share


Interview with Ottessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh’s first two books are, as she tells me, very different from one another. But despite the contrast between McGlue (2014) and Eileen (2015), she acknowledges that ‘they come from the same imagination’. For one, both protagonists are New England misfits. Moshfegh herself grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, where her parents immigrated after meeting in Belgium. She descends from Croatian partisans on her mother’s side and a dispossessed Iranian billionaire on her father’s. Newton is a town she has described as being the safest in America and possessing the highest number per capita of psychiatrists. She now splits her time between Los Angeles and the California desert.

 

The titular antihero of McGlue is a nineteenth century sailor with a hole in his head. McGlue’s brains are spilling out and his memories too, the unpleasant consequence of enforced sobriety after he wakes up bloodied and befuddled to find himself accused of murder, possibly at the victim’s request. The deceased in question is Johnson, McGlue’s friend, patron, beloved. The novella lurches along a path of hallucination towards the moment of death. McGlue‘s prose evinces the concern of a former classical pianist turned experimental writer for sound and rhythm above elaboration of plot.

 

Eileen, by contrast, arose from an attempt to appeal to the mainstream and Moshfegh’s desire to make writing a practice that could financially sustain her. The result is a noir-by-numbers – literally written according to a manual – put through the Moshfeghian machine. Eileen is a young woman in 1964 living in an unnamed town with her alcoholic father. Eileen appears unassuming, but, she warns us, don’t be fooled. She wears lipstick ‘not to be fashionable, but because my bare lips were the same color as my nipples. At twenty-four I would give nothing to aid any imagining of my naked body.’ Eileen is a kind of mutant creation in whom the damaging imperatives of patriarchy emerge in almost exclusively unintended and comedic ways.

 

But Moshfegh’s gambit certainly worked. Eileen was shortlisted for the Man Booker, and has been optioned by Scott Rudin for a film adaptation touted, in somewhat baffling whispers, as the ‘next Gone Girl.’ Moshfegh’s frankness about her process, has, however, occasionally landed her in trouble: one Guardian piece ran with the headline, ‘Eileen started out as a joke – also I’m broke, also I want to be famous.’ ‘They made it a little sensational,’ she later told Fanzine. It failed, she felt, to communicate that if she can be flippant about the literary marketplace, it is only because she takes writing and creating the circumstances in which she can continue to write so seriously.

 

Most recently, she published Homesick for Another World (2017), a collection of short stories, all except the last of which had appeared in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, VICE, Granta or The Baffler. I had time to read it only briskly before we met at the end of May, when Moshfegh was in London to promote the UK publication of McGlue, but that was long enough to catch some of her typical dark humour. ‘Most people have had anal sex. Don’t look so surprised,’ says a teacher to her high school seniors, to avoid teaching calculus. The day we meet is the warmest of the year so far –portent of summer – so we sit facing one another with the windows flung open. I forget to ask only one question: whether Moshfegh feels the way Eileen does about Frank O’Hara, whose name she lends in her story to the X-ville town pub, whose work she ‘always felt shut out of, even after I’d learned to read like a grown-up.’

 

Q

The White Review

— You’ve talked about very specific historical anxieties you’ve inherited from your parents (who are Croatian and Iranian immigrants). They fled fascism and were divested of wealth but raised you to be very rich in culture. What was it like growing up in Newton and how did your family fit in there?

 

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

—  Well, my parents are both violin teachers, and in a sense, that was how I think my parents related to the culture – as musicians and educators. But I’m in the middle of three siblings and I learned a lot from my big sister, who was my hero growing up – very rebellious and sort of counter-culture. So I did not grow up in mainstream America, I guess. I didn’t play sports, although I wish I did, it probably would have been good for me. I always felt estranged from the place I grew up, but part of something less nationalistic and more human – my family culture, which was primarily art-based.

Q

The White Review

— It comes to mind because many of your characters – or, McGlue and Johnson and Eileen – are characters that are deeply imprinted by but also alienated from New England and its culture. Is there a connection for you between the sort of openness in your writing about ‘grotesque’ exterior functions of the body and socially unacceptable interior functions of the mind?

 

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— Well, yes, because I think both are things that aren’t openly acceptable in quote-unquote civilised society. At least in the culture that I’ve known, we’re meant to feel like there’s something really wrong with us if we don’t look healthy and beautiful all the time, and if we’re having negative thoughts, then we’re not good people and that has to be corrected. And there are industries that work on both sides of that to make people look young and beautiful all the time and to make people feel right and think right and act right all the time. But you know, other cultures aren’t like that. Like, other cultures embrace things that we might think of as evil, or a power that might scare us, or something transgressive or more mysterious. But I think, at least in America… I mean, we come from Puritans, who were totally psycho and stole the country really violently from a Native culture that was probably pretty violent too. Americans don’t really live in lily-white cookie-cutter societies, but I think the way that Christianity has worked in the government has instilled a sense of God as the authority that spies on you and controls the world, more Big Brother than anything else. Growing up, I didn’t totally understand where the sense of the terrifying authority that was always watching me came from, and it was probably a brainwashed conception of God. You know, like, do the right thing, ’cause you’re gonna get in trouble, and what’s the consequence, you’ll go to hell. I’m not a Christian but that entered me through osmosis and it took 36 years for that concept to dissipate. Actually, I’m still working on that.

