For each of her sundry projects, Miranda July requires herself to inhabit a slightly different identity. In her performances, often staged in museums, she cultivates the extrovert; in her fiction, the homebody; for her recent experiments in digital media, the technophile; for managerial duties, the taskmaster. She achieves this malleable persona through daily meditation, near-abusive self-discipline, and a rigorous schedule that requires her to question the efficiency of every moment, including sitting on the toilet.
July’s work gained some public attention in 2005, with the release of Me and You and Everyone We Know, an idiosyncratic, kindhearted film she considers the most accessible artwork she’s ever made. Before that, her very early projects were more often conflicted and unpredictable—zines and a series of wild, dramatic plays staged at 924 Gilman, a seminal punk club in Berkeley, California. In the late ’90s, amid the Riot Grrrl culture of the Pacific Northwest, she recorded a batch of audio pieces that float between radio drama and sound collage, which she released through Slim Moon’s Kill Rock Stars record label. She has continued her work in performance with new, live pieces every few years, including the recent New Society, which she performed at the Walker Art Center in October 2014, and at SFMOMA in April 2015.
A new development in July’s body of work is Somebody, an app she designed that asks people to serve as human text-delivery systems, receiving a digital message they must physically relay to a stranger in their vicinity. July has long been infatuated by the concept of strangers. Her book It Chooses You chronicles her adventures with the PennySaver, as she entered people’s homes and lives to purchase curious, quotidian items (the first one is a leather jacket). She uses these objects as talismans to cultivate a fantastical, complex world out of the banalities of daily life, a process that continues to inform all her work, including her second feature film, The Future, and her first story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You.
Her most recent project is her debut novel, The First Bad Man, the story of a fastidious woman whose household habits mimic July’s own. I spoke to her over the phone about her life and work. Toward the end of the call, our connection faltered, but we pushed through.
I. “THE KIND OF CRUCIBLE I’M ALWAYS IN”
THE BELIEVER: Let’s talk about the art of the domestic ritual, which plays an important function in The First Bad Man. Do you have rituals around your life?
MIRANDA JULY: Well, it’s funny: when my husband read this book—which he only just did fairly recently, after it was done—he was like, “Oh, well, this is just you, this total insanity.” Not the whole character of Cheryl, but the part about cleaning the house, thinking of yourself as your own servant so that you’re not cleaning the house. I appear to be really into cleaning, but actually I hate it so much that I have to disassociate—it can’t really be me doing it. And in my office, which is its own little house, I’m even more Cheryl-y. I don’t use plates. I often just eat out of the thing, and I—I did some exaggeration in the book, but this, this level of efficiency, is near and dear to my heart, to the way I live, which is funny because it’s so un-fun and un-free. I’m trying to ease up a little, but it’s almost impossible to change.
BLVR: Your life is regimented.
MJ: Yeah, I’m a real tough boss. It’s very hard for me as an employee.
BLVR: You think of yourself as these two selves, the boss and—
MJ: Kind of. I’m always just trying to get the work done so that I can be free—like, with the sense that, like, the real me has no interest in this? I just gotta do it for my boss. But the catch is that I’m never free, I never finish the work, so I don’t know who this freewheeling employee with extracurricular interests is. I mean, for example, the whole thing of working in all these different mediums, it’s just so that I can always be playing hooky from one of them. I can always be rebelling against my boss. Like, I’m supposed to be writing this book, but—heh heh heh—I’m writing a movie, secretly. I’m procrastinating, and in my off-hours I’m working on this movie that I’m not allowed to do, because I’m supposed to be writing this book! And then the book’s done and I’ve got this movie started, and I’m secretly working on a performance. That’s the kind of crucible I’m always in. I mean, a more normal, mature way to think about it would be, Oh, I work on multiple projects at once and they overlap, but the actual psychology of it is a lot more self-abusing.
BLVR: Do you have a strict sense of time management?
MJ: Yeah. I’m very disciplined. And now I have a two-year-old, so I have from, like, nine to four every day, or nine thirty to three thirty, and I’m always trying to figure out the best way to use the time. If a project is in the business phase—like, it’s already basically done—then I do the uncreative work early in the day, then I do a ten-minute meditation and turn off my internet, and that’s to, like, really switch gears and make more room. Then I’m trying to be this totally different, looser, idea-having person for the newer work that I’m doing.
I just debuted a new performance, New Society, at the Walker last week, so I knew I had to be working toward that every single day. But I’m also trying to figure out how to deal with this app I made, Somebody. So halfway through the day I would stop talking to lawyers and agents about Somebody and try and transform into this other person. And it worked. It helped that every Friday I had scheduled a New Society rehearsal with an audience of ten people in my studio, so I knew that no matter what, I’d have to do an iteration of this show. That enforced my discipline of it—I couldn’t fall behind. I had to learn my lines or I’d be humiliated.
