I’ve never met Jon Raymond, but the more we corresponded for this interview, the more I felt like he was a comrade—curious and caring (and pissed off) about the world. Raymond struck me as a low-key, witty guy who also just happens to be a successful novelist and screenwriter. His work includes the novels The Half-Life and Rain Dragon, the short story collection Livability, and the screenplays for Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves. He has won the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and was nominated for an Emmy for his teleplay writing on the HBO series Mildred Pierce.
Raymond’s characters deal with the same concerns that keep most of us up at night: They repair cars and attempt to repair friendships, walk their dogs, look for work, mull over regrets and try to come to grips with their complex families. Raymond writes about men and women who are doing their best in a world that seems to have failed them, providing them with sugar water instead of sustenance; low-wages instead of security. In Visiting Violence, excerpted by Playboy from Raymond’s new novel Freebird, a former Navy SEAL returns to his hometown and finds himself questioning the work he’s done for the U.S. military, wondering whether the violence he’s engendered all over the world was truly in service of any higher values. The former SEAL also ponders a question that I too contemplate every time I pass a Subway franchise: “What was the smell that flowed out of Subway’s doors? Was it supposed to smell like bread?”
Though we didn’t discuss fast food, Jon Raymond and I did talk about professional envy, the role of the artist during dark times and what it takes to write a “fun, happy novel about death and politics and Nazis.”
Visiting Violence is about a man in turmoil who has lost his sense of self. The story he has told himself about his life—that as a SEAL he was a force for moral good in the world—no longer seems true. What drew you to this subject of disillusionment? What compelled you to write about Ben’s struggle?
I wanted to write something about American politics. I tend to think a lot about politics, and I’m plagued by a lot of rageful, inner conversations on the topic, so I wanted to write something that took on the totally antagonistic structures of feeling that govern our country these days. Ben (who is unnamed in the excerpt) started as the embodiment of one of those poles. He’s the super masculine, hawkish, neoconservative side of our national family. Whereas his sister (who has her own story in the novel) is the justice-oriented, bureaucratic, neoliberal side. But to make them more interesting, I wanted to place their respective beliefs in crisis. They are poles falling toward each other. Hopefully Ben and his sister both got more idiosyncratic and alive in the writing process. I think they did. I definitely doubt there is an actual right-wing SEAL in the world who really resembles him.
You’ve never served as a SEAL; how did you go about researching and writing about that life?
It’s true, I’m like the opposite of a SEAL. I’m a Yoko Ono Democrat. A lotus-eating liberal in the high Portland style. I’ve never even been in a fight. Thankfully for me, though, a funny thing happened to the SEALs along the way. Whereas they were once extremely tight-lipped about their exploits, big secret keepers, they were infected by fame-hunger at some point just like everyone else, and now they just love to write long, exhibitionistic books about their adventures. I read a few SEAL sniper biographies and watched a few documentaries, and plucked a handful of useful anecdotes to give Ben’s worldview some backstory. I also picked up on their vernacular a little bit. I always knew Ben’s service was behind him, so I didn’t need to go super deep into the daily life of SEALs. But I did have to figure out some things about guns.
I’m like the opposite of a SEAL. I’m a Yoko Ono Democrat. A lotus-eating liberal in the high Portland style.
Speaking of disillusionment, I was fascinated to read this excerpt now, after Donald Trump’s promises to “Make America Great Again.” Thanks to the presidential election, we’ve seen that many Americans do not currently enjoy—or feel that they don’t have access to—what your narrator calls “the bounty of this good, American life.” You must have completed Freebird before the election, but has the current political climate influenced your work or caused you to see your own words in a different light?
I finished the bulk of the writing back in 2014–2015, and I can’t say I’m happy that the book feels more relevant than I would’ve imagined. I think Trump is a pig, and it’s going to take a long time for me to forgive my fellow Americans for voting for him. Those people strike me as idiots or sadists right about now. Hiring Donald Trump to “clean up Washington”? Give me a fucking break. But anyway, the darker relevance of the book is actually in its deeper historical roots. Ben and his family are all the descendants of a Holocaust survivor (patterned on my grandfather), and the book is largely about each of them grappling with his legacy as they navigate the modern world. Now, with the shadow of the 20th century suddenly looming large again and fascism on the march, the book feels sadly on point.
I think you and I could talk about Trump all day. This rise of new/old fascism is all I seem to think about, talk about and dream about (I have nightmares about Trump, and I’m Canadian!). It got to the point where, in a fog of rage and fear, I couldn’t help but question the usefulness of my work as a writer. So here’s a tough question: What do you think is the role of the writer in times of conflict or upheaval? Does it differ from the roles and obligations of other citizens?
