An Interview with Miranda July
Miranda July started her artistic endeavors doing performance pieces at 924 Gilman St., the well-known all ages punk club in Berkeley that kicked off other major talents including Green Day, Rancid, Mr. T. Experience and the whole East Bay punk scene.
She grew up in Berkeley, spent time in the Pacific Northwest, and now lives in Los Angeles.
She has released a couple of CDs of her performances, one of which included musical accompaniment by Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening and K Records, who was her boyfriend at the time.
Later July submitted a screenplay she was working on to the Sundance Institute, where she was accepted, and that developed into the 2005 film Me and You and Everyone We Know, a film she wrote, directed and starred in.
It’s hard to distinguish July from Christine Jesperson, who she plays in the film, because her character is also a performance artist and is quirky in many of the same ways that July is.
It was my favorite film of that year and made me even more of a fan of her work. I’m glad she is finally getting the attention she deserves for her talents.
July’s boyfriend is Mike Mills, who directed Thumbsucker, based on the novel by Walter Kirn.
July has written short stories over the years, some of which have been published in the Paris Review, Fence and, most recently, The New Yorker. A compilation of her short stories was published by Scribner in May, entitled No One Belongs Here More Than You. She’s a fan of long titles.
No One Belongs Here More Than You encapsulates July’s offbeat sense of humor and the characters and stories are endearing, sexual, and are aching for a big hug.
I met July at a hotel in San Francisco before her reading at Modern Times bookstore.
If you think she’s sweet in person, you’re right. I had to fight the urge to ask if we could embrace while we talked, or at least hold all four of our hands together on top of each other like I was Oprah and she was John Travolta and we just had so much admiration for each other.
Miranda July lives in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles.
All the writers I interview from Los Angeles seem to live in Silverlake or Echo Park.
I actually have a little office in Echo Park, so I never know which to say, but... yeah.
What’s your writing schedule like? Do you go into the office to write? Do you mainly work on prose or do you kind of have all of your projects going at once?
Usually there’s something I need to write, like one main thing... like right now it’s my next screenplay. And when it comes to creative stuff, it keeps changing where works well for me. I mean sometimes I’m writing in that little house in Echo Park and sometimes I have to write in my bed, you know. I think I’m always trying to trick myself into thinking that it’s something I just decided to do that day, you know, and entirely my own free will. [laughs]
I’m not one of those nine to five writers either. A couple of hours is a long time for me and it usually helps to have other things in the day, like to not have the full force of my intention on writing usually keeps things moving.
Is there -- since you’re doing film projects that are so socially intensive because there’s so many people -- is there like a point where you get lonely sometimes when you’re writing where you have to get out of the house?
It’s weird. At this phase of making a movie it’s just as lonely as anything; writing a script is completely solo. Yeah. But I don’t... to be honest it’s... socially, it’s much more comfortable for me to be alone, and I actually sort of dread the collaboration involved in making a movie. [laughs]
I mean it’s nice because you got to that point and you’re done with the really hard work that’s writing, but it makes me so nervous dealing with that many people a day, even wonderful people... yeah, so they kind of feed off each other... it gives me a reason to want to go back to writing. Writing this book of short stories after making the movie was a nice little home to go to.
How did you come up with the order of the short stories, since that’s kind of like putting together a CD and did the order of the stories change from the galley?
I don’t think the order changed, it seemed kind of rand-... like I remember sending an order of the stories into my editor at Scribner, and then maybe she had one suggestion. I don’t know. I was waiting for that to be this really magical process where they all somehow got better just by virtue of the order, but I’m not sure that happened... Yeah.
How do you feel about the book: are you a little nervous about some of the stories?
I am. I definitely think there’s some that are better than others and even looking for which ones to read... like at these readings I’m like, that one’s good but it starts bad. Even the ones I love have their bad parts, and I’ve actually kept editing for better or worse. I read a story last night and realized it could read -- it read -- better without a paragraph in it and I just put a line through it and I’m hoping the paperback will improve.
And there’s a lot of semen in your book.
I realize... once the book’s out there you realize there’s a lot of a lot of things, you know, which is probably not a great sign, a little repetitious but, people have been volunteering what... I mean, suffice to say I will never write about semen again. [laughs]
I’m completely aware of what I’m doing and I’ll stop, immediately...Yeah.
