Miranda July: The Beating Heart

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Miranda July is no stranger to awkwardness, or awkwardness among strangers. As an artist, actress, filmmaker, and writer, she is unafraid of uncomfortable moments. There’s an earnestness to her naked observations, and a view of the world as one in which we’re all connected by the fact that we’re looking for connection.

Her debut novel, The First Bad Man, centers on a middle-aged woman named Cheryl. She lives by herself, suffers from a nervous condition known as globus hystericus (she often feels like she has a lump in her throat), and works for a self-defense organization. The life she has settled into is radically changed when her bosses’ 21-year-old daughter, Clee, moves in with her—and not by Cheryl’s choice. Clee’s parents need a place for her to stay. The two women make an odd pairing, and their relationship morphs from a tense dynamic to an unexpected intimacy.

The First Bad Man is a book about getting unstuck, and the rewards to be found in the messiness of our lives. While at work, Cheryl thinks about an emotion that drives her: “My eyes fell on the gray linoleum floor and I wondered how many women had sat on this toilet and stared at the floor. Each of them the center of their own world, all of them yearning for someone to put their love into so they could see their love, see that they had it.”

Earlier this month I spoke with July about sexual fantasies, relationships, and motherhood. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.Michele Filgate

The Barnes and Noble Review: What was on your mind when you started writing this novel? What was happening in your life that might’ve inspired it?

Miranda July: I think often ideas accumulate over many, many years, you know? An idea comes. But I do know that I was waiting for a novel idea that had characters in it that were enough removed from me that I would feel free, because I had already started to write a novel that wasn’t like that. That was based on a true story from my life. And then I stopped that and made The Future, and it was while I was making The Future that I kind of bumped up against this problem in there. And I thought “Huh, this is going to be a lot more instinctual and easier to do if these are people who I can put a lot of feeling into, but who I could for example never play in a movie.” It came sort of all at once on a long drive.

BNR: And was this before you had your baby, or was it after you had your baby?

MJ: It was before. I had the idea at the end of 2010, right before my last movie came out. I made notes throughout the year and I got pregnant in like August or something of the following year. So I knew I wanted to have a baby, and I kind of planted the idea of this baby in there thinking, “Well, surely I’ll have some feelings about that. And I don’t know what they’re going to be yet, so I won’t fill that part out too much in my head.” But yeah, it was somewhat calculated.

BNR: Being pregnant must have influenced how you felt, especially about writing about the maternal aspects in the book.

MJ: Well, yeah, then I was a mom when I was writing. And I finished when [my son] was two. I only wrote the first draft when I was pregnant, and you don’t know anything about being a mom when you’re pregnant, so I left those parts pretty spare. I wrote a ton of different things immediately after having my son. Some of those things were important, but I think ultimately the fiction of the book overwhelmed my story in a way that I couldn’t have gotten my head around in those first few months. I thought everything was so crucial and important, you know? That there was only one baby story and that was my story. And over the next few months and years, I would kind of realize, “Oh, this baby Jack is not my son. Cheryl’s not me.” All these things kind of returned to the fiction, and ultimately there were just these pieces that were crucial but comparatively small. I didn’t have to make up feelings that I hadn’t had. But I could also make her different from me, you know?

BNR: Absolutely. The First Bad Man has as much to do with maternity as it has to do with sexual fantasies, both violent and sexual, and the realities of sexual encounters. Was it uncomfortable to write about any of those topics?

MJ: Any of those? No. I enjoyed it. I mean I guess the physical things – the sexual stuff was just fun. If anything, I had to rein myself in. The physical stuff was just kind of tricky because it was newer to me. I mean, not like there’s that much description of what actually happened, but I wanted to make sure things weren’t – that I wasn’t writing anything that was so crazily painful, you know, that it would compromise what was important. So I’d be always kind of miming it, like thinking through, “Okay, she pushes down her head. What would that feel like?”