Q

The White Review

— That’s an extensive period of unbrainwashing.

 

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— And the way that that manifested for me was in the ways that it manifests for my characters quite often. Feeling ashamed of having a mortal body, and feeling like, ‘I must be crazy.’ Like, either I’m crazy, or everybody else is crazy, because what the fuck is going on here, you know? Just as simple as walking down the street and seeing someone suffering and begging for help, and people walking by on their cell phones. How are we doing that? How are we so shut off that this is the way that things work? And this is the way it’s worked for thousands of years, I’m sure. It’s not like we’re all benevolent creatures, but we pride ourselves on being good, and, I don’t know, I question that in my work.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you think that people in general are as weird as the people in your stories?

 

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

—  I think that there are some people who are boring by nature and maybe placid. You know, people vibrate at all different frequencies. I vibrate at a – I would say – a high and neurotic but spiritual frequency, with a lot of anxiety but a lot of passion. And I think my characters do that too, sometimes. I think that there are also some people who were never given the freedom to individuate as children so they didn’t really develop personalities or strategies for coping with the world which would make them interesting. So I don’t blame people for being boring, but I don’t want to write about boring people. Sometimes I attempt to and what I uncover is that they’re boring because they’re really repressed.

 

Q

The White Review

— You’ve said that for you writing is about voice principally, and about ventriloquising a character who’s delivered to you by inspiration. Your characters, as you’ve said, often have obsessive minds and occasionally you take the perspective of the least savoury person in a given scenario. What leads you to these perspectives, and is it tiring or challenging to inhabit them at any point?

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

—  It’s usually really fun, actually. Because all those things that I mentioned about the restrictions that I’ve either intuited or have placed on my own ways of thinking—like, ‘Oh, that’s not right, don’t think that’ – I allow my characters to think and do what they will. So it’s liberating – to have a character act out or really be in the trenches with something or be so delusional that it’s ridiculous… It is cathartic in a way. I think that’s a true experience that we all feel. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been confused. And I’m writing these stories about people who feel alienated, but I’m writing them to de-alienate the reader. I hope that’s one of the effects. Some people come to me and they’re like, ‘Wow, your characters are really fucked up. Like, why are they so fucked up?’ and I’m like, ‘Because you’re fucked up. Because we’re all fucked up.’ How do you not be fucked up?

 

Q

The White Review

—  You’ve been writing for over 20 years now. What’s changed over the years in terms of what interests you as a writer and the way in which you write?

 

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

—  A lot. A lot. Always changing, with every project. I wrote McGlue when I was 29 or 30 and I just turned 36. So I’ve written four books in six years. McGlue, the collection Homesick for Another World]… while I was writing the collection I wrote Eileen. And I’ve just finished a new novel which will come out in a year from now.

 

McGlue was really a creative act of writing through spiritual possession. I mean, I wasn’t intellectualising, I wasn’t thinking about plot. McGlue came out of me like some magical demon. And when that was over it was like, ‘Oh, thank God.’ And then I moved into writing this collection. And I had been writing short stories before, obviously, but the collection began a new mode of thinking about fiction where I wanted to write about me and the material universe and the weirdness of it and things that happened and people that I knew. I still felt inspired, and while I work and edit I’m definitely listening to a higher voice that’s outside of my own consciousness, like I’m listening really carefully, so it’s not like I’ve abandoned the spirit world, but I took some more agency and made it more personal, more directly personal.

 

And then with EileenEileen was, probably, ironically the most intellectual project because formally it’s somewhat traditional but conceptually it’s satirical for me, and yet personal at the same time. So that was complicated and I thought very deeply about what the story should be, you know. As with all art, whatever I’m working on is influencing my life and my life is influencing what I’m working on. So while I was writing Eileen, my personality shifted and I became… very controlling and oriented toward success. And then when the book came out, I learned a lot about the publishing industry and the world of awards and acclaim and I became slightly overwhelmed by it and confused but also delighted because I was in a position to publish this collection Homesick]… I read the collection now and I can see the progression of my mind and my spirit trying to make sense of itself. And so by the end of writing Homesick for Another World, by the last story, I was like, ‘Ah, ok, I get it’. I had reached the end of a question I was trying to answer in those stories. And that was: ‘Do I really want to be here?’ Because the only other option is to die. And I was like, ‘Ok. I’ll stick it out. So what comes next?’

