Jon Raymond’s Californian Epic


Has Jon Raymond just written the fractured-family saga perfect for the current political climate? While it hardly could have been the Portland writer’s intention to be so prophetically on key, his third novel, Freebird (Graywolf), paints a portrait of the Southern California Singers, of which each surviving member is pushed to the social, financial, or mental brink. This isn’t the usual we’re-stronger-together family lockstep that tends to happen in our American epics, but a wonderful miscellany of related loners each trying to figure out life and responsibilities on their own. There’s the ever-accountable Anne Singer, a dutiful, life-long bureaucrat who is offered the chance to betray her ethics and commitment to the common good in exchange for money and seduction by a dashing venture capitalist; her son, Aaron, who, between hits of a joint, is deciding between the freedom of the open road and the obligation to look after his elderly, Holocaust survivor grandfather; and Anne’s brother Ben, a former navy SEAL back from the battlefield and not—slowly cracking under the pressure of civilian normalcy. Raymond, also an art critic and a screenwriter whose film works include Meek’s Cutoff and Mildred Pierce, describes an America at once so complacent, comfortable, and steady it might as well be an extension of the retirement home that opens the novel. It is also, however, an America that could, at any moment, rupture with senseless violence. Here is Aaron after his grandfather tells him the story of his Nazi internment:

“He passed a few people waiting for the bus, talking about manicures and cheap restaurants, and thought about this grandfather and his mom. He had the facts now, but, in a way, the facts didn’t change very much. In the end, whose family tree didn’t hold mass murder somewhere in the branches? Everyone at the bus stop—Chinese, Japanese, Salvadoran, Indian—they’d all been on both sides of the gun at some point in history. Some became dentists, some became soldiers, like his uncle, but they all got the same lesson.”

Thanks to Raymond’s loose, masterful style, Freebird is an arm wrestling match between hilarity and heartbreak. I spoke with Raymond about what it means to be a Californian and what it’s like to publish a book in the very first days of Trump.

CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: There’s a quote near the end of the novel that describes the Singers as this: “they were Californians above all else.” Freebird is, in many ways, a California novel—if such a genre exists. What was it about California—Los Angeles, Oakland, Palm Springs—that convinced you to set the novel there?

JON RAYMOND: I was born in California and my extended family’s always been scattered around the state—Sonoma, Angel’s Camp, Los Angeles, and parts in-between. My dad landed in the Bay Area in the 1950s and promptly turned into a Zen Buddhist and, later, a publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog. My grandfather came to California after World War II, fresh from the death camps, and went on to own a health-food store and grow weed in his backyard. We’re, like, super Californian. There’s actually a photograph of my grandpa and me, circa 1978 or so, wearing matching tie-dye T-shirts, and you can see the numbers on his arm draped around my shoulder. That remains a formative, brain-crushing juxtaposition to me. How could the horror of his youth and the peace of his California adulthood co-exist? To me the dream of California remains incredibly beautiful.

Up until now I’ve been pretty devout about writing about my current home, the Pacific Northwest, but for this book I really wanted to expand my theater of operations a bit. I wanted to depict an American family in the California style, like mine. Though truth be told, I’ve probably been writing about California for a long time now anyway. If you scratch the surface of my first novel, The Half-Life, for instance, you’ll find California in the ’70s not very far underneath Oregon in the ’80s. 

BOLLEN: While reading Freebird, I kept thinking about the relationship between the brother and sister, Anne and Ben, and the strangers that siblings so often become as adults. It’s one thing to invent characters, but families are all about inter-relations. How did you figure out the family dynamic? Who came first?

RAYMOND: I knew from the start I wanted the elder patriarch to be a Holocaust survivor. A lot of the conception of the book had to do with the legacy of that experience in subsequent generations. The phylogenetic memory of that atrocity and how it shapes those who come after. But in a way, that survivor character kind of pre-existed the novel because he’s so much like my grandfather, so I guess the middle-aged siblings were the first ones to present themselves to my imagination. I hear what you’re saying about adult siblings: as a middle-aged guy with a middle-aged sister, I can attest that the sibling relationship grows and evolves just like everything else. We tend to think of the sibling relationship as immutable somehow, but in fact life has its way with all of us, and our worlds change. I wanted to imagine this middle-aged brother and sister as at once deeply in love with each other, but also lost to each other, victims of the same political divisions that structure so much of our public life. To me, Ben and Anne represent opposite and antagonistic poles of the American scene—the neocon soldier and the social-justice bureaucrat—both in crisis in this case, both falling towards each other. I wanted them to be political enemies who were forced, by blood, to love each other anyway.

BOLLEN: Americans like to think of themselves as individualists. But what you spell out so well in the novel is the perils of what happens when people go rogue—when they leave their safe zones or stop working within the system and take matters into their own hand. Do you think America allows for the individual anymore?

