A Box of Powerful Things: The Millions Interviews Miranda July

January 21, 2015 | 3 books mentioned 2 8 min read


Miranda July is known for her acrobatic approach to storytelling media: film, literature, visual art, smartphone apps. Her collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More than You, received the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2007. July’s first novel, The First Bad Man, follows Cheryl Glickman after a houseguest rattles her carefully calibrated home. An at times surreal exploration of depression, motherhood, sexuality, and snail infestation, July’s novel unflinchingly, tenderly portrays the emotional complexities of human interaction. We spoke via phone.

The Millions: Where did your inspiration for this project come from? Was it a very different process for you writing a novel, as opposed to working on a collection of short stories?

Miranda July: Well, the inspiration came very suddenly. I literally just had the idea on a long drive: of Cheryl and Clee, and their relationship and how it changed. I even knew that there would be a baby at the end and that Cheryl would end up alone with it. So that all came in a few minutes, which was very lucky and I still thank the gods for that.

coverThat said, it took a while to get to that moment of inspiration, and I even had a whole other novel idea that I was working on. So I had like, gone down the road of another novel that was very true to…it was a story based on my own life, and then I made my movie The Future, and through making that I realized, oh wait, I did better with the parts of the movie that were less like someone like me. The more fantastical parts of it were more emotionally honest. And so, at that point, I was like, shoot, I can’t do that first novel idea. One way to think of it is that they couldn’t be played by me in a movie. You know? And I knew that would help me. It’d be easier to write a novel like that. So it was both all at once and many years leading up to that moment.

Then, in terms of short stories, I wrote my short stories pretty quickly and didn’t do a lot of drafts, so I thought that’s what writing was. And, at least for me, writing a novel wasn’t like that at all. I wrote a first draft pretty painstakingly…it certainly wasn’t great. At all. I knew the writing wasn’t good enough. That was scary, that part, because I didn’t yet know that, well, once you have a draft, then from there, everything’s an improvement, and it’s comparatively fun. It’s in a way more like editing a movie with the endless ability to re-shoot these scenes than it is like writing a short story.

coverTM: Do you find yourself partial to certain characteristics of first-person narrators? There seems to be some shared tendencies among Cheryl and some of the narrators in No One Belongs Here More than You — a defamiliarization of daily tasks; this almost mystical connection between strangers.

MJ: Yeah, I mean I guess that…Cheryl’s so alone and so uneasy with herself, and kind of overthinking every moment. And while it would be boring right now for me to make a character who looks just like me, and did all those things, by making her different from me in marked ways — you know, just in how alone she actually is, that it allowed me to go much further and create a character who’s really not like me at all in her level of — sort of awareness and understanding of the world. You know? She’s not politicized, she doesn’t listen to music, she doesn’t use terms like “gender” or something. And then I could really take flight. She had some shadows of me; she had all of these tools and really this faith and ignorance, tied together, that allowed kind of amazing things to happen.

TM: There’s a strong sense of audience and performance throughout the novel — Cheryl narrates to an imaginary viewer, then we have Rick witnessing Clee and Cheryl’s re-enactment of the self-defense video. What sorts of aims did you have for this device throughout? Do you think your interest in this is related to your work as a filmmaker?

MJ: I think often in my work the things that people are doing, just to get by, I think of as their art. It ends up looking almost a little bit like my art, even though in the context of the story it’s not art at all, and they’re not artists — because I think that’s how I look at the world often. You know, “Wow, look at that really complicated, unnecessary thing that person’s doing and clearly that’s the only way they can do it, like, that’s so them.” And that makes it good art, you know? Honest and revealing.

TM: So much of this project probes the nuances of motherhood, yet Cheryl’s mother is notably absent — besides the rope of Cheryl’s imaginary (metaphysical?) semen coating her mother’s portrait as a young woman. Can you speak a little about characters/events that are happening off the page?

MJ: It’s funny, I’m not ever interested really in people’s parents or their backstory. I mean, some writers — and especially screenwriters — that’s just part of your homework, where everyone’s come from and what their whole psychology is. It just doesn’t get me going. I think it feels a little too writerly or something. I worry that I’d do a bad job of it. I even had — early on, there was an old best friend character in this book, of Cheryl’s. Clee was actually her daughter. And it was too much about the past! I was like, what? Who am I? Eventually I let that go.

TM: How did you approach surrealism within the novel?

MJ: Right. I guess what I tried to do was…as long as I could anchor something in Cheryl’s reality, and I see her reality as like when you wake up from a dream and for awhile you’re still in the dream and then you shake the residue of that off, and you join your day? She sort of stays in the dream and integrates it in very real-world ways into her life. She assumes it has practical meaning. And the dream is whatever idea or misconception she has in the moment.

