Jon Raymond has been busy. Over the past 18 years, beginning with the publication of his 2004 novel The Half-Life and the 2006 Kelly Reichardt-directed movie Old Joy, Raymond has seen the publication of four novels, a book of short stories and a collection of journalistic writings, while Reichardt has directed five more of his screenplays, including 2008’s Wendy and Lucy (named the National Board of Review’s top independent feature that year) and 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff, each starring Michelle Williams and arguably a contemporary classic, as well as 2013’s Night Moves, 2019’s First Cow (a Half-Life adaptation), and the upcoming Williams vehicle Showing Up, which premiered in May at Cannes and opens this fall.
Together, they comprise a rich Oregon-set literary and cinematic tapestry, evoking our verdant if rainy topography, be they narratives set 175 years ago or in the present day.
At the same time, Raymond continues to expand his horizons. Following his last novel, 2019’s mostly Los Angeles-set Freebird, his newly released novel Denial is largely set in Guadalajara, Mexico. Published by Simon and Schuster, this is also Raymond’s first book that takes place in the future (about 30 years). Yet what’s most striking about the world of Denial is how much things haven’t changed. Instead of conjuring an alternate world whole-cloth, Raymond seems more interested in justice and retribution.
In the book, a Nuremberg-like trial for fossil fuel company executives has taken place, but some defendants have escaped capture. What happens if a terminally ill Portland journalist tracks down one of these corporate fugitives in Mexico and they become friends along the way? What Raymond’s protagonist imagines as his glorious Sam Donaldson moment—the unmasking caught on camera—might come to seem merely a gruesome ritual, with journalist as conflicted matador.
Ten years ago I interviewed Raymond for ArtsWatch upon publication of his 2012 novel Rain Dragon, a more ambitious story but one for which the author admits mixed feelings. This time he’s written a leaner story, and it’s no surprise to learn Denial might become a movie. Recently Raymond and I met over Zoom to rekindle a conversation about books and movies.
We rescheduled this talk by a week because you had Covid. Are you feeling better? I hope so, because your book tour is about to kick off.
I’m well out of it at this point, other than a little congestion, but I have Powell’s tonight, then Seattle next week and then I’m going to go down to LA.
Growing up in suburban Lake Oswego, then returning to the Portland area in the mid-1990s after some time on the East Coast, you’ve seen the city go through cycles of hyped boomtown and struggling metropolis. Or maybe more accurately, you’ve seen these simplistic narratives win out. What’s your take on Portland and its perception?
I think that the hype around Portland was overstated and so too is the idea of a backlash. People need a hook, you know? People need an angle. They find it and it is effective, but really oversimplifying. Portland has benefited and suffered from it.
When I interviewed you ten years ago, about Rain Dragon, you said it had taken years to write. Denial felt like a breezy book that might have come more easily.
Rain Dragon was a really kind of grim and soul-damaging writing process. It took so long and never fully came to what I wanted it to be. This novel idea was not kicking around as long. I had heard this idea of Nuremburg-style trials for carbon criminals that’s (been) in the public sphere for a while. I thought that would be an interesting thing to write about. It occurred to me that, yeah, one could do it in a sort of futuristic way, as a kind of a Nazi-hunter kind of story: finding a fugitive.
Then at the end of 2019, I went on a trip to Mexico with my family and I thought, ‘Okay, I see how this could work.’ I then did a pretty detailed outline and started working at the turn of 2020. I was in the writing process when Covid hit. It offered extremely good writing conditions, as you know: sort of no distractions. The first full draft happened in about six months. It was the summer of 2020 when I was wrapping up the first really full draft that I could show to my agent. So for me that was a really fast turnaround.
I think this is your first novel or story set in the future. Yet it doesn’t feel like a book about the future.
To me, the leap of this book was to imagine a future that is more or less the same as it is now, and that has not spiraled into total cannibalism and catastrophe, even though in order to maintain the basic status quo, there have to have been fairly seismic shifts in the way that our energy is procured and the way society is organized. It stems from an argument I have with a lot of science fiction—not all science fiction, but definitely the apocalyptic and dystopian genres that are entertaining in their way but have really always seemed pretty lowest-common-denominator to me. The annihilation of the planet always seemed really pretty stock and cliché.
But it’s only recently that it started to seem like an active sort of death wish, you know? Like, what is being gained by imagining this over and over again? It has just begun to really bother me. So that was part of the real genesis of this book: to do a future that allows us to think about a horizon that is still livable. It forces us to actually deal with human-scale problems instead of, like, bands of roving pirates.
