. This particular story certainly had room for a dog [laughs].
Soon, the Old Joy book with the photographs came out, and she was able to see a reading I did with the photographs projected. I think that helped cement some of her ideas.

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G: I want to ask about the book version of Old Joy, and also about your interest in combining words with images in various ways, because I know that even before Old Joy, it had been a major part of your work at Plazm.
JR: With the Old Joy book, Justine Kurland had a book deal with the Artspace series that matches artists or photographers with writers and publishes the collaborations.
Justine was asked to find a writer. She read my novel and thought there was a sympathy there, which I think is true – she focuses on landscape and is concerned with legacies of ‘60s liberalism and utopianism in ways that cropped up in Half-Life.
It was interesting to me, because it was a different kind of engagement with photography than I’d had working on a magazine. Working at Plazm, when I thought about text and image combinations, it largely resulted in critical and theoretical writing. The Old Joy book required a much more imaginative engagement.
It was a story that I wouldn’t have written otherwise – the images definitely did guide me into it. But it wasn’t the sort of exegesis of a picture that might have accompanied a piece in the magazine.
This is a digression, but my ideas about how images and writing can coexist definitely evolved during my time at Plazm. Increasingly, the smallest connection between the two came to seem like the best route. I’ve been interested in putting things next to each other with less worry about direct engagements. An affinity is enough.
I just did a section for TinHouse magazine in a graphic issue that involved more artwork than normal. An experiment I’d wanted to do for years through Plazm ended up appearing in TinHouse -- I got a handful of writers to all write about the same photograph. Photography and writing can digest each other, in a way.

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G: What photo did you choose?
JR: It was a photograph by Mac Adams, whom I had not been familiar with before I found the photo in an art bookstore in New York. It’s a photo of a car, and there’s a hand in the foreground with a tattoo on it, and behind the passenger seat window is a woman whose face is obstructed by her hair. It’s got a noir-ish, stage-y sensibility, but it was just opaque enough that you can go in different directions from it.
It’s the type of thing I might like to do on a bigger scale sometime, with 50 writers.

G: How did you and Kelly collaborate on adapting Old Joy the story into a screenplay?
JR: The story is very slight. It’s a very minimal narrative. After the initial translation into script form, we were definitely finding that it needed more [ingredients].
Kelly really did the lion’s share of the adaptation. I served more as a close editor. She had some good ideas about additions to make, beyond the dog [laughs]. Although the dog is so good in the movie!

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G: It’s funny, I just saw another film that has an extended scene with some small children and a cat in it, alongside adult actors. It got me thinking about having a “wilder” presence within the frame and how it can enliven what some might consider static shots.
JR: Yeah, I feel like the dog became the soul of the movie in a certain way. Another addition that Kelly made was giving the Mark character a pregnant wife, putting him on the cusp of fatherhood. It becomes a little more family-ish -- the dog becomes this kind of surrogate child during their [Mark and Kurt’s] trip. The way the dog’s affections flow between the two guys begins to seem almost like a family situation.
There were a few other scenes added along the way, such as the café scene.

G: The Five Easy Pieces moment –
JR: Exactly. That’s a fucking amazing movie. We talked about it a lot in the adapting process. I’m sure Kelly had it in mind.

G: In your writing, you’ve done a lot of exploration of the Northwest, its nature, and in a sense, its history. I’m wondering what’s drawn you to all that, and whether any of it coincided with being away from the area when you lived in New York.
JR: I’ve been on a certain regionalist kick for certain. Going to New York was helpful in creating more of the imaginative space for it.