The First Bad ManBNR: At first the narrator, Cheryl, who’s in her forties, has a crush on a man much older than her. Phillip is in his 60s. She finds out he’s in love with a 16-year-old, and he wants Cheryl’s permission to sleep with her. Cheryl starts to imagine herself as Phillip having sex with Clee, and pretends she’s a bunch of other guys having sex with Clee. It really turns her on. You rarely see a literary novel in which a woman fantasizes about having a penis, or one in which a woman fully embraces her sexual urges and/or masturbates. I’m curious what made you write about that.

MJ: Yeah. I mean partly just what you said, like actually even just hearing you say all those words together, I was like “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I wrote that book?” I was kind of alarmed, like, “Is this legal?” So it’s funny: regardless of what they are, we all have sexual fantasies. From even a purely creative perspective, it’s pretty interesting that our vantage point, our identity, can shift around a lot. I’d say a lot of people probably have fantasies they’re not even in, which is interesting. Or you’re in it, but are you watching? Are you actually both people? If you really slowed yourself down and were like, “Wow, now I’m pretending I’m feeling what he feels. Now I’m her. I’m feeling what she feels.” You know what I mean? It’s kind of crazy what you’ll do.

I don’t think the fantasies necessarily match the exteriors. Like I don’t think gay people just fantasize about gayness, you know? I don’t think straight women just stay women in all of these. And given that in reality we’re all quite attached to our identities and they’re very defining and we wouldn’t want to accidentally be confused for a man or something, or even might feel fear about gayness or trans identity, then it’s pretty interesting territory to get into all of that stuff without being at all overtly political. And I have this character who probably wouldn’t ever even use the word “gender”. So that’s fun to kind of separate it, from its context in the real world.

BNR: At one point Cheryl says, “I realized that we all think we might be terrible people, but we only reveal this before we ask someone to love us. It’s a kind of undressing.” In many ways, this book is about the need for some kind of intimacy, and I love how you capture how difficult it can be to really open ourselves up to someone else. It makes me think of the app you created, “Somebody”, in which you can ask a stranger to deliver a message to someone you know. Do we have to bear everything in order to have true connections with people? Do we have to make ourselves vulnerable?

MJ: I guess I’ve been playing both through the app and with the book (and definitely making those overlapped in time), playing with this area. Like sometimes it might be more honest to play a role: there might be something kind of liberating about that. You’re trying to have a connection with someone who’s so different from you, but nonetheless is like a real person with a beating heart. The way to do that might not be through having a long conversation about your personal history or something, you know?

I think I myself am interested in brief—in reality, they’re usually pretty brief—moments that feel like real clarity or intimacy with improbable, unlikely people. And you wouldn’t say those people know you through-and-through better than anyone else, but maybe that moment of connection was more satisfying, or went deeper than you’ve had in a while with anyone. I guess I just enjoy not ruling out sort of clumsy connections.

BNR:  And life is kind of full of clumsy connections, isn’t it?

MJ:  Yeah. I think that’s pretty much all we do.

BNR:  At one point towards the end of the book, Cheryl thinks to herself: “If you were wise enough to know that this life would consist mostly of letting go of things you wanted, then why not get good at the letting go, rather than the trying to have? These exotic revelations bubbled up involuntarily and I began to understand that the sleeplessness and vigilance and constant feedings were a form of brainwashing, a process by which my old self was being molded, slowly but with a steady force, into a new shape: a mother.” How does being a mother transform you? Do you think about art differently? Do you approach the world differently?

MJ: I think probably the biggest thing is like, more empathy. You’ve gone through this thing that’s like, the most common thing there is. And it is actually really intense, and it’s hard, and nothing is ever the same again. Now you have that in common with all these different kinds of people, and also like with the history of life. And all time. Even with animals, actually. And it kind of doesn’t end in a profundity, you know? It changes your relationship to time, to your own mortality certainly, and those things are all kind of large. They’re real. That all happens, even though day-to-day it’s just like, “Oh my god, who’s going to pick him up from preschool?” And there’s little shifts that come from not having endless time to worry about yourself, you know?

