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The NS Interview: Miranda July, writer and film-maker

“It’s more interesting to play the person who makes mistakes”

Your films are experimental, yet you live in Hollywood. How does that work?
If I had moved there when I was younger, it might have been more in my bones, but I grew up in Berkeley, which was kind of countercultural, and lived in Portland, Oregon, through my twenties. Then I moved to LA. I have all of this in me, which makes me so much stronger than the little slice of my life that is trying to get these movies off the ground.

So you're not part of the LA scene?
There's the Eastside where most of my friends and I live, and the Westside where my agent lives. I avoid going to the Westside unless I have to. I just don't go to those parties.

Your new film is called The Future. How have you thought about your own?
In my twenties, I had so many hopes and dreams and I lived in the fantasy of those. Then, in my mid-thirties, the future got more real and more finite. Part of it had to do with getting married. I'm not going to do every single thing in the world; I'm going to do this thing. It's not sad, but it is a shift. You realise what your life actually is and that it is going to end.

You cast yourself as the less sympathetic character in the film. Why?
It's more interesting to play the person who makes mistakes. I also wanted the woman to have the affair. I'm never able to convince anyone how little the character I'm playing is me. To my friends, it's so obvious that the creepy guy is me, too - the kid is me, the cat is me . . .

Does it frustrate you when you're conflated with your characters?
It's hard because it is personal and I'm not trying to dodge that, but it's not autobiographical.

Do you worry about being branded a narcissist?
It comes with this territory for me. I put myself in my own movies; I obviously get something out of things revolving around me, and people looking at me. That seems illegal, shameful. I'm always wrestling with it.

Do you make work for yourself, or an audience?
Oh, I'm making it for an audience. The great challenge is if I can work from my unconscious and allow things to be mysterious but still have the audience "get it". Even my early, weirder, experimental stuff was more normal than other people's weird stuff because I always wanted an audience; I wanted to bring people in.

Could you imagine a life in which you weren't making art?
I never had a plan B. When I was younger, it seemed demented how unable I was to conceive of alternatives. The best I can do is imagine writing a lot if the economy were so bad that people like me couldn't make films any more.

Is there a moral or message to your work?
It's probably there despite myself. I don't want to do that, but I hold myself to grilling codes of right and wrong.

Where does that come from?
The harsh critic in me started young. I feel that one should be of service in the world. I don't just want to entertain, I'm trying to make a space for minor things that are overlooked.

Your character is hooked on YouTube. Do you share that obsession?
Sometimes I think I've never had any vices - I barely even drink. Then this vice was invented in my lifetime that is the perfect one for me - I'm totally weak to it. I have to expend a huge amount of energy struggling against it.

So, how do you stop yourself?
It's called Mac Freedom - I use it every day.

What worries you?
Pretty much everything.

Do you vote?
Yes. For Barack.

Are you disappointed in his presidency?
Not as much as most people. He just needs us to guide him. I feel like he believes in a lot of things I believe in, but he has to take risks, he has to be braver.

Is there anything you would like to forget?
A couple of gaffes on my part. They just don't need to be there in my mind.

Is there a plan?
I'm pretty planned out in the sense that I'm the boss of my life. When you are making movies or doing long-term projects, you have time to think. I know I will be working on a novel for quite a while, and then I have a lot of sub-plans.

Is the book a sacred object to you?
I grew up with books - my parents were publishers. A book! You don't mess with that.

Are we all doomed?
In the sense of the planet, I think so. Not that there aren't things we can do. But, yeah, my sense of my grandchildren's future is not great. It is startling to me that I think that and yet walk around doing almost nothing about it.

Defining Moments

1974 Born in Vermont
1996 LaunchesJoanie 4 Jackie, a video chain-letter with films by women
2005 Me and You and Everyone We Know, her debut feature, wins the Caméra d'Or at Cannes
2005 Publishes her first story as a chapbook
2007 Scribner publishes her first short-story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You
2009 Marries the director Mike Mills
2011 Releases second feature film, The Future, and publishes a memoir, It Chooses You

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood