Miranda July's new book It Chooses You was published this week by McSweeney's. Part narrative, part self-conscious ethnography, it tracks July's exploration through the PennySaver "for sale" classifieds, which she used as a vehicle to meet people in their homes throughout Los Angeles and interview them about their lives. And the book itself began as a vehicle to flee the screenplay for her new feature film, The Future, in her most wicked throes of writer's block.
In fact, it was one of a slew of ways July used to procrastinate finishing The Future. The first bane of her productivity was a common one -- the Internet. Desultory blog-trolling, compulsive information accumulation, self-Googling... And when she managed to wrench herself free of frivolous web surfing, she transferred that energy to the PennySaver, which she'd already had lying around to keep an eye out for estate sales. Gradually, July developed this tangential obsession. She spoke to the audience before reading from It Chooses You at Brooklyn's BookCourt Tuesday night about the genesis of the project; "I would read through every single ad -- through automotive, and just keep going... I think what struck me was that it was all real. Each one of these were real people they were really out there selling these things, and not only that, but [with innocent amazement] here were their phone numbers."
So began the interview process. "I started calling them. They expected my call, because they put the ad in -- the initial conversation wasn't hard. But the leap from "Yes the item is still for sale" to "Can I, when I come over to look at it, interview you about your hopes and dreams?" ... That was a stumbling block. A lot of people said no, making the people who said yes feel very special, and that's part of what "It Chooses You" means."
July met people under the auspices of an interest in their retro hairdryers and four-dollar Carebears, and got to know them. But it was more than just the charm of the objects or the quirkiness of the subjects that kept her involved. "This is just me -- my grandiose sense of how I go about life -- but I started thinking of this as kind of a vision quest or something, that I had to do this; in fact, it was important to not work on the script, and not to just fight it through and find the answer to my particular fictional problem, but to go out in the world and find the answer. Not just to that problem, but other problems I was having in my actual life. Questions about mortality, and time. So that was the scale I was operating on when I met with these people."
If It Chooses You was a means of creative resistance to completing The Future, it shook out to be a perfectly fruitful one, the film and the book now both conceptually entangled, complete, and completely awkward-lovely in classic July style. But July also practiced some less dedicated, less resilient forms of escape while trying to ignore her screenplay. Below are a quick four questions with her about another one of them -- cooking.
At the beginning of the book you speak about being so close to reaching the end of "The Future" you could see it, but you just couldn't get there -- and one of the means of further deterring you was throwing yourself into a domestic role. Which included cooking a lot. Did that wear off, or did it last through much of the process?
Oh, it wore off. But, I think I actually became a better cook! But when you're writing a book like this, you pull details out that are true but without the other details, they kind of become fiction. You know, my husband was shooting his movie before I shot mine, and so part of why I was cooking was to support him when he came home, which he then did for me when I was shooting. But, I was cooking before that too, out of thinking, "Well, if nothing else, I will have made a meal today."
Favorite thing to cook?
I'm best at desserts. Probably just because I like to eat dessert a lot. But I head towards the healthy vein, like, I'm always doing lots of substitutions -- cooking The Joy of Cooking but trying to use agave in their recipes, which, you know, doesn't always work out.
Ideal celebration meal?
There was this berry thing that I made for literally every celebration. I'm not vegan but it was vegan -- that was it's main point. This vegan, berry, cake thing. Any time anyone had a birthday or anything, I'd make the berry thing, until people started saying "Oh! It's the berry thing...." at which point I realized, oh, this has gotten sort of played out.
Choice dish for a time of mournfulness?
When I'm sad, I want to eat like a child. So, a bowl of cereal.
A meal from childhood that was prepared for you often, or that you fondly recall?
There was this thing called Yorkshire Pudding that my mom would make, that's just sort of a buttery dough thing. We have some Welsh heritage, which I think she vaguely connected it to, but she's from Denver... I'm sure it has more to do with Denver than Wales.
After the reading, July enjoyed her third dessert of the day, which was pumpkin pie-like. Learn more about It Chooses You on the McSweeney's website. The author appears again tonight at the grand opening of her custom-designed resale shop (selling items from the New York classifieds) at Partners & Spade, 40 Great Jones Street, New York City.