To me fictional futures have to be about an idea to work, like Ursula Le Guin’s classic sci-fi novel The Lathe of Heaven, which I happened to read for the first time last year. Like Denial, it’s set in Portland and involves a struggle between two frenemies. But its narrative leap—a character whose dreams can change the future—has a point.
God, I loved that book. It’s been a while, but I have read it a couple of times and it’s probably my favorite book of hers. Yeah, I have less to do with that kind of futuristic world-building and the grand sociopolitical kinds of points that she is really adept at making. But to me, it felt much more about human psychology and the ways that desire sort of thwarts a person. It’s still a human-scale problem going on in it that I just really love. It’s discernibly Portland, too. There’s something really recognizable about the grain and the scope of the place.
Denial seemed to me a story about righteousness: how the pursuit of justice or the perception of aiding the little guy can be a kind of seductive folly, because the morals aren’t as cleanly summed up as one might think. While reading the book, I happened to watch Night Moves, your 2013 film with Kelly Reichardt (about the politically-motivated bombing of a hydroelectric dam), which seems to explore a similar idea, so maybe the two works brought that theme out for me.
Both Night Moves and Denial definitely are crime-and-punishment kind of narratives. Particularly with Night Moves, I was thinking about political extremism and the kind of virtue that is addictive to certain people, and the sort of black-and-white morality that people can fall into.
That was also going on with Denial. I mean, I think that’s one of the interesting things writing about things that involve the climate: that the moral lines are very ambiguous because everyone is kind of culpable for the problem. You can name an executive of a petroleum company as a criminal. But really, they’re only supplying what everyone is using. So I was drawn to that kind of moral ambiguity.
But definitely I think both of them have a kind of suspicion of moral clarity in general. When I wrote Night Moves, I was thinking about the Tea Party and what’s to me the untenable sort of political ideology that they were espousing. But I couldn’t relate to it in any way, so it was like, ‘Maybe I can do something like that in an environmental milieu where at least I understand what people are fighting for and that there’s a part of me that is with it.
With Night Moves, I remember also thinking that the sort of animating question was, “Why am I not blowing up the industrial infrastructure? If all of this is true what’s going on with the climate, we should be acting in a much more aggressive fashion,” and to draw that moral line out as far as possible narratively, and also in kind of a noir way.
Denial is also sort of a covert noir novel, not in questioning extremism so much as the question of assigning guilt and innocence, in a more nuanced way than society chooses to do these days.
I love your suggestion of a kind of quiet noir quality. It’s my favorite movie genre. Were there any particular inspirations?
With Denial, I was thinking about like The Third Man. That’s a war-criminal kind of situation, and there’s the friendship between these kind of opposing figures.
I can see that, and I wish I’d thought of it. The Third Man is one of my favorite movies, and I even re-watched it recently. Given your success as a screenwriter, do you think about movie possibilities as you’re writing a novel, or is it better to avoid that thinking?
It’s different in every case, for sure. In general, unless I was writing a script specifically for Kelly, almost nothing would come to me as a script form. I just believe more in the prose writing process. That’s, to me, the real work of doing writing. And also just on a practical level, a script without a director attached or without that kind of stuff going on is sort of so hard to manifest. I’m just not interested in going out and trotting around a script and trying to see what happens. With a book, you finish the thing. It’s within your power to even just publish it yourself if you have to. But at least you’ve gone through the whole process, you know?
Was that the case with Denial? I can picture it as a movie, partly given its compactness.
This one, I will admit there were thoughts early on that this has some movie DNA in it. And happily, some people did actually hire me to adapt it. So that’s in process right now. Either it should go with Kelly or someone should pay me, and then I’ll do it. Maybe it will turn into a movie. I mean, they’re serious people and, you know, you never know. But I’ll also believe it when I see it.
I love the ongoing screenwriter-director collaboration you have with Kelly. You’re kind of a modern Powell and Pressburger or Coen Brothers. On the other hand, would you ever be interested directing a movie, if given the right opportunity?
It doesn’t appeal to me greatly, partly because I have a very clear sense of how much work it is. It’s just physically so taxing, and I don’t know that I have the physical stamina to do that. I’ve been so lucky with this relationship with Kelly, having these ideas taken forward made by someone much more talented than I would ever be with that. I mean, I guess I wouldn’t say no if someone was like, ‘Here’s five million and do whatever you want. You have to do it!’ But it’s nothing that I actively ever would pursue.
