Culture

A Very Cool Chat About Punk, Stealing From The Patriarchy And Quitting Your Job With Miranda July

"The main thing you rebel against in your twenties is your parents. They got worried. At one point I was a stripper."

If there’s a common thread to Miranda July’s body of work, it might be that she is always completely herself. Across mediums, characters and identities there is something that is resolutely ‘Miranda July’ about everything she does. This is true whether talking about her performance art, films, short stories, or her latest work – an autobiographical talk, LOST CHILD!

She is so herself, in fact, that if you were to talk to her on the phone — say, in an interview on behalf of a hip new media website — you would find yourself mirroring her affectations and becoming a cheap imitation of her. You would laugh when she laughed but a little too loudly, you would attempt to flatter her by saying “that’s so cool” repeatedly and you may even utter the least cool sentence imaginable: “I am a really huge fan of you.” (Not “your work” or “your career”. “You.”)

But all of that would be okay, because Miranda July is kind and interesting and, yes, very cool. Ahead of her autobiographical talk tour of Australia and New Zealand this week, we had a chat to find out what makes her tick.

Being An Artist Is A Lot Of Hard Work

LOST CHILD! is named after a novel July wrote at the age of seven, about a small girl who gets lost because she is following a voice from the sky. In a not-so-veiled attempt to understand her secrets, I ask if this is how creativity feels for her now – like a voice is coming from the sky.

“Not really,” she says.

“Oh, right.” I’m a little disappointed.

“But once I was giving a talk on a panel, and there happened to be a psychic in the audience. Afterwards, she said to me, ‘Did you know your ideas are not your own, that they are being sent down? I can see going into your head. You should feel very grateful for whoever is sending them down.’ At once I felt like very special and also like all the credit was being taken from me.”

But the real drive behind July’s creativity is more based on being practical about the process of making art. She says she never had a Plan B and from the age of 16 was already very serious about her artistic output.

“There was a play that I wrote that I put on in an all-ages punk club in Berkeley. It was based on my correspondence with a man in prison,” she says casually. “I hired all these adult actors. I really wanted it to be professional, so I put an ad in the newspaper. My character was played by a 25-year-old Latina woman.”

This pragmatic side came from seeing her parents run a publishing house out of their actual house. Both of them were also writers on the side.

“There was never any mystery of like ‘How would you become an artist?’ I just thought I’d do the same thing that my parents did,” she says.

Why Everyone Should Try Being Punk For A Bit

When people talk about July’s work, they use words like “original”, “quirky” and “funny” over and over again. She said in a Believer interview that her art comes from the tension between “paralysis and terror and a lighter, freer, kind of rebellious woman.”

But this isn’t just present in her work: it’s part of her life and career trajectory. In her twenties, she was in the Portland punk scene ­­– you know, the Sleater Kinney, Heavens to Betsy, Bikini Kill kind of period.

“Like, I had a Mohawk. My hair was every possible colour,” July says.

“That’s so cool,” I whisper.

“It was lots of stealing and general kind of rebellion. Everything was the patriarchy so we could steal from everything and feel righteous about it. The main thing you rebel against in your twenties is your parents. They got worried. At one point I was a stripper.”

“So cool. My parents would have been so worried.”

“Oh, they were pretty worried. But at the time I was like, you can deal with this.”

Career Paths Can Be A Bad Thing

For July, part of doing the “punk thing” was tied up in resisting heavy labelling of her creative output. She was an indie film-maker, gaining her first taste of public attention with 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. Then she was an indie film-maker/writer, an indie film-maker/writer/app designer and so on, until she kind of just was.

“Film-maker was particularly tortuous”, she says, “because there is quite a clear-cut career path for that, and I didn’t take it. I didn’t take what was offered to me right out of Sundance because I was already working on my book of short stories.”

“I thought at the time that I was doing the punk thing, and I was sure that I was right because how could working for that big company end in anything but misery?”

July ended up making a bunch of huge decisions based on her instincts rather than her experience, which is crazy but also makes a lot of sense. And really, what her tour is trying to do is make her life and career as an artist seem less mysterious.

“It’s just one decision after another, or a series of mistakes and their solutions”, she said. “It’s not mysterious at all, to me.”

“Cool.”

Miranda July LOST CHILD! Tour

SydneySunday, March 6 @ the Sydney Opera House as part of the All About Women festival

MelbourneMonday, March 7 @ Melbourne Town Hall presented by The Wheeler Centre and ACMI

WellingtonWednesday, March 9 @ The Opera House as part of the New Zealand Festival Writers Week

Em Meller is a writer, journalist and editor with a focus on law and digital privacy. Her work has appeared in Junkee, Overland, The Justinian and on 2SER.