This BookPage Icebreaker is sponsored by Graydon House.
Jamie Raintree’s debut novel, Perfectly Undone, follows a driven doctor through a season of personal and professional upheaval. Dylan Michels conquered med school and dove headfirst into a demanding career as an OB/GYN in a Portland women’s clinic. When her longtime boyfriend Cooper proposes, Dylan shocks them both by turning him down. The ensuing emotional turmoil forces her to re-evaluate all of her relationships and reconsider her devotion to her work. Over the course of one summer, Dylan confronts long-buried family secrets, her guilt and grief over the untimely death of her sister and her own very real failings as a partner.
We spoke to Raintree over the phone from her home in the Rocky Mountains about the long road between first draft and first novel, the importance of balance and which of her characters probably has a secret life as a yoga teacher.
Savanna: You come from a very artistic background, so what made you decide to have both Dylan and Cooper be doctors?
Jamie: It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision. A lot of the times when I write, it’s just the way it comes to me. The medical field is very all-consuming. Because it’s a demanding job but also the people who work in that field love it so much. It’s such an important part of who they are. And so it can become their entire life. An important part of the story for me was that work can become so consuming that you neglect the other parts of your life, and how do you find balance there? So I think it was a natural choice.
I think in fiction directed towards women, there can be this regressive dichotomy between women who are successful in their work and women who are successful in other parts of their life. I admired how in Perfectly Undone both areas are treated with equal importance.
For me, and this might be a personal perspective, when you choose the right work, it’s not so much about the work itself. It’s about fulfilling your life’s purpose and what you’re called to do. And so work is always an important part for me when I write, and even just in everyday conversation. For me, it’s not just about the job. It’s about whether you’re fulfilling your life’s purpose—what you feel called to do, what feeds your soul, what makes you happy. I think Dylan’s job fulfills her in all of those ways, but she doesn’t realize it yet. And so she has to figure that out. She has to figure it out by, counter-intuitively, taking a step back from it. She has to find the right balance. At first, she comes at it in a very unhealthy way by trying to redeem herself and assuage her guilt over her sister’s death. But then when she’s able to take a step back from it, she can realize that it really does fulfill her in so many other ways.
In addition to being a writer, you teach other writers about productivity and business. As someone who switches between those two sides of the industry, how do you strike a balance in your own work between viewing it as an art form and viewing it as a business?
I think it’s all about, again, balance. I’m very big about balancing your day. Setting aside time for the business side of things, and then setting aside a time where you walk it off and go into that creative place where you can get the writing done. I think it’s important to hit on all of those things each day. Each of those things feed us in different ways. So that’s what I really try to focus on in my own life, and teach other people to do as well.
What do you do to decompress?
It’s all about reading. That is what absolutely feeds me. I probably read about 50 books a year, because that is what fulfills me. I read a lot of nonfiction, which is really good for me. When I’m writing creatively, sometimes it is difficult to read novels. I have a healthy dose of novels, but having nonfiction to read feeds me in a different way. I also do yoga a lot.
I’ve been practicing yoga for years, so I was delighted to see that you describe yourself as a yogi. Which character in this book do you think would benefit from yoga the most?
[Laughs] Oh, Dylan could definitely use some yoga! I thought that too! I think everyone should do yoga. All of them.
Dylan could use some really slow movements and deep stretches, I think.
I feel like Reese [Dylan’s landscaper turned unexpected confidante] has a yoga soul naturally.
I’m sure he teaches yoga in his spare time. He speaks like a yoga teacher.
Probably! I love that. That would be amazing!
There should be a whole spinoff series of Reese’s adventures, bringing joy and life to people with yoga and gardening! You developed a passion for reading relatively later in life. Early twenties obviously isn’t ancient, but for bibliophiles and especially writers, that is a pretty late age to get into literature. What books sparked that interest for you?
When I first started reading, it was romance novels! My husband was working a lot and taking classes, so I would go to the library, pick up romance novels and read them while I was waiting for him to come home. It was just a way to go into a different world. I read whatever I could get my hands on. And that great thing about romance is that there’s just such a wide variety of it.
I imagine it was a really helpful foundation. So much of romance is based on the importance of intimacy in all its forms, and that is often an integral part of a story like Perfectly Undone, which is so invested in the health of romantic relationships.