 

Then I wrote this new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and it made me insane. But here I am, here I go. These days I’m interested in sincerity instead of satire because I suspect that I’ve been resting a lot on satire. I’m saying what I’m really meaning to say, with exaggeration to poke fun at it, when I’d really like to be sincere and I’d like to be sincere and funny. Like, ‘let me try to fucking enjoy my life.’ That is a new interest at the moment. But, you know, I can have intentions and these persuasions around creativity but inevitably I’ll sit down to work on something and it will just be what it will be. I don’t believe so much in the will as I do inspiration.

 

Q

The White Review

— Going back to Eileen, you’ve often had to account for the conditions of its production. I’m referring, of course, to that Guardian article that has come up repeatedly. You’ve been quite open – characteristically for you but maybe uncharacteristically for most people – about a partly commercial imperative behind that book. What would your writing look like in the instance that you didn’t have any constraints and do you feel like you’re in a place where you can do that now?

 

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— Well, I feel like I can’t unlearn what I learned. But if people are curious about a novel that I would write if I wasn’t thinking about commerce and having to feed myself, they should read McGlue. I can’t believe I wrote both of those books. One is so different from the other. But they come from the same imagination and I think if you read McGlue and then you read Eileen, you’ll see Eileen as a translation of McGlue. It’s about people carrying the burden of their own wrecked consciousness, falling in a kind of love with someone who seems to be offering them freedom, and in both cases it kind of explodes in their faces.

 

Q

The White Review

— No, I definitely see that. At the level of the sentence you’re doing very different things in each of them. As you’ve mentioned Eileen is more plot-based and you’ve mentioned partly writing it from a manual and things like that. But I see a lot of parallels between the relationships that you present. Speaking of, how did you characterise the relationship between McGlue and Johnson when you were writing the book? Because it is very tender. And they’re from opposing ends of this New England social hierarchy but they come to need each other in physical and psychological ways.

 

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

—  Well, I had no idea that they were really in love until the end. I was writing it so naively. I remember I showed the first couple chapters to someone and they wrote a comment to me back and they were like, ‘McGlue is gay, right?’ And I was like, ‘That’s ridiculous! What a trite way to describe…’ I felt that it was my responsibility to get into McGlue’s mind, and he was in such denial that it required my own denial of his true feelings, too. But he was also brain-damaged and drunk for the first part of the book so I didn’t have that clarity either.

 

Q

The White Review

— So you’ve stated a belief that McGlue is much better than Eileen though Eileen gets a lot more attention. Do you still feel that way and in what ways would you say that it’s better?

 

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— I think it’s a more unique book. And it’s so off the shelf. Eileen seems… you know, like, I’m very arrogant. I don’t like to be compared to other people. And Eileen slid so smoothly into this grouping that has associated me with a bunch of authors whose concerns I think are very different from mine.

 

Q

The White Review

— Like who?

 

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— I don’t know, like, name an author. I feel weird… I think Eileen doesn’t exactly represent my weirdness.

 

Q

The White Review

— I did read a piece that mentioned Eileen in some category which also contained Richard Yates and I thought, how could this be?

 

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— I don’t know. People make a lot of connections. With McGlue, I got so lucky. I pulled it out of the ether. And Eileen was such an intensely laborious process… up until the last moment I was like, I don’t know if I should publish this. You know? It felt… I knew that I was deceiving the reader, because the narrative voice is so performative in a way that I was like… this isn’t fair. I can’t get away with this. Somehow I felt that I was cheating.

 

Q

The White Review

— Really?

 

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— Yeah.

 

Q

The White Review

— But surely if it’s so performative then that’s obvious to the reader as well.

 

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

—  No! Because readers will just fall in. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

 

Q

The White Review

— I’m fascinated by Eileen’s voice because to me it’s this really striking blend of deep idiosyncrasy and weirdness but also equally surprising normalcy.

 

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— Yeah.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Almost triteness. For example, reflecting on Randy, who she’s been stalking around town, she says this: it was only later that she would ‘know the sweet thrill of opening my eyes in a moment of ecstasy to see the moon blazing and the stars like Christmas lights strung across the sky as if just for my own delight. I’d know, too, the delicious shame of being caught by highway patrol in a breathless moment of passion and love, dear God.’ So Eileen is both so conventional and so weird…

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— Yeah, I guess she is weird!

 

Q

The White Review

—  How do you put those two things together in your mind?