I probably have a special ability to do that because I am prone to those kinds of misconceptions myself, but I’m self-aware enough — it’s just something I laugh about, and maybe it’s a little bit embarrassing sometimes. So it’s fun to be able to be like, well, fuck that, I’m going to take this kind of thing all the way. And what if these misconceptions are powerful? What if they could, ultimately if you had enough faith in them, create a baby? And I know there’s all kinds of twisted logic in that, like, of course the baby was made by sex, real sex, but I — the trick was to stay suspended in that belief, and I know that it’s both funny and implausible, but also that one part of you, as you’re reading it, would just believe.

TM: It seems like the characters are only able to experience sexuality once they’ve become divorced from their usual selves. Do you think anyone is able to feel present-action pleasure? Or is that key to sort of tapping into the experience?

MJ: I mean, to me that’s very female. This is like, a huge generalization, but…I feel like for women sex is very story-based and mental, and — I mean, I think there have been studies on this, this isn’t just my personal theory. You know, and then for men it’s supposed to be that it’s more visual, and just like, looking at a hot bod. So I felt like what if you just took pride in that? Or just took it very matter-of-factly? Like instead of feeling bad about like, “Oh I’m totally not present when I have sex,” she’s like, “What works for me is I block out the other person entirely!” You know? It was just kind of enjoyable. And because she doesn’t have any political agenda, it’s just a personal kind of bubble that she’s in. But for us, it actually is slightly political, I think, to hear someone say that so unabashedly. It’s kind of nice to hear it, because probably a lot of people feel that way.

TM: Do you think there is a sort of spirituality in Cheryl’s relationship with Kubelko Bundy?

MJ: Yeah. Yeah. For sure. It’s that kind of — it’s like the world of sacred things that you have as a child. Like you might have this box as a child full of really important things. And you might look aa an adult and be like, wow that’s…all junk. Like, it’s just trash. You know? And be torn, like, do I throw this out? It still seems to contain some value, but it’s all the memory. And for her, like with Kubelko Bundy, she kept that feeling. That really like, kind of almost religious feeling, alive, straight on through. And it’s almost like there’s been no — like the major interruptions of relationships haven’t happened for her, so there’s no reason to let go of those powerful things.

TM: Did you have a box of powerful things?

MJ: I did! And my brother did. It’s funny because now we’re like, expecting our kids to. My son’s not old enough, but my brother just showed his treasure box to his sons, my nephews, and they were kind of like, “Huh. Those things don’t seem that interesting.” Like, why that rock? But even I’m like, “But see how smooth it is? It’s the smoothest. Like, how could it be that smooth?”

TM: I guess that sort of magic is super personal, though. I don’t know that it ever translates.

MJ: Yeah.

TM: Can you tell me a little bit about the auction of objects in this book, and how that idea originated?

MJ: When it comes to a sort of marketing idea for a project, which I’ve now done for all my recent things…when I’m done with the project, I kind of just start anew, coming in more from my quasi-art ideas. At that time, I remember I was thinking of the idea of stores as portraits, like what if you had an online store that had sourced all the objects from your home, and was selling them? So it would be a portrait of that person; all their books, or all their toiletries. And it could be a famous person or a not famous person. I was thinking a lot about that idea right then, and meanwhile I was trying to think of an idea for the book. So you can see how I got there. And then the nice twist for me was — you know, they’re not real objects, they’re things that, as I wrote them, I never expected to have to try and find them, you know, in stores and on eBay, with varying degrees of success. So it became like this scavenger hunt from fiction to reality, while still getting to exercise a little bit of an idea that I’ll probably continue to work on. The store as art.

TM: How did you come to the title?

MJ: Well, I had that title before. I’m a little weird with titles. I feel like they should be a little bit more normal than the book itself, because they’re like an ad for the book. It should feel like something you already have, almost. And I liked that it also seemed like a title of a movie made by a man that would be like, nominated for an Oscar. And in that sense, the book itself was kind of like, in drag or something. The cover is really super straight, and then you open it up and there’s all this weirdness inside with the colors. And the book itself is kind of about that, about people on the inside and people…what they look like on the outside. What’s actually going on inside. Some of it was that, that all seemed fitting to me. When I got to the point where I wrote “the first bad man,” I was writing that scene and writing about which one are you, and I was like, oh, the first bad man. Like, I had already had that title. I didn’t know if it was going to work for this book, I knew Phillip wasn’t worthy of being the first bad man. That it had to be Clee. And I was like, oh my god, there it is. I’m the first bad man. And I thought that was also sort of a nice moment because it’s not a big deal, but it’s like — a moment that sort of…where everything’s changing, and Cheryl does stop and take note: a bad man who comes into town makes all this trouble and leaves. And that’s ultimately what happens.

is currently pursuing an M.F.A. in Fiction at Columbia University. She is working on her first novel and has published interviews in The Rumpus and The Believer, with work forthcoming in The Toast, The Sonder Review, and Electric Literature.