I think it was called “Majesty,” about the sexual fantasy of the person in the royal family, there’s a lot of sensuality and a lot of sexuality. Do you think it’s easier to write that than to talk about it with people? Is that how it is for you?
I’m definitely not used to talking about that stuff with strangers, like here. I talk about it freely among my friends or with my boyfriend or something, maybe more than everyone is comfortable with. Maybe there’s more semen brought up than anyone would like, but I’m pretty shy with regard to that with other people. Especially in reading the stories out loud, I mean I read to 500 people last night and I was sort of just... I almost skipped over a sentence, in fact one that contained semen. I almost could not say it in front of that many people, which is kind of a good test. And there are a few things that I changed when I realized they were going to be published that were fun to write but were too graphic, that they were distractingly graphic, you know. But it’s just I’m not thinking, especially with the first stories, I’m just not thinking of an audience at all so I hide very little shame or sense of propriety.
Some of these stories were written before the film came out, correct?
Yeah, about half of them. Generally the shorter ones were earlier and then they got longer as I went on. So I wrote a bunch of them, and then I made the movie (Me and You and Everyone We Know) and then I came back to it.
In your writing, I find a lot of humor and a lot of loneliness as the themes. I know it’s hard to answer: how do you get your creativity? It’s like the worst question in the world. But does a humorous anecdote come in your mind first or does that work its way out as you’re writing the story, that the humor pops in?
Often I’ll have a feeling which is sometimes a sad or desperate or some kind of unresolved feeling, and I’ll marry it to some detail from the world, and those two things combined kind of set me on a course for writing a story. I don’t know what it’s going to be about. For example, I wrote down a few things the woman behind me on the plane said. She was talking about someone who was housesitting for her and the bird had escaped and she was describing how to catch the bird and what to do with it, and just little things she said, like, “Were you watching the house when Gabriel, the dove, escaped?” and it was like these little things which, in and of themselves, it’s like I’m not just interested in people’s dialogue, but that kind of loaned to some really personal thing in myself. That’s kind of where energy comes from for me... Yeah.
So if someone sits next to Miranda July on a bus, will their dialogue end up -- well, certain parts of their dialogue might end up -- in your writing?
Very rarely. People always say, “I hope this doesn’t end up...” My mom is always the one who has to watch out, because it seems like a really high percentage of things that come out of her mouth end up in my stories, which I sort of forgot about until she e-mailed me the other day and she’s like, “I kind of cringed when I saw the earthquake preparedness workshop,” and I was like, “oh god, she’s right that she is the head of the earthquake preparedness thing for her block,” and I’ve heard so much about it, there’s just no way it wouldn’t get in. And that reminded me of all the little things from her in there.
That’s a good example where, in the “Majesty” story, did it start with the earthquake preparedness and then the longing for somebody who you could never have?
I don’t think I started with that. I think I started with some dream that I had about a celebrity. I can’t remember, but just feeling what if you just took that all the way and didn’t discount it as a dream, you know?
Can I gush over the swimming lessons chapter [“The Swim Team,”]: that was amazing. When did you write that? Just visualizing the story I was rolling on the floor.
That one was pretty early on. Very early that I have no idea, although swimming seems to come back again and again in different things I’ve made. I made a movie about an Olympic swimmer. I don’t know. I can’t swim at all. I think I had some swimming lessons that made a really big impression on me when I was really young... Yeah.
I also read a lot of themes like death and, well, not themes, but it creeps up in your stories, like our human existence, our minor existence, on this big planet. Do you want to talk a little bit about that or, if I’m getting it completely wrong, let me know?
I concur; there is a lot of that. I guess partly there’s something always interesting to me about scale and how you can get to the universe through sort of the tiniest things and vice versa. I never want to be so small that it’s just irrelevant, really, and I guess sometimes I’m testing things and could this matter tremendously? Could this be even sort of spiritual? And the characters are a spiritual bunch in their own pretty pedestrian ways. They’re sort of taking leaps of faith all the time.
Do you get nervous at your readings, like at the Hammer Museum in front of 500 people?
