Miranda July is a filmmaker, writer and performer. In her most recent venture, she contacted strangers listing items for sale in the Los Angles Pennysaver and requested to interview them. Somewhat surprisingly, her potential subjects were more than willing to discuss their personal lives.
The interviews and the effect they had on July became the book It Chooses You. July graciously agreed to speak with me about the process of interviewing a complete stranger, how the work influenced her film The Future and technology’s impact on how we relate to each other.
The Rumpus: What prompted you to turn your experiences interviewing people from the Pennsysaver into the book It Chooses You?
Miranda July: As I wrote in the book, there was always this feeling that, as open-ended as the project was, it would somehow trigger a creative revelation, which easily could’ve just been the fact that Joe was in my movie [The Future], that I met this old man who taught me a lot and who I then cast in the movie. But after I made the movie, and it was all done, it was sort of like this weird dream I had of all these other people I’d met, who weren’t in the movie but who nonetheless had a big impact on me. I began to realize that I couldn’t capture them in the net of all my fictions – my stories and my movies. I needed to figure out some way for those parts of my life to look at them, which I do through making things. It nagged at me. I talked to people about it a lot. It very much wasn’t on the schedule – I needed to write a novel – but I just kind of did it. As the movie was going to festivals and stuff, the first six months of last year, I just wrote it because of that feeling.
Rumpus: How did you choose which aspects of your interview transcripts you were going to use in the book for each person you spoke with?
July: They were long interviews in a lot of cases.
Rumpus: Right, you said one was over fifty pages.
July: Yeah, and I would have the interview in a word document and I would cut and paste everything that seemed interesting and see what I was left with. Often, I would have to go back and grab things because passages didn’t really make sense out-of-context – that was the trick. Of course, these people were interesting, even when that doesn’t show-up on the page, but that doesn’t really help you with a book, you know? It has to be something in words. Case and point: I don’t think Joe’s interview is the most interesting of the interviews, although obviously seeing Joe in the movie, all this spirit comes across, but of course I didn’t have that for the book. So I was looking for excitement, things that make you want to read more.
Rumpus: Since you mention Joe, I was wondering if his wife Carolyn ever saw The Future, and if you ever got any feedback from her on her husband’s scene, or the movie in general?
July: No, she died just a couple of months after Joe did. I debated putting that in the book, because it happened while I was writing it. That was a whole different chapter. I ended up with a lot of their things – a lot of their belongings that were photographed in the book, I became the inheritor of. I had to stop at a certain point, and I decided not to stop with the total annihilation of this couple that the reader was presumably invested in. Those last months, during the times I visited her, the movie was the least of either of our concerns or interests.
Rumpus: How do you see Bridgette’s photos factoring into the experience of reading It Chooses You?
July: It goes back to what isn’t there in the words. When you’re not doing fiction, there’s a limit to how much illustrating you can do with your work. I mean, you can do fine. There are great non-fiction writers, but people aren’t necessarily going to say anything that reveals them as much as a picture might. Even their surroundings, in lot of cases, the things that meant the most to me were the things I noticed in their houses. I was always looking, as much as I was listening to them. I was looking around for clues as to why I was there.
Rumpus: You juxtapose the Internet and modern communication with the antiquity that’s kind of represented by the Pennysaver, and you talk about this notion that accidentally meeting someone has become something of a dying art. Is the web killing our ability to bond with strangers?
July: No, I mean obviously we’re all dealing with a lot more strangers due to the web. I’d say it has more to do with the quality of interactions. When you’re physically interacting with someone, it forces you to be more present and probably a little more uncomfortable. You have to tolerate being outside the comfort of your own home. I’m interested in what the virtues of all those things are, especially for the kind of person who’s made their own world that revolves around them, like writers do. It seems especially precious.
Rumpus: Would you say strangers are an important theme in your work?
July: Yeah, because what else are you going to draw from? You’ve got the people you know, which are problematic. Always. They’re rich but they’re also real people living their lives alongside you. Then you’ve got the people that you make-up completely, who are often missing a dimension if they don’t have some reference to real people. So strangers exist in this in-between space, where in not knowing them, you are creating a fiction for them, even in passing, but at the same time, there they are, with their actual bodies and their actual clothes. It’s totally enticing. The most inspiring person is the person I know a little bit but not very well. I was talking to my friend the other day about this thing I’m writing now, and I said, “Did you know your sister is a big point of reference for this main character in my book?”. She said “My sister? When have you even met my sister?” and I told her “Oh, I met her years ago. Remember? The wedding?” That’s the perfect amount of knowing someone. It gives you a lot of room and freedom. It’s about the same amount of knowing and unknowing I had with the strangers in this book.
Rumpus: You mentioned you’re working on a novel. Any idea when it might be released?
July: Not for a while. I won’t be finishing it this year. And then it takes a year between the finishing point and publication, so I would focus on other books.
Rumpus: At another point in the book, you make the observation that it seemed “like everyone had an imaginary paper family”. To me, the clippings Domingo keeps and the scrapbook Dina has were like a physical alternative to something like Tumblr, a record of media that speaks to you.
July: I had similar thoughts. We all do this. Collections are certainly abundant online. It’s complicated, because it’s not like these people didn’t want computers, although there was some nonchalance about it. I would sometimes ask the people I interviewed if they wished they had a computer, and in a lot of cases, it was like they couldn’t process the question. You don’t know what you don’t have, I guess. It wasn’t desperation, like the way I would want a computer if I didn’t have one. I was trying to look at the things they did have in their own terms, not as “what would be the digital equivalent” but what is this? What is unique about this? Often calendars or a collage on the wall expose something about us. We do so many things that we’re ashamed of online, and that’s so different from a collage that’s out in the open.
