Acclaimed performance artist, filmmaker, app-creator, and writer Miranda July has spent much of her career writing nuanced characters who are as complicated as she is. Her debut novel, The First Bad Man (released January 13), is no exception, full of the kind of idiosyncratic personality traits that have made her previous work so captivating. Though her material is often accused of being absurd, for July, there is no such thing as conventional when it comes to the inner-workings of the mind. The result is a portrayal so unique that it is familiar. Bad Man‘s protagonist is Cheryl, a woman whose orderliness ways are quickly undone by an unwanted houseguest. The book pays no less attention to Cheryl’s fraught emotional experience than it does to her physical possessions as sexual and sometimes violent turmoil unfolds. We spoke to July ahead of her appearance at Book Soup on September 3, where she will promote the upcoming paperback release (September 8). Here she discusses genre, personal space, and brunch.
Your work spans many mediums—short stories, film, performance art. Why take on the novel at this stage?
I think most people, after they write a first book of short stories, try to write a novel. Maybe it’s less obvious that I’m actually just doing the normal thing of seeing if I can write a novel. I started with short fiction and short movies because that seems easier, and then you add on as your appetite grows and your muscles get stronger. With a short story you can get away with being more experimental without that seeming that strange, whereas if you’re going to do that with a novel, that’s a real commitment. And harder, in a way. It’s very comforting to have a story with an arc.
Your protagonist, Cheryl, has been described as eccentric. Do you agree?
On the outside, she’s a middle-aged woman who works at a non-profit. She’s not an edgy character. She’s not consciouly trying to do radical things, so I think that the frisson there is what interested me. I didn’t think, “Oh, I’m going to write this eccentric woman,” because she’s really not. It’d be easy to write someone a lot outwardly weirder. I think most of her internal stuff is relatable.
Does making her more relatable make her less likeable?
Everyone has things that are normal to them but too weird to everyone else. It was recognizing what weird things about her are actually not that weird. For example, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see that people get the idea of seeing a stranger’s baby and feeling a special, secret connection to it. And there are other things that seemed normal to me, but that I quickly realized were either so off-putting that they had to be taken out or toned way down. I could only allow myself a certain amount of those things. It’s an economy within a novel: one relatable thing will buy you how many weird things? And the weird things are not just to be weird in and of themselves, but to be specific, to say things in a new way.
One of the themes in this book is loneliness. L.A. can be isolating—Do you think being an Angeleno influenced your characterization?
People are lonely everywhere. In L.A., you have a lot of personal space compared to other cities. What’s challenging is that most of the action takes place in the world of your house, so I always admire when people say, “Oh, the city was a character in the story,” because I have no idea how one would go about that. I live in L.A. and mostly ignore it. With New York, it’s very hard to ignore that you’re there. It’s right there with you in your own home. So maybe in that sense, L.A. allows for this less interrupted internal world.
You’ve discussed a culture of collaboration with other female artists. Was there anyone in particular who was collaborative with this project?
When I first began the novel, I was newly friends with Sheila Heti, and she mailed me this key, this big skeleton key that had been hanging over her desk when she wrote How Should a Person Be? I had it over my desk the whole time I was writing my novel. And while we didn’t talk in detail about the novel because I wanted her to read it when it was done and not know anything about it, sometimes I’d bring up anxieties to her like, “Can a funny book be important?” And she would make quick work of my fears. She’d say, “Oh, that’s the problem with America: they don’t understand how powerful humor can be,” and blah blah blah. So she was a wonderful support. And then later on when it was close to done, Lena [Dunham] gave great notes. It’s funny; you never know who’s going to be good at that. Sheila and I are both admittedly terrible at it. Lena’s not terrible at it, as I discovered that with this book; we had agreed to trade books when we were done. I emailed mine to her, and she actually got it printed out and bound with a fake title on it. It was called Party at Brunch.