You’re Not Just an Idea in Your Head: A Conversation with Miranda July

Lily Felsenthal and Debbie Ou interview Miranda July about her novel “All Fours.”

You’re Not Just an Idea in Your Head: A Conversation with Miranda July

All Fours by Miranda July. Riverhead. 336 pages.

IN THE MIDDLE of our conversation with Miranda July, she paused to tell us that she had found something in the pocket of her vest, newly purchased from eBay. The note, which she read aloud, reminded the previous wearer of an upcoming meeting that, in serendipitous consonance with her latest novel, last month’s All Fours, was to take place in a hotel room. Her ensuing glee seemed just as much about the discovery of the note—a finding that transported the three of us, voyeur-like, into the vest’s past life—as it was about making that discovery in our company. The moment felt illustrative of a key part of July’s creative process: delighting in the mystery of the everyday, and forging unexpected, often odd moments of connection with other lives.

As a writer, artist, performer, and filmmaker, July has always been a great noticer of human behavior, a seeker of the absurd. She brings her trademark humor and offbeat sensibility to each of her chosen mediums, creating narratives that flip our understanding of relationships inside out and demonstrating an abiding interest in the kinds of intimacy that can only arise between strangers. All Fours is no exception. The novel follows an unnamed artist who decides to take a cross-country road trip and then, for reasons the protagonist herself does not entirely understand, spends the duration of the trip in a motel in Monrovia (a small city just 20 minutes from her home) instead. Yet even this small distance affords the protagonist the freedom to examine her life as only someone who has been temporarily released from it can. The connection she makes with a local catalyzes a period of introspection in which she reckons with the social responsibilities of being a wife and mother, as well as with the biological inevitability of perimenopause.

The novel emphasizes journeys as both emotional and physical dislocations—an idea that resonates with the mythology of Southern California as a place of transience and self-inquiry. The odd beauty of greater Los Angeles’s urban sprawl serves as a surprising backdrop for the narrator’s self-discovery. And, as the scope of the novel shrinks geographically, its sense of emotional wandering deepens and complicates.

In April, we spoke with July over Zoom about All Fours, her relationship with place and with transience, and how she developed the raw, honest voice that drives this searching novel.


LILY FELSENTHAL: This struck me as a very L.A. story. Golden hour light is described with beautiful precision. Important conversations happen when the narrator is driving on the freeway. Could you talk about your relationship to Los Angeles?

MIRANDA JULY: It’s funny—I always think of myself as a writer who doesn’t focus that much on place, because I’m so internal and it feels sort of arbitrary why I’m living wherever I’m living. In a kind of passive way, I will just absorb experience.

In this book, there’s this very key thing, which is the narrator stopping 20 minutes away in Monrovia and her whole road trip unfolding there instead of across the United States. Monrovia could actually feel really far away—you can drive 20 minutes in certain directions in Los Angeles and feel like you’re in almost another country. And I love that about this place. In the way that I can feel myself differently by interacting with strangers, the same is true of being in these unfamiliar places, which are everywhere. Even if you grew up here, I feel like there are these places you’ve just never been.

LF: That feels very true about Los Angeles, for sure. My next question was whether that strong sense of place felt like new territory for you in your writing or something that you’re exploring in a new way—it sounds like maybe yes.

If someone gave me the assignment—write about L.A. as a place—I would just die of boredom. But I do ultimately have to locate in reality. And one of the last things I did was realize that the place that the novel now names as Monrovia wasn’t quite right. You drive down the freeway and you’ve just passed through, like, seven different places with a name, you know? I just got my keys and got in my car and started driving around. It was a little bit like the scouting that I do for film locations: okay, I need there to be a walkable residential area, I need there to be these big box stores nearby. I’d already written the book, and it was surreal and fun to fact-check the city onto the book and just slightly adjust it. People who’d read many drafts were kind of alarmed—it was like I changed the name of a main character or something at the last moment—but I guess that’s a testament to the fact that I’m living in a little bit of a dreamworld; I’m not a deep researcher. While I was writing the book, I stayed occasionally in a hotel in Sierra Madre. I did live there and write some really key scenes, and that’s how I got kind of dislocated.

DEBBIE OU: While we’re on the subject of hotels, what is your relationship to hotels, motels, and the idea of transience? Is there something that felt particularly compelling to you about the idea of a highly temporary space as the site of the narrator’s self-discovery?

For most of the writing, I thought it was just the relationship that most of us have to motels and hotels, which is that you don’t have your life around you. None of the clutter is there, and so there’s a kind of fresh and peaceful feeling. And it’s sexy—there’s something sexy about being dislocated and not having to do any laundry and things like that. Very late in the game, I realized that every summer until I was 12, I had driven across the whole country to a hotel. I just forgot that I had ever driven across the country. But in fact, this is something my family did to get to Grossinger’s, which was the dilapidated resort hotel that my grandparents owned. We were the poor relations from California, and this was a Jewish, formerly thriving, Borscht Belt hotel. And it was like a fairy tale for me: my parents weren’t anxious because there was no money needed there, and I had free rein as a child in this safe world. There had been this incredible feeling of relief and joy that I didn’t have in my daily life. The hotel went bankrupt when I was 12—the exact age my child is now.

DO: I’m thinking about what you said about being removed, being in a space that is empty, where you don’t own belongings. It strikes me as an interesting contradiction, that being away from everything you own can be freeing, even though we spend so much of our time trying to decorate our lives and create homes for ourselves. Part of how the narrator claims the motel room as her own space is that she totally redecorates it. And I know that you also have an interest in fashion. Do you think that these impulses of adornment and presentation originate from the same place in terms of where we locate our identity?