I have to say, my devotion to books has only grown in the Trump era, mostly because all the virtues of good writing—clarity, precision, sustained thought, curiosity, ambiguity—seem so inherently opposed to the stupidity, self-delusion and self-pity of Trump-ism. The problem I’m finding in my own fog of rage and fear has little to do with writing per se, but only with the system of delivery. The Right has so poisoned the public sphere, and made people so crippled by cynicism, that anything resembling reason and intelligence, let alone sensitivity or magic, can’t really get through. Somehow—I don’t know how—writers and other artists have to redraw the map so their voices are heard outside their little spheres. I’m thinking USO tours of the heartland, or road trips à la Ken Kesey’s Further bus. Something to create real, face-to-face encounters where people have to deal with the ravishing awesomeness of the creative liberal coastal elite. There’s a feeling of futility around writing anything on Facebook or in slick magazines or op-ed pages, for sure. I’d add bookstore readings in major media centers to that. But the idea of reading at a community college in Oklahoma sounds kind of radical right now. If only anyone would invite me.
You have called writing the “struggle of humans engaged in moral reflection,” which I feel is a beautiful and truthful definition. I just talked a bit about my recent struggle, which is maybe another reason why your work draws me in—you often show characters at dramatic moments of reassessment. Does every life require this kind of moral attention? And is moral reflection always a kind of agony?
Is the moral reflection agony? I guess so, but also, on those rare occasions when I feel like I’m really doing it, it can seem not that agonizing at all. The really agonizing thing is that daily absence of any moral dimension, that incoherence. How rare is it to enter those moments when real, hardcore moral attention is necessary? Is it evil to kill an evil person? Is it wrong to sell one’s labor to an institution you revile? The clarity can be a welcome, grounding thing. In life, we can hold these questions at bay for long periods, but in literature they come right up in your face. The characters go through their agony, for sure, but for the reader and writer the experience is more like delight. It’s pretty amazing that we get to rehearse those moral experiences in writing, I think.
One thing I love about your writing is that it’s aware of the socioeconomic backdrop to your characters’ lives. You’re so adept at showing the way inequality affects everybody in our contemporary world. I laughed out loud when your protagonist, Ben, described baseball players as “millionaire morons dressed up in children’s costumes, spitting on their own shoes.” Is this awareness of class, or socioeconomic position, something you deliberately strive for when you write?
Yeah, that’s something I think about. I love writers like Raymond Carver, Don Carpenter, even Alice Munro (she’s such a genius, she kind of belongs in her own category)—all of whom are basically naturalists, making drama from ordinary daily life. Heirs of Chekov. But I often wonder: Who’s president during this story? What’s on the news? The public life of politics can get excluded from those naturalist worlds even though it is a really durable part of everyday experience. I know my own political imagination is at work all the time, affecting my moods, programming my judgments. I figure a character should have access to that form of intelligence. That’s not the same as class awareness, though, exactly, more like just a comprehension of distant forces of power at work. But regardless, I feel like most people walk around in some aggrieved conflict with the world as it exists. I’m pretty positive I’m not the only one.
I often wonder: Who’s president during this story? What’s on the news? The public life of politics can get excluded…even though it is a really durable part of everyday experience.
I appreciate that your characters tend to have jobs. So often fictional characters live in a literary void, not really working or acknowledging the everyday stresses of making ends meet. I have sometimes been guilty of this in my writing—focusing on the interpersonal too much and neglecting the wider picture of what makes up an ordinary life. Do characters come to you fully formed, with jobs and family backgrounds and debts and anxieties? Or do you construct these slowly as you write?
Work is fascinating. Maybe it’s just that my own résumé is so vague and improvised, and the fact that I’m not independently wealthy, but I find the reality of work to be a really urgent question at almost all times. In workshops, I make everyone in the circle tell how they make their bread, and also how their parents made their bread. It tells me so much about where they’re coming from.
So yeah, I too appreciate when writers and filmmakers appreciate the centrality of work. Plus, a good description of a work process is just such an inherently interesting thing. How to make a barrel. How to manage a hedge fund. I can always appreciate the application of specialized knowledge, or the sight of a craft well done. It also might just be the unreconstructed Marxist in me, the suspicion that economic relationships are at the root of everything. All of which is to say, yes, for me, characters almost never arrive without their jobs in tow.