RAYMOND: That’s a funny question! Does America allow for the individual? I don’t know! Did it ever? Were gunslinging cowboys really individuals? Were barefoot hippies? Were punks? Whenever you start thinking about individuality, you drag along some kind of community, and vice versa. I’ll say this: I’m interested in the ongoing war between the individual and community. That inner dissent against whatever group is surrounding you. No one wants to cede their selfhood to a group, right? And yet no one can exactly live outside the group, either. Even the most obstinate survivalist probably lives in some telepathic communion with all the other obstinate survivalists out there in the woods. I’ll add, too: the current models of American individuality seem extra chintzy and conformist these days. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs? NRA libertarians? Gutter punks? And yet, underneath all the faux-individuality, everyone’s personalities still remain inextinguishably demented, don’t they? We attain individuality almost despite ourselves. Not the individuality any of us might want, but something snowflake-special, for sure.

BOLLEN: I’m very curious about the idea of wastewater being turned into a renewable source—which is the hook that spirals Anne off toward capitalist heaven/hell. How did this come to you?

RAYMOND: My friend Tom turned me on to that idea. I was still mulling the novel, knowing I wanted some kind of bureaucratic morass to drop a character into, something to vex her progressive ideals, and in some other context he mentioned the idea of cornering the market on used water. That struck me as ingeniously evil, exactly the kind of venal privatization scheme some Enron-type asshole would pursue. This was before the drought in California, or the early days, at least, and of course as it turns out there are a lot of interesting ideas about reusing wastewater out there. I can only imagine that the privatization of our most precious natural resource is just around the corner.

BOLLEN: You have the distinction of publishing a book around the time of the inauguration of our current President. Do you think Trump has changed the reception of this book? Do you think fiction will change during this administration? There are several moments in Freebird that seem to open the curtain on the grim, greedy, desperate nation in which we find ourselves.

RAYMOND: I think Trump has made it really hard for people to read, period. He’s made it hard for me anyway. Part of his evil is the way it constantly distracts us, constantly upends our horizon. To leave your computer for three hours now is to miss a year’s worth of drama. This is programmatic and common to other autocratic regimes of our times. People should check out this article in Forbes, of all places. It really helped me in thinking about how the new regime works…

So yeah, he’s changed the reception of books in that he’s basically swept them out of our minds. Which leads me to think, by intuition, that reading a novel is probably exactly the thing we should be doing. Something opposed by its very nature to the stupidity, distraction, and complete bullshit of the GOP war machine. I’m thinking if we want to defeat these people we have to somehow lower our center of gravity. We have to get down and forge a vision that’s too gorgeous to resist. If not to the fascist stooges of the GOP themselves, then to their wives and children. 

BOLLEN: You’re also a remarkable screenwriter. I have this idea that screenwriters are so good at dialogue that they’d be rusty when it comes to description, but Freebird‘s real strength is its brilliant, surprising descriptions. Does screenwriting help inform fiction writing or are they separate disciplines? Do movies impact your novel brain?

RAYMOND: I’ve often said, not totally jokingly, that screenwriting doesn’t really qualify as real writing at all. You don’t string sentences into paragraphs. You don’t maintain a constant breath, or create internal rhythms, or even develop a fully-formed thought. The camera does all that work for you! If you just trust the image and get out of the way, you’re generally fine. I think the word “scenarist” is probably still the best one for the job. That said, I know there are writers who’d disagree, and for sure, screenwriting does overlap with prose writing in a lot of ways. It involves similar problems of structure, character, setting, pace, all that stuff. But as far as the arduous labor of creating images and emotions in sentences, of making words flow, it just doesn’t really compare. I have a feeling the writers who find screenwriting difficult are usually just not lazy enough for the job. They don’t know how to stop before the task is done. I’ve always had a knack for leaving things unfinished, which makes screenwriting easier for me than most.

BOLLEN: Speaking of those brilliant descriptions, you especially excel at writing about music, landscapes, and, in one stunning chapter at the end, the afterlife. All three have a spiritual element in the way you describe them, and certainly there is a spiritual quest to this book, a search for whether our lives are chaos or part of the all-planned divine. Are you religious or interested in religion? Or do these huge questions inevitably enter the realm of novel writing?

RAYMOND: I’m the type of spiritual person that doesn’t speak openly about their spirituality. Irony is probably my religion. I will say, though, I loved writing about God in this book. I found that writing the word “God” was kind of like singing the word “baby” in a rock song. “Baby, baby, bayyybee.” It just feels good! Once you start, you don’t want to stop. Ask Robert Plant. You start invoking God and suddenly there’s so much going on in a character’s head. I have a feeling some people might find the afterlife section off-putting or strange, but to me it was a welcome and wonderful extension of the book’s admittedly kind of cosmic and spiritual drive. It’s really one of my most favorite parts. I knew from the very beginning I wanted this book to have fire in it. I think other of my books have been governed by the elements of earth and water. This was always going to be a fire book. And that’s where the fire really happened.