Miranda July's Childlike, Unchildlike Art

(Photo by Kevin Scanlon)

Outside, the New York spring

has turned blustery and wet, but inside the Bright Food Shop diner, Miranda July is perfectly prim and composed in a vintage turquoise jacket with a matching flower in her hair. She could be sitting for a painting. Still, there’s something wild about her large blue eyes, a stricken look, as if she’s just witnessed some terrible accident and is searching for words to describe what she’s seen. Her expression is somehow both alarming and winsome at the same time. This mixture of earnest charm and lurking madness can be found in much of July’s artwork, from her recent performance-art piece

Things We Don’t Understand and Definitely Are Not Going to Talk About

, her Camera d’Or–winning film,

You and Me and Everyone We Know

, or her new collection of short stories,

No One Belongs Here More Than You

. I approached her fiction with a jaded, knowing attitude, assuming that her stories would be quirky and funny, but slight. The stories


quirky: A middle-aged woman fantasizes about Prince William “nuzzling my buns.” They


funny: A teenager describes getting a job as a professional peepshow girl as “like being suddenly good at sports. I didn’t care about football, but it was pretty amazing to be in the NFL.” But they are rarely slight. July always has her sights on bigger game, on misguided desire, on our lunatic cravings for human connection. In one story, a sexually frustrated woman orgasms as she listens to her cruel younger sister describing a raunchy one-night stand — it is intimate, odd and utterly devastating. July, who lives in Echo Park, sat down in Chelsea to talk about her art and writing.

L.A. WEEKLY: Your work often seems to involve children in highly sexualized situations.

MIRANDA JULY: Um. There are not so many in this book! I guess there are some. There are some. Okay, never mind.

I guess I don’t know why. There’s no immediate excuse in my own childhood, though I definitely remember being sexual or aware of sexual things way earlier than anyone ever acknowledges. I actually have a tape I made in the first grade of me and a friend, and the stuff that’s coming out of our mouths is just filthy. Now, I’d look at a 5- or 6-year-old and I would never guess that they’re aware of all that. It seems important to make a space for it that has its own purity and isn’t just about pedophilia or perversion.

Your characters seem to have a love for games and rituals: the hold-your-breath contest, the girl who wants to stay perfectly still until her girlfriend comes home, the lady who thinks that she will die if her neighbor doesn’t look up at a certain moment. Where does that come from?

That’s just me. I think it’s worthwhile to do things that have no reason. It’s an attempt to engage with the unknown. But I always hate it when people emphasize that it’s childlike. There’s a way in which being a young woman — I’m not even that young anymore — but it easily becomes this thing where I’m just a child, like I’m just doing these instinctual child things.

Uh-oh. I think I have the word “childlike” somewhere in my notes. I meant it in the best sense.

I can see how it could also be a compliment.

Have you been writing stories forever?

No, just since 2001.

That’s surprising. It seems like the kind of thing you might have come to early, since it requires fewer props than a performance piece.

Coming from a family of writers — my parents are both writers, they run a publishing company — it was sort of the most obvious thing. And I probably desperately wanted to be a writer to be in the family business. But maybe also for that reason, I had to do everything else first. I think I was a little nervous.

Your stories are terribly good at creating a connection between the narrator and the reader. Sometimes I felt like I could hear you speaking, as if you were somehow performing your stories. Do you think you’re particularly conscious about forming a link with your audience?

I’m definitely not one of those artists who is like, “Whatever, I don’t care, this is my work.” I’m always thinking, “Okay, if I was there, what would I want most?” That’s an inspiration to me. How to make that experience feel intimate . . .

{mosimage}Your work is very generous in that respect.

My boyfriend jokes that I have this kind of showmanship, you know? An almost old-school idea that you have to put on a good show, and you need to learn your lines, and parts should be funny. That runs parallel to the convoluted, dark, out-of-control feeling of intimacy.

Maybe in the real world, intimacy is not what we think it is. Perhaps this mysterious sense of closeness can only be achieved through somewhat artificial and stylized motions.

Yeah, yeah. Definitely. I think there’s this false romantic idea that if you just get really close to someone there will be intimacy.

Just think really hard . . .

And open your heart. You don’t just fall in love. To me, it is much more of a ritual. A series of trusting things which can often be clunky. There’s trick doors and all these things that appear to be going the wrong way . . . and then you’re there.

Frequently in your fiction, the narrator tries desperately to attract the attention of some “other.” Like that scene in “Majesty” where the narrator imagines telling an interactive story to attract the attention of Prince William. And I thought that situation was similar to you, as a performance artist, trying to win the attention and sympathy of an audience.

Some of the stories were written during the time I was writing my movie script, and they’re all, in my mind, kind of the same story: I’m here, and here’s someone, and I’m trying to get to them. At that time, I didn’t have such a big audience, and there was still that feeling of striving for impossible connection. I think you spend your 20s in a state of basic longing. [Laughs.] You’re kind of like: Here I am!

Do you ever find people who become kind of obsessed with you? It seems like your work could make you a kind of target for that kind of thing.

My dad asked me the same question: “Are you getting stalkers? Is it safe?” I was like, “Well, you know, there are definitely people. I am aware of that. I’m trying to be safe.” And he said, “You have to think about changing your work so people don’t feel like that.” And I was like, “Well . . .” [Laughs.] “You know I can’t. In fact, that is the very thing I’m striving for.”

You’ve made art since you were very young. You’re a filmmaker, performer and now a writer. Are you going to tackle other mediums?

These three are already driving me crazy. No one will ever see the drawings I do or hear the bad songs I sing. But my sense of self-worth is totally tied up in making things. It’s definitely the hell of my life. It’s the worst thing, that pressure, in a way. I try to remind myself that, theoretically, there’s time. No one really is losing sleep over when things come out. I just have tremendous guilt about not working. I had a period of like three months when I was 22 or so where I didn’t make anything. At the end, I thought, “Never again.” Now, I’m like, “Wow, how did I not off myself?” But it’s not, thank God, all about getting attention. It’s how I make sense of the world. It predates an audience.

Sure, it’s only 10 percent narcissism.

Probably a little more than that! [Laughs.]

Is there any writer who is with you when you write? A kindred spirit?

No. With the people I admire most, it can be dangerous. You read a Lorrie Moore story, and suddenly you’re writing a bad Lorrie Moore story. More than anything, I’ll read something and just feel like: Shit, it’s so great when you can connect with someone. The way I feel now, having read this — I want to be able to do that! Less than any particular style, it’s just when it works. You feel: This is worthwhile. I should really try to do this. And that keeps the wolves chasing ?after you.

Everyone is blogging about the publicity Web site you made for your book []. There’s that wonderful moment when you turn on the burners on the stove to represent your anxiety.

That wasn’t planned. I just got genuinely nervous, thinking, “This is for real now, this is going to come out.” And I just had to turn on the burners!

NO ONE BELONGS HERE MORE THAN YOU: Stories By MIRANDA JULY | Scribner | 224 pages | $23 hardcover

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