Miranda July Wrote Herself Out of a Midlife Crisis With All Fours

In her first book in nearly a decade, July confronts middle age—and menopause—with artistic aplomb.

Miranda July
Photo by Elizabeth Weinberg
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While in the early stages of writing her new novel, All Fours, Miranda July proposed a somewhat unconventional arrangement to her husband, the filmmaker Mike Mills. “I was nervous about not having enough time to think,” she tells me, over almond butter toast at her kitchen table in Echo Park. “I knew the scope of the book had to be really big, and I’d have to go down many wrong paths and come back.” Having written much of her debut novel, The First Bad Man, while in the throes of new motherhood, “I was very aware of what it was like to lose the mornings,” she says.

July and Mills agreed upon a schedule: she’d spend each Wednesday night at her studio, waking up early Thursday mornings to write. “Every person I told, every other mom, wife, was like, ‘Wait, you can do that?’” she recalls. “There can just be one day a week off from the whole thing?’” The new arrangement led July to question what else she had blindly accepted about the construction of marriage. Writing at a time when she “should” have been home, she says, was a large part of what shaped the story. It was also the beginning of a new chapter in her personal life: she and Mills separated a few years later, in 2022 (they remain “co-parents and fond pals”). Shortly thereafter, she moved from their shared home into this one we’re in now, just behind the studio space she’s rented for over twenty years.

Throughout her career, July, 50, has flitted nimbly between mediums—filmmaking, acting, performance art, literary fiction; even, once, creating an app called Somebody that invited strangers to verbally deliver text messages between friends, back in 2014. Her parents, both writers, ran an independent publishing company out of their home in Berkeley, California, and she grew up surrounded by books. “There is a way in which writing books is a native-tongue feeling for me,” she says. “When I was younger, the idea of making movies or performing seemed like more of a rebellion because of that.” After dropping out of film school at UC Santa Cruz in 1994, she spent her twenties making performance art and experimental short films in Portland, Oregon, supporting herself by working odd jobs: server, locksmith, stripper.

Her breakout came in 2005 when her first feature film, Me and You and Everyone We Know—the story of a halting romance between a shoe salesman and a struggling performance artist, which she wrote, directed, and acted in—won the Camera d’Or at Cannes and the Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Next came a collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, which earned the 2007 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The Future, her second film, following two disenchanted thirtysomethings who adopt a terminally ill cat, premiered at Sundance in 2011 and was nominated for the Golden Bear at Berlin. The First Bad Man, her 2015 novel chronicling an uptight middle-aged woman’s obsession with her unlikely twenty-one-year-old housemate, was an instant New York Times bestseller. And Kajillionaire—her third and perhaps most esoteric film, about a family of con artists—premiered at Sundance in 2020.

All Fours, July’s first novel in nearly a decade, follows a semi-famous multihyphenate artist in her mid-forties who—in an attempt to stave off complacency and encroaching menopause—announces her plan to drive cross-country alone. Less than an hour after leaving her husband and child at home in Los Angeles, she spontaneously exits the freeway at Monrovia, checks into a motel, and plunges headfirst into a different kind of journey. She hires a local interior decorator to redesign her motel room and becomes infatuated with the decorator’s husband, an aspiring dancer fifteen years her junior who works at a nearby Hertz car rental. July’s work is often described as “quirky,” and this novel is no exception—studded with ecstatic bursts of humor, moments of visceral discomfort, and bold revelations on the business of being alive. But the themes—aging, desire, monogamy, motherhood, marriage—are thornier.

During the writing process, July met weekly with her best friend, the sculptor Isabelle Albuquerque, to discuss their respective projects. The two often cried together about the intensity of the topics they were circling, especially “the struggle to live according to your rhythms within a patriarchy.” One day, July read a scene she’d been working on to Albuquerque. “She was laughing,” July remembers, “and she was so shocked. She said, ‘I didn’t know the book was funny. I just assumed it was the most devastating, important, but painful book.’ Humor almost always comes when there’s pain. It’s a saving grace about life.”