Oh my gosh, yes. I could talk about that forever. For me, human intimacy is a huge inspiration for my work. It seems like we’re always moving, we’re always going. And human interaction can be limited to just touching base with people. But how much time do we spend really sitting down with someone and having real and deep and important conversations? I find that really fulfilling, and I have a lot of really great people in my life who also have that approach. But I feel like there is a lot of human intimacy missing in our everyday interactions, even with the people in our lives. Even with the people who live under our roof, because we’re just so busy.
And so for me, that’s a huge inspiration—to really dig deep under those everyday interactions and see what’s really going on there. And all those little details that we might miss on an everyday basis, little exchanges and little glances, questions like “What do they mean?” and “How are we connecting?” and “How are we not connecting?” All those things just inspire me so much in writing my fiction. I want to bring that back, you know? I want people to get back to being connected, to really spend time together and see each other. Because I feel like we don’t do that even with the people who are really important to us.
Do you find yourself pulling traits for characters from people that you know? Or is it a more nebulous kind of inspiration?
I think that a lot of my main characters end up being different facets of myself that I want to explore. Every time I sit down to start a new book, what naturally comes out is what I want to explore about myself. And that’s not what I set out to do, but that’s what I end up noticing has happened. I don’t know if it’s a writer thing or a woman thing, but we have a dozen different versions of ourselves. When I was writing Dylan, work was so important. Because it fulfilled me, I made it so important in my life, but I also needed to find that balance and take care of myself. And so I think that sort of naturally came out.
This is your first novel. Was the idea for Perfectly Undone something you had in the back of your mind for years? Or were there other abandoned ideas and drafts along the way?
Well I had an initial idea for it, but the writing and editing of Perfectly Undone have spanned enough time that it evolved so much from what it originally was in so many great ways. It wasn’t the first novel that I wrote, but it was the first novel that I really dug into and spent the time to understand how to write a story and how to make it something that people would want to read. I basically had to put myself through a Master’s program of how to be a writer. Perfectly Undone went through that with me every step of the way and it is the culmination of all of that work. It naturally evolved over a period of years as I evolved over a period of years.
What was the biggest change from that first idea to the finished manuscript?
The biggest change was what motivated Dylan. That was something that I didn’t fully grasp when I first started writing. It was more like, here’s this situation I want to put this person in. And then it really came down to why. I was asking myself why repeatedly, for years! When I finally really understood what made Dylan tick, then everything clicked and came together.
Was it the history with her sister or her reaction to that history?
It was everything with her sister.
That’s fascinating, because a backstory like that is what I imagine a lot of people would start with.
When I write, there’s always this very specific situation I want to put the character in. I think the reason for that is that I want to figure out why! You come across people in your life and you notice something that happens to them or something that’s going on, and it triggers something within you that asks, “How would that happen?” Or “Why are they in this situation? Why are they choosing to handle it in this specific way?” For me, that what writing a story is all about—discovering that. For me, the joy of writing is figuring out why. I get to figure it out as I write it.
Nature is very important to you and gardening is a major through line in Perfectly Undone. What made you decide to set the book in Portland?
I visited there once and I fell in love with it. Everything there is so green! I think it left such an impression on me because I grew up in Arizona, and there’s just so little nature there. And I didn’t even know how important nature was to me growing up. When I moved to Colorado, I learned that people walk outside for fun and this baffled my mind. Because in Arizona, nobody walks for fun! You don’t go on a walk! You die! It’s 120 degrees out! I visited Oregon when I was on vacation, and there was just so much life everywhere. And it just touched my heart in a way that I was not used to. It took me a little while to recognize this, but if I don’t have the right setting, I actually cannot write the book.
For your next book, can you see yourself writing another story with these characters? Or are you going to do something else entirely?
I think that Dylan has done everything that she needed to do. I don’t have any intention of continuing with her story. I think that she’s had her full arc, she’s learned what she needed to learn. I think with the process of learning to write with my very first novel, I learned who I am as a writer as well. I’m working on my next book, and it has a very similar feel, but it’s a different story and characters—I’m really excited about it. The setting is a vineyard in Paso Robles.
You should go on many trips in California for “research.”
I know, I love doing “research”!
Author photo by Life & Rain Photography.