Sometimes I’ve started out days by writing down my dreams and then going right into ideas, and that’s lovely, but basically, like, the internet killed that. It’s really hard for me not to look at what kind of fires need to be put out first thing in the morning.
BLVR: Is the routine a part of your art?
MJ: I suppose the daily disciplines are just a reflection of the qualities of my inner world—a mixture of paralysis and terror and a lighter, freer, kind of rebellious woman. So those are just constantly pushing against each other, and that’s played out in every area of my life. I like embracing kind of normal forms but am always trying to approach them as if no one’s ever done that before. As if I’m literally the first person to ever write a book.
BLVR: How is that different from any other approach?
MJ: Well, I don’t know that it is different. I think probably a lot of people do that. But maybe in my case, because it’s always been a long time since I last worked in that medium—many years—maybe it’s not just that I’m the first person to ever write a book, but that I have no recollection of ever having written anything. So it’s not part of my identity the way it might be for other writers or filmmakers or artists. Everywhere I go, I’m more of a novice or an outsider than the other people in the field.
BLVR: Do you find that you’re generally drawn to the outsider aesthetic and the look of amateurism?
MJ: Yeah, I have kind of a resistance to people who talk about their “practice” and who are just so professional. Someone like Lydia Davis is as much of an insider as you could be in, like, the literary world, and yet her work maintains this outsider quality, so that when you read it you get a hint of, Oh right, there’s not any rules. You could do anything and call it your work. I’m drawn to that quality in children, nonartists, and really great established artists.
BLVR: You were saying a second ago that you started out in performance.
MJ: Yeah, my first professional art thing was a play that I wrote and directed and put on at 924 Gilman Street, a punk club. It doesn’t normally have plays, so that was, like, a rebellion within a rebellion. At the same time, I was also putting out a fanzine with my best friend. I was writing short stories, or, like, proto–short stories. So I was sort of figuring out writing through both those things, the plays and the fanzine. While dreaming of making movies.
BLVR: With a lot of these different mediums, do you think the content is entirely specific to that medium?
MJ: It’s specific to the medium. Most often I actually have to make something in that medium. Like the book—I’d already sold it to Scribner. I had to write a book. And right now I’m like, Shit, if I don’t make another movie soon I don’t get to be a filmmaker anymore. They revoke that card that was very hard to get in the first place. That’s actually inspiring, somehow. So then I just kind of herd my loosest, freest level of thoughts into that direction and try to break down what’s stopping me.
II. BORING X3
BLVR: How long did it take you to write the novel?
MJ: I had the idea right before The Future premiered, at Sundance, in 2011. Then I took notes for it all year as I promoted The Future and wrote It Chooses You. Then I started writing it at the end of that year, right after I got pregnant. I finished it when my son was two.
BLVR: What was the idea?
MJ: The idea came pretty fully formed, on a long car ride. A middle-aged woman who lives alone and has all these hang-ups is forced to take in this young, blond bombshell, and they’d have a very antagonistic relationship, but it would change, and then change again, and then change again. Everything else, all the secondary characters, came along the way. I have to say, it was the most enjoyable creative experience I’ve ever had, writing that book.
BLVR: Not usually the novelist’s experience.
MJ: I know! I don’t know if it’s because I was, like, on various natural hormones the whole time from pregnancy, or maybe I just like writing. The people around me were like, “God, you’re so much happier than you are making movies. Maybe this is your job! Maybe you’ve found it!” And I’m like, “Nooo.” It was still super hard, but even on bad days, I would come home from my office and say to my husband, “Well, the writing’s horrible, but I still like the story!” Like, “Too bad I’m not writing it well, but I’m a fan of these characters, and I wanna do better by them.” That was kind of my feeling the whole time. I was aware that the love of the story was pulling me through.
BLVR: When you say it came to you fully formed, do you mean—
MJ: In a flash! Sounds so corny, but I remember writing it down, and I looked at that journal page recently, just scrawled things.
BLVR: It felt novelistic as an idea, not cinematic.
MJ: Yeah, but I was just coming off a movie, so I kept saying, Would Scarlett Johansson be too old for Clee, do you think? It took me a while to just sit down in the chair and realize, Nope, Clee is just how you describe her. No one’s gonna come along and play her. Eventually all those filmy notions went away, and I also knew that I really needed a novel idea, because this actually wasn’t the original idea that I had sold to Scribner. I had already written and sold about eighty pages of another idea, a fictionalized story from my life. Then I had to put that on hold to make The Future, and in the process of making that movie I realized that the hardest parts of both my features has been my character. I don’t really want to have this skinny hipster girl in my work, but I’m not, like, a great actress, and so far I’ve needed to be in my movies… so I’ve worked with that handicap. After having this realization, I wondered why the hell I would write a novel drawn from my life instead of just making everything up like I did in my short stories. I looked at this novel idea, the original one, and I thought, You’re gonna hate this. You’re gonna hate every second of it, and it’s not gonna be good, because the truth is not your superpower. I so admire people who can write from their actual life—Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner—and it looks so easy and why can’t I do that? But I need more distance. I need a story, some kind of veil to work through.
