Talking to Miranda July will make you feel you've spent most of your life idly staring out the window. She is an award-winning film-maker and author, as well as an actor and highly regarded artist. She won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award in 2007 for her collection No One Belongs Here More Than You. She won the Caméra d'Or at Cannes for her film, Me and You and Everyone We Know. She is currently relaunching her message-delivery app, Somebody.
This morning, her voice is a little tired from last night's performance of her participatory theatrical piece New Society. Yet in spite of all of these achievements, she has been worried about the publication of her debut novel, The First Bad Man.
“I started it when I was pregnant and finished when my son was two, and I kind of stepped away from the world during that time, so it was a little bit inconceivable . . . It just seemed so personal that I couldn’t imagine how it would fit into the world,” she says. “And I knew it was a little out-there too.”
Writers Lena Dunham and Sheila Heti are mentioned in the acknowledgements; did she have a strong support network? "I care so much about impressing the other writers that I know that in a way I showed them very, very late drafts," she says.
The First Bad Man is a beautiful and often strange novel, filled with elements that July considered "boundary pushing". As is often the case with her work, it examines the coping methods of the quietly desperate, and the faltering ways in which human beings seek connection. It is dark but funny. At its centre is the character of Cheryl Glickman, an eccentric woman in her 40s who is alone and yearning for life and love to begin. The character will feel familiar to readers of July's short stories.
"It's a very old character for me," she says. "All I can think is that she is my shadow self, the me that I am so desperately determined not to be. And clearly I'm not. But I feel if I'm not in perpetual motion, I might never move again. Part of me can't believe that I have a husband [Mike Mills, the film-maker behind 2011's Beginners] and a son, and I don't just live alone."
In the book, Cheryl devises many small rituals to manage her solitary life. “It gets quite complex, what you do to keep your sanity,” says July. “All your rituals.”
Then with the arrival of an unwelcome house guest, her bosses’ daughter Clee, the story sets off down side roads you could never anticipate. Clee and Cheryl begin to physically engage with each other in a violent way, with wrestling and horseplay, “a child’s form of anger”.
“I’m quite a cerebral person,” says July. “Often I feel quite stuck in that. I’m alone here writing, and sometimes I’ll just think, if someone could just come in here and slam me against the wall, please.”
But it was never about anyone getting hurt; “it’s just about the release of what it would feel like to fight back”.
The relationship between Clee and Cheryl then moves into something more erotic, although it is never typical. I ask July about the portrayal of sexuality in her work, which tends to be quite fluid in terms of age and gender.
“I think, for me, it’s a very old thing,” she says. “When I was a kid, this is how I was. I thought everyone was fair game. I was having crushes on adults and wondering why they weren’t noticing me . . . And girls. It didn’t have anything to do with gayness. I would have relationships with girls where we would be fighting and then there’d be some kind of sexual play, like ‘Let’s make a baby’, and that territory feels more truly me. I’ve made a life with a man, and that feels perfectly right, but there is a whole vast world that doesn’t have anything to do with that.”
The latter part of the book brings a tender exploration of motherhood. July is typically honest when describing how this compares with her own recent experience.
“On some level I feel like it totally goes against who I am, my most natural state, which . . . It’s pretty alone and free to move between having an idea and reading. Just a porous sense of time. It barely even works with a husband, much less a two-year-old. So the two-year-old, I’m just completely forced out of that. I have to let go of it and, frankly, its like an abomination. It’s sort of horrible, but I’m completely willing. I don’t have any resentment, and I just go to him.”
July is a writer concerned with people's most private preoccupations, their secret selves, so it is no wonder that, to her, this novel feels like the personal laid bare. When a recent review in the Guardian described the novel as "strenuously quirky", it brought up a worn old criticism that July has always had to contend with: the suggestion that her work is woven from whimsy.
“At this point it feels like a throwback,” she says. “I’ve been doing a lot of radio interviews all over the US, and there’s a certain kind of midwestern woman who, when she says, “You’re so quirky, I love it”, I really don’t judge her at all. I think, that is the word in your vocabulary and you mean that in the best way. And so when someone who has a wider vocabulary chooses to do that, I guess I think that they’re sort of limited. I would rather you say you don’t like it for very solid reasons, because to just call it quirky is to say I’m a little girl.”
As tempting as it is to identify July with her female characters, those characters could never have produced the body of work that July has. The word “quirky” is belittling, creating the impression that her art falls from her like an accident and is not the product of dogged industry.
When she was growing up, July’s parents ran a publishing company from their house, “so I had that sort of sense of working for yourself is what you do”. They instilled in her a sense of value about her own ideas, but she recalls that in her teens and 20s her relationship with them was “tense and fraught. Imagine a kid just never showing any inkling in any other thing, and not only that but her own art is completely not within any context whatsoever.
“I was totally rebelling at that time and was doing every possible scary thing. I worked in peepshow, and at the time it was just, ‘I can do this’. I had no investment in any of the ways I made money. It’s not totally removed from the part of me that does all these projects with strangers and stuff.
“There was part of me that was interested in these people who were coming in, and you’re having a very intimate experience with them.”
Although she was more comfortable with writing a novel than making a movie, a screenplay is next on her list. “I have an idea for it, but I don’t feel super-confident about it,” she says. “I think that maybe I should be taking a rest first. I have all kinds of hang-ups and insecurities, especially when it comes to a big new idea.”
Is she ever overwhelmed by self-doubt? “I feel like my only safety is in being totally true to myself. If I’m feeling confident, I’ll think, Well, that just might be a little bit of a step ahead from where the audience is, and they’ll catch up. I am very aware of audience and story and what sustains someone’s interest, so it’s not like I’m just flinging myself out there. I labour over these things.”
The First Bad Man is published by Scribner