Miranda July’s “The First Bad Man” is the queerest book you’ll read all year

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Miranda July is the definition of a renaissance woman. An artist, a filmmaker, a writer, an actor, an app creator, Miranda has won awards at Sundance and Cannes (for Me and You and Everyone We Know) and had her work displayed as part of the Whitney Biennial (Learning to Love You More). Although she’s published a short story collection (No One Belongs Here More Than You) and a compilation of interviews (It Chooses You), she’s just released her first novel, The First Bad Man.

Miranda July Signs Copies Of Her Book "First Bad Man"

The book follows Cheryl, a middle-age woman who spends her time working at a self-defense fitness and educational video business and keeping her home in order. She’s single and lonesome, but doesn’t seem to mind much. She has an obsession with a board member at work, a man named Richard who seems to take a liking to her as well, although not romantically, as she hoped. When the owners of the company ask if their 20-year-old daughter, Clee, can stay with her for a while, Cheryl obliges, mostly because she has no reason to say no. What starts as an awkward situation (Clee is a total slob who spends her days eating microwave meals on the couch) turns into a physical relationship, and Clee and Cheryl become lovers.

“So much of my life is women. I have very intense women friends, my first romantic relationships were with women,” Miranda July said. “It’s tricky territory because it instantly becomes kind of politicized. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s necessary, but if you’re writing fiction and you want to write about the complexity of relationships between women, and sexual fantasies that women have, and lesbianism, but you don’t want to write a book where the reader could say, ‘Oh this isn’t about me, I’m not interested in these things.'”

What The First Bad Man says about sexuality is that it’s much more complex than most depictions we see in popular culture. Our individual fantasies and desires aren’t the cut-and-dry ideas presented in “the birds and the bees” discussions we are given in sex ed or by our parents. Cheryl starts out celibate but has daydreams about Richard and his simultaneous want and need for her, which turns into her imaginings of becoming Richard and having sex with Clee. 

“In a way, my very first idea was a character that could have all these experiences, that could have sex with a woman, could imagine having sex with a woman as a man, but without any of the words that we use, without even the word gender,” Miranda said. “Creating a character like that that was plausible, that had prose and rules that she stuck to, was the joy of writing the book. It was a way for me to be much more honest than I would have been if I was creating a story closely huge to my own personal history.”

The First Bad Man is not a “lesbian novel.” Calling it such would be misleading to those seeking one out, and to those who might be interested in a story about universal relationships that involve love, sex or a combination of the two. Still, Miranda said she sees Clee as figuring out her lesbian identity through Cheryl, who she heard was “dressed like a lesbian” from a friend.

“I didn’t hit this very hard, but if you try and trace Clee’s storywhich is hard to do because she’s seen through Cheryl who is unreliable – but I think her story is a coming out story because in the end she’s living in an apartment with her first girlfriend named Rachel,” Miranda said. “So I kinda imagined Clee growing up and there being this one woman who worked at her parents office, who she had once heard was a lesbian. And that that just stuck in her mind.”

Miranda’s work is highly sexual and often challenges viewers and readers to think deeper about their proclivities. She says she’s begun to speak more openly about the same kinds of things with friends, too.

“I think the thing we were talking about, about how identity is so fluid in your sexual fantasies,” she said. “In writing this, I don’t know which came first, but I did start to talk more to my friends, like, ‘What do you actually think about then you’re masturbating, can you tell me?” Over a glass of wine, or dinner. It was really interesting because with one friend I’d tell her one and she’d be like “oh that’s good, can I use that?” It was a totally new kind of intimacy, I felt really proud that she wanted it. ‘That is a good one! use it! I’ve used it for years.'”

'Somebody' - Photocall - 71st Venice Film Festival

The story for The First Bad Man came to Miranda all at once, and she discovered the name Clee from her her sister-in-law’s mother. (Miranda said she hopes she hasn’t read the book.) Miranda thought the name was “so perverse, yet so simple,” so she asked permission to borrow it, and was granted. Because this was her first novel, Miranda said she felt some self-doubt during the beginning stages.