Rumpus: You met a man named Ron, who was wearing an ankle bracelet during your interview because he was under house arrest. You wrote that you “didn’t actually want to understand him, but to make him feel understood.” Was that something you strove for with all of your interviewees, to make each subject feel understood, if only for the duration of your conversation with them?
July: Yeah, as much out of polite nervousness as anything else. I don’t mean that flippantly, because that is my instinct generally when I meet people, to make them feel understood and to actually understand them. In that one particular case, I was wrestling with how far I wanted to go into an understanding of someone where I couldn’t tell how goodhearted he was. The facade didn’t go away – I wanted to be polite, perhaps even more so. But I pulled back, maybe. However, when I looked back through that interview, I was a little amazed to see how I kept foraging ahead and trying to find the wick of his person, when my main memory is wanting to get out of there.
Rumpus: Aside from the return visits you document in your book to both Joe, and earlier Dina, have you stayed in contact or heard from any of the other participants from It Chooses You?
July: I called Michael last month because I had a question. Someone had pointed out that I might not actually using the right pronoun with him, calling him “he”, given that he says he’s always been a woman inside. That was interesting to me, and I was happy to be educated on that, to see if I had jumped to conclusions. I think I was right at the time; he was Michael, although now he says he is Suzette, and the right pronoun is “she”. I’m thinking about putting that as a footnote. Obviously, when you interview someone at a time when their gender is changing, it’s good to think about that, probably a little more than I did. When I called Suzette, she had no memory of our interview. In fact, she suggested we do an interview and I was told her that we’d already done one, she said, “Oh that one wasn’t worth beans.”
Rumpus: Have you spoken with anyone else since the book came out?
July: Yes. Joe’s daughter. I recently sent her the book. That was a big deal for her. She was pretty out of touch with him when he died, and she said she got a lot of the book. Other than that, my feeling was that it wasn’t appropriate to mail out copies to everyone. In a way, I felt they’d already done enough. I wasn’t looking for a response from them, and neither did any of them seem to have a big investment in being in the book. The interviews, in their minds, equated with selling their objects, which I did also buy.
Rumpus: You actually opened a pop-up store in New York in conjunction with the book, right?
July: Yes, indirectly. I did this weird thing when I bought everyone’s objects at the time of their interviews. I asked them to keep their objects, because I had this idea that when I finally made the interviews into a…something, that it would be nice if the objects were still for sale. I imagined this scenario where people could call them up and buy them. I was picturing that when I thought I’d be doing something a lot sooner and smaller scale than a book. In hindsight, it made no sense. But I did have this other idea that I presented to the people at Partners and Spade, which was that we would go all over New York and interview people selling things. Then their objects would be sold in the store with the interviews, at the original price they were going for plus sales tax. It was so fun. To me, that’s my kind of store. I like thrift stores anyways, I like used stuff, but the best would be to know where each thing came from – the story behind it. Also, the authorship involved in the prices was amazing, because it spoke to the value each seller thought their items had, which were wildly out of sync with each other. There’d be something that was close to a piece of a trash that was $100 and then an amazing fur coat for $15. I think people’s glee, especially in New York, at seeing all these affordable things – wildly priced but affordable – was fun to watch. People went around and read the stories and then this bizarre buying frenzy happened and everything sold in 45 minutes.
Rumpus: Before reading It Chooses You, I had no idea so much of it would deal with your process of working on the script for The Future. At this point, having completed both projects, do you see the film and the book as companion pieces?
July: For me, they’re separate. In fact, it boggles my mind a little bit picturing someone reading the book before the movie. I don’t want to feel like I made a movie that requires a book for you to understand it, which wasn’t the point. Movies take so long to make, and you’re living your life along the way during all those years, and it sometimes feels a little too tidy to come away with this one product. It seemed appropriate that there should be the movie and then also be this messy, unwieldy thing alongside it. If you wanted to read it, it would be more along the same themes of the film, but also you could come at the book and it would stand alone. I like books about people’s process, and for me, you don’t have to know what the end result was for those books to work.
Rumpus: As someone with a long history of performance work, what’s the more vulnerable situation for you: opening a new stage show or knocking on the door of someone you’d booked an interview with in the Pennysaver?
July: Somewhat predictably, I’m much more comfortable in front of an audience – and a big audience is even better – than faced with one stranger. This always seems like a bit of a failing on my part, as a human. I think that’s also why I put myself situations where I’m forced to engage in other ways.
The life you live in front of an audience is like an altered state – it’s not totally real. I’m always, even in the course of one day, trying to find ways to balance both sides.
Rumpus: You write in It Chooses You about wrestling with the time you have left to have a child, and now you are currently pregnant. Did the It Chooses You experience play any factor in you deciding to go forward with having a child?
July: Maybe, in the sense that I wrestle my fears with every big decision I make. Ultimately, maybe all that wrestling does is make you sick of your own thoughts, and so with nothing resolved you just go ahead and have unprotected sex. The moment I became pregnant, everything became out of gait. None of those fears seem relevant in the same way, and that’s so like life, that once you do the daring move you’re in a totally different landscape. Now it’s a new story.