Miranda July thrives on her creative freedom. “The really lucky thing is that I can just do what I want to,” says the artist, who was recently the subject of an Art21 docuseries called Art in the Twenty-First Century and just announced her forthcoming novel, All Fours. “In my body, what I’m hungry for is what I do and I figure it out logistically and financially.”
That freedom takes center stage in Art in the Twenty-First Century. In her episode of the series, which airs October 20 on PBS, July showcases her creative process alongside fellow artists Cannupa Hanska Luger, Christine Sun Kim, and Linda Goode Bryant. She also recently participated in the organization’s “Art21 at the Movies” festival in New York City, where she presented a series of her own shorts and her favorite social-media videos in a showcase called “F-F-F-Fearless,” which reveals her love for Perfume Genius’s TikTok account and Cate White’s “How Do You Paint” YouTube series. But her tether to social media, like everyone’s, is complicated. “There are things about it that I feel we would have made anyways, with the grassroots aspects of it that connect back to things I did before social media,” she tells the Cut. “A lot of my artwork is me tangling with technology to kind of get at what I need it to be, rather than what the company needs it to be. I think we’re in the twilight of Instagram, which is kind of an interesting time, but it’s easier to work with something when it’s not cool anymore, in a way.”
With her next creative endeavor on the horizon (she’ll release All Fours in May 2024), July is thinking a lot about the next phase of her life. An erotic coming-of-middle-age story about a woman who decides to turn her life as she knows it upside down and explore herself and the country, All Fours is sort of July’s way of processing that she’s not a young woman anymore. “It’s map-less and it’s a real different feeling, the vibe shifts,” she says of being 49. “You could pretend like everything’s the same, but I think that’s a bad look. In the book, I try to write about all that. My narrator really doesn’t know anything at first and the cover of the book is a cliff, which speaks to her heading towards a drop.”
From the documentary and the Art21 at the Movies programming, I really felt a sense of community. I know you’ve worked with your friend Natasha Lyonne and other friends who are artists. What has it been like for you to have a community of artists and creatives around who you can collaborate with and be friends?
It’s nicely kind of mixed up. In that piece I showed, there was Natasha and my sculptor friend Isabelle Albuquerque. There was also Oumarou Idrissa, who I met because he drove the Uber cab when I was going to interview Rihanna once and we bonded during this really long drive and we’ve made things since. Those three people are a really mixed group, even in terms of their familiarity with acting. But all three of them share a kind of gameness and a willingness to do another Miranda thing. I like to think it’s because I’m there for them too. So it feels very L.A. to me in its spread-out-ness. It’s not a scene, which I think I’d have more of in New York City. I’m the thing that’s holding it together, but I kind of like it that way.
I’m curious what it’s like for you looking back on your old work. Does it feel strange? Do you cringe?
I cringed for sure and that night I purposely showed a lot of imperfect things that I don’t usually show. I just think about how much I love when other artists do that. I feel like I learn more than just seeing the hits, so it’s a good thing to do. It was a small audience and live, in-person things have a kind of safety built into them because what are they going to do? Go verbally tell people that this thing wasn’t perfect? It’s interesting for me to look back.
How do you know which medium you want to work with?
For a long time, I wanted to write a novel, then I did that. Then I could see that I could do better. And meanwhile, I was making movies and doing art. Usually, I’m alternating between movies and written projects and do art when I’m in between. I just finished this book and I’m working towards an art show. Art has its own pressures and challenges, but it’s not the same as trying to get film financing.
I’d love to hear about the new novel, All Fours. How do you feel now that it’s been announced?
I’m 49 and I started it at 45, so this chunk of time has been me suddenly processing not being young anymore. As a woman, you’re perceived as young for as long as possible because you’re both valuable and disempowered. You’re valuable to them reproductively and sexually, but you’re also not really a threat in other ways. That’s perpetuated for a long length of time and then boom, it seems quite sudden where it hits you and you realize that’s not forever. And what’s coming next is totally unclear because it’s not marketed and all the involvement in your reproductive ability ends. Now, no one really knows nor cares about what’s going on inside you physically, from here on out.
There’s something inherently negative in calling a pivot during middle age a “midlife crisis.” I’m curious about your protagonist’s journey to make a change, go down a different path, and explore her sexuality. Why was this subject matter interesting to you?
