Is there a creative project Miranda July can't conquer? If you've jealously posed this question before reading her fiction, stay away from the new collection. No One Belongs Here More Than You will only embitter you further.
It's not enough for July to write, direct, and star in a prize-winning film at Cannes and Sundance. Her recordings for Kill Rock Stars, stage performances, web projects... Maybe she's a terrible abstract painter, but I doubt it.
Imagine sixteen tight, breathtaking doses of Me and You and Everyone We Know, the same deep compassion, anxious humor, and aching vulnerability. Cross Aimee Bender and Amy Hempel, and then cross your fingers July makes time for more fiction soon.
Fresh from the airport, she visited our secret, underground, author interview bunker to discuss short stories, film, theater — plus toaster tribes, the swimming pool she doesn't have, t.v. detectives pulling their faces off, and more.
Dave: Let's start with the question you ask child actors on the set: What are you thinking about today, and how are you feeling?
Miranda July: I've done L.A., Seattle, and San Francisco, so this is the fourth stop on my tour. It's been totally different than I pictured. By today, I've come to terms with the reality. I'm exhausted, but now I know.
Dave: How is it different?
July: I didn't think about the movie's effect on the size of the audience. I go to readings all the time, and they're generally of a certain scale. When you make a movie, there's no opportunity for every single person to come up and talk to you. So that's totally new to me.
It's a wonderful thing about readings, and I've loved being on the other side of it, but it's really intense for me to have one-on-one contact with five hundred people. I've come home each night with no mind.
Dave: You said in another interview — this was before the book came out — that writing short fiction taught you more about narrative and structure than making short films. Practically, what did it teach you? How has it been useful?
July: When I was making my short movies, I wasn't that interested in narrative. It's something that grew on me. The first stories I wrote, like "This Person," weren't super narrative- or character-driven. As you begin to learn how to write, I guess you grow hungry for how to tell more without losing people. I was really teaching myself over the course of this book. The very reason narrative was invented became interesting, or necessary, to me.
Dave: Do you recall a particular story where something clicked?
July: The Boy from Lam Kien was one of the earlier ones. There's a part in the beginning where we're in her inner world, and she's experiencing a sort of agoraphobia. That part used to be a lot longer, until I realized, Oh, it's not really a story until the boy comes in. And this is what's interesting.
It hit me: Dialogue. It was very connected to acting, in a way, acting out those parts. That was a real turning point, realizing that in some ways I'd been doing things like this, but live.
Dave: "Birthmark" starts that way, with pure dialogue.
Dave: It's an effective momentum builder. Immediately, there's mystery. What are they measuring? Already we have characters.
July: That was in a period when I realized that dialogue could be a way in. I could even start with it.
I'm blanking out on what the painful thing I experienced was that made me think up the rating system the characters use, but I remember thinking, If I hadn't gone through that, I wouldn't have written the story, and it wouldn't have been my first big publication — in The Paris Review. So the pain was worth it.
Dave: In "The Swim Team," the narrator explicitly says, "I was very different back there" [in her home town]. She has trouble talking about her old life. In "Birthmark," too, identity is central, how we imagine others see us. Are you conscious of that as a reoccurring theme?
July: Especially in the earlier stories. I started the book in my twenties; now I'm in my thirties. I do think Who am I in relation to you? is at the heart of a lot of the earlier stories. The ones I wrote after the movie I see as different, and that's one of the differences.
Dave: Do you attribute that change to a different place in your life, or to the experience of having made the movie?
July: Mostly just getting a little older. Even no longer living in Portland. I was really isolated in Portland and got pretty hermitty the last few years here when I was writing a lot of those stories.
Also, two big changes after the movie: In some ways it was a lot harder because I was much more self conscious, but I also had a kind of diligence that I didn't before. Most of the longer stories came later. I had bigger ideas, I guess.
July: They're married to each other?
Dave: Right. They got married earlier in the day. They've never even talked about sex. These are very proper, button-down English people, before the sexual revolution. The novel starts in their hotel room, as dinner is delivered. One of my favorite details in the book, actually, is that they're each having the same meal but the groom gets served a bigger portion than the bride.
July: I want to read that book.
Dave: It connected for me because so much of Me and You and Everyone We Know is about confused childhood ideas of sexuality. Childhood sexuality is a touchy subject, the way you addressed it.
July: The main thing I wanted was simply to establish that children have their own sexuality, that they are sexual. Even that is practically against the law to say.
Children live in an adult world — the world is for adults — but they have their own version of sexuality. They have their own bodies, they make sense of their own feelings. I wanted to have that be a whole bunch of things besides scary and somehow connected to pedophilia. Funny and sad and wistful. And there's not pedophilia in the movie; it's a mistaken identity sort of thing.