G: Both within contemporary film and current literature, it’s not like there’s a ton of art communing with nature.
JR: In working on Half-Life, I was under the impression that there was a semi-lost American tradition of regionalist literature that was very place-oriented and managed to combine some of the threads that now exist. On one hand, the minimalist Raymond Carver tradition, very psychological and provincial in some ways, and on the other side, a much more socially engaged, more political literature that has become neutered from place.
This is all complex [laughs]. I’d gotten into Sherwood Anderson. I’d never read him and was struck by the modesty of his voice and also the real willingness to engage with bigger elements. He managed to bring together intimate character portraits with a real clear-eyed view of the industrialization of the Midwest. I hadn’t seen that sort of combination happen too often.
I’ve subsequently revised that view – I do think there is an inherently regionalist sensibility in literature. There are a lot of people who are involved in it to varying degrees with specific places, from Denis Johnson to Cormac McCarthy and others. In the west, a lot of people go into environmental activism. You guys [in the Bay Area] have Dorothy Allison doing stuff, and we have David Duncan. There’s a Wallace Stegner tradition of authors engaging symbolically with a place in a way that tips into actual conservationism at some point.

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G: It doesn’t seem like many newspapers or magazines discuss these types of literary endeavors.
JR: I don’t think it’s actively discussed in the literary world, either. People talk about chick lit.

G: The publishing industry is more disposable than ever. Bringing Will Oldham into that sort of subject matter and terrain is smart -- his music and past work resonates off of Old Joy.
JR: Will is this amazing figure of Americana. He’s been so scrupulous about maintaining a certain marginal identity. Also, he and Kelly are old friends -- he did music for a previous movie of hers, Ode.
He played the character slightly differently than I had imagined it, but found an equally recognizable sort of type to work through.

G: Another text-image combination you’ve been involved in is called Bad Blood – can you tell me about that?
JR: That’s Bay Area-related. It was a project by this artist Marlene McCarty, based on a novel called Bad Blood that was inspired by a very flamboyant teen killing that happened in Marin County back in the ‘70s. This crazy acid satanic case in San Rafael involving the worst teenagers you could ever imagine.
When I was working on it, I was hanging out with a friend who grew up in San Rafael, and at some point he started talking about this killing. It turned out he was so into it as a teenager that he would scope out the house where it happened.

G: Those kinds of events really leave an imprint on other people’s psyches.
G: The Northwest is very proud or aware of its serial killers – some places almost become landmarks.

G: The events in Bad Blood sound like they take place on the fringe between society and nature, and during a volatile time period. There’s another case stemming from around the same time and place, where some drugged-out younger guys kidnapped a school bus full of children and buried them alive for more than a day.
JR: Denis Johnson’s Already Dead isn’t his best book, but it recognizes and seeks to capture exactly that sort of Northern California–Southern Oregon kind of vortex where some kind of bad vibe happens.
I’m a firm believer that some sort of death spirit presides there.
This [Bad Blood] case was a similar sort of bad ‘70s bummer years turn. This girl Marlene Olive ended up killing her parents with her boyfriend in the midst of this absurd glam Satan fantasy. They end up burning the bodies at China Camp, which is still there.
My friend Marlene McCarty has been doing these monumental portraits of teenagers who killed their parents. She wanted to make an interactive video in which one of these people spoke and told their story, and that became Bad Blood. I worked with her on the scriptwriting for it, which was a bizarre process, almost a Choose-Your-Own Adventure [laughs] branching narrative.

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G: How does it feel to be back in Portland now, and what are you working on?
JR: I love Portland – I’m a total jingoistic booster of it.
I’m working on a novel. It covers similar terrain – it’s about a couple who comes from California to Oregon to work in an organic yogurt factory. It deals with counter-cultural entrepreneurial endeavors. The couple ends up becoming involved in a human potential movement that does a corporate retraining of a workforce. The backdrop is the movement of grass roots entrepreneurial progressive management techniques into the corporate sphere. In the foreground, there’s this romance gone bad.

G: It sounds like it could be really funny.
JR: That’s the real challenge, because I don’t want to cross over into satire. As we know, this stuff really does exist.
People elsewhere have a hard time understanding that these modalities are actually real and continue and have evolved.
I’m also working on some short stories. I actually just did one for Kelly that’s she’s beginning to adapt for a new movie. It might be more of a California-set movie, but kind of like [de Sica’s] Umberto D – the sort of neo-realist openly Marxist cinema that has a real economic engine to it.

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