"There's something very intimate about being next to someone who you don't know that well when they're unconscious," Miranda July says over breakfast one recent morning in Chelsea. She's analyzing a short story from her debut collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, which hits bookstores next week. The idea for the story came when a friend told July about a neighbor who'd had a seizure and briefly blacked out in front of her. "I wanted to make it almost like a first date, or a sexual or intimate thing. Because that was the feeling I had in myself when I heard the story."
Then, perhaps considering how peculiar it sounds to turn an epileptic fit into a lusty moment, July stops and laughs.
It's this whimsical way of creating extraordinary tales out of everyday lifesometimes with dark, disturbing resultsthat's helped July make a name for herself. Over the last decade, her short films and performance pieces, often dealing with loneliness and longing, have appeared at major museums like MOMA and the Guggenheim.
But July, who has high cheekbones, a brown bob, and enormous blue eyes, is probably best known for her film Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), which features a chat-room romance between a seven-year-old boy and a middle-aged woman. The movie, which she wrote, directed, and starred in, picked up awards at Cannes and Sundance. Since then, July, 33, who lives in the hills of L.A.'s Echo Park a few blocks from her indie-film-director boyfriend, Mike Mills, says she's turned down opportunities to make bundles of cash. Instead, she took a book advance and finished a collection of stories she'd been working on for more than five years.
Fans of July, or simply of literature, will be glad she did. At the core of each strange, often comic tale lies the basic human need for love and understanding. Her clutch of characters include a lonely woman who imagines having sex with Prince William ("Majesty"), an agoraphobic woman's brief encounter with a young boy ("The Boy From Lam Kien"), and a dying man who explains to his daughter how to get a woman off with fingers ("The Moves"). On May 22, July will be in town for a sold-out reading at the Paula Cooper Gallery.
Often inspired by her own life and the people she sees around her (she's an obsessive note-taker), July is drawn to sad, heartbreaking scenes that get the better of her emotions. "My boyfriend," she says, "is always stunned at how easily I'll be crying at something."
Most of the stories have been published in magazines, including The Paris Review, Zoetrope, and The New Yorker. Fidgeting with the built-in necktie of her pin-striped shirt, July says she was somewhat surprised by all the attention she received last fall when her story "Something That Needs Nothing" appeared in The New Yorker (which she calls "the Sundance of writing"). "I was like, 'Wow! People really read that magazine.' More people wrote me or said something about that than they will about my book. Isn't that weird?"
July's stories can be divided into two categories: ones about people whose relationships are more fantasy than reality, and those about people who are actually in relationships and the problems that go along with them. "I feel like they are, as I am, kind of working toward connection," July notes about her characters.
It was author Rick Moody, a "family friend of a friend," who encouraged July to write. But Moody takes little credit for her success. He envies July's dialogue, a skill he attributes to her training as an actress and ability to mimic anyone. "She's completely intuitive," he says. "There are no schools of writing working themselves out in her. No history of literature. She just does what she does, and as a result she's a complete original."
Case in point: When she recently spent time at the famous Yaddo artists' retreat, July felt somewhat out of her element when the conversation turned to writing in first, second, or third person. "Someone asked me, 'What person are you writing in?'" she recalls. "And I had no idea." If you're wondering, the stories are in the first person, a habit from her performance art. "As I'm writing them, I'm acting them," she says. "They're very linked."
July, whose real name is Miranda Grossinger, grew up in Berkeley and learned early how to market herself from her parents, who ran a New Age publishing company, North Atlantic Books, out of their house. (She applies some of that marketing know-how on her homemade website for the bookusing the top of her fridge and stove as dry-erase boards.) At 16, July performed her first play, at the Gilman Street Project, the famous Berkeley punk club.
After dropping out of UC Santa Cruz, she headed to Portland, Oregon, where she rented a dirt-cheap, roach-infested apartment for seven years. At one point, July allegedly worked at a peep show to pay the bills-much like the main character in "Something That Needs Nothing." She's proud to say she hasn't worked a day job in a decade. (When asked later about the peep show, July politely declines to elaborate. "All the stories are rooted in my own experience, some more than others," she writes in an e-mail. "I don't think it serves me or the readers to get more specific than that.")
Anyone looking to the book for insight into the artist will find it in "This Person," a story she does say is especially autobiographical. One day, the lead character wakes up to find that all the mean jocks, terrible teachers, and ex-lovers of her past have come back to throw a party in her honor. They explain that all the pain they caused her was done intentionally, to transform her into a better, stronger person. "Certain jerks and idiots and assholes appear from time to time, and it is as if they have had plastic surgery, their faces are disfigured with love," July writes. But the party only makes her feel worse, not better.
In July's early days, she shared bills with indie-rock and punk bands, and the audience often left scratching their heads. Now she has Hollywood studio executives popping up at her performance pieces. But July says those years of struggle have made it easier for her to turn down more glamorous offers. "It trained me to kind of hold on to what I have and not assume things would be better with money. And now that's who I am. I can move between worlds without being too affected." Then she adds, with a smile: "There's something I like about struggle."