“Writing that first draft was a completely new experience in writing for me,” she said, “and I was confounded by the fact that my writing wasn’t great. This wasn’t anywhere near the level of things I had done, but I just plugged away at it and once I was done and started doing millions of rewrites, I got it. I went, ‘Ah!’ once you have the first draft done and have material to work with then you’re just shaping it.”

It’s bizarre to think that Miranda July would have any kind of trepidation about her work, as she’s both prolific and creative beyond most people’s imaginations. Often referred to as “eccentric,” Miranda is someone whose motivation is to do something new and unexpected.

“I’m not interested in the same stories that get told over and over again, and I just like thinking about improbable, unlikely or queer pairings,” she said. “People who aren’t supposed to be together, for any reason. Even my nonfictional book, It Chooses You, I was picking people who we weren’t supposed to know each other based on geography and class and stuff, so I consider the conversations we hadthere’s something slightly queer about them. I guess to me, that’s where I feel morewhere I feel the most alert and alive and not consumed by my own reality. When I’m really considering things from a POV that hasn’t been sold to me every single second of the day.”

Miranda has been creating since she was just out of high school. A zinemaker who moved from Berkley, California to Portland, Oregon in the 1990s, Miranda said she began to form a community that she still maintains friendships from today, including one with Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia.

Kenzo Kalifornia Launch Dinner And Party

“We met when she was in her band Excuse 17, before Sleater-Kinney, and my friend Johanna Fateman and I had a fanzine. And we sent them a copy of our FanZine and they wrote back and we became pen-pals and then we met up when they were on tour,” Miranda said. “Then we all lived in the Northwest. Carrie and I were friends and we wrote letters to each other between Olympia and Portland, then she moved to Portland and we had a good time there. I have to say that I see her more than any other friend. It’s not that hard. We both travel a lot, especially her. She’s in two different shows so she’s in LA a lot. I think we find comfort that we came from the same place and sort of ended up in similar places; we even have a few friends in common over the years, even independently. “

Miranda now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, filmmaker Mike Mills, and says she enjoys the professionalism and diversity that the city provides.  

“I think Portland, we’re talking Portland in the ’90s and early 2000s, was great. Everyone should feel like they are able to be a big deal in their own little town, you know?” Miranda said. “It didn’t start out that way, but it didn’t seem impossible. It wasn’t like moving to New York which feels more daunting. It was like okay if I put up more flyers, people would come to this! And you could invite friends and invite them to be a part of your work, then their friends would come to your show. It was community based, so we really were focused on ourselves and our town. But its hard for me to compare it to LA because I’m older here, so I’m not seeking that out as much.”

What she does seek out, though, are creative women to connect with.

“I will say from time to time I know there’s really interesting artists here that I need to meet, I’ll literally write down names of people that I hear about, like a dream board: ‘Women in LA that I know live here that I haven’t crossed paths with.'” she said. 

And while she does want to make another feature film as her next project, Miranda said it will not be an adaptation of The First Bad Man.

“When I was writing it, I loved to think about that: The fact that it was so dramatic and two great roles for women, it seemed very doable,” she said. “You don’t even need fancy locations; just great actors. Now that its done, I feel very protective of it. I don’t see why there needs to be another version of this, I did it! And I’m not going to do another version of it myself, so. It’s so hard to make a movie and I do want that next, so I’d much rather tell a new story.”

Miranda’s last feature was 2011’s The Future, and she said any films she makes will always be one she writes herself. (“I always like to write my own visions.”) Before features, though, Miranda was filming all kinds of performance art and other facets of life, which was part of what made her the big fish in the little pond of Portland, and what made her debut, Me and You And Everyone We Know, a hot property at Sundance when it premiered in 2005. 

“I cringe all the time about things that I did when I was younger,” Miranda said. “That said, it was very true to me at the time and there will always be people at the same place, you know? So the goal isn’t perfection for every era of your life, but kind of capturing where you’re at right then.”

Right now, where she’s at is hopeful that readers of The First Bad Man will come away with a deeper understanding about how sexual identity doesn’t have to be fixed; that it can exist however it wants inside you and be expressed when and how you’d like, without any kind of judgment or forced association.

“I just wanted to open that idea up that regardless of what you’re calling yourself,” Miranda said, “it’s all kind of fair game inside your head. “

The First Bad Man is available now from Simon & Schuster.

 

 

 

 

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