Bookforum talks with Miranda July

The First Bad Man: A Novel BY Miranda July. Scribner. Hardcover, 288 pages. $25.

In Miranda July’s films and short stories, the protagonist is usually shut off from the world: insular, habit-prone, and, to the outside world, a little weird. The beauty of Cheryl Glickman, the narrator of July’s debut novel, The First Bad Man, is that she’s come to see her idiosyncrasies as totally logical. After reading several pages of Cheryl’s chatty internal monologue, the reader will, too.

Forty-something, single, and childless, Cheryl works at a non-profit organization that makes self-defense videos for women. She has maintained a years-long infatuation with a man at work, conducted partly through text messages but mostly in her head. After living alone for many years, Cheryl has streamlined her routine to a neurotic degree. But her hermetically sealed life is torn open when she agrees to take in Clee, the boorish, messy, monosyllabic twenty-year-old daughter of two of her employers.

It’s a testament to July’s sensitivity as a writer that Clee and Cheryl do not come off as mere placeholders for their respective generations. As their relationship moves from non-verbal to combative—and then to something more complex and deeply felt than either of them had bargained for—Cheryl slowly learns to open her life to others. Like many of July’s films and stories, The First Bad Man takes place in a world that approximates our own, yet is not quite of it.

In a lot of your films and stories you seem occupied with the question of appropriate versus inappropriate connections between people. How do you use the concept of inappropriate couplings in your work?

It is a really old thing for me, this interest in wrong couples. It was very much at the heart of my first movie [2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know]. I remember seeing a French film with Jane Birkin called Le petit amour where she has an actual relationship with a fourteen-year-old boy, in a way that could only happen in a very French movie. That influenced Me and You.

But the fascination dates back to childhood. I probably just wanted more attention from the adults around me, but that often manifested in wildly inappropriate crushes on adults. I was like, “Gosh, I hope they notice me,” but hopefully they weren’t noticing me, because I was nine. Carrying that feeling through to adulthood, it gets really confusing, because of course the concepts of appropriate and inappropriate become really important. The topic of age keeps evolving as you get older, and I think having a middle-age woman and a young woman in a relationship that’s constantly changing gave me ample room for so many things I was interested in.

It’s almost a rule in books and movies that like people have to go together. Or if they’re unlike, it’s in a less pedestrian way. You know, they’re from another country, or it’s markedly about class. But just an everyday, sort of—who’s around you, and why don’t you consider them a viable person to connect with? I think about that in my life all the time. I imagine what’s everything this person would have to offer, if you really tried them.

This book dealt so beautifully with big questions. Did you intentionally set out to tackle motherhood and interpersonal connection, or did you have the story first and the themes came later?

I work very intuitively from the unconscious, so I’m writing a ton of stuff, but I don’t have the slightest idea how it connects. I like that it takes so much faith—I don’t know how this will fit together, or if it will. I think the topics become as deep and large as you’re willing to go. And I will say that my willingness grew. I started out in a relatively closed-off place. I had just come off the promotion for my last book and movie and wasn’t super-connected to myself. And then I was pregnant, I had a baby—I just kept being thrown into the real marrow of life. I really needed the book; it was a companion through all of that.

I read an interview you did with Rachel Kushner about ten years ago, in which you said that you want to make the audience feel like they’re sitting with a friend—you want to get away from the idea of a filmmaker or writer having a special authority over the viewer or reader. Do you think this kind of intimacy is easier to cultivate through writing, as compared to making movies?

I do, that’s the nice thing about it. With movies, it’s hard to keep that intimate, beating heart in there, the sense that anything could happen. I want you to have that feeling you sometimes get from slightly unfinished work or purposely unfinished work, where you think, “I could jump right in there and make this too.” It just seems very available. And certainly writing always has that. Everyone always thinks they could write, and I like that. Everyone has a book.

Is that “beating heart” difficult to maintain in a film, when you’re working in such a collaborative atmosphere?

Definitely. I have a hard time fully being myself. You know when you’re writing and you’re in your pajamas and you’re not even clean and you’re just really focused? When you go to a set, you have to look nice, and be kind and aware of other people, and I think for the directors who really enjoy directing, being in host mode makes them more creative. I’m always like, “How do I make this more like me being alone?”

Do you find it easier to talk about your work as a novelist than your work as a filmmaker?

In truth I’m one of those artists who would love to be able to say, “I don’t know, I just made it! The work speaks for itself!” I like to talk, I’m glad people are interested, but I’m not a theorist—I just don’t think that way—so talking about movies is only easier in that you have all these other people and the process to talk about. To some degree I feel like I’m making up the stuff I say retroactively . . . I don’t want to get it wrong.

In the world of your stories and films, and now this novel, the tension often breaks when a character does something strange. What is it about the totally weird and unexpected that has an almost redemptive quality?

I think that comes from my own life—I’m someone who feels so hemmed in and controlled by a sort of internal tyranny all the time. My saving grace, my only way out most of the time, is a radical left turn that I’m not expecting. It may seem goofy, but to the people around me, it’s clear that it's my way to freedom.

I read somewhere that you wanted this book to feel like a thriller. I got through it very quickly, and then I watched Me and You and Everyone We Know. I was struck by the difference in pace—the movie is slow, languid, patient, whereas the book feels frenetic. How did you achieve this pacing, and did it turn out the way you wanted it to?

That was something that hit me maybe a third of the way into writing the book. I remember having one email exchange with George Saunders—I’m saying one so it doesn’t sound like I’m just always writing with George Saunders, which I’m not. I was saying I was learning not to resolve everything right away and he said, yes, if you leave the box open then the energy sticks around and drives the reader forward. Resist the urge to close the box. I think this might have been something Donald Antrim said to him, just to throw another name in there. It works on the writer, too—I didn’t always know what was going to happen and this feeling drove me forward. It always sounds so silly when writers say, “And then my character surprised me by doing this!” But there was a lot of that.

Were you reading other books while you were writing this novel?

I read a little book called Humiliation by Wayne Koestenbaum. I was trying to be aware of what I was doing to Cheryl, and wanted to be sensitive to the degree that she was humiliated. Sometimes I went too far and had to pull back. I read Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, which is a book that uses sexual fantasy in a unique way. I read Breed, this thriller by Chase Novak, aka Scott Spencer; this book made me conscious of the page-turner thing we were talking about.

You’ve acted in both of your feature films. Did you imagine yourself as any one of the characters in The First Bad Man?

That’s the beautiful thing, there’s no part for me. For a while that was the only thing I knew about the novel I was going to write: It wasn’t going to star people who could be played by me.

I guess it gave you a bit of freedom to get away from yourself.

I’m much more hampered creatively if I know a character is supposed to be like me. It’s harder for me to be emotionally honest; I feel more self-conscious.

The relationship between Clee and Cheryl is unlike anything I’ve read. Did you start the book knowing these two characters would be each other’s saviors, in an odd way?

It was a lucky thing. The idea of their relationship came fully formed. I was on a long drive, the kind where you get relaxed enough to really zone out on something. I wrote down all the steps of their relationship all on one scrap of paper. Then, based on that page, I made notes for the better part of a year before I started writing a draft. To this day, I feel like that good idea is going to be taken away from me. I’m so grateful for it.