PW: In writing The Half-Life, what inspired you to focus on the two time periods you chose—the 1820s and the 1980s—to depict the changes in the Portland, Ore., region over time?

Jonathan Raymond: The kind of big story that gets told in the Northwest is the one about covered wagons and pioneers—the basic march of empire and westward expansion. I was drawn to the period just before that—the more laissez-faire period of fur-trapping times. In the early 1800s, the Hudson Bay Company was the largest multinational corporation in the world, ruling a bigger swath of land than Alexander the Great ever did. I found certain echoes of our own era of globalization in that time and an antidote to the perception that flourished in the 1990s that this global economy thing had just suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

As for the contemporary narrative in the book, there's also a story that gets told about the huge migration of hippies to the Northwest in the '60s. People think of the counterculture as a relic of the past, but I wanted to show the movement as still alive in some way—so inventing a lefty commune during the Reagan era was a way of revealing the real ongoing persistence of that legacy.

PW: What kind of research did you do?

JR: I know the area, and a good friend of mine [Mike Brophy, who supplied the cover art] turned me on to some good stories and sources. Also, I found myself looking at a lot of paintings and etchings from the earlier period, taking inspiration from different portrayals of the landscape.

PW: What inspired the characters of Cookie and Henry [in the 1800s narrative]?

JR: For Cookie, I have some friends who used to joke around about doing a movie about a gravy-train cook—that classic postmodern idea of making a marginal character the central one. And there were some local beer commercials that ran in Portland in the '80s that always stuck with me. They featured old-time cowboys and pioneers in these ironically modern situations. I think one of them had a Cookie character, with his triangle and beard and everything.

PW: Was it a challenge to focus on two teenaged girls for the parallel 1980s narrative?

JR: No, it wasn't that much trouble. When you get down to it, there aren't huge differences, psychologically anyway, between adolescent girls and guys. My male friends and I, at least, are basically girls.

PW: One of the most vividly drawn supporting characters is King Lu, whom Cookie befriends in China—and all the more interestingly so because he hardly speaks, but rather expresses himself through his calligraphy. How did you develop his character?

JR: The demands of the narrative necessitated the invention of King Lu. I knew I wanted there to be some kind of historical atrocity at the end, and digging around in Northwest history, the most accessible violence of that sort is directed at the Chinese. Introducing a character late in a book was risky, but I felt like it worked in terms of bringing a character like King Lu off of the page—we get to see a cross section of his life and, hopefully, gain a sense of intimacy with him.

PW: Does your experience working as a screenwriter affect the way you approach writing fiction?

JR: In terms of attention to visual things (which also comes from working as a visual art critic), that work has an effect. And the fundamental collaborative nature of filmmaking—the extreme intimacy that comes out of it—helped develop the girls' relationship.

PW: Is there more you'd like to write about the greater Portland area?

JR: Definitely. I'm working on a new novel that will be set there in the 1980s, dealing with the legacy of New Age spirituality—a movement often satirized but barely understood. My favorite writers tend to be those who manage to be grounded in a particular place and reinvent their own homes in some way. I don't see why the Northwest should be any less rich for that kind of thing.