It takes a few minutes for Miranda July to get situated. Initially she looks composed over Zoom, dressed in a black leather jacket and seated at a desk in her airy studio in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Behind her stands a bookcase of neatly cataloged art books with thick spines. But there’s some kind of construction noise outside, and she walks down a corridor into another room carrying her laptop, the camera still pointed at her face, her studio blurring into the curls of her shaggy mullet. Then, in a cinematic flash like something from one of her films, she’s back at the same desk where she started, with the same bookcase behind her, as if nothing had happened.

Comic moments of discomfort and eccentric behavior abound in July’s books, performance art, and films, including her Caméra d’Or–winning debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005). July wrote, directed, and starred in the film, about an aspiring multimedia artist whose work bears similarities to July’s own performance pieces. Two years later, her first story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

Since then, she’s continued to make feature films and write books. Her latest novel, All Fours (Riverhead, May), follows an unnamed narrator—like July, an established artist and middle-aged mother—who takes a life-changing detour on a road trip. The protagonist describes her calling to make art as a “problem that you can’t fix, but there is some relief in knowing you will commit your whole life to trying.”

July can relate. “That’s just nonfiction,” she says, adding that, for her, being an artist is “a little like having a religion.”

July’s parents ran a small publishing company out of their house in Berkeley, Calif., and she grew up surrounded by books. As a teen in the early 1990s, she started a fanzine with high school friend Johanna Fateman, later a founding member of the band Le Tigre.

“I mean, it had the punk aesthetic,” July says about their zine, Snarla. “But we weren’t in bands. We were writers.”

Still, the prospect of devoting her life to writing somehow felt more risky than her dream of becoming a director. “I didn’t know anyone who’d made a movie,” she says, which meant she didn’t know what it would look like to fail. Pursuing film was also, she admits, a way to rebel against her parents.

The same could be said about dropping out of college, which July did in 1994. She remained true to her DIY roots, making short films, albums, and performance art. By the early 2000s, she began publishing short stories in traditional literary journals such as the Paris Review, thanks to encouragement from author Rick Moody, who saw one of her performances.

Today, even with three feature films under her belt, she feels more in her element at her desk than on a set. “I’m more of a sit and write person than someone who likes being around a lot of people,” July says.

It’s a quality that Mike Mills, her filmmaker husband, has remarked on. “He said in a very sweet, genuine way, ‘You’re just so happy when you’re writing, you know? You could just write books. What a great life that would be,’ ” July recalls. Her response: “Oh, you’d love that, wouldn’t you, being the only director in the house.”

Her work as a filmmaker shaped her first novel, 2015’s The First Bad Man, in which a middle-aged woman devises elaborate role-playing exercises with her 20-year-old housemate. July approached writing it much as she would writing a feature film. “I thought I needed a good idea for a novel,” she says, “almost like a log line.”

She took a new approach to fiction with the short story “The Metal Bowl,” published in the New Yorker in 2017, about a middle-aged woman who, in her youth, made an amateur porn clip that for a time caused strangers to recognize her. “It was such a harrowing experience to write that story, because this woman was so like me,” July says. “I mean, she’s fictional, but I didn’t do all the things to make it clear that she’s not me, like I didn’t give her a job.”

By paring down the character details, she was able to give voice to a narrator who possessed a greater degree of “knowingness” than the narrators of her previous works, she says. “I could feel from other women who wrote me that it connected a little differently, that I’d removed some filter or shield. I was more honest.”

“The Metal Bowl” set the stage for July’s raw and uncircumscribed approach to All Fours. “I specifically tried to not have a good idea,” she says about her early conception of the novel. “I was making my movie Kajillionaire, and I had a file called “Novel Two” that I knew would be my next thing and I would just kind of throw things in there.”

At the time, she was thinking a lot about aging as it relates to desire, gender, and marriage. This was due in part, she says, to her age—she was in her mid-40s—and because she had cast 1980s sex symbol and three-time Oscar nominee Debra Winger, then 64, in Kajillionaire. Her notes from that period helped shape the new novel.

July credits her early performance art, which she began staging in the late ’90s, with putting her in touch with what works on the page. “When you’re really living and dying in front of an audience, you can feel like, oh, that didn’t work at all, and I’m still up here, you know?” she says. “When I read out loud, I can just hear when it’s not connecting with an audience—they’re not there. If I’m dreading a part, it’s not a good sign. There should be no parts you dread.”

Regarding her new novel, July should have little fear. All Fours brims with life, and though she didn’t begin with an outline, the plot unfolds in a solid three-act structure that starts from a simple premise: the narrator embarks on a cross-country road trip from her home in Los Angeles, leaving behind her husband and their young child for New York City, where she plans to spend a few weeks holed up in a hotel writing. Just as her trip gets underway, she becomes entangled with a young man who squeegees her car window at a gas station.

“I knew she was going to be in deep shit when she got home,” July says about the narrator of All Fours, “and that was a good fertile place to end up, but I didn’t start out knowing how that problem would be solved.”

After driving home to her husband, the narrator reckons both with fantasies of infidelity and her reduced libido, which she attributes to perimenopause. She is deeply anxious about her body’s imminent changes, a subject July handles with mordant humor. “At first glance the list seemed to describe a horrible disease, possibly fatal,” she writes. “This couldn’t be; I would have heard. I knew about Viagra. I would know about this if it was common.”

While writing the novel, July discussed what she calls “intense topics” such as menopause with her best friend, the sculptor Isabelle Albuquerque, to whom the book is dedicated. July remembers what Albuquerque said after she read the manuscript: “I didn’t know it would be funny. We were always crying when we were talking about it.” And the memory makes July laugh.

The creative process has a similar duality for July—it’s about survival, and it needs to be fulfilling in and of itself. “I’m writing to transform from one chapter of my life to the next, and this book has carried me through this time,” she says, looking around her now-quiet studio. “I couldn’t or wouldn’t move a muscle, if there isn’t enjoyment or pleasure.”