 

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— I think part of it is that Eileen is a character that does hit close to home in a way that is common. Whereas McGlue feels semi-autobiographical in a way that is very peculiar. And so I feel like I’ve revealed my own normalcy through Eileen. And there’s a part of me, the writer part of me primarily, that wants to deny all normalcy. Like, I am not normal. I do not want to be normal. Normal is death. I don’t want to be typical. I don’t want people to relate to me. I don’t know. It’s an arrogance and pride issue. Which I haven’t figured out and feel like I don’t really need to.

 

Q

The White Review

— I don’t know if you need to either.

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— It might make sense to no one but me but it’s just there.

 

Q

The White Review

— There is something… I don’t know how to characterise it either but there is something interesting to me about how she’s assimilated all these influences of generic popular culture but then taken them in in such a strange, recombinant kind of way. And you’ve described Eileen as a novel about living in a woman’s body under patriarchy. She’s mortified by the idea that people would discover that she has bodily functions, or even see inside her mouth, even though in her own life she revels in filth. But it seems to me that your interest in speaking about, or trafficking in, systems is kind of limited. Is that true?

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— What do you mean exactly?

 

Q

The White Review

— Systems as in patriarchy, like writing about patriarchy or writing about capitalism.

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— I mean, the world is incredibly sexist so I’m not going to write a book in which… I mean, I could write a book… it would be sci-fi, to write a book that wasn’t patriarchal in its society. So I didn’t set out to write a book about patriarchy. It was 1964. It seemed like a good setting for that character, who could really thrive in that kind of old school New England culture, which is pretty macho.

 

Q

The White Review

— You’ve expressed a certain sort of ambivalence about sociability or at least understandable ambivalence about most people in terms of keeping up a ‘high guard’ or ‘keeping to yourself.’ How do you conceive of the relationship between the artist and the world, or your relation as an artist to the world?

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— Sometimes I think I need to protect myself more, but inevitably I’m like… I am too honest. And sometimes the honesty is laced with hostility because I feel threatened by the exposure and I feel vulnerable. But I don’t want it to be any other way. I tend not to really regret… Like, when that Guardian article came out, there were definitely high anxiety moments around it, because I think it probably ruined my chances to win the Booker prize.

 

Q

The White Review

— Really?

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— Yeah, totally. I mean, I was like, ‘You guys are idiots for nominating me’. Like, ‘this was a joke’. That’s the headline: the book started out as a joke. And so, what, these people are going to give the highest literary award to someone who’s kind of just fucking around? But also, it is a joke! These award systems are… I mean, how much stock as artists can we really put in them? Yeah, the exposure is good, because it sells books and then you can use that money to live while you continue to work. That’s really the point. But back to your question… I take myself super seriously. And I think that when I’m talking to someone intelligent then I feel really excited to engage. But then there are people who, like, just read for fun or… not that there’s anything wrong with that, I’m just not like that. Like, I’m kind of insane and you know, I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be alive, everything’s sort of wracked with this dark intensity, wanting to wring everything out for its last drop… And like why pretend anything? You know? So when I feel that I’m being persuaded to pretend, that’s usually when I either get condescending or hostile. And my mother tells me to be really careful about it. Inevitably… if someone asks me an insulting question, I’m just like, ‘Are you fucking kidding? Wake up.’ And I don’t know — I think a lot of other people can be more gracious but maybe that’s not my role in this life, to be humble and gracious. I think people have been humble and gracious long enough. Say what you really think.

 

Q

The White Review

— That doesn’t hurt anyone, to not be gracious all the time.

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— No, but it does disturb people.

 

Q

The White Review

— But I think as you’ve mentioned elsewhere, there are certain ways in which rules of decorum can be cruel. You have this example that you’ve mentioned somewhere of the idea of pretending that someone isn’t suffering when they are suffering.

A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— Yeah.

 

Q

The White Review

— What most excites you about the projects that you’re working on for the future?
A

Ottessa Moshfegh

— Just that I have no idea what they’re going to be like. Writing is really such a headfuck. You start out with one idea that leads to another idea and at a certain point you realise that all of that was just the bullshit to get to the next idea and then that transforms and you’re like… ‘Where am I? Wow!’ It’s an adventure. And usually all-consuming. So I’m taking some time right now to land and see what I really want to dedicate the next several years to. I’ve been writing books at a pretty quick pace and I’d like to take more time on the next book.
 

share


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer and journalist currently based in Oxford.

READ NEXT

Interview

September 2012

Interview with Michael Hansmeyer

Lawrence Lek

Interview

September 2012

Every project made with a computer expresses a relationship between aesthetics and technology. The historical progress of technology works...

feature

December 2012

Confessions of an Agoraphobic Victim

Dylan Trigg

feature

December 2012

The title of my essay has been stolen from another essay written in 1919.[1] In this older work, the...

feature

June 2014

Writing What You Know

Simon Hammond

feature

June 2014

In the summer of 1959, a headstrong but lovesick English graduate took a trip to the hometown of his...