SATURDAY TELEGRAPH MAGAZINE
FLAVOUR OF THE MONTH
Meet Miranda July: performance artist, actor, award-winning filmmaker, writer and – since her crafty use of a marker pen and a fridge to plug her new book – inspired self publicist. By Lucie Young
Miranda July is equal parts girl scout and Walter Mitty. When she isn’t daydreaming about other people’s lives and a new improved version of her own, she is exhibiting the kind of pluck and DIY spirit of the television character Lucy Ricardo from I Love Lucy.
July, 33, lives in a constant ferment of new ideas like some perpetual-motion machine. Her recent output has included everything from performance art and music installations at the Whitney Biennial in New York, to a highly acclaimed film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, which catapulted her to fame in 2005 when it won the Camera d’Or (the award for best feature by a first time director) at Cannes.
July’s first book, a collection of 16 short stories entitled No-one Belongs Here More Than You is out in the UK this week. July’s publisher refused to fund a website to advertise the book, so July created her own. ‘I saw it as a little performance or a movie,’ she says. In the style of a ransom note or a diner menu board, she wrote out, in black marker pen on top of her fridge, a letter to solicit readers. It took her all day and into the night to create the 29 different ‘pages’ and photograph them. When it became too hard to rub out the pen on the fridge, she started writing on the stovetop. The result is hilarious, especially when she starts digressing into how you can match your outfit to the book cover. The site is still viewable at http://www.noonebelongsheremorethanyou.com
Seemingly everything July does is a performance. Even getting dressed. Today she looks like Popeye’s girlfriend Olive Oyl, in lime skirt, fuchsia tights and cream jumper with a trompe l’oeil blue belt. Most of her clothes are from estate sales. ‘There are easier ways you could get clothes,’ she says. But buying new things is not her idea of a creative challenge. ‘I see some amazing designer outfits, but then I think it’s their work not mine,’ she says.
At first glance, July’s home/office, a small bungalow in Los Angeles, looks as if it was recently ransacked or she has been practicing roller-skating in the living-room (all the furniture is pushed up against the walls). ‘I’ve not got to the point of spending real money on anything,’ she says by way of explanation, while pouring two mugs of tea in her kitchen. ‘That might be the chair with the broken leg,’ she warns, just after I’ve got comfortable.
Many of the stories in her new book have a confessional quality. They don’t go anywhere; rather they capture a moment of loneliness, despair, desperation, obsession or recognition. In lesser hands they would be endlessly depressing. But July’s inventive tales swing from laugh-out-loud funny to heart-clenchingly sad. They are packed with wry observations and home truths about modern life. In one a woman finds solace teaching a group of 80-year-olds to swim on her kitchen floor. In another a woman lying in bed at night suddenly realises, ‘I rush through life, like I’m being chased…when I drink relaxing tea, I suck it down as if I’m in a contest for who can drink relaxing tea the quickest.’
‘All the feelings in the book are autobiographical, just tilted or turned.’ July says. ‘If I described it straight up you would really just miss it.’ A simmering neurosis is her resting state and this is prevalent in most of the stories. ‘Mostly I feel like things are not OK and that I’ve done something wrong or there’s something wrong. So I am looking for reassurance.’
July was born Miranda Jennifer Grossinger. Her parents run their own publishing company, North Atlantic Books, from their home in Berkeley, California, America’s ground zero for counter-cultural thinkers and alternative lifestyles. Today, their company does a brisk trade in titles with offbeat names like Paranoia is the Antidote for Paranoia, The Multidimensional Mind and Suicide, and Buddha Takes no Prisoners. Her parents did offer to publish July’s book, but she says, she wanted to go it alone.
In previous interviews, July has complained that her upbringing in Berkeley was too eccentric. ‘I definitely wanted more normalness than what was around me. There was always some borderline crazy person who nonetheless my dad was publishing, and they needed to live in the house while they finished it.’ July and her brother (who is 4 years older), were pretty much left to amuse themselves. Her parents were always busy with their own projects and their own emotional drama.
‘My parents marriage always seemed to be in a state of brilliant crisis,’ July says. ‘It was fascinating in its nuances and we were all much too privy to it as children. It was this epic tale and it is still going on. As a child I was waiting for the end, the divorce or something, but this is it. This is what they do together. It’s a form of intimacy.’
July escaped into her imagination. At the age of seven, she wrote a trilogy called The Lost Child and started recording interviews with herself (first taping the questions and then filling in the answers). As a teen she helped create a girlzine called Snarla, and at 16, she changed her surname to July (the name of one of her Snarla characters). She says her parents weren’t offended, even when she legalized the change; ‘My dad’s name had changed throughout his life. His original last name was Towers.’
She briefly attended college, but dropped out at the age of 20 to move to Portland, Oregon, with a girlfriend she had a crush on. This adventure is fictionalised in the short story Something that Needs Nothing. In this version, the girl with the crush ends up abandoned, penniless and working in a peep show. When I ask July if she ever worked in a peep show, she says, ‘No comment.’
