An Interview with Jon Raymond

Jon Raymond is the author of the novels The Half-LifeRain Dragon, and Freebird, and the story collection Livability, winner of the Oregon Book Award. He was the editor of Plazm Magazine, associate and contributing editor at Tin House magazine, and a member of the Board of Directors at Literary Arts. He lives in Portland.

His writing has appeared in Zoetrope, Playboy, Tin House, The Village Voice, Artforum, Bookforum, and other places.

Raymond is also a screenwriter and has collaborated on six films with the director Kelly Reichardt, including Old JoyWendy and LucyMeek’s CutoffNight MovesFirst Cow, and the forthcoming Showing Up, numerous of which have been based on his fiction. He received an Emmy Award nomination for his screenwriting on the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce.

Jon Raymond’s most recent book is Denial (Simon and Schuster, 2022), futuristic which Kirkus Reviews called Denial “A cool, compelling take on an incendiary topic,” and Newsweek said it was “subtle and morally engaging.”

Ed Battistella:  I really enjoyed Denial, which is set in 2052 after a series of climate disaster leave to world-wide protests known as the Upheaval, after which environmental criminals were tried, Nuremberg-like. How did you come up with the idea for the novel?

Jon Raymond: I’d say the book stemmed from an argument I’ve been having for a long time in my brain with post-apocalyptic and dystopian literature and film in general. Pretty much my whole life I’ve been reading and watching stories about the destruction of the planet. I’ve seen the world destroyed by meteor, zombie, pandemic, patriarchy, nuclear bomb, etc., etc., ad nauseum. At some point, to me, the fantasy has started to seem like a death wish. Humanity obsessively fantasizing its own annihilation, almost willing the worst possible fate to unfold. I decided I wanted to write a book that got off those rails and foretold a future wherein human and plant-life continues to survive, and in some ways, even, to thrive. That’s a much harder act of imagination, I think, but one that’s really necessary right now. It’s beyond time we started putting our minds to what a plausible, livable future might look like, given our situation.

More specifically, I’d heard of this idea for Nuremberg-style trials for climate criminals, and with that in mind, I could see a kind of Nazi-hunter story in eco-garb. I thought that idea had potential.

EB:  Your protagonist, journalist Jack Henry makes contact with the fugitive pipeline executive Bob Cave when it turns out they are both reading Mark Twain novels in a coffee shop.  What prompted you to use Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer? 

JR: In this future world I was imagining, I wanted the characters to be reading novels. That was part of the optimism I was projecting, people still reading. And I decided early on that I wanted the novel they read to be Huckleberry Finn. I felt like that book’s themes of friendship and disguise kind of feathered with my own themes, as I saw them, and the never-ending racial controversies pointed at a sadly permanent fixture of the American experience, even decades beyond our current times.

I was also thinking about Huckleberry Finn because of the sculpture by the artist Charles Ray. It’s a stainless steel double portrait of Huck and Jim as nine foot tall nudes, an incredibly simple but potent piece of art, I think. Just this pubescent white boy, Huck, and this middle-aged Black man, Jim, standing beside each other, naked. Back in 2014, the Whitney had to de-install  it due to the controversy it sparked. I guess something about a naked Black man and white boy in close proximity is still real hot potatoes.

Anyway, I’ve thought about the book differently ever since seeing images of the sculpture. How often does that happen, a sculpture changing how you read? I wanted my characters to be reading Huckleberry Finn in the spirit of Charles Ray. I wanted my two characters to talk about Huck and Jim and grapple with the longevity of Twain’s text in the American imagination.

EB:  A lot of the suspense is psychological and that seems to be reflected in the title.  It seems that all of the main characters were in some sort of denial.

JR: For sure. There’s barely a scene that isn’t structured by some unstated duplicity or self-delusion. Jack the reporter lives in denial; Bob the climate criminal lives in denial; humanity lives in denial. I was interested in the idea of denial as as an epistemology of sorts, a way of knowing. Denial as a prerequisite for consciousness, even. I deny, therefore I am.

EB: There was a point near the end when I felt a bit sorry for Bob Cave, one of the Empty Chairs tried in absentia.  How did you build his character?

JR: I wanted him to be pretty likable. Otherwise, who cares if he gets caught and unmasked or not? So I made him a fairly sophisticated, possibly even somewhat repentant representative of the petrol-empire. In particular, I made him a Sunday painter in the style of LBJ or George W. Bush, two war criminals who found their artistic muses after their retirements from death-dealing. It’s a good tactic, it turns out. People forget what you did while you were in power while they’re looking at your paintings.

EB: It seemed to me that there was a great deal of interesting research involved in the book, eclipses, prions, bullfighting, journalism, the art of Guadalajara, Mexican culture and Aztec mythology.  As a writer how do you research and weave those details in.  The details felt very intentional.