Adornment has always seemed kind of rebellious to me, because of the family I grew up in. This is not radical to the rest of the world, but to me it will forever seem embarrassingly frivolous to care about clothes or decorating a space when we should have, like, weighty matters of the soul on our minds at all times. At this point, I’ve come to realize that where you are, the space you’re in, what you wear, this one body that you’re in for this life—those of course matter because you are really here, you’re not just an idea in your head. And there is something profound about noticing again and again that you’re here. In a sense, it’s a kind of meditation, especially as this book is so much about aging and the transient experience of places and of your body.

LF: While we’re talking about place, were there any other California writers—either California-based writers or writers who write about California—that you looked to for inspiration while you were writing?

Well, actually, my friend Maggie Nelson—her book On Freedom (2021) came out while I was writing All Fours. The section on drugs seemed like probably the one I would skip, if any, and in fact it turned out to be the most impactful on my book, which I more and more began to realize was a sort of psychedelic space. And I began to think of perimenopause as this kind of drug trip—almost literally in the sense that your hormones are going up and down. One thing you get from reading a book that’s already been finished and published is that it legitimizes a space. And it was a good space to have legitimized because it’s trippy. It’s inherently kind of illegitimate and out of bounds.

LF: At your book launch in Los Angeles, you mentioned that your story “The Metal Bowl” (from The New Yorker) was a kind of impetus for writing this novel in that you felt like you could keep going in that voice. I was compelled by the idea of voice being an engine for a novel. I wondered if you might talk about how the story took shape around that voice.

What was different about that voice was that, while I knew “The Metal Bowl” was just as much fiction as anything else I’d written, I wrote it as if it was just me, kind of—someone really like me, a character I could play. I didn’t labor over what her job was, or her name, or make her have red hair or anything like that. And there was something about it that initially felt kind of lazy, or sort of short story–ish in an old-fashioned way, especially for a woman writer. But then, the response to it from other women writers and peers was so direct—they responded with such honesty and rawness about their own lives—that I thought, Oh, maybe I’ve belittled this voice. Because it’s very easy for us to belittle ourselves. And in fact, maybe there’s something powerful here, or even a little dangerous.

And so it felt like, what luck, because it was a very fun voice to write in. I could do all kinds of things with her, and I felt very agile. It was almost my reward for all the other writing I’d done in my life. Not only that, but that experience of having those responses from my peers also made me feel like I was in conversation with them for the whole book. I came to realize that this conversation is what sees you through the half of your life where the patriarchy doesn’t have a space for you. This is how you create the space, and this is how you sculpt an interesting, urgent life once that story has run out.

DO: There’s something so beautiful about the fact that it was other women’s response to your story that helped you come to the decision to keep writing in that voice. You have another story, “Roy Spivey,” in which the narrator meets a movie star on a plane. And in All Fours, of course, it’s the narrator who’s semifamous. But she also spends a lot of the book anticipating a meeting with someone more famous than herself. What is it about fame that makes you want to study its impact on relationships?

I think, in general, for this book I went straight toward things that previously had seemed off-limits or just like a bad idea—humiliating, mortifying, or sort of crass. Obviously, you don’t write about fame, especially if you are a little bit famous; that’s a bad idea. And then I was like, “Well, here’s this life. Here’s what you have to work with, your particular specific experience in the world.” But I’m not very famous compared to a lot of the people I know, so there’s the weirdness of that and the things I glean from their lives.

And then I just thought, especially for a woman, it was interesting. We’ve read lots of books where the men have power. And because of the way the world has gone with social media and stuff—we’re all some version of famous or semifamous or not famous compared to our friends. So it’s actually not so unrelatable. And it just seemed like—especially given some of the heaviness of the book—this was a gift I could give myself and the reader. One last thing: If the book is concerned with intimacy ultimately, then there’s also the way that fame allows for a weird intimacy with your fans who know you through your work (and that also, perhaps, prevents intimacy). That was very interesting to me as a prism through which to tease out what is closeness.

DO: Speaking of intimacy, something that I really love about your work is that your characters often find themselves in moments of unexpected intimacy with strangers. And these moments of unexpected intimacy are often fueled by fantasies.

I think I’m someone who thought of myself for most of my life as being good at intimacy, good at being vulnerable with people close to me. And then, in recent years, I sort of started to feel that many of the things I had thought of as ways to connect with others were actually ways to protect myself. In the novel, there’s a lot of teasing-out of the body and the mind: body-rooted sex and mind-rooted sex. If sex is supposed to be this ultimate, intimate thing, then just the notion that there are these two different kinds (which one is better and which one is more intimate or more present?) was a good context in which to begin to sort out very muddy territory. And I think, ultimately, my character comes to think that the desire for a shared dream, a shared fantasy, a shared world, was really an attempt at a recreation of a certain kind of childhood pain. Our relationships are built on our first experiences with our parents, so the idea that longing and fantasy and boundarylessness had been established then and didn’t quite function in an adult landscape was—I mean, it’s still quite slippery for me to talk about in this way, and in fiction I felt like I had a shot. You don’t have to be articulate, which I think is important—you can let characters be dumb and stumbling. That is what art can do that talking about art can’t.


Miranda July is a writer, filmmaker, and artist. Her debut novel, The First Bad Man (2015), was an instant New York Times bestseller, and her collection of stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007), won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper’s, and The New Yorker. July lives in Los Angeles.


Featured photo of Miranda July by Elizabeth Weinberg.

LARB Contributors

Lily Felsenthal is a writer based in California. She is a graduate fellow in fiction at the University of California, Riverside.

Debbie Ou teaches and studies fiction as a graduate student at the University of California, Riverside. Her work has been published in Birmingham Poetry Review and Sewanee Theological Review.


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