BLVR: Is your relationship with film different than your relationship with literature?
MJ: Well, I don’t think I’m more of a screenwriter than I am a fiction writer. I’m more of a reader than a film-watcher, so I imagine that I’m not approaching fiction or films in a particularly cinematic way. Most great filmmakers are good at place. Like how people say, like, “The city itself is a character in the movie,” you know? I’m so interior. I always forget there’s such a thing as an exterior wide shot, where you can see where someone is. As opposed to just: how can we show what this person is thinking, in an abstract way that is felt?
BLVR: Were you reading other novels while you were writing the book?
MJ: Yeah. Sheila Heti sent me this thriller called Breed. Do you know that book? The writer [Scott Spencer] wrote it under a pseudonym because it’s such not a literary book. I don’t usually read things like that. It’s a page-turner and people are dying and there’s monsters and I was very aware of how visceral the reading experience was. Oh my god, I thought, I can’t put this thing down! This is reading, too! I mean, picture that I’m mostly reading, like, Lydia Davis. Not that my novel is like Breed, but I did think there’s no good reason my novel shouldn’t propel you forward; it doesn’t damage the work.
BLVR: What other books are propulsive in that way?
MJ: I mean, I want to say all good books, but that’s not true. You really enjoy reading things slowly sometimes and going in and out of them.
BLVR: Some of my favorite books are ones I’ve never read straight through.
MJ: Yeah, totally, and then there’s books that you read and you wanna whip through them. I just read the new Ian McEwan book in two nights, not because I loved it, but because I skipped so much of it because I was dying to know what happened. It wasn’t worth it to me to read all of it to figure that out. I just, like, did that kind of reading where you’re, like, searching for the key name, you know, to see what happens.
BLVR: Yeah, you’re just skipping to the first word in each paragraph…
MJ: Yeah, you’re like boring boring boring—oh!—boring boring boring.
III. A LESS CONTROLLED KIND OF INSPIRATION
BLVR: Let’s talk a little bit about your early audio work: the albums, the music.
MJ: That work was somewhere in between all these disciplines. Some of it I had performed, but most of it I recorded first as a kind of radio play. That was its primary form. I was getting to create a world, just before I was really able to do that with film. The level of control, that’s part of what’s so appealing about filmmaking—you have so much control over what the reader, the viewer, is noticing from moment to moment. They can’t do that boring boring boring thing as easily. So the recordings were these immersive landscapes, and yet, unlike the performances that almost no one would see, I had a sense that these could live forever. I was just starting to get my head around the democratic aspect of art; I didn’t want to make rarefied things that were either alienatingly obscure or elite and art-worldy, so a recording that anyone could buy was a great medium.
And I like all the stuff that comes with recording. I like the process of mixing and creating sounds for movies, too. I get very happy and comfortable at that stage of post-production, and I think it’s from all those years of making recordings in basements.
BLVR: How were they made?
MJ: So after I dropped out of college, I moved to Portland, Oregon, and joined a band, which is a joke because I am so unmusical and can’t even sing, which is what I was doing in the band. But I was completely immersed in the Northwest music scene of the mid-’90s, early-mid-’90s—that was, like, Kill Rock Stars and K Records and post–Riot Grrrl stuff, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney. My little band, the Need. And I kept trying to sort of sneak in my radio-play performance stuff into the band, and they’d be like, “OK, well, Miranda gets to have her one weird song and then, you know, we’ll do six of our normal songs” that I had to sing on.
Eventually I was just like, OK, I’m just gonna do my own thing and not be tolerated like a weirdo. No, what actually happened was, I was in the band with my girlfriend, and she broke up with me. I had just booked us a West Coast tour, and now I wasn’t in the band anymore. I was heartbroken, and I was so mad about the tour, because I had booked it myself. So I called up all the venues—Jabberjaw in LA, Epicenter in SF—and I said, “In addition to the Need, another act called Miranda July will be performing.” And then I just worked really hard. I took my things that I had been doing with the band, and I had no music, but I just inserted myself into the lineup. We traveled separately to every club on the tour, and it was very depressing, especially ’cause my girlfriend was now going out with the other person in the band, my friend. So I would just sort of angrily do my thing onstage while watching them holding hands in the audience. But it was also my saving grace, because when I did my act for the first time in Olympia, both Calvin Johnson, who ran (and still runs) K Records, and Slim Moon, who did Kill Rock Stars, came up to me and said, “If you ever want to record, I’d love to put out an album.”
BLVR: What was the music of the Need like?
