The Rumpus Book Club chats with Jon Raymond about his new novel Freebird, intergenerational trauma, and the unshakeable love of family.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So thanks for joining us tonight. I’m always interested in the writing process, especially when there are multiple points of view like in this book. How did you decide on that method of telling this story?
Jon Raymond: Okay, yeah, the multiple points of view. I decided at an early point that this was going to be a “family” book, and that numerous family members would have their own storylines, hopefully adding up to a larger family portrait. I also wanted to write something specifically about the legacy of the elder’s experience in the Holocaust as it played out in the younger generations. I guess ultimately I also just like novels with multiple, braided storylines. There’s something about a novel’s size that’s conducive to that collage effect. A multi-pistoned narrative just has such good momentum.
Jordan K.: Have you studied that at all?
Jon Raymond: Yes, intergenerational trauma! That was actually part of the concept. I’m interested in that idea of phylogenetic memory, and how the experiences of our ancestors somehow program our identity. I haven’t studied it at all but I find it to be really intriguing. Even if it’s more like a conscious conversation with one’s ancestors, it still makes sense.
Brian S: I liked that you didn’t have Sam spill everything about his experiences—especially like where the gold came from and so on. Were you ever tempted to have him open up?
Jon Raymond: No, I never wanted him to reveal very much. I wanted his children and grandchild to have to interpret his life experience for themselves. His silence was really crucial to the moral energy of the book.
Brian S: Ben’s story seems to not revolve so much around Grandpa Sam as much as the others—has The Mission replaced his father in some ways?
Jon Raymond: Yeah, Ben’s relationship to his dad in some ways is uncomplicated. On a physical and emotional level, he trusts and even reveres his dad. But somewhere in his body he has this drive to kill people, and finds rationales as need be. I wanted to keep away from Ben’s family romance in some way, and avoid explaining his basically homicidal urges through anything like bad parenting or primal scenes of any kind. I didn’t want his bloodlust to be a function of his inner, unhappy child or something. I wanted to trust him as an intellectual, and hold him accountable, as an adult, for his ideas. Which meant backing off his dad issues a bit.
Brian S: There’s a place where you have Aaron, I think, describing the way Sam talked about Ben, about how Ben was always off defending America or Israel, and how uncritical Sam was of what his son did. I thought that was a nice contrast with the way Ben was wrestling with that in the early part of the book, though Ben then finds an excuse to kill two more people. It’s interesting in part because I found myself, against my generally peaceful persuasion, hoping Ben would succeed in his mission, and he did for two victims. That has to do with the fact that this is fiction and not reality, of course. I’d be horrified by it if it happened today.
Jon Raymond: I think Grandpa Sam loves his children and his family unconditionally. It wouldn’t even occur to him to judge them for their political positions or their cultural affiliations. He doesn’t care what they do or who they are, except that they’re his people.
Yes, me too! I would never ever condone any violence of any kind. But in the theater of fiction, blood is delightful. I really hope that his mission forces liberal readers like myself into some uncomfortable positions.
Brian S: Well, I see echoes of it when it comes to our politicians. Things that the opposition president does are horrible but they’re understandable when our guy is in office. Or at least they’re not the most important thing to worry about right now.
Jordan K.: I like that he calls his still grown grandson Sweetheart.
Brian S: Yeah, that was nice.
Jordan K.: Have you spent much time in LA? I live in Echo Park.
Jon Raymond: I haven’t spent much time there. I hope it doesn’t show. Too late if it does!
Brian S: This might be an unfair question, but which member of the family was your favorite to write?
Jon Raymond: I enjoyed them all in their own ways. I enjoyed Anne’s moral laziness, and unshakable misanthropy. Those are modes that sadly come easily to me. I found her kind of funny and sharp. I enjoyed the dungeon of Ben’s mind, the vaguely poetical maverick mentality he lives in. And I enjoyed Aaron because it was fun to plumb some of my own teenage feelings and fears, which sadly haven’t really faded too much with age.
Jordan K.: I see Aaron as a young Adam Driver or the guy who played the teenager in Little Miss Sunshine.
Jon Raymond: Yeah, Paul Dano’s Elliot Smith turn. I can see what you’re saying. Aaron is definitely an aimless suburban teen in the emo style.
Jordan K.: Paul Dano! I should know that. You’ve spent more time in Hollywood than you let on…
Jon Raymond: Well, I’ve met Paul a few times because he was in a movie I wrote called Meek’s Cutoff. He’s a great actor. I never actually thought of him as Aaron, though! I try to avoid thinking about actors even while writing screenplays.
Brian S: How long did it take you to write this book?
Jon Raymond: I’d say the hardcore writing took a couple years. 2013/14 and into 2015. I actually started it well before the peak of the California drought and well before the rise of American fascism, and I’ve been a bit chagrined to fine the topical relevance continuing to grow.
Brian S: Has anyone talked to you about doing this as a movie yet? The subject matter does seem relevant, as you said.
Jon Raymond: Yeah, I’ve talked to one producer. We’ll see what happens. There’s nothing remotely definite on that front as yet. It’d be fun if something could happen.
Brian S: What are you working on now?
Jon Raymond: Right now I’m working on a movie script about a gay boxer. And fiction-wise, kind of brewing on some things. It’s been a little bit hard to work on fiction while I waited for this book to come out. I kind of want to know what happens with this one before I commit myself to another giant project, you know? I don’t want to be overly concerned with peoples’ opinions or anything, but I’ll have different levels of energy to commit depending on how friendly the world chooses to be. Does that sound lame? I hope not. I’ve got a couple few books I’d love to write but they remain nascent.
Brian S: Last question: who have you been reading lately? Anything we should be on the lookout for?
Jon Raymond: I just finished The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams (from back in 2000, I think). God, it was good. So good! Beautiful, ironic theological/political poetry all the way through. I loved it. I’ve also loved the last two Rachel Cusk books, probably Outline a little more than Transit, but both are amazing. I also really liked All That Man Is by David Szalay. I related to many parts of that one.
Jordan K.: Well, I really enjoyed this one. I hope the world is friendly to it.
Jon Raymond: Thanks for the kind wishes!
Jordan K.: We read Outline last year!
Jon Raymond: It’s so amazing, right? You can’t break it down in any way. She’s doing something with no net, no nothing. Just incredible brains and breath.
Brian S: Thanks for joining us and for writing such a terrific book
Jordan K.: Yeah. Thanks!
Jon Raymond: Thank YOU! It was so fun to chat.