In Portland, July began composing and video-ing performance pieces in her bedroom, pieces that eventually made it into shows at the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum and two Whitney Biennials. In 2001, she started writing the short stories for her book and her first screenplay – Me and You and Everyone We Know. While several of the stories were accepted by serious publications such as the New Yorker, the Paris Review and Harper’s, her script failed to stand out. She submitted it three times to the Sundance film lab in Utah, where filmmakers are mentored by established professionals, before it finally got accepted.
Having her work critiqued at Sundance was a new experience. ‘I learnt I could be helped. I was like, “Oh my God! This is like free money.” It seemed like cheating’. By the end of her trip to Utah she had a clear sense of what didn’t work in the film script. She knew she could fix it, she just didn’t like any of the comments she had been given by ‘the experts’.
Me and You (which she also directed and starred in) centers on a hesitant romance between a struggling artist (whose oddball art is very similar to July’s) who has a second job as a cab driver for the elderly, and a disheveled shoe salesman and father of two. In the film the adults act like awkward nerdy kids and the children seem very grown up, obsessing about household gadgets and sex.
Me and You premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, in January 2005, where it took the special jury prize. Four months later it won the Camera d’Or. This success didn’t bolster July’s confidence – quite the opposite. ‘There is a very thin layer of “Wow!” that doesn’t feed you very much. I now have this degree of anxiety and self-conscious that I didn’t feel I had before. I became very aware of what I do, which is horrible for your creativity’.
Unlike other indie film directors, July didn’t capitalise on her success by signing a second-feature deal with one of the big movie studios that descend like vultures on Sundance talent. ‘I went to great pains not to make any deals. I’ll do anything not to feel beholden, despite my total lack of money,’ she says. July is something of a control freak and was terrified the studios would start making suggestions and change the focus of her work. She has a second film up her sleeve, but insists, ‘I am not going to show it to anybody until I am done, done, done!’
The new movie is an adaptation of one of her performance art pieces called Things We Don’t Understand and Definitely aren’t Going to Talk About. It is another relationship story, but this time the woman is briefly sidetracked by an affair. July plans on directing and starring in the film again.
The success of Me and You did help secure a better book deal for her short stories. ‘I am living off the advance for the book,’ she says. But the short stories she completed after the film were much harder to write. ‘Those stories were more ambitious. In the earlier stories there is a lot of longing and longing for safety. Those I wrote after the movie don’t really have the same concerns. In general they are about people who have more, who actually have relationships.’
The change in focus may be due to the changes in her own personal life. At the Sundance premier, she met writer/director Mike Mills, whose movie Thumbsucker was also in competition. They have been seeing each other ever since. ‘It is my most significant relationship,’ she says. ‘We’ve been together over two years and usually at this point it is about to end. But this feels like it is just beginning still. It is kind of a remarkable feeling.’
She followed Mills, 41, to LA where they now share a house, although she keeps the bungalow as a separate writing space. Mills is a nine-to-five writer; July likes everything to be unconventional – even work mustn’t seem like work. ‘A big part of the process is keeping the feeling I’m free and I don’t actually have to do anything’. So she goes on long walks to get her creative motor started. ‘It gives you other things to focus on; you have to focus on not running into things. I spend a lot of time feeling like I am not doing anything and then the moment after giving up, I’ll go bam! And put it down and there it is. It is kind of scary.’
Mills is also working on a new film project. The couple do not share ideas on film scripts, although she does show him her fiction and he shares his latest visual work. ‘We’ve learned the hard way that there needs to be a boundary’.
This summer, July will also publish a second book called Learning To Love You More, that will feature her favorite submissions to her website learningtoloveyoumore.com. Anyone can participate in the site. You simply respond to one of the 63 creative tasks, such as writing down a recent argument, taking a picture of an outfit you wore when something significant happened or making a paper replica of your bed. She created the site five years ago with Harrell Fletcher, a professor of art at Portland State University. ‘We were hoping to inspire people to do things for themselves,’ she says. ‘We’ve a couple of essays in the book from people who have participated and it has been life-changing for them. One person who did the life-story assignment wrote that she had two siblings she had never met and then her siblings found her afterwards and they all did a project together.’ The charming thing about July is that despite her many schemes for doing everything differently and being as unique as possible, she manages to walk into the same pitfalls as the rest of us. And somehow she always manages to come off slightly worse, too.
The night before we met she has been up late working on how to slow the deluge of e-mails from her myspace site and her website. ‘I came up with this auto reply that everyone got when they e-mailed me,’ she said. ‘But I set it up wrong and I sent it to every single person in my address book. Including people who haven’t written me in years and ex-boyfriends from 10 years ago. It starts out saying “Thanks for writing. I am too busy to write you back. Here, contact my assistant.” Oh, God!’ The nightmare continued when July emailed herself the auto response to see if it was working. ‘I got in this loop that could’ve generated e-mails forever. Within minutes, I had like 3,000 e-mails from myself, each one longer than the last. My time-saving device was this worm hole,’ which one suspects will soon be fodder for a short story or film script.