Miranda July is a filmmaker, artist, and writer. She has written a collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, which won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and has been published in twenty-three countries. She also wrote, directed and starred in The Future and Me and You and Everyone We Know — winner of the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance.
The First Bad Man, July’s debut novel, tells the story of a woman named Cheryl Glickman, who is committed to maintaining a sense of order in her life, and forced to find pleasure through her fantasies. I met with July shortly before she spoke at BAM with Lena Dunham. We discussed living romantically, selling fictional objects, and Playboy’s Lucky 7 questions.
What made you want to write this kind of story in the first place?
Well, I just had a flash of this middle-aged woman and this younger woman, and wrote down on a piece of paper all the permutations of their relationship. But I was actively waiting and wishing for an idea, like the one that came. Kind of like when you’re hoping to meet your soul mate, and you have a list of qualities you hope they’ll have. I had a list. I specifically didn’t want anyone like me to be a character in it. It was a little bit of a handicap for me in my movies, and I realized I didn’t have to do that in fiction, because I’m not acting it. So while it came easily, it took years to get primed for that idea.
The first line in your novel goes, “I drove to the doctor’s office as if I was starring in a movie Philip was watching—windows down, hair blowing, just one hand on the wheel.” How do you feel about living romantically in your own life? Do you think it detracts from living in reality?
I think there’s a power in that. Sometimes when a friend of mine is on tour and really depressed, I’ll say, “Remember the glamor of your life.” If you look at yourself from the outside, you’d be like, “Wow, what a glamorous person.” And granted, Cheryl is the least glamorous person on earth, but all the more reason to see yourself on the outside like a glamorous figure, and I feel like that can lift you up sometimes. But there’s a lot in this book about living and fantasy and really getting stuck in it.
What kind of characters do you enjoy writing?
Just a character that there’s no reason I should know how to write. Like, what’s my research for that part? It gives you a kind of faith in your accumulation of knowledge of living, you know? You brush up against enough different kinds of people that you begin to gather some heft in areas that really you don’t belong in at all, and in a very quiet, internal way, that feels like breaking ground.
You also created an online store for the actual objects mentioned in your novel. Can you talk about the idea behind that?
Yeah. When a big project is done, I always get excited about marketing, and think about what I can do that’s essentially a conceptual art piece that I’m slipping into the marketing department. And I had been thinking a lot about stores as art. Like, could you have an online store that, for example, sourced all the objects in one woman’s house and sold them in an eBay auction? Could that be a portrait of that woman? And other people have done that, like all of someone’s objects, but not where you can buy them. And I guess I liked the very colloquial use of this thing we all know how to do now, which is to buy things online. So I was thinking about that, and it morphed into not a portrait, but there’s something interesting about fictional objects becoming real. So I remember pitching the idea to the marketing department, a long table of people, and all their questions were along the lines of, “Will you sell the placenta in the Tupperware? Will you sell the box of snails?”
“Are you selling a real baby?” Yeah! I was like, “Wow, these are not the questions I expected. “Will we sell any books from this?” was maybe the question. But overall they were wonderfully supportive.
What about your app, Somebody? What was your initial goal?
Well, this feeling you get when you go up to a stranger and have a semi-intimate interaction, and they’re not just selling you something. I’ve had that experience, because I’ve done these projects that have forced me into those spaces, like this project I did, It Chooses You. And it’s very uncomfortable for me personally, but it also gives me this incredible high and this sort of oneness-with-humanity type communion, and I really can’t get that feeling in any other way. And since in general the world is going more and more in the direction of “You don’t need to interact with anyone and just completely stay alone,” it seemed interesting to have some technology that forced you to have this very inefficient interaction to do something as simple as sending a message. I liked that also one person in it gets to play a role, and I was still in the headspace of the book, which has a lot of role-playing and surrogacy in it. And then I think I like the idea of non-techy people figuring out what they might want to use this technology for, and we need to do that, because it’s impacting our life so much and we’re completely passive. It just seems worth it to think about what you actually want your phone to help you with.
What was your first exposure to Playboy?
I used to work in a peep show, and a lot of times we would just be sitting there waiting for customers, and you’re sitting in a porn shop so we would just sit and read the magazines. That was the period of my life where I read a lot of Playboys.
What movie scared you the most as a kid?
Well, I never actually saw this movie, but The Day After was this movie event about how we were going to be destroyed after nuclear war, and the school told all the parents it was going to be on TV and that we weren’t allowed to watch it, so we were all aware of it but just our parents watched it. It’s still the most terrifying movie to me, but I’ve never seen it.
If you were on death row, what would your last meal be?
Oh, that’s so sad. All I can think is “my baby.” Not that I would eat my baby, but I don’t care about eating, I just want to see my baby. Yeah, that’s all.
What’s the first song you knew the words to?
My parents used to play records, and I’m thinking of one song from the ‘50s that would come on that I thought was about me. It was “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”
What was your first car?
My first car was a car that had been my grandmother’s, and then she gave it to my mom, and then eventually I got it. It was a grey Toyota.
What is your pop culture blind spot?
Definitely anything involving sports.
What’s the biggest lie you ever told?
I can’t tell the full lie but once I took a secret flight. A trip no one knows about — almost no one. It was very important that I go and come back with no one knowing. And I did it, I got home full of relief that I hadn’t gotten caught. The next day a friend told me a friend of his had seen me on the airplane. I said it wasn’t me and he let it drop. He knew I was lying but he let it drop.