NZ Writer’s Week: Miranda July: Lost Child!

This, this right here, this is why we have literary festivals: so we can meet people like
Miranda July.

pp_miranda_julyI’m not sure how to describe her session. Based on the blurb in the Writers Week programme, I had mistakenly thought it was a screening of a film called Lost Child! followed by a q&a. It wasn’t at all: instead it was a talk, a multi-media presentation, a performance, an audience participation, a collaborative artwork.

Lost Child! is a book July wrote when she was a child, and she says it set up a theme running through her work, of leaving home, going into darkness, and surviving discomfort. “Origins are always the most interesting part”, she said, and told us about her life and her art, sharing recordings of past performances. She was warm and funny, wise and direct. I fell in love with her immediately – we all did. The atmosphere in the Opera House was convivial and intimate.

July told us about the plays she had written, and how she started her performing life in punk clubs, eventually moving to more mainstream theatre spaces when she started using film in her performances and was concerned for the safety of her projector. She set up a project called Joanie and Jackie – “I thought of myself as an organisation” – collecting films made by women, eventually moving into making films herself.

She was careful not to make it sound like it was easy, and throughout her session kept telling us which day jobs she had at which point. She found the interruptions of paid work annoying and jarring: “I lost my train of thought every time I had to go to work”.
cv_me_and_you_and_everyone_we_knowEventually she quit her jobs to make art full-time, thinking that if she stayed “in perpetual motion” she could try and live without working. One of the results was the feature film Me and You and Everyone We Know, which I watched this afternoon as prep for this session, and which she starred in and directed, as well as wrote. As her session progressed, my understanding of her film deepened. For example, I learned more about her artistic investigation of “the very real, sacred world of child sexuality”, and about the film’s title: “the audience for my first movie is everyone in the world. My second movie is for me and five women I know.”

As well as being a filmmaker (and author, hence her inclusion in Writers Week), July is also a fine artist. She told us about the art she created for the Venice Biennale: “Making art is less laborious [than performing onstage] because you don’t need to be there. I wanted to figure out how to make something that would automatically be shared. People like to pose with things, and the photos people take [of themselves with the art] are the pieces.”

She has also created an app called Somebody, whereby strangers deliver messages between friends. “I wanted to instigate performance without ever calling it that. Because there’s a smartphone involved, it looks like you’re doing something normal. I want to make audience participation feel necessary rather than arty.”

July seems to always return to performing: “the reason to keep performing is to be with people in the present moment”. We performed a sort of little play with her in the Opera House. At one point she told us to hold a stranger’s arm, and then she set out various scenarios for how the relationship between us could develop. It could have been weird and awkward; instead July created, for that brief time, a strangely genuine bond.

July spoke a lot about creating her own space as a woman and as an artist. After she moved to LA, she said that all the other directors she knew were men: “My way of doing things no longer seemed that magical … I continue to forget and to remember that I am free.”

Then we got to the Q&A section, which July said was her favourite part. There was the inevitable awkward pause when the house lights went up and people started shuffling towards the mics. July, though, thrives on awkward pauses: “This is my favourite moment, where there’s just total ambiguity and yet here we are … I feel like I’m swimming.”

The Opera House was packed with fans and the questions were of a generally high calibre (thank god no ‘where do you get your ideas’ or pleas for advice). She chatted to us further on various topics: “In marriage, the ups and downs of your mental state aren’t as fascinating as they were during courtship, you need to parcel out that burden.” And on making art: “You don’t need to have done well, you just need to have tried … you have to deposit terrible ideas into the bank in order to build the brain.” On performance: “Willingness to be vulnerable is a superpower. I can survive that.”

I came away from my Miranda July experience with the overwhelming sensation that art is possible and that I can make it. I’m thrilled to see what else Writers Week can throw at me. Bring it on!

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

cv_the_first_bad_manMiranda July: Lost Child!
Opera House, Wednesday 9 March
Part of the NZ Festival Writer’s Week 

Latest Book: The First Bad Man
Published by Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN  9781782115076



Book Review: Remember me like this, by Bret Anthony Johnston

cv_remember_me_like_thisAvailable in bookstores nationwide. 

Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me like This is blended from a Harlan Coben-esque thriller style of writing with a theme of family-coping that demands profundity, and meets somewhere in an awkward middle. After eleven year-old Justin, son to Laura & Eric & older brother to Griff, goes missing in Southport, Texas, he is presumed dead by most for four years. Johnston skilfully drops the reader into each of the family member’s distractions during Justin’s absence, hitting on the realities of sex, anonymity, and infatuation as tools for escape. When Justin is found, alive & healthy in Corpus Christi, only a bay away from Southport, Laura, Eric & Griff are pulled from their sovereign orbits back into a family.Johnston’s grasp on human truisms makes for sublime character depiction throughout; from a fourteen boy who, despite the revelations of a found lost-brother, is consumed by youthful passion for a girl, to a family that falling away from each other rather than into each other in times of need.

When Justin is returned to the Campbell family in an early climax, Johnston attempts to emulate heart-wrenching drama in illustrating a family, yet four individuals, being struck different blows from the same event. Mirrored by the Campbell’s realisation that their home has become a run-down house in Justin’s absence, their reunion sees them regain their awareness of each other: as they begin to re-build walls and re-sow grass, they also shed their distractions and begin to re-build as a family once more. As we begin to root for the family’s successful rebirth, Johnston cracks the Campbell’s happy-family façade with a twist that instantly sends the family recoiling to their coping mechanisms like frightened animals. The plot builds to literature-loaded storm finale, echoing the highly-charged emotions and anxieties facing the Campbell’s, both individually & collectively. Johnston weaves various threads as though in hope of a startling finish, but the final stroke is instead a predictable & neat bow-tie.

While the concept of Remember Me like This is one of surgical delicacy, I’m undecided whether Johnston has accomplished a seamless wonder or whether he has avoided a too-hard task. Johnston’s choice to leave Justin’s voice out of the novel is a stroke of brilliance, using his family member’s different perspectives to instead tell the story. After all, this is a story about the Campbell family, not about Justin’s ordeal. Yet simultaneously, the unwillingness of the Campbell’s to talk about Justin’s ordeal or their emotion is stretched to its limit and begs the edges of reality. Once Justin is returned, the family tiptoe around the elephant in the room for the rest of the novel, making the reader eager, but for resolution that never delivers. In such a ghoulish plot, Johnston’s writing seems to miss the weight of the substance.

If you enjoy Harlan Coben or T. Jefferson Parker you will appreciate Remember Me like This. As Johnston’s debut novel, it is certainly a worthwhile effort & (hopefully) preludes more refined novels to come.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

Remember Me like This
by Bret Anthony Johnston
Published by Two Roads (Hachette)
ISBN 9781444788068