Miranda July on her debut novel The First Bad Man

Actress/writer Miranda July and director husband Mike Mills. Picture: Getty
Actress/writer Miranda July and director husband Mike Mills. Picture: Getty
Have your say

THERE isn’t anyone quite like writer, director, artist and performer Miranda July, who questions our assumptions about sex, love and family in her strange and unsettling debut novel The First Bad Man, writes Claire Black

What can I tell you about my relationship with Miranda July? It is longstanding. I saw her first film, Me And You And Everyone We Know, nearly a decade ago and have watched it countless times since. I have loved her work, consumed it avidly, her films, short stories, non-fiction, websites. And I’ve interviewed her once before, for her 2011 film The Future. I wasn’t at my best. I was nervous, preoccupied about not being too obvious a fan and terrified of how I was going to wrestle her complex, profound ideas and idiosyncrasies into prose. This time, as we sit down to discuss her debut novel, The First Bad Man, I am still nervous but less fretful. I have sat in July’s direct gaze before and so I can enjoy it more. I have already heard that slightly halting but strong voice, so I don’t worry so much when the sentences dissolve a few words short of their destination.

If you already know something about July then my description may strike you as surprising. You might have expected that instead of feeling anxiety about keeping up with her intellect, I’d be drowning in a bucket of whimsical quirkiness? After all, that’s how July, 41, is usually portrayed. She’s less an artist at the peak of her powers and more a kind of diaphanous creature who effortlessly oozes quirky, kooky, arty stuff. No. If this article can achieve anything let it be a statement of the fact that viewing July as “quirky” is to malign, misrepresent and misunderstand both the woman and her work.

There isn’t anyone quite like July. The First Bad Man is the latest addition to a body of work that skips between mediums with what looks, from the outside, like insufferable ease. Who else can you think of who not only writes and directs a feature film but also stars in it? Who can write short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, which can make you laugh and then cry within a few sentences? Which other artist combines a week of book promotion duties in London with a live performance piece at the ICA, a discussion about an upcoming as yet undated commission with Artangel, and fields phone calls from Italy to tweak the final edition of a soon to be launched app, Somebody? (The app is quintessential July – it’s about connection, role play, how we relate. If you send a message to a friend through Somebody it goes not to them but to the Somebody user closest to them and then that person, who is probably a stranger, tells them the message as if they’re you.) Maybe it’s this approach that has given rise to some of the snideness which July attracts. Far from being celebrated as a polymath, she has been derided for her refusal to stick to one art form. Maybe I’m falling into the same trap by asking her about it, but does she share the frustration?

“I genuinely think it is a little hard,” she says. “I can see it enough from the outside, or notice my reaction to other people who do it, to know that it’s just really hard to trust that the passion and seriousness is there. And you want to be able to do that to take someone seriously.”

July grew up in Berkeley, California, where her parents ran a publishing house specialising in books about alternative health and spirituality. When I ask her about her childhood she tells me about her parents’ response to when she was “starting to act out” at around the age of 13. She was sent on a two-day residential course to learn about magic. “It was pretty weird.” She went to the University of Santa Cruz, dropping out in her second year and moving to Portland, Oregon, where she changed her name and launched herself as a performance artist. Now she lives in Los Angeles with her husband, filmmaker Mike Mills, 48, and their three-year-old son Hopper.

In her work, she chooses different ways to say what she wants to say, but thematically her work is coherent. Whether it’s We Think Alone, the project in which she got her friends, Lena Dunham, Sheila Heti and Kirsten Dunst among others, to share some of their previously sent emails with 100,000 subscribers, or It Chooses You, a book of stories made from interviews July did with the people who had placed classified ads in PennySaver, a local freesheet, July’s work is poignant and compelling and often astonishing because it’s about human relationships – how we are with ourselves and each other. The messiness of it, the rawness, the misunderstandings and misfires. There’s darkness too – loss and longing and loneliness. And the unspeakable – sex and desire and violence. When people talk about whimsy (apart from the talking cat in The Future – I’ll give them that) it’s hard to imagine they’ve ever seen or read her work.

Happily, I’m not sure anyone will have enough resolve to try to whimsify The First Bad Man. It is a funny book but it’s also strange and unsettling. The story follows Cheryl Glickman, a 40-something, single woman who works for Open Palm, a company that makes self-defence fitness DVDs. “It’s a Catch-22,” says the presenter in one of the videos. “With your new ripped bod, you may actually get attacked more often!” Cheryl is odd and utterly idiosyncratic, yet July’s skill is to make her also entirely familiar. Reading the novel is like being allowed unfettered access into Cheryl’s thought processes, her messiness, her contradictions and through that we are allowed to acknowledge our own.

“There are several aspects of Cheryl that are small points of me that I took to a big extreme and used as tools,” says July, “often things that I’m embarrassed about or things that I pushed aside. Things that I’m not proud of but that she could be proud to the point of righteous about which is really interesting. I’ve always joked that if I ever did a cheesy autobiography when I’m in my 70s that it would have me jumping over a puddle and it would be called Jumping To Conclusions. Anyone who knows me well knows that’s something I do all the time. I take things really far before eventually having to acknowledge I was totally wrong. And yet secretly I still retain this sense of having been wrong technically but, on some more profound level, I’m always right.”