JR: I tend to do research that’s only explicitly necessary to the story and character at hand. I don’t spend a lot of time doing “deep dives” or chasing any kind of mastery of anything. I figure out what I need for a given character or scene, and find out what I need to know to maintain the illusion of competence. That’s my method! Of course, it never goes like that. I end up having to figure out a bunch of extraneous stuff along the way. But I really try to let the story guide me.

And then sometimes there’s something I want to get in there one way or another. I knew I wanted the characters to visit the murals by Orozco in this book, for instance. I knew them and loved them and wanted to force my characters to deal with them together. So in that case, I had some knowledge and I shoehorned it into the pages.

EB:  I was stuck by how normal the future seemed after the upheavals.  Your telling reflected catastrophic change but also adaptation. It wasn’t a full-on sci-fi dystopia.  Do you think we’ve had enough of dystopia?  

JR: Personally, I’m super bored of dystopia. As I said above, I think it’s usually at best cliched, at worst a kind of death trip. Not to say the future looks very great, but I think we have a better chance of survival if we start thinking in more measured, non-hyperbolic ways.

EB:  What was the toughest part about writing the book?

JR: This book actually came really easily. I wrote it during lockdown, so the writing conditions were very conducive. No distractions, no obligations. And I felt like the traumas of the world were resonating with the story I was trying to tell, which gave me a sense of urgency in the writing. Also, it was always going to be short, so I could see it was going to work pretty quickly. I’m pretty sure the book I’m working on now will not be so simple. Sometimes they go easy and sometimes they’re hard. I wish I knew how to predict which was which but so far I can’t.

EB:  Thanks for talking with us.

JR: Thank you!

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Nostalgia for old-school papers

It was sad to see the Mail Tribune close last week. A once-proud paper, known for its local journalism, felled by economic forces and carpet-bagger ownership. It was the first Oregon newspaper to win a Pulitzer Prize, for taking on unscrupulous politicians in 1934.

Those were the days.

I grew up with newspapers all around: the Asbury Park Press and the Red Bank Register, which I delivered on my bicycle and the New York Times, which I delivered in high school. In college, I got the Sunday Times or years by accident, when a former tenant in my apartment continued to receive it every week. In grad school, I bought the Times and picked up the Daily News and the New York Post when the other bus commuters left them behind. Later, as I moved here and there, other papers caught my attention and when we moved to Oregon in 2000, I subscribed at various times to the Mail Tribune and the Ashland Tidings.

It’s been sad to see print newspapers go.

But there’s some hope.

When the Ashland Tidings was closed by the Mail Tribune’s owner, Bert Etling stepped up with Ashland.News, which deserves your support. And after the Mail Tribune closed, the locally-owned Grants Pass Daily Courier, has promised to increase coverage in Jackson County. Kudos to publisher Travis Moore. I’m a subscriber now.

On the Sunday after the Mail Tribune closed, we bought paper copies of the Times and the San Francisco Chronicle and relived the serendipity of finding unexpected stories—news we didn’t click on. I think we’ll continue to get some paper papers here and there, to see what we are missing on the screen.

In the meantime, the old newsroom term “morgue” is taking on a new meaning.


  • Rogue Valley Messenger, (2014-2022)
  • Mail Tribune (1906-2023)
  • Ashland Tidings (1876-2021)

Long Live the Daily Courier and Ashland.News.


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Save the date

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An Interview with Jim Gilkeson

Born and raised in Kansas, Jim Gilkeson studied languages in college in the 1960s, was a brother in an order of mystics, which took him to Europe. After leaving the order in the early 1980s, he studied energy healing with teachers in Germany and Denmark. Jim returned to the US, he worked for many years in Northern California at a hot springs retreat center. He and his partner, Diane Tegtmeier, live in Ashland, Oregon.

Gilkeson is the author of three books, A Pilgrim in Your Body: Energy Healing and Spiritual Process, Energy Healing: A Pathway to Inner Growth, and most recently Three Lost Worlds.  You can find more at his website.

Ed Battistella: I’m enjoying reading about your life. What are the Three Lost Words of your title?

Jim Gilkeson: Thank you, Ed. Your introduction makes me suddenly aware that all my books have long titles! The full title of this most recent one is Three Lost Worlds: A Memoir of Life Among Mystics, Healers, and Life-Artists.

It’s my story of “running off with the circus” in my early twenties, (a lot of us did that, of course), ending up under vows in a semi-monastic order of Christian mystics, in an apprenticeship in energy healing in northern Europe and, finally, working on the health services staff at a clothing-optional hot springs retreat center in Northern California. Those are the “three lost worlds,” because none of them exist anymore.

EB: How was writing a memoir different from the other books you’ve written?

