Finding Stories in Familiar Territory: An Interview With Miranda July

“I feel like the creative mind is very fast in some ways and completely blind as a bat in other ways.”

Jessica Gross | Longreads | January 2015 | 14 minutes (3,540 words)

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Miranda July’s films, sculptures, books, and performance art pieces share not only a very particular, off-kilter aesthetic, but also a deep concern with human connection. An example of this can be found in her 2011 film, The Future, in which a couple navigates their relationships with each other, with their soon-to-be-adopted cat, and with their individual selves. July procrastinated on writing the film by visiting and interviewing people who’d listed items in the Pennysaver. That detour facilitated the screenwriting process—The Future ended up featuring one of the sellers she’d met—and formed the basis of another project, the book It Chooses You. July’s new app, Somebody, approaches human connection from a different angle: It delivers text messages to their intended recipients via the nearest Somebody-using stranger.

July’s debut novel, The First Bad Man, centers on Cheryl, a forty-something woman hampered by compulsive thoughts and behaviors, a psychosomatic throat condition, and loneliness. She lusts after a man she’s met through work, and is constantly visited by the soul of a baby she had a strong connection with in childhood. Cheryl lives alone—until Clee, her boss’s blond, curvy daughter, comes to stay. Their relationship enters violent and erotic terrain, and rearranges Cheryl’s literal and internal worlds. We spoke recently by phone about her relationship with her characters, the evolution of her work, and where her novel came from.

What was the first bit of The First Bad Man that you got down on paper?

I was in the passenger seat during a long drive with my husband, like a seven-hour drive, where you go through stages of boredom and in and out of coherency. And then, without much fanfare, because you never know if it’s a good idea or not, I just thought of the whole thing of Cheryl and Clee, and wrote down notes. I described the whole relationship, really. We were going on a trip and I don’t think it was until we were driving home that I said, “Oh, can I tell you this idea I had?” I told my husband, and he said, “Hey, that’s a little piece of gold.” Sometimes you kind of just need someone to say, “That’s substantial.” And from then on I was taking notes.

Did you think it would be a novel from the start, or that it would be a very involved short story?

I hoped it would be a novel, because I needed to write a novel. I had sold the idea of a novel to Scribner, my publisher, but it was a different idea, one that had that came out of a true story from my childhood. I wrote about 80 pages of that, and then took a break to make The Future. In that film, I played a character who was a little bit like me, and that always is really uncomfortable to me. Nothing I ever made before Me and You and Everyone We Know had a hip girl in it, you know? But when I introduced the idea of myself acting in something, I was like, well, I’m not an actress, I can’t play a working class British woman or something. I have to basically be playing some version of myself, which is always so embarrassing. I think it probably made those movies more accessible, but after The Future, I thought, “No, never again!” And the most enjoyable parts of The Future, for me, were the more surreal things anyway. So when I was done with that movie, I realized I couldn’t write a novel based on a story from my life. It shouldn’t be moored in reality so tightly. So I was literally just waiting for that idea. When it came to me, I kind of nervously thought, “Is this it? Have I met the one?”

If you felt this aversion to playing a character who was somewhat similar to you, how or why did you overcome that resistance?

Right, right, I know. It’s funny, I remember telling Zadie Smith the idea for The Future before I made it, and she just put her head in her hands and said, “God, we always do this, don’t we? We go straight towards the thing that is really the most embarrassing, awkward thing for us to do.” But also, what I’m saying to you right now, I didn’t know yet. If I was this clear on it, I wouldn’t have done it. But I feel like the creative mind is very fast in some ways and completely blind as a bat in other ways. And I knew I felt kind of hampered, but I didn’t understand why. But I’m also not distancing myself from those two movies. They are really important to me. What I’m talking about is the internal world, the creative process, when things flow and when they don’t.

That makes total sense. And it would seem kind of unlikely that an artist wouldn’t, through an intense creative act, move through to a different place. Which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a valid and appropriate project at that point in your development.

Yeah, right, right. Yeah. And I guess, actually, this novel connects so easily to the short stories in No One Belongs Here More Than You, which is what made me think in the first place about why those two movies are different. And then I kind of traced it back to, oh right, I’m always saddled with this character.

I agree that the novel connects to your short stories, but I’m curious how you would explain that connection.

I almost don’t want to point it out because I’m slightly embarrassed. But take the last story in the collection, “How To Tell Stories to Children.” You’ve got a woman who lives alone, who has a relationship with a daughter of her friends that’s complicated, that even has some sexual elements. And then in “Majesty,” there’s a middle-aged women, alone, who works at a non-profit, like Cheryl.

I consciously wanted that—I wanted familiar territory that I could go further with. Once I had had that erroneous first attempt at a novel, with me trying to be like, “I’m writing a novel! It must be this big, new kind of story I’ve never done before!” I finally thought, “How about something that’s in the vein of the kind of thing that I like to write, but longer?” There are going to be enough challenges without pretending you’re a whole new type of person.

