Writing the Northwest

Three Questions and a Quote: Novelist and Screenwriter Jon Raymond



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After a brief break over the holidays, Writing the Northwest is back, and I’m pleased to start the new year with a new feature and one of my favorite Northwest writers, Jon Raymond. Raymond is the author of an award-winning story collection, an essay collection, and four novels, including Denial (2022), a finalist for this year’s Oregon Book Award in Fiction. He has also coauthored several films, including the HBO mini-series “Mildred Pierce” and the remarkable “First Cow.” Most of his work is set in the Northwest. See below for a full bio and links to his books and films.

Three Questions and a Quote is a new, occasional feature focused on the thoughts and work of prominent Northwest writers.

Jon Raymond

WNW: What aspect of the Northwest do you feel hasn’t been adequately addressed in writing (or film) yet?

Aerial shot of Hanford’s 100-D Area along the Columbia River (Image courtesy of Hanford.gov)

JR: Well, I don’t entirely want to let this one out of the bag because I hope someday to get there myself, but I think the life of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is something worth addressing in fiction. The people and culture of Richland, Washington—the scene of American’s Cold War plutonium production—could be turned into a gigantic story of secrecy, intrigue, little league baseball, PTA politics, etc., etc. I have some ideas, though the atomic science part is very intimidating. In general, the high plains desert of the NW is pretty under-imagined. 

WNW: How would you characterize your approach to the Northwest in your own writing?

JR: I’ve always thought of my approach, if you could call it that, as a kind of earth art. I’ve mentally roved around the region and tried to divine what kind of stories would be appropriate to different landscapes. It’s partly a geological thing, but also socio-historical. What kind of story turns the scene of Ashland inside out? What kind of story could only happen in La Grande? I’ve really been guided by this dowsing method to the point where I’ve started to exhaust the main reservoirs, I think. 

WNW: What is your favorite book (or film) about the Northwest and why do you like it?

Atop Seattle’s Space Needle (scene from Parallax View, directed by Alan J. Pakula and starring Warren Beaty)

JR: I’ve heard Charlie D’Ambrosio call Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion the Odyssey of Northwest fiction, and I’d totally agree with that. Charlie’s books aren’t too shabby, either. I also love The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin, which captures a very different but also very Northwestern mood. “Mala Noche,” the film by Gus Van Sant, based on the story by Walt Curtis, is pure poetry. And then, as far as catching the subtleties of Northwestern light, I’d put the “Parallax View,” shot by the great Gordon Willis, way up top.

WNW: What is one of your favorite passages about the Northwest from your own writing?

I don’t think I could answer that. None come to mind, anyway. There might be some passages early in The Half-Life, my first book, that name certain impressions that’ve stuck with me. I sometimes feel myself repeating them and I have to find other ways to get the feelings across. 

Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger, courtesy of Pexels.com

(Since Jon has demurred here, let me offer a brief passage from one of his Northwest-set novels, Rain Dragon, to give you a sense of his sharp and lovely prose: “Off in the distance, a fir-covered ridge was resolving into view, mist caught in the black trees like torn cotton. The fog kept thinning. In the still-dark basin of a valley, a river of headlights became visible. The highway.”

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Jon Raymond is the author of the novels The Half-Life, Rain DragonFreebird, and Denial, and the story collection Livability, winner of the Oregon Book Award. He also published a collection of essays called The Community: Writings About Art In and Around Portland, 1997 – 2016. His screenwriting credits include Old JoyWendy and LucyMeek’s Cutoff, Night MovesFirst Cow, and Showing Up, as well as the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. He was the editor of Plazm Magazine, associate and contributing editor at Tin House magazine, and served on the Board of Directors at Literary Arts. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his partner, the writer Emily Chenoweth, and their kids, Eliza and Josephine.

More links:

Newsweek review of Jon Raymond’s new book, Denial (“[A]n enthralling new novel that reimagines the current climate crisis and questions the moral obligation that humans have to each other in a future dog-eat-dog world.”

2023 Oregon Book Award finalists

Trailer for “First Cow” (“A wondrous origin story of the American dream.”–Indiewire)

Kelly Reichardt (director and co-writer with Raymond of several films, including “First Cow”)

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