She smiles and sips her green tea. “I spend a lot of energy to know stuff and be savvy and smart so to have a character who was so unknowing and uses her unknowingness boldly – she makes a lot of assumptions that are really wrong. That is what moves her through the world and it does make things happen. Very real things.”

The action of the novel centres on Cheryl’s unrequited love for her colleague Phillip, a sleazy silver fox, and her relationship with Clee, the 20-year-old daughter of her employers who comes, uninvited, to stay. Cheryl’s habit of getting things wrong, or omitting to say things because she assumes that everyone else will know what she knows, or feel the same way as she does, taps into a persistent theme in July’s work. “There’s this fallacy that we know how to connect,” she says. “Or that those of us who try really hard do it well. But actually no one does. We don’t really have any accuracy or efficiency and yet we do make things happen often through really inverse ways which are very specific to who we are. That’s really useful from a character point of view – both how is that character trying to connect and how are they getting it wrong.”

When July started to write the novel she didn’t make any assumption that she would be able to do it. It’s a kind of radical uncertainty she often feels when she embarks on a new project, partly because working across different mediums means that there are long periods of time between projects. “That I have always come back to it after a long break means I come with a feeling of ignorance and shyness,” she says, “that same teenager feeling each time, which I guess I like. I prefer that to a more masculine master of the ship feeling.”

The first draft of her novel took “eight gruelling months”. She knew it was a good story, she liked the premise, but she felt like she wasn’t writing it well. “But what was I going to do? I just roboted through that to get it done because then you’ve got a book, a 90 page book, it wasn’t very fleshed out but the process of rewriting is much better because you’re always making it better.”

Reaction to the novel has been mixed. For every reader who is blown away by what July has managed to do (if my Twitter feed is anything to go by, there are a lot of them), there is another who is panicked or baffled. For my part, although I am committed to avoiding spoilers, what I find in the novel is July’s attempt to expand the range of space that women are allowed to occupy, whether that’s in terms of their relationships and roles or their bodies and their sexual selves. It’s uncomfortable because it’s unfamiliar. July makes us question our assumptions about love and family and who we can allow ourselves to be. “To me, that doesn’t even feel radical,” she says, referring to some of the more excitedly negative reactions, “that’s just writing a book for me, a book that me and my friends can relate to. I got interested in who are we in our sexual fantasies and how much do they relate to how much we actually want or our own sexual orientations. I was surprised that some of my gay friends have only straight fantasies.

“We’re all sold the same stuff. I realised that for someone who has no real interest in boobs, I mean even when I had two girlfriends boobs were never my thing, they were pretty butch and we just kind of ignored them, nonetheless boobs come up a lot in my inner world because they just are sexiness. We have no reason to be smart or sophisticated in our sexual fantasies. We’re not showing off for anyone, they’re just for us so you’re kind of like a dumb child.”

The book is visceral – bodies are very present, explored, exposed, examined. Some of the shock that’s been expressed in reviews makes me wonder what people think women’s bodies are really like – that they’re smooth, they don’t smell, or excrete. “It’s a bit of a litmus test,” she says. “I describe Clee as ‘brothy’, as in she has this broth smell. That’s right from a friend of ours, me and my boyfriend at the time, we had a friend who smelled of tomato soup, that was just the smell of her. So that was a real person, I didn’t just make that up.”

Part of July’s heightened awareness of and interest in bodies was to do with the fact that she was pregnant throughout writing the novel. “Those eight months that were really hard writing, most of my blood was down here.” She puts her hand on her lower belly. “I was really thinking from a different place. I was super sexual in a very free form way that had very little to do with another person but sometimes did. I wasn’t a horrible pregnant lady, but occasionally I was wildly angry and physical in a way that I am not usually. It was great to write from that place. And to be honest the ride just kept on going because I breastfed for 14 months, then I stopped. It was like a series of different trips I was on.”

She says that although she was frightened that having a child would clash with her work, it hasn’t turned out that way. July has worked intensively for the past decade or so. She and Mills didn’t even have a honeymoon. “It was the Venice Biennale,” she says.

But there’s a sense that now she’s at the peak of her creative powers, full of ideas and interests and with the fearlessness to share what she discovers with the rest of us. Having a child has been profound, she says, not only in terms of the love you feel – “it’s almost unwritable” – but in terms of changing her perception of time and mortality. And her work.

“As much as I think I’m pretty good at coming home and turning it off and being with my son, I realise that I’ve always been supposed to learn to enjoy doing other things, that’s been on my to do list my whole life and now I have the added incentive of wanting to give him some examples of that, of what else a person might do other than work.”

One simple trick, she says, is that she has stopped calling it work. She might say ‘I’m going to write a story’, or ‘I’m going to do a dance’ instead. “For a while he [Hopper] was obsessively working. He’d be cutting something and we’d say, ‘It’s dinner time’ and he’d say, ‘I’m working, I’m busy’.” Her eyebrows rise. “I wonder where he got that from?”

• The First Bad Man, published by Canongate, is out now


Twitter | Facebook | Google+

Subscribe to our DAILY NEWSLETTER (requires registration)


iPhone | iPad | Android | Kindle