MJ: Rachel played the drums standing up and looked really cool, and there was keyboard, and it was punk but creepy, like a creepy old circus that someone died at. It was tough; it wasn’t, like, some little-girly guitar thing. I don’t have the references to describe it—the Need existed for a long time as a duo, and they were incredible.
BLVR: Do you still feel connected to that audio work?
MJ: Yeah, I always feel happy when people know about it, because most people’s introduction was Me and You and Everyone We Know, and that was, for all its darker and weirder themes, the sweetest thing I ever made. So it was a little anomalous—it was hard to live up to that level of sweetness. I mean, I didn’t want to. So when people say, “I’m a fan of your albums,” I think, OK, they’re not gonna be shocked by this novel. Whereas for years it was, “I loved Me and You, and I’m gonna check out all your other work!” And I’d think, I’m pretty sure you’re not gonna like it.
BLVR: Have many people been turned off by your work?
MJ: Well, that movie was just a lot broader. People liked the sweeter parts of it, and I’m—I’m kind of indebted to it. There are a lot of people who want to see something described as “funny and fun,” or even “quirky.” The audience for weird, dark, and arty is smaller.
BLVR: Was your intention with the film to create something a little bit broader?
MJ: I don’t remember ever thinking that, but maybe I just—like a girl dressing how she thinks people are going to dress at a fancy party that she’s excited about? Maybe unconsciously, I was like, Welp, better dust off my nicest shoes, you know? It all felt very true to me. It was as honest as anything else I’ve ever made. But maybe in a kind of self-protective way, I felt like I should be a little bit more presentable or a little less punk or something. But the truth is, I was always trying to invite people in. It just didn’t occur to me to head for the most mainstream format right away. It’s really the format that did it. People knew what to call it: a movie! A breakout indie film by a fresh new voice! Etcetera.
BLVR: If you could, would you disown or destroy or erase any of your early work?
MJ: I have videotapes of my first plays—which seems so cool, you know, like, these VHS tapes—but I’m always looking for a piece, any minute of it that I can show that’s not embarrassing. And I can never find it. So it exists as a really good thing in my mind—especially that first play that I did: like, I’m so proud of it in theory, but I can never find anything not embarrassing to excerpt from it.
BLVR: Embarrassing because it wasn’t done well, or because it revealed something?
MJ: Probably when I’m just a little bit older I can look at it and be like, Oh, that’s so sweet that you just put a Pixies song in it! You know? Like that. Like, it’s all going well, and then there’s just a few too many things like that. I was sixteen when I wrote it. It was based on my correspondence with a man in prison, a murderer. So, you know, in theory it has, like, the kind of heft that sounds good when you talk about it, but yeah… I was a kid. And then there’s stuff in those first fanzines where I realize, Oh, this is more connected to stuff I’m doing now than to a lot of the things I did in between. But the only thing I go back and look at regularly is Learning to Love You More, because it’s other people’s work, mostly. That’s the only book of mine I can just flip through joyfully.
BLVR: So much of your work focuses on interactions with strangers: the vast, unknown public.
MJ: Yeah, I guess like any writer or screenwriter I’m alone in my own world so much of the time that I’m often trying to force myself out of my world. Into more risk. A less controlled kind of inspiration. I’m so keenly aware of how easy it’s getting to not leave the house, with Amazon, especially. To get anything done, you used to have to brush past, or at least lay eyes on, someone whose reality was totally different from your own. That used to be inevitable. If that goes away because everything’s so convenient, everything’s brought to you, well, then there goes one of my favorite parts of life, and something that I’ve gone out of my way to court. I courted it in It Chooses You and, most recently, with Somebody, an app. I made an app that would, in a very inefficient way, put you in contact with strangers, um, to do something that could be done efficiently, much more efficiently—that, that was part of the, that was part of the—ah, shit, it’s echoing, the phone. I know we’re so close to the end—
BLVR: We could call this the end if the echo—
MJ: Um, OK, I’m trying to talk quietly so the echo can’t catch me… it’s actually sort of working [whispering], um, yeah, so I was trying to, like, build back in this kind of… I’m fighting this echo, still…
BLVR: I like that our conversation began about your two selves, and now you’re having to confront your doppelgänger.
MJ: Right, yeah, and it’s awful ’cause I was already coming—I’m just gonna talk through the echo, I don’t care, fuck you! I’m just gonna ignore you!—I was already starting to get to that point in the interview where you’ve said so much that you start to hate the sound of your own voice, and I was anticipating the hole I was gonna fall into when I got off the phone, and so the echo, which is happening right now, and is driving me up the wall, is like a mocking, um, you know it’s like the embodiment of that. Every word I say is mockingly repeated, like, “Aren’t you so fascinating?” [Laughs] It stopped, wow. I just killed it.
BLVR: It stopped?
MJ: Wow, gosh. Amazing. It’s beautiful.