But I think art-wise I’m pretty much the same. Like lots of moms I know, I think my work and my ability to work got better after I had a baby, but I don’t know if we’re all fooling ourselves or we’re just all lucky enough to have good childcare. But I think there is a kind of like, “Okay, we’re not fucking around anymore” level of seriousness. In part because if I’m going to do something that’s going to take me away from my child, then let’s make it good, you know? Not like it wasn’t good before, but… your time is invested with another layer of meaning.

BNR: And you don’t have as much time to waste. You have to use your time accordingly.

MJ:  Yeah. On the flipside, when you get into some bad mental loop about your work, like it or not, you’re interrupted. You’re interrupted by this adorable little person who doesn’t care at all about what you’re going through and says funny things. And even though I can resent it in the moment of transition, I think it’s pretty good to be knocked out of your head every day.

BNR: You set up a website to sell objects you’ve collected that have to do with the book: a number on a napkin, a stretchy green dress, a Gatorade, etc. What has that experience been like, and has anything surprised you?

MJ: It’s funny, I didn’t think too much about the timing of the whole thing. In truth, the objects will probably become more and more valuable as more and more people read the book and know what the hell their significance is. And in a way you need to have already read the book to know. So as a marketing tool, I’m not sure what it is. But I guess it’s more of a small spectacle that brings you to what is also a website but can lead you to buy the book. I think it kind of works.

And it’s funny. I mean, I’m a writer and I do these other things. The website appeals to the artist side of me. The artist side really likes that fictional objects have become real. The writer side of me is almost slightly annoyed, because it’s never 100% accurate. The objects can never be exactly what I saw in my head. I mean… some of them. I guess the Gatorade, you know? Writers are so precious about their words and I’m no different. I just have other interests, too. So I slightly cannibalized myself for that one.

BNR: What are your favorites of the objects that you’ve collected?

MJ: I like the ones that are most significant to the book—these are still for sale too. There are the yellow curtains. I feel like that’s a subtle moment, but a moment of transition when those come up. The crystal, which is right at the beginning of the book, and that recurs throughout. For me the objects themselves are like “Well, this is all just junk,” you know? I can tell that the buyers think the things that are handwritten are the most valuable. I don’t know why, because they’re just like a scrap of paper with a name on it. Sold for $700. And I’m not quite sure why that is.

BNR: Maybe they’re thinking of it like an autograph.

MJ: Yeah, yeah.

BNR: There are a lot of humorous moments in your book, but there’s also a lot of disappointment and sadness. Which moments do you find more difficult to write?

MJ: The sadness when you can write it is easy, but it’s definitely not a place I can go all the time or just call up on demand. It’s kind of a delicate emotional process, whereas humor I think, my tendency if anything, I’ll overuse it. It’s hard for me. Sometimes you twist it a little and it becomes more true and funnier, but it also becomes sadder because it’s more available in a way. But a book and its characters have to evolve. Instinctually, I started letting them. Some tricks went away.

BNR: You’ve done so much in addition to writing a novel and a collection of short stories: writing, directing, and starring in two films, and numerous performance-art projects, including an interactive sculpture garden. Is there a main connective thread between everything you work on? Are there common themes throughout these works that you find yourself coming back to often?

MJ: I don’t think about the themes. I can see them in retrospect when I look back. I’d say I’m trying to start from a very intuitive place, so it’s not like, “Well, I love how people connect so maybe I’ll do something about that.” There’ll be some thing: I don’t know why it’s interesting, and it’s a thread I just have to follow. Usually, it ultimately ends up not too far from the territory of everything else I’ve ever made, but I guess the important thing is that it’s something that’s mysterious to me now. And you can’t really fake that.