I know you’ve written about visual art, so there must be a kind of visually oriented part of your brain that hypothetically would enjoy directing.
Totally. It would be really fun that way. Happily, the collaboration with Kelly is wide-ranging enough that I already get to participate in that conversation in some ways. I mean, I can see how it would be fun to develop a whole look around stuff and do the whole thing, but the visual stuff is an element of writing, too. A screenplay has to be attentive to visual things. And for me, visual stuff ends up being as much of an inspiration as literature: photographers and painters who are deeply ingrained.
We touched upon this in the 2012 interview: that landscape always becomes a kind of character in your movies and the books. When I rewatched Meek’s Cutoff, at the beginning I was keeping time: how many minutes will go by before the first dialogue? The way they moved through the hostile-but-beautiful western landscape cast a spell. I could see that coming straight from Kelly, but theoretically, that kind of instruction could easily be written into the script.
I’ve been lucky that Kelly pushes all that stuff to a much fuller and more developed level than certainly I would imagine possible on some of these things. That said, the scripts have been written with certain kinds of tempos in mind, and a certain metabolism. It’s not like shots are described by any stretch [in the scripts], but there is definitely an effort to create the space for Kelly to compose the shots that are going to create a sense of time or a sense of place. That’s where her shot creation, the poetry of it, comes through. There still is a kind of a mystery to me in the actual filmmaking process, like how exactly the shots are strung together to create some of the passages that happen.
I do think there’s an alchemy the two of you have achieved in film after film. I love the way they take their time, but not too much time. They lean toward slow cinema—filmmakers like Béla Tarr or Apichatpong Weerasethakul—but they’re not quite that languid or experimental.
Without really consciously trying, they have pretty much fallen into three-act-structure narratives. They are actually quite conventional. Like plot lines that are carrying things forward: they’ve been reduced in a certain sense, they’re slightly more minimal, but they have the same sort of plot mechanism. They’re not like a Béla Tarr movie. There is pretty much always some plot question organizing the different scenes.
Given how many of your books and movies have evoked the Northwest landscape, Denial must have been a fresh opportunity, a departure, because while a substantial amount of the book takes place in Portland, it really all shakes down in Guadalajara, Mexico.
It’s true. I made a decision at a younger age to commit to a certain regional sort of frame. But it has been kind of fun to expand the theater of operations a little bit from time to time. The last book, Freebird, was very much a California book with a little bit of stuff in Oregon. And this one goes farther afield down to Mexico. It’s all from the center of this little web, but trying to expand it further and try to understand those things not only geographically but culturally and historically related in some way: trying to understand the West Coast.
Are you someone who tends to have things mapped out years in advance, or do you make it up as you go along?
Ideally, there’s always a book and a movie in process in some way. The movie stuff has so many pauses built into it. You work on something and then you have to get other people to kind of weigh in. Also, writing screenplays tends to be a quicker kind of process, whereas a book, there’s just no end to it. So it’s nice when both of those things are going on.
I feel like the last few years have been pretty productive. We have this movie that came out at Cannes a few months ago [Showing Up]. Really since First Cow, it’s been pretty busy. I wrote this book and I’ve got a batch of stories that I would hope someone will want to publish. I will say, though, I’m at a point right now where I’m not entirely sure what the next thing is going to be. It’s one of the first times that’s happened in a long while.
I mean, I’ve got the Denial script to work on. I’ve got some other possible scripts that are not necessarily my sort of thing, but are more like for hire. There’s a nonfiction thing that I’m kind of toying with, but that would involve a lot of interviews with people, so it would be something I would work on for a while.
It’s a little weird, actually. I don’t know exactly what the next long-term writing project is going to be, which is both good and bad. I like to be locked inside of a project and not have to think about a lot of other things in life. So this is actually sort of a slightly agoraphobic feel to suddenly not have that.
I would imagine given the movies you’ve written that at least at certain times in your life you must have been really immersed in in Oregon’s landscape.
I’m not necessarily a big outdoors person, going hiking and camping all the time. I think just by growing up in the West, you are sort of embedded in this crazy volcanic landscape that exists around you. I think of my relationship to the landscape as being pretty suburban for the most part, but it still functions as a relationship to nature, even though it’s not totally deep in nature.
I think that’s particularly possible here. In Portland, you can see Mount Hood and other Cascade peaks from downtown, and they’re still a bigger presence than the architecture.
Yeah. You can still see the shape of what the landscape was before people were here, even though it’s been revised many different times. It still is available to the senses, unlike maybe being in the middle of Los Angeles or Chicago would be.