Miranda July is shortlisted for her story, The Metal Bowl. She talks about her “greedy” motivation for writing the story, the “blind spots” that become her characters, and what she’ll be doing when the world goes to hell…
Your story, The Metal Bowl, is dark, poignant and very funny. Where did the story come from?
I started, as I usually do, just writing a few notes on feelings and incidents from life that intuitively felt connected, although I wasn’t sure how yet. Once I realised it wasn’t a story I’d finish quickly, I was in no hurry; I worked on it between projects in other mediums, always with a little embarrassment that I was writing about marriage. To be a married woman in her 40s writing about marriage – ew. Meanwhile I was embarking on an unusual relationship with the Viennese photographer and filmmaker, Friedl Kubelka (it began when I borrowed her name for a character in my novel). She now asked if I might write a short story to preface her new book of photographs. I thought: not likely! I can’t write a short story on command. But then she offered me a photo in exchange and I grew greedy. I chose my favourite: a nude woman standing, facing the wall, as her husband and child, seated at the breakfast table, look calmly at her naked butt. I took out the story and wrote a new opening that involved a mother’s naked butt and a husband and a son, and then I kept on writing to the end. My love of Friedl’s photo was so great that it flowed over into the story.
Do you like the characters you create – are they people you recognise or might want to spend time with? To what extent are their qualities and thoughts a reflection of your personal experience?
I’m interested in them all and when I feel like I get something about them right I kind of smile. But often they are the embodiment of territories that I avoid in real life. When these blind spots become characters, they’re quite manageable, even funny, and the things they say and think often explain that mysterious territory to me – the one I am avoiding. So it’s a sort of alchemy.
How might you describe your style of writing for people who haven’t read your work before? Are there themes or settings that characterise your style?
Hmm, I never think like this and it feels like a bad idea to approach my own work from the outside. I’m sure that if I ever went back and looked at what I’d done I’d see it’s all very consistent, even repetitive. But to write at all I have to believe each time that I’m doing something so new that it might not even be contained within the form, on a page. I need the whole universe at my disposal to make even one small, predictable move.
When did you first begin to write, and why? Do you remember the initial urge to pick up a pen? Why have you never stopped? My parents are both writers – not famous writers (most aren’t) – but people who wrote, and still write, every day. So the practice is not something I had to learn about, but I rebelled against it and did everything else I could think of first: filmmaking, art, performance. And that wasn’t a mistake; I still do all those things as much as I write. But writing is the medium that only has to take one little step outside your mind – just into language – to get to someone else. The only other thing like it is improvisation in front of an audience, but you can’t do that every day.
Should writers mine their own experience for stories, or is it acceptable to “steal” from elsewhere? Would you say writing was nature or nurture?
It’s always a combination I think, and the distinction becomes blurry because you’re often writing from the unconscious. Something might feel invented or stolen but may, in fact, be a version of yourself (or your world) that is just very new to you. And the reverse is true, too – you might think something is very deep, very you, and then surprisingly, it dies on the vine a week later. It was just a fad.
For the first time, all six shortlisted writers are American. What do you think is so compelling about the American short story tradition?
There are compelling and off-putting things about the story-writing traditions of every country. We have a kind of unevenly distributed American premise that each voice is unique and important, or could be if it only tried hard enough. This results in a lot of entitlement, but at its best, creates change fairly rapidly. Some of this change is superficial, but because this place is so diverse, you really can be surprised – there are brand new American stories being told every day, in all different mediums. And writers just soak it all up.
Five out of the six shortlisted writers are women – which bucks a trend in literature and publishing. What more can be done to encourage women writers and readers of women’s literature?
It’s hard for me to separate out the literary world from the rest of the world, but I think the most important thing is to elect women to positions of power — editors, teachers, judges, heads of departments. It is mostly women who have given me chances to leap forward. I know these gatekeepers had to argue hard on my behalf. The talented male options were deeply reassuring and I, as a woman (and therefore less of a sure bet, less like people who had previously done the job), have always been seen as a wild card, no matter how consistently I’ve worked. I’ve experienced specific issues, but the worst of it is not knowing any different, growing like a bent tree. (One always feels terribly worried about coming off as complaining when answering a question like this truthfully; especially in a lucky context such as this.) (There I go, bending.)
And finally, what would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? Is there another path you could have taken?
I’m a writer, filmmaker and artist – but I always think that as the cheapest medium, writing is the only one I’ll be able to continue when the world really goes to hell.
Interview by Sophie Haydock
Miranda July is a filmmaker, artist, and writer. Her most recent book is The First Bad Man, a novel. July’s collection of stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and has been published in twenty-three countries. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper’s, and The New Yorker; It Chooses You was her first book of non-fiction. She wrote, directed and starred in The Future and Me and You and Everyone We Know — winner of the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. July’s participatory art works include the website Learning to Love You More (with artist Harrell Fletcher), Eleven Heavy Things (a sculpture garden created for the 2009 Venice Biennale), New Society (a performance), and Somebody (a messaging app created with Miu Miu.) Most recently she made an interfaith charity shop in Selfridges department store in London, presented by Artangel. She is currently working on a new feature film. Raised in Berkeley, California, July lives in Los Angeles.