Though much of July’s work stems from lived experience, she sees All Fours, her first novel since her 2015 bestselling debut, as being “closer to the bone” than anything she’s created. Still, she hesitates when the term “autofiction” is broached. “I felt it would be a better experience, more filled with energy and more alive, if I could loan some of myself to my character,” she says. “My body, my job, my friends—but that’s it.” The novel started as a place to put her own fears about aging as a woman. “It was a building feeling that started for me around forty of, ‘something grim is coming,’ something that it seemed there was no way out of.” The book's cover—a steep cliff at sunrise, painted in the Western Expansion style—nods to that unnerving sensation of being on the precipice of a great plummet into the unknown. It’s an image that recurs throughout the story, appearing in the narrator’s head when she tries to imagine what might come after this stage of life.

Initially, July says, she grappled with shame surrounding that fear. Writing about it “seemed humiliating, frankly. I didn't want my name tied to the word perimenopause or menopause. I was, like everyone else, busy trying to look as young as possible. And that's tied to some sense of your livelihood; you're not sure what's going to become hard as it's recognized that you're no longer the ‘prize’ in our culture.”

Surrounding this transition, she’d observed a distinct lack, both of basic medical information and of cultural mythology. “We tend to add a lot of meaning to other biological changes,” she says. “When a girl becomes a woman, and then childbirth, I mean, endless sculptures and paintings and marketing. It seems bizarre that [midlife] isn’t treated as a very profound time.” Adding to the too-small canon of works on this topic, she says, was what made the inherent risk of writing the novel feel worth it.

In 2017, July published a short story, “The Metal Bowl,” in The New Yorker, about a wife and mother who feels profoundly disconnected from her life until a serendipitous encounter with a neighbor reminds her of a vulnerable secret from her past. “It was fiction, but I wasn’t concocting a character in quite as clear-cut a way.” The response to that story—“a lot of very honest, raw texts and emails from my women peers, which hadn’t happened before”—became a jumping-off point for All Fours. “It made me wonder whether I could write a whole book in conversation with other women that somehow held this sense of wondering that we all had,” she says.

The novel is deeply concerned with the friction between mind and body, a theme that appears across July’s oeuvre. The narrator’s natural state of being is cerebral; she calls herself a “mind-rooted fucker” (as opposed to “body-rooted”), enduring sex with her husband, Harris, only through the elaborate fantasies she invents to keep herself company during the act, “like I have a screen clamped in front of my face.” “I see [sex] like exercise,” she muses to her best friend, Jordi, a sculptor (loosely based on Albuquerque). “You don’t ask yourself if you want to exercise. That’s the wrong question.” As the story goes on, she finds herself experimenting with other types of movement—dance, new kinds of sex with surprising partners, even weightlifting—undergoing a shift into a more embodied state, which in turn reconfigures the framework of her intimate relationships.

Like her character, July began working with a trainer while she wrote All Fours, and compares the mental rigor required for weightlifting to that required for writing. “Your mind starts freaking out, going, ‘I can’t do this. I’m going to die,’” she says. Often, the reality was that her body was actually capable of one more set or rep. “I’d go straight from that to writing and be like, ‘Oh, it’s the same thing. I have a capacity that’s different from the anxiety and fear of death that the brain has.’”

While we’re talking, a child lets out a shrill cry from the yard next door. “I thought of putting up a fence,” July says, gazing out, “But I don’t, because she’s so cute. I thought of putting up one that just covered the adults.” We’re both quiet for a moment, trying to picture that. She finishes her toast. I compliment her vermillion cardigan; she tells me she found it at a flea market in Milan while there last month for the opening of her solo exhibition, Miranda July: New Society at the Fondazione Prada.

July has been documenting the process of renovating this house on her Instagram stories, and I recognize the butter-yellow cabinetry and countertops she had custom-made for the kitchen. In the bathroom, there’s the checkerboard floor she had installed, the coral toilet she picked up in West Covina from a vintage bathroom appliance dealer while her twelve-year-old, Hopper, recorded the experience on an iPhone. “Sort of a new life but built onto a very sturdy part of my old life (the art part),” she wrote in a recent post about the transition to living here full-time. It’s nearly impossible not to draw a parallel between how she’s transformed this space and how her narrator transforms the Monrovia motel room in the novel. Both women are ravenous for experience in all its messy, painful beauty, setting off down a less-traveled path, devoted to their art above all else. As July writes in All Fours, that compulsion is “a problem that you can’t fix, but there is some relief in knowing you will commit your whole life to trying.”