Outside, 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. 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. 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 and her Camera d'Or-winning film, You and Me and Everyone We Know, to her new collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You. The stories are quirky and funny, but they are rarely slight: July always has her sights on bigger game, on misguided desire, on our lunatic cravings for human connection.
OC 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 they're aware of all that. It seems important to make a space for it, that it has its own purity and isn't just about pedophilia or perversion.
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 it feels like we can 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. . . .
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 that 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" in which 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 twenties 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.
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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 media?
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 when 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.
NO ONE BELONGS HERE MORE THAN YOU: STORIES BY MIRANDA JULY; SCRIBNER. HARDCOVER, 224 PAGES, $23.