I always hesitate to use the word career when talking about a writer’s life, since writing never proceeds in a linear way. But you have a career that makes other writers envious (and by “other writers,” I guess I mean me!). You’ve written novels and short stories, screenplays for film and teleplays for HBO. How do you choose the form that best suits your material? Did you always know that Freebird, from which Playboy excerpted Visiting Violence, would be a novel?
Ah, envy, the writer’s disease! You are clearly a writer! I’m a writer too, because I’ve been enviously reading your first story collection, Vanishing, and wishing my own writing from that era (your 20s!) was even remotely as self-possessed and magical. But yeah, I’ve been lucky to get to write in many different forms. At this point, I treat the screenwriting as a kind of day job (albeit a very enchanted one), wherein I rent myself out to help people realize their projects, and my fiction as a bizarre, hypertrophied hobby. When I have some kind of idea, it tends to become fiction. Although I’d like to write more nonfiction these days too. I envy those writers whose writing takes them out into the world for experiences. I’m interested to use writing to have experiences that way.
As for the form of Freebird, from the beginning it was meant to be a novel. There are some family histories in there, family feelings, that demanded a larger tableau. My grandfather, the aforementioned survivor, died, and that created a certain urgency around capturing my family’s time with him. Also, my dad was in his final years and my mom was giving him heroic levels of care (as she did for my grandfather), and the reality of death was generally very present in all our lives. This is definitely a book about politics, but ultimately, it’s a book about death. A happy book about death, I hope. A fun, happy novel about death and politics and Nazis.
You’ve written historical fiction (one narrative thread in your novel The Half-Life takes place in Oregon of the 1820s), and your new novel shows the way violence that seems to belong to the past (in this case, the Holocaust) still affects people today, its influence traveling down generations. Is history present in your thoughts the way politics are? Or would you say there’s not much difference between the two?
I have a pretty impressionistic sense of history, I’ll admit. I subscribe to the Faulknerism, “The past isn’t even past” blah blah blah, or, as Joy Williams puts it in a book I’m reading right now, “You think reality is just the present?” But my friends who actually take history seriously probably wouldn’t include me in their history clubs. I’m more of a zeitgeist-y kind of person, more into romantic animating spirits than great men or important dates.
That said, fiction has always been especially well-suited for thinking about things like national character, regional identity and the individual’s place in the community, all of which assume some level of historical awareness on the writer’s part, and all of which I think of myself as interested in. My novel The Half-Life was about the early beaver trade (and contemporary commune-living times). A movie I wrote called Meek’s Cutoff was about a wagon train lost in the eastern Oregon desert. In Freebird, like you say, I track the legacy of the 20th century’s atrocities over three generations. I really enjoy that stitching of the past and the present, drawing connections, finding resonances. I like going against received ideas and figures, as I see them. I doubt many readers have noticed or cared, but that tacking between periods has been kind of a pattern in the books and movies I’ve written.
In Visiting Violence you describe a population of North Americans as being “too happy sucking on their barrels of carbonated sugar water, running mazes on their handheld phones.” Since I imagine this is not what you envision as true happiness, can you offer another definition? In this new year, what kind of happiness might you pursue?
I’m told I have a fairly anhedonic personality, so “happiness” rarely enters my worldview. I might even be anti-happiness. I just never really understood why people strive for the lifestyle of happiness. What is it? You go and fly a hang glider, or travel to some pyramids—does that make you happy? The pursuit of happiness mostly seems like a pain in the ass to me. If I have good work, if I have more pressing things to think about than happiness, then I’m generally not unhappy. That said, I’m pretty happy staring at my kids and my wife. And I’ll be happy if people like Freebird. But I’m not going to go out and pursue happiness beyond that. That seems like courting bad fortune to me.
So you won’t be pursuing happiness in 2017, but do you make New Year’s resolutions? As a chronic resolution-maker, I have to know.
Smoke more weed. I resolve this every year, and every year I fail. I aspire to be a fantastic stoner but I never get around to it. Now that it’s legal here, maybe I’ll get my shit together.
Deborah Willis is a Canadian writer whose latest collection, The Dark and Other Love Stories, will be released by W.W. Norton on Valentine’s Day. Her first book, Vanishing and Other Stories, was published by Harper Perennial and praised by Alice Munro for its “range and depth…clarity and deftness.” Her stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Virginia Quarterly, Lucky Peach and Zoetrope, and she is currently at work on a novel. For more information about her work, please visit deborahwillis.ca.