JG: The first two books were my gloss on the art and craft of energy healing, and I wrote them mainly with my students in massage schools in mind. I was encouraged by the publisher of my first book to sprinkle a few stories in with the instruction, and that turned out one a good way to connect with the reader.

The memoir, on the other hand, is all story. I had to develop an eye for the narrative arcs in my own life. I would write and let my memory speak, and suddenly I would be sitting there with pieces of my life all over the page. It was then a process of assembling those fragments of my life into something whole. In a funny way, writing memoir strikes me as a form of digestion.

EB: Your earlier books were about energy healing. Can you unpack that for our readers? You described it as a “world of self-ordained practitioners.”

JG: Energy healing is a broad category of practices that use the human energy field therapeutically. Many people have heard of Polarity Therapy and Reiki, and those would be examples. Classes on various forms of energy healing are now standard fare in schools of massage and bodywork, but it hasn’t always been like that.

When I talk about “self-ordained practitioners” in my book, it harks back to a time before the proliferation of massage schools and standards and regulations for professional bodywork. At that time, a person who became proficient and confident in their skills in energy healing would just declare themselves ready and hang out their shingle.

In my case, I learned energy healing from my former wife and her teacher, Bob Moore, and these energy practices struck me as an adjunct to my meditation practice. At the time, it was all about meditation and spiritual growth. I knew nothing about hands-on healing practices. By and by, I had training in various forms of therapeutic bodywork. As I got more sure of what I was doing, I began blending energy healing with other bodywork disciplines.

EB: In Three Lost Worlds, you describe the years you spent with a group called The Holy Order of MANS in San Francisco in the 1970s. You mentioned that some people would describe it as a cult, but it didn’t seem that way to you.  How so?

JG: The cult question is an interesting one. The Holy Order of MANS was one of a myriad of “new age” spiritual groups that formed on the West Coast in the 1960s and ‘70s. What made it different from most of the spiritual movements back then was that it had strong elements of western Christian monasticism and roots in mystic traditions like those of the Rosicrucians.

I devote part of a chapter in Three Lost Worlds to the question of whether the Order was a cult or not. It’s a hairball and, to me, there’s no clearcut answer. The Order certainly had cultish features. We wore clothes that identified us, and there was a uniformity in the Order’s teachings and self-image, but you could also say the same things about Catholic monastic orders and the US military.

I was a member of the Order at the time of the Jonestown mass suicide in the late 1970s. There was a lot about that in the press and a huge uptick in general concern about cults. It was a pretty fraught issue. The Order did a lot to distance itself from all that. I remember at the time the director of the Order making a scholarly distinction between a “cult” and a “sect.” I think most people in the Order saw themselves in the latter category.

Here’s a weird thing: not long after all this, the Order made a, for me, baffling swerve from being a “new age” spiritual enclave to joining the Orthodox Church. This was in the early 1980s. In the process, of course, they had to renounce their “heretical” beliefs in reincarnation and other esoteric teachings. I left the Order in 1983, before all this took effect. Cult or not, I was glad to move on from the Order.

EB: I enjoyed hearing about Harbin Hot Springs, where I went once years ago.  What was that experience like?

JG: Like going into the Order and my apprenticeship in energy healing, it was a big turning point in my life to become part of the Harbin community. Harbin Hot Springs was the home of of Watsu, a form of aquatic bodywork. My partner Diane was a Watsu therapist at Harbin, and I came on board as a bodywork therapist at Harbin Health Services in 2001.

As with the Order, Harbin had its own quirky outside-the-mainstream culture, which I adapted to. Of course, people make a big deal out of the “clothing-optional” aspect of Harbin culture. It’s a sure-fire conversation piece with people who don’t live in that environment, but you get used to it quickly. Being on the bodywork staff and in and out of the pools all the time, you get used to being around a lot of naked people.

Harbin attracted colorful, interesting, creative people from all over the world, so I got to learn my craft on all kinds of bodies and people you don’t run into in Wichita. For me, Harbin was the place where I hit my stride in hands-on healing work. That’s where I developed my own hybrid of massage, craniosacral work, and energy healing and began to teach it.

When Harbin burned down in the wildfires of 2015, it was a huge loss. Workplace, community, it all went up in smoke. Our little cabin outside of Middletown didn’t burn, but we had to evacuate and, in many ways, start over. It’s what got us to Ashland.

EB: What’s next for you?  More books?

JG: I am finishing up a collection of short pieces, mostly from vignettes that were edited out of the memoir. The working title is Stopping the World on Kansas Highway 4.

In addition, I have a practice here in Ashland—craniosacral and subtle energy therapy, and I teach energy healing in a couple of massage schools.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

JG: Thank you, Ed. It’s been a pleasure.


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