You mentioned all these middle-aged single women characters who live alone. In It Chooses You, you write about marrying your husband: “The story of us now felt like the real plot of my life, which was, terrifyingly, the most incredible, joyful thing that had ever happened to me. I had once feared that love would take me away from my solitary world of work; now I often regretted that it hadn’t.” I interpreted that to mean that you’d spent much of your adult life single.

I love that story of myself and wish it were true. But the truth is I’ve almost never been single.

Really?

[Laughs] Yeah. But I had never lived with anyone before my husband and I’d always been like, “Here’s my home, it’s this sacred space.” My husband always describes courting me as trying to coax a wild deer in to the house. And he’s kind of the same way: we’re very independent, solo-hearted people who never fully believed that that would ever change. So despite ample evidence—I mean, we have a son now—we’re still carrying around these very lonely people inside us who are ready to be alone at a moment’s notice.

Where does that come from?

I think it comes from being a child who felt very alone, and so really got good at that, and can make a safe place alone even while talking to someone. I didn’t have some horrific upbringing, but there are shades of loneliness, probably, in everyone’s childhood, and everyone’s parents had their own hard childhoods too. It’s not the story that’s happening anymore, but I feel like it’s going to be my life’s work to warm up to that fact.

In The First Bad Man, Cheryl has a brief but intense bond, during childhood, with a baby named Kubelko Bondy, who visits her in the guise of other babies throughout her life. How’d you come up with the name Kubelko Bondy?

It’s funny, you’re the first person to ask me that. There is an Austrian-born artist named Friedl Kubelka who at one point had the hyphenated last name Kubelka-Bondy. It was a name I could not stop saying. I changed it to Kubelko Bondy, and it was funny and made-up sounding, but the irony is it’s one of the few names I didn’t make up. But it’s rhythmically very nice and even though Cheryl would never know of that artist—she’s not that knowing—I guess it’s okay for people with knowledge of her to think, oh, right, Miranda July would be a fan of hers.

Bad Man

Right before Kubelko Bondy is introduced, Cheryl sees a mother holding a baby in a doctor’s office: “I checked to see if he and I had a special connection that was greater than his bond with his mother. We didn’t.” When I read that, I laughed, because I related so much to that feeling—a mom is holding a baby, and I’m locking eyes with the baby, and there is something in me that thinks I can relate to this baby better than its mother. It ends up turning into a huge part of the novel, with that unexpected Kubelko Bondy backstory, but when I read it, I pictured you starting with the seed of that idea—relating to someone else’s baby in a proprietary way—and then it morphing, through writing, into the larger concept.

You’re not totally wrong. I remember there was a night my husband and I heard this really weird sound in the distance; we couldn’t tell what it was. It was years before we were trying to have a baby, and I said, “Maybe that’s our child’s soul trying to come to us. [Laughs] And it knows it’s not time yet, so it’s calling out.” I still don’t know what it was, but that sound recurred enough times that we would say, “Oh, there’s our baby’s soul calling out.” [Laughs] And we’d be like, “Not now, but soon, just hang on!” And then yes, I too have that same thing of making eye contact with a baby and feeling that connection.

So the idea of a baby coming slowly towards you in this unorthodox way was, in a way, the origin, but there were many, many moments where connections were made that I didn’t see coming. For a long time, in the novel, there was a sound that Cheryl heard, and there was an isolated moment where she made eye contact with a baby. Finally, I thought, this sound thing might be nice in a movie, but it feels kind of cheesy in writing. But this thing of making eye contact with a baby, this feels very secretly universal. That could happen again and again instead.

Also, the idea of all children being single has always struck me. I remember, even as a child, thinking, “It’s no fair, you two go off to bed, and you have each other, and I’m just left here. Why do children have to be single?” Again, poor, neglected child. [Laughs] I think there was originally more about that in that first scene where she meets the baby, about how you can’t, as a child, just go to a bar and meet someone to be your companion.

In the book, there are many authority figures who don’t really deserve their authority, or inadequately perform their jobs—like Clee’s parents, the nonprofit directors Carl and Suzanne; the midwife; and Ruth Anne, the therapist. Have you had strange experiences in therapy, or felt like these people have such power and maybe shouldn’t?

I’ve only really had good experiences in therapy, and I gave my therapist the book. She doesn’t know this, but I actually gave her the first copy. They came in the mail and then I had an appointment. And before I left, I said, “Just so you know, there is a therapist in here and it’s not you.” But I, like probably a lot of people, have a complicated relationship to authority. I’ve really never been good at it. That’s why I couldn’t do college, really. It’s interesting to me: with a therapist, or even a doctor, we’re suddenly sort of childlike, or not in charge. And I guess it’s too tempting for me as a writer not to want there to be some revelation about that person. Also, people in power are kind of automatically perverse to me, at least in my fictional world. I mean, aren’t people in power generally sexualized in one way or another? The President isn’t sexualized, exactly, but definitely people are having sexual fantasies about him just because he’s the President.

