Meanwhile, in California… Miranda July Reflects on “It Chooses You” at the LA Central Library
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1. In the elevators at LA Central Library, ol’ Dewey Decimal finally gets the respect that he deserves. 2. July reading about Ron from Woodland Hills, who wore a “Business related” house arrest bracelet. Ron: “It’s about over.” Miranda: “It’ll be nice to have that off’…I said it cozily, almost maternally. The most important thing was to continue behaving exactly as I had before I’d known he was under house arrest.” 3. July, in conversation with writer Joshua Bearman. “In LA, you’re supposed to stay in your lane,” she said. “You know the sort of things in your world, and you stay there…like in The Truman Show. I’d rather be lost talking to people than lost in my own spiral.”
Relentlessly hilarious, graceful, and inspiring, Miranda July is a hero of mine whose work always seems to tell me exactly what I need to hear. I found her book Learning to Love You More at the St. Mark’s bookstore years ago, and have since bought it for all of my most loving friends. Not a week goes by that I don’t think about this hand-painted sign explaining the difference between crows and ravens, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about the scene with the VHS confrontation with the art director in July’s film Me, You, and Everyone We Know. When I heard of the reading — which was at Central Library of Los Angeles — for her newly released book, It Chooses You, I became a pinball of fateful excitement.
1. My buddy Kevin, a page at Paramount Studios, who told me about the reading. If you don’t know Kevin, extra points if you can spot Sandra Oh. 2. The sold-out crowd filling up the Mark Taper auditorium.
Intimate, far reaching, and powered by altruistic intuition, It Chooses You can be described as a mix between Studs Terkel, This American Life, and Found Magazine, and feels like it’s written on the face of fear itself. Before starting to read, July announced, “All I ever want to know is how people are getting through their life.” She later explained, “You’re calling this number and going for some stuff, but IT could be anywhere. I have to look around. It may be in kitchen or it may be in the walls.”
When she contacted Ron, who was selling a collection Dr. Seuss books, DVDs, and colored gel pens, “He said he had his reasons for not wanting me to come over,” but after hours of going on about business economics, card counting, and the types of crimes that get you in an ankle bracelet, she realized, “He would never let us leave. We would just have to go.” She said she had been raised to make such men feel understood, but this experience taught her that “I don’t want to understand them, I just want them to feel understood.”
1. She said this work was related to a time when she was, “Just waiting, blindly waiting for someone to come save (her), to be seen.” After undertaking the project, she thought, “You’re learning the things you need to know to live your life and do your work and keep relationships.” 2. July signing my friend Josh’s book. She would be happy to know that going to this event compelled him to get a new library card.
She then read a section about meeting actor Don Johnson at his home to discuss a possible role in The Future. “Don and I talked about being present and the elusiveness of ‘now,’ and then he praised the talents of his son for a while, which predictably moved me to tears. To keep from crying, I had to do the trick where you contract your butt into a tiny fist and mentally repeat the words fuck you, fuck you…”
July was then joined in discussion with writer Joshuah Bearman, who said he always wonders about the people who sell him their expendable assets through Craiglist, confessing to peering over their shoulder and looking around their place as the cash changes hands. This made me think of the used iPod I bought on Amazon and how I listed to the stranger’s jams on shuffle for three days. Since the strangers she contacted weren’t familiar her work, she never attempted to describe it. “I’d say, ‘I’m just a curious type of person,’ because everyone knows someone like that.”
Being a fiction writer, she said she had to resist crafting the interviews into stories. “I make things up. I rip off people everyday and they can’t tell. A few friends can, who get annoyed.” After interviews, she’d think, “I just want this to be so poignant, I don’t know what to feel right now…They anoint you with the worthiness of hearing their story, they’ve given you their space. It’s not some magic trick. You’re allowed to do that.” The real magic trick for July was gaining financing for The Future, which stalled for so long that she considered abandoning her interviews and the “vision quest” all together. “No one’s gonna notice if I don’t do this book…I’m just a polite woman, not a journalist.”
1. This makes me very giddy.
Describing her method, she said, “I took it to the limit of my discomfort, or theirs.” When Bearman asked, “Why did Ron get to you?,” she replied, “I just felt unsafe. I was in a borderline situation asking myself, am I not listening to warning bells? How long did he say his house arrest was for?” She then talked about buying a leather jacket from a transgendered man who answered his door very shyly, as he knew she couldn’t tell over the phone. After reassuring him by saying that she grew up in Berkeley, she asked, “Is there anything you want that you haven’t gotten?” He replied, “No — just to be a woman.”
When Raymond, a middle-aged man living with his grandmother, showed her a mannequin he’d made to look like exactly like actress Elizabeth Hendrickson of All My Children, July changed the subject to the laptop in his room, and “just the fact that we were talking about computers was comforting.” When Bearman asked her if there was anyone she’d left out, she said there were three people who were very interesting, but their story “just wasn’t in the words.” She mentioned a Persian woman who wouldn’t reveal anything, and who even started crying at one of her questions.
The project came full circle for her when she found Joe, a retired house painter and her final subject, selling the fronts of fifty Christmas cards for a dollar. He showed her the wealth of filthy typewritten poems and slant limericks that he’d written, and introduced her to his cat, Pa Pa. Since The Future is narrated by a cat named Pa Pa, this struck July as meaningful and she felt driven to include Joe in the film, where he is featured re-enacting their meeting, and also as the voice of the moon. She called him a talented improviser and was genuinely saddened that he died two days after the film’s completion.
When the reading opened up to questions from the audience, I raised my hand faster than an elementary school snitch. Being a love hero of mine, I asked who were some of her love heroes, and her answer surprised me. She said she’s most influenced by the close relationships she’s kept with her old friends, local people she’s known since she was eighteen. “I frequently get the question, ‘who would you invite to a dinner party,’ and I always say, ‘Lindsay & Shawna,’ all the people I invite over to dinner anyway…What’s great is how love changes over time.” When asked about her preparation for It Chooses You, she talked about how helpful it was reading interviews with writers like Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, and Sheila Heti. When asked about what she did with the items for sale, she said she’d pay for it, but would leave it with them, hoping to extend its purpose for a little bit longer. She reports that she is working on her first novel, but I hope she keeps finding beautiful ways to goof off.
by Miranda July
–David Ohlsen, an LA native, is a thoughtless product of UC Riverside’s Creative Writing program and is a regular contributor to Electric Dish.