I was looking for that book. A super modern book that didn’t describe this midlife crisis. Whenever people use that phrase, it’s always a joke. It’s never said with a lot of empathy or faith in that person’s process. But you’re right: Aren’t all crises transformative? The plan is to keep changing and not calcify. When I look around at people my age and someone is not going through some kind of upheaval, I wonder if they’re asleep at the wheel or if it’s happening inside and they’re not showing it. It’s unavoidable because you look ahead and instead of seeing middle age, accomplishment, and an open-ended, hopeful space, you see death. And that’s not open-ended, to the best of my knowledge right now. That’s going to be a perspective shift and quite frankly, this is what my friends and I are talking about.
There’s this idea that women turn a certain age and then eroticism is off the table. Why did you want to include the narrator’s awakening as part of her journey in your novel?
I often found myself writing scenes of desire really easily. In the book, sex doesn’t happen how you think it’s going to happen, and then suddenly, there it is. I wanted to show this very erratic kind of desire because I don’t think women are particularly consistent when it comes down to it. And why would we be? Why is that the expectation? We’re living cyclically and if it has to do with the body, which I’d love it to, then we feel really different ways. It was important to also show what it’s like to not feel desire and to feel aroused in ways that don’t seem hot, in ugly and problematic ways.
What’s your relationship to BookTok? Have you engaged with that space at all? And have you thought about how your book will be consumed on social media?
I haven’t really gone there. The truth is, when you’re writing and first starting out, maybe those voices are in your head, but ultimately I spent four years on this. If I have confidence, it comes from the fact that there aren’t a lot of novels that include these subjects and there should be. I wish this book was one of many books that included perimenopause, but there’s not a ton of competition right now. I think it’s coming and I’m excited for that. It’s also a funny book. Some people will just throw it at the wall, but it makes me laugh. I’m excited to give the parts that make me smile to my friends.
Have there been books and authors throughout time that have made a big impression on you?
One old standby is Alice Munro, the great Canadian short-story writer. I’m just catching up on books from Sally Rooney and others from the last few years. But I kept reading Alice’s short stories because she loves surprises, and so do I. Also, the new narrative, auto-fiction-memoir world like Annie Ernaux, Dodie Bellamy, and Sheila Heti. I don’t write autobiographically. You’ll notice that I don’t exactly name the narrator, so she could be me, but she’s not and literally she isn’t because it’s fiction.
I’m also in a weird position as a writer, having also acted in my movies. Not everyone has this particular problem or tool to this degree of being conflated with their characters.
If you were having a dinner party and you could invite five people, who would you want there?
I actually don’t want to have a dinner party: The thought stresses me out. Honestly, I would just invite my girlfriend and my best friend. That’s a dinner party I actually need to have.
What’s the best and worst pieces of advice you’ve received throughout your career?
I can be a real stickler when I’m directing because I’m also the writer, so I can get pretty hung up on someone leaving out a pause if there was a comma in the script. And that’s fun for actors … I say that sarcastically. In one moment filming Kajillionaire, Richard Jenkins and I messed with each other a bit and tried to come to a place of peace about each scene, but by pushing against each other. He said, “It doesn’t have to be right, it just has to be alive.” I remember thinking I wished he would’ve said that on day one.
I’m not dragging my mom here because I’m a mom now and I really get where she was coming from. But I remember sometimes I’d have a big idea — like my first feature film — and she’d be warning me against it. I can hear her voice saying, “I just don’t want you to be disappointed if it doesn’t work out.” I have to stop myself from saying that all the time and realize, it might not work out, but your child has to go through that. I’m actually not afraid of being disappointed because I believe I will succeed. I was such a feminist and so surrounded by other women that had faith in themselves that it wasn’t in my windshield the way it was in hers.
What do you do to fill your cup when you need it? To disconnect and recharge?
A few real basic, practical things including working out. I’m actually really strong and I can lift a lot of weight. It’s a nice feeling and it’s new over the last five years when I started that. I stretch every morning and meditate. I can have a sort of hyper focus, so now I force myself to stop working by making a date with a friend for the afternoon. It made me do better work and be a more efficient writer.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.