I also wanted to see a romantic moment between a child and an adult that wasn't scary or dangerous. Could they meet as equals for just a split second, just as two people? It was a big challenge, pushing it through the system.
Dave: The little boy —
Dave: I'm thinking of the scene on the park bench in particular. The sort of blank and, frankly, wonder-filled expression on his face.
July: When you're editing footage of a child, a really big percentage of it is unusable. But then the things that are usable are perfect. They're not acting; it's happening.
That piece on the bench we didn't find until the eleventh hour. I was like, "We've got to go back to the footage. There's got to be something in there." Not to ruin the movie magic, but I remember finding it and thinking, I don't know where this came from. I was watching this scene, but I don't remember this happening, this look on his face. It's amazing.
Dave: I saw in a newspaper, the Guardian, I think, that the child labor board forbid your character from saying "blow job," which is how she ending up calling it a "Jimmy ha-ha."
July: Even though blow job was in the script.
The girls were terrified that they were going to accidentally say "blow job" and get the whole thing shut down. They were way more freaked out than they would have been. These people were standing around watching.
Dave: How does that happen, that kind of prohibition, procedurally?
July: It doesn't happen procedurally unless someone narcs on you. I think one of the tutors on set was angry about something else and decided to report it. As if it was a porn movie or something. You can get by — that doesn't have to happen — but certainly they'll be all over it if they know about it.
Dave: The material you've written and performed for the stage, and your experimental short films, where you're creating the form, as opposed to working on a feature film or a short story where the framework brings its own expectations — whether it's joys, fears, or challenges, I'm wondering how those modes are different.
July: That is the difference. And that's the draw of it to me.
I just finished a big performance that premiered in New York a couple months ago. Not only did I not get any notes, I didn't get any financing, and I don't think anyone reviewed it because there aren't that many people who even review performance. It was so great. I'm much less self-conscious, just having ideas and trying them out. It's a good thing because it keeps that feeling alive in me.
For example, I had no desire to write another script after the movie, but in writing this performance and rehearsing it I began to conceive of a movie. I sort of tricked myself. It seemed like a fun thing to write a script from that place, that very free place.
Of course, now I'm several drafts in, and it really is a movie script and I really am stressing. But that is the great thing about performance.
Dave: What's the most times you've ever done the same performance?
July: That's the other thing: I could be more in that world if I were willing to actually tour like real performance people, but I hate touring. The Swan Tool and another called Love Diamond — I probably did Love Diamond forty times, which was about thirty times too many for my taste. I may never do this performance I did in New York again, even though it took me a year to write.
Dave: How did Learning to Love You More get started?
July: I started that here in Portland with Harold Fletcher, who lives here. We each had done collaborations with the public before. I had done a movie distribution chain letter thing for women called "Big Miss Moviola."
We both like to be told what to do, kind of secretly. We'd often give each other assignments. Good ideas can come out of those limitations. So we started creating assignments for the general public that are very exacting and yet intended to lead people back to their own experience.
We have a book that comes out in October. Actually, while I'm here in Portland, I'm working, finishing that book.
Dave: How long are you here?
July: Just a day. It's going to be a really intense day tomorrow.
Dave: Do you remember with particular affection any of your childhood art projects?
One, a play that I wrote, directed, and starred in when I was about seven, and which I only remember because I mimeographed up a program. It was called "Oh, Rats!" A really strong title. Exclamation point, of course.
July: And the other was a book that I just re-found. It's a trilogy that I wrote around the same time. It's a little creepy, really. It's called "Lost Child," and it's very spiritual and kind of supernatural. It has to do with a girl who's hypnotized by something in the sky, and her journey through the world. People talk and there's dialogue in quotes, which I don't even know how to do now.
Dave: Whether it was for the first time or not, what's the last great story you read?
July: I just reread that one in the Judy Budnitz book [Nice Big American Baby] about the President and the escape plans. The President has a pole he's going to slide down in case of emergency; he's really excited about that. And there are lots of drills where the whole country stops what they're doing and pretend they're all going to die. It becomes their favorite thing to do. It's amazing. A great story.
Dave: You interviewed The Blow for the Believer?
July: I did.
Dave: A month or two ago, they were on a show called Live Wire! here in Portland. I got to see Khaela do a few songs, and we got to hang out a bit. She was great. What did you talk about?
July: Well, she's one of my best friends. An old friend. I was so excited about the album [Paper Television] that I wanted to do something, so I asked the Believer. I think that comes out really soon. [Ed.'s note: The interview appears in the June/July 2007 issue.]