When someone asks you what your book is about, how do you describe it? Novels are so complex, so not summarize-able.

Right, right. And the person asking for a description is, like, your landlord or something. So I’ve been saying it’s about a woman in her forties, named Cheryl, who lives alone. And maybe I’ll also say something about her being uptight, or set in her ways. She takes in a young blond bombshell, her boss’s daughter, and it’s about the many forms their relationship takes and blah, blah. I usually kind of peter out there, and the person is already nodding, like, “Right, houseguests, interrupting houseguests. I know it. I know that kind of book.”

At one point in the book, Clee sends out an announcement with what looks like the same bubble lettering you used for your app, Somebody. Is that true?

Yeah! It’s funny, I thought about that too. Clee likes the bubble writing. I remember thinking, “Oh, wow, I’m gonna have to have actual bubble writing in the book,” and there was a lot of back and forth, as you can imagine, with Scribner, about getting just the right bubble writing. And yeah, the bubble writing was the first and basically only idea I had design-wise for the app. When I went to my designer, I was like, “I’m seeing pink bubble writing. Bubblicious.”

What draws you to that kind of lettering?

It’s just so dumb. [Laughs] It just seems to be the lettering of dumb, non-intellectuality, you know? And I guess it’s physical. Most fonts are not meant to be thought of as three-dimensional, but that one is specifically designed to have body, which is probably why it looks right to Clee. She is kind of bubble writing incarnate. And I guess that’s why I thought of it for the app, too. I wanted it to be about bodies, about really being there. I think I tried to call it Persons at one point.

How many other names did you go through?

Oh, my God. I mean, not just went through, but did expensive trademark searches on. I can show you a whole mockup of the app with the name—this is so embarrassing—Proxy, which pretty much means app. It’s interchangeable with the word app. Therefore, there are many apps that use “proxy” in their names. I tried to change the spelling, or whatever, and my lawyer was probably the first person to realize just how green I was. He was like, “Yeah, I think you should just think a little harder.” And my husband was like, “Why don’t you pick a good name, like your other names of things? Has that ever occurred to you?”

Miu Miu backed Somebody, which seems like a very difficult task to make happen. How’d that come about?

When I had the idea for the app, I was super jazzed up about it and literally could not sleep at night I was so excited. I thought apps cost around seven thousand dollars to make. And then someone helped me price it out, and I discovered this one would in fact cost around a hundred thousand dollars. So I knew I needed a serious partner. Just a few months later, Miu Miu contacted me about making a short movie for them. I have had a lot of invitations over the years from companies, but this is the first one where I really wanted to do it. I really admire Miuccia Prada, and thought, “I think I would do this just because like I like this company”—which, for a former riot grrrl, is very radical. I had to call all my friends and vet that. They were all, like, “Please, I just did an Amex ad.” That was Carrie Brownstein. I was the only one still in the ’90s.

So anyway, I wanted to make the movie, and then I suddenly thought, “Oh, my God, the app.” So I wrote Miu Miu an email describing a short movie in which people would use this app, and at the end it would say, go here for your free download. I thought it obviously wouldn’t happen, but I had nothing to lose. And I think the email back was literally, “Love. Let’s do it.” They have been so incredible to work with, and now we’re on our second incarnation, which we’re aiming to have done this spring.

We Think Alone” is a project in which, every week, you sent a compendium of emails on a certain topic from people including Sheila Heti, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Kirsten Dunst. These were emails they’d sent, privately, at some time in the past. Do you have a favorite question that you asked, or a favorite week?

I like the very mundane ones, for some reason, like the one about money. On a kind of art level, that seems like a good piece to me. But in terms of a good read, the apologies, the ones where people said they were sorry.

In a 2005 BOMB Magazine interview with Rachel Kushner, you said that each of the characters in your first film was a projection of a different part of you. I found that really interesting—that an individual character might feel not as complex as an integrated person because he or she is one part of your integrated whole.

I do feel that way. But at the same time, you have real characters—Clee, for example, was so much fun to write. If I was a real actress, I would never be cast in this part, so it was a joy to get to be her by writing her. But she is also a little bit me, because she is the boss’s daughter, and my parents ran a publishing company. In personality, she is so unlike me, but that construction was really useful for me. My mom was a very loving reader of this book, actually. My parents are both writers, and I think they understand that you get to really give life to feelings that maybe there’s really no place for in the world.

You’ve spoken about not really being seen by your parents at times, and how that has, in part, motivated your art. In an Interview conversation with Lena Dunham, you called this “the least interesting part of why I make stuff.” Why do you say that? To me it’s such an interesting part!

Well, maybe it’s not the least interesting, but it’s something I have in common with just about every other actor/performer, and everyone in entertainment of all kinds, really. It’s not unique. Also, there are so many reasons why I’ve kept doing this, and it’s so entwined with how my particular soul has connected to this world. And so much of it feels bright, and gives me such joy.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.