I get a little nervous. It’s not the size of the people, I think, because it was just my first one, but I really do love it too, once I start. Yeah. People said I seemed so comfortable up there, and that’s good because that’s about as nervous as I get, but I think that’ll be the biggest event.
Oh my god, all right, let me just gush on you a little more, the sister relationship, I forget what story it was; I guess that was one of the earlier ones, where she almost has phone sex with her sister.
Right, that’s all, that’s the same one, that’s in “Majesty.” Really there’s just one story you like in it and it’s all in there. [laughs] Yeah, that’s an odd one.
It’s amazing. It’s taboo, yet it’s real life. Again the loneliness, the lonely theme, people trying to connect like you, exactly like your film, you were trying to get people to connect. It seems like a really big theme in all of your artwork is connecting with people.
Well, I have to say, I think the stories I was writing at the same time I was writing Me and You and Everyone We Know, I think they’re more or less the same topic. However, the stories I wrote later have more in common with the movie I’m writing now. And art’s so much about that. It’s hard not to write a story or make a movie about people connecting. For example, the last story in the book was one of the last ones I wrote, and people already have their people in that. Or the same with “Mon Plaisir,” about the couple. It’s more like they’re in relationships and then what happens. So I think right now that’s kind of more where I am. It’s easy for me to see the timeline, but of course it’s all mixed up in the book, so...
Is that because you’ve been in a relationship yourself now?
I’ve always been in relationships. I think it’s more that I’m not in my 20s anymore and I think, I hope, that one just sort of resolves things and moves to the next level of unrest and doesn’t just keep cycling in the same one.
Your spiritual beliefs, do you want to talk about that? I see Buddhism come up here and there.
I really can’t call myself Buddhist. I was raised in Berkeley by parents who probably also can’t call themselves Buddhist, but who are similarly pretty open to a lot of different kinds of beliefs and a real belief in the unknown, and in the very least that it was interesting, if not... if nothing more than that could be proven. So I think that’s the faith I have. Just sort of a resolute faith in things that you can’t see are present and important and that a lot is being generated in that realm, and I probably co-opted a bunch of stuff that is some religion and I just kind of made it my creative beliefs, you know, since spirituality and creativity for me are so much the same thing...Yeah.
Writers are neurotic. I’m a writer, too, and I’m a complete neurotic. Do you have any phobias or quirks like that?
I have one phobia, which is a lot better than it was, which is I’m afraid of dogs. But more particularly I’m just afraid of the barking, and I’ve gotten a lot better, although I live with a dog. My boyfriend has a dog, so it’s obviously under control, but I do have sort of classic phobia, like I will sometimes walk by a dog that barks and I’ll just realize that I’m crying. I won’t even notice that it happened. I’ll be like, “oh my god, there’s tears.” It’s very physical, the reaction. And oddly, I had this thing, and I don’t think this is the entire explanation at all, but I’ve been grinding my teeth like crazy so I saw this cranial sacral therapist who was doing who knows what, kind of energy work. I was just like open to whatever she had and also just working on my jaw, and when I came in her dog barked at me like crazy, and she put it in the other room, and I laid down and she began to work on me and she said, “I’m releasing some energy I think isn’t yours.” Someone else’s or something else’s, I don’t know. I just had to have some faith and lie there while she was doing it. Which of course, I didn’t. I was like lying there going, “oh my god, this is... how much am I paying for this?” Although part of me is completely... I love it. I love that she’s releasing energy from my head and kind of hitting me in the head while she’s doing it, which was weird. Anyways, this is long winded, but the point being, afterwards she said, “my clue that this energy was in there was that my dog barked at you because she never barks and she’s very sensitive and that let me know.” So she’s like, “let’s let him back out and see if he barks at you now.” Of course, not very scientific because the dog already knew me at this point. But of course it didn’t bark. Which in her mind meant that she had released the energy. This is all sounding so hokey, that I’m like, “God,” and I’m actually thinking of going back. But it made me think, maybe I’m scared of these dogs barking because they’re barking at this energy that isn’t mine and it’s upsetting for me to have it called out.
Since you asked. [laughs]
I may be asking for her card, too, so I can get over a couple of things. Do you have any anticipatory anxiety towards that, like sometimes is it hard for you to walk certain blocks?