When you're interviewing a friend, it's always a challenge to stay on topic. You have to add a weird artifice to the dialogue. Let's talk about how we met and things like that.
Dave: Tell a story that didn't come out in the interview.
July: There are a lot. I describe how we first met, and it's clear that I didn't take notice of her in a certain way. I didn't mention the time I did finally take notice of her, for the first time.
Khaela was staying in my boyfriend's house. She needed a place to stay, and people always crashed at his house. One day she had attached two ribbons to the front and back paws of a really old, stuffed animal cat. She was wearing it on her head with the ribbons tied under her neck, so the cat looked like it was jumping over her head — but it was also a hat, you know? I was completely floored by that. Also that someone should one-up me within my boyfriend's house, in terms of strange things to wear on your head, which I probably saw myself as a connoisseur of.
Dave: Which tribe do you belong to: the slot toaster tribe or the toaster oven tribe?
July: I have a toaster oven. I have a house that I work in and create in, a tiny little house — that's where the toaster oven is.
But at my boyfriend's house, where I now live, there's the slot kind. It's actually been on my list to get the toaster oven kind. I'm probably prejudging wrong, but I'm guessing there will be some resistance. I don't know, but I haven't had a chance to bring it up.
Dave: Is there no chance of the two toasters happily coexisting, side-by-side?
July: Just adding one to the situation? Maybe.
You're right. That could be a good idea.
But here's one more thing on the topic: Did you see, in the New York Times Magazine, the egg-cooker toaster?
July: It poaches an egg. You drop an egg into a little bowl, and while your toast is cooking it poaches an egg. I was like, Whoa. I'm really glad I saw this before I bought a new toaster oven. It's clearly the thing to get. I'm sure I'll use it every day.
Dave: That's another whole level of countertop appliance.
July: It is.
Dave: I guess the other big question, now that you've moved from Portland to L.A., is Do you have a pool?
July: Oh, no. Maybe you're joking.
Dave: Partly. But if someone leaves Portland for L.A., that's the dream, right? The ocean, or at least a pool?
July: Hah! No, my home is so scuzzy. I think everyone would be very disappointed, so let's keep the pool myth alive.
Dave: Where did you hang out when you weren't being hermitty in Portland?
July: That's the exact problem: I didn't. I hung out at Powell's, at the library. Remember the temporary library? I don't know how long you've lived here.
Dave: I moved here nine years ago.
July: Maybe not quite then. There used to be a temporary library, which was so depressing but has a special place in my heart anyway. And then when the big library reopened, my breath was taken.
Dave: In "The Swim Team," the woman called Maria says, "It actually takes a huge amount of upper body strength to swim on land." I was wondering if you've ever confirmed that. Have you tried?
July: While I was writing the story, I did lay down and see if it was even remotely possible, any of the things I was describing. Maybe that reminded me of how dusty it is down there, and that was a good detail.
Dave: There's a specific reference to confidence in "Majesty." So often it's the missing link between where your characters are and where they want to be. They need to be propelled forward, they need a push.
July: Despite lack of confidence, the characters do daring things, which is interesting. They're not daring people, but they occasionally take leaps of faith. I guess I relate to that. And I like the idea that you don't have to be superconfident to do that. It's not a requisite.
Dave: I've been geeking out a bit lately over the word wonderful. Wonder-suffix-ful. What comes to mind when you think of wonder?
July: Oh, a child looking at the sky. Looking with wonder.
Dave: What television shows did you watch growing up?
July: My brother is four-and-a-half years older, so I watched a lot of Mission Impossible, not understanding it at all, but doggedly sitting there, completely perplexed. Why did that guy just take off his face? You know how they would do that? Every night. So I still think of Mission Impossible as deeply confusing.
There was a bit of shaming in the household about watching t.v. There were no rules, but it was frowned upon. Once I was old enough to clue into that, I'd be watching something like The Facts of Life but I'd turn it off if anyone came near the room. Pick up a book! Pick up the Tao Te Ching or something.
Dave: Just leave the Tao on your lap, in case.
Dave: You don't seem likely to settle down and focus on any one form. How much writing — book-writing — do you see yourself doing?
July: It is slightly frustrating. On the one hand, I'm really prolific, doing all these things, but I'm also moving glacially slow in each of the mediums, respectively. I would love to be working on a novel now, but I'm working on a screenplay, which already, in and of itself, feels very late. Maybe that feeling of anguish is what I like. But it feels like the mother of them all, fiction writing, so I do so hope that I still know how to write when I come back to it.
Miranda July visited Powells.com on May 18, 2007, before an event hosted by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA).
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State