My route around the neighborhood is, like when my boyfriend walks with me I’m like, fffwwitt, okay, now here’s where we cross the street and now we can cross back. He just has to follow my lead because it’s so elaborate to not pass any barking dogs.
What’s your schedule like with your boyfriend? Are you able to spend a lot of time together, or is it kind of hard because of schedule conflicts?
Well, we live together, you know, yeah. There’s big chunks of times we’re not together because of work, but also we have many days where, if we want, we can hang out all day together and that’s a lucky thing... Yeah.
The last time we talked was when you were right in the middle of the [movie] press tour. What was it like when the press tour was done and everything was completed? Did the stress go away or did you feel like there was a huge void in your life?
I felt sort of like I had just been through a car accident or something, and there was a level of rehabilitation, certainly creatively, that had to happen. I had to kind of coax myself into just writing a single sentence without being incredibly self conscious or, you know, aware of what I do. And it wasn’t a dramatic stop. People kept recognizing me when I went out. In a way you can always be doing press if you wanted. Some people do. I realized I had to draw a line and now I’m going to have privacy until the next thing, you know. A lot of it was just learning that, “Oh, this is your life now and you can’t really go back unless you...” It would be a really big choice to try to recreate the life I had. I think, as with anything, like a new job or whatever, you just get used to it. That’s the best cure. You stop being so shocked by your own life, which I think I was for a little while, and I’m kind of over it now I guess.
Do people still recognize you a lot, and is it disconcerting?
I guess me and my boyfriend and my friends are pretty used to it now, and it depends on... like if I go to Trader Joes inevitably it’ll be blogged about. I’ve learned that in my yoga class there’s definitely some bloggers in the yoga class, which is a little upsetting. Things like that are hard because I’m not very good at yoga and I don’t need that reported on, you know.
If I had some sort of vague longing for fame you know, I now realize why one would not just want that in and of itself, and that it’s just... at this point it’s more just the price to pay for trying to do work that connects to people, you know?
Do you have another book you’re working on or a novel?
No. I’m writing the screenplay, and after I finished this book I wrote a performance which I spent a long time on, which I just did in New York the month before last, and out of that performance came this screenplay. There was just sort of more of a story there than I could do live, or that I wanted to do it differently. It’s a little odd having these three careers because I feel sometimes frustrated that I’m moving in slow motion in each of them. It’s like when a lot of people are on their book tour they are working on their next book, and it’s like I can’t even think of working on my next book until I finish this script. And I know no one’s really keeping track, but even for myself it’s like, “no, do not open a Word document and just start seeing if you can start writing a novel, you got to finish this movie and make it really good and keep with it,” because every other medium is more appealing than the one you’re working on.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
I do feel like, just as I made short films and then I made a feature, that I would like to write a novel now that I’ve written stories. I imagine that will take forever. I’d like to keep making movies, but certainly don’t want to have it be the main thing, which is sort of a continual fight because that industry is so, um, it thinks it wants to rule the world. So the idea that you’d want to do anything else is something you have to keep insisting on in yourself. And especially like you’d want to do something like performance, which hardly anyone sees and it doesn’t make any money, you know, which is probably why I went to that.
Were scripts knocking on your door after the success of Me and You and Everyone We Know?
There was some of that, though I definitely just want to write my own material, and I think people got that, and my agent certainly. Usually there’ll be a book, like by a young woman writer, that’s really hot and people will think I just want to do it because I’m a young woman, too. There was sort of no reason for me to take any meetings or do anything like that after the movie, because it’s like, well, when I’ve come up with something new I’ll go back into the business. But I also don’t put things on credit or use credit cards or like taking money for things I haven’t made. So I finished this book of stories and then I sold it and I’d like to finish this script and then sell it. Of course that’s a luxury and I’m living very cheaply to do that, but it also keeps the pressure off, like I did not jump into a deal after the movie because I thought well, “how do I know my next idea will even be a movie, and then I’ll feel really guilty that this company paid me all this money and I’m working on something totally else.”
Tony DuShane writes entertainment articles for the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets and hosts the interview radio show Drinks with Tony. He’s almost finished with his novel Holy Smoke.