Interview with Ottessa Moshfegh

James Yu

Ottessa Moshfegh's allergy toward self-promotion makes her rise all the more impressive. The recipient of the Stegner Fellowship, a National Endowment of the Arts grant, and the Fence Modern Prize in Prose, she has in the last few years become something of a house writer for The Paris Review.

Before she deleted her Twitter account, her avatar was not a professionally burnished headshot of the kind gracing the dust jackets of debut novelists but a medical illustration of three pairs of eyes, each depicting a condition known informally as lazy eye. It is a nonstandard choice for an avatar and seems to capture the forthrightness of Moshfegh's work, in which characters use colostomy bags and have genitals swollen due to pituitary situations, who think mean thoughts and make morally ambiguous decisions.

These aspects may be why her work is frequently called weird, though this seems to me a disingenuous designation. On her NEA grant page, Moshfegh states, "I had figured my values and interests as a writer were too peculiar to draw any sort of substantial readership, let alone the support of a governmental agency." Yet perhaps the draw of her work has to do with the universality of the peculiar. I suspect there is to many readers a sense of self-recognition in the private lives and thoughts of her characters. Like Mary Gaitskill and Yoko Ogawa, Moshfegh vigorously investigates the private and taboo, resisting the impulse to airbrush life to a level suitable for polite conversation.

Moshfegh's sophomore novel, Eileen, takes place in a New England town in the days leading up to Christmas. It is 1964 and the eponymous narrator, living with an abusive ex-cop father and working at a boys' correctional facility, becomes embroiled in a situation that has her leaving town forever. But reading primarily for this event—which is alluded on the jacket description as "a Hitchcockian twist…a crime that surpasses her wildest imaginings"—is to miss the point (or many points) of Eileen's complicated and wounded psyche.

When I contacted Moshfegh about our interview, I suggested conducting it by e-mail in part because I did not want to deal with transcription but also because I felt I would not be able to keep up with her in real time. The medium she suggested as a compromise—Gchat—saved me the task of transcription but not my fears of misstep. Throughout our conversation she was supremely eagle-eyed, letting no stray remark pass her by.

James Yu
How did you conceive of Eileen? Did you know it was going to be a longer project when you set out to write it? 

Ottessa Moshfegh
Writing Eileen began as a very superficial motivation: write a novel to make a living. What happened once I started the process was the most intense learning experience I've had as a writer. So it turned out to be invaluable. And it did buy me a few sandwiches. In some ways, I don't think I would have endeavored to write a novel if I hadn't been motivated to manipulate the machine into providing me with sandwiches. I'd been afraid of novels. They seemed impossible to me. 

JY
This disclosure kind of caught me off-guard. I think it's something I admire about you and your work in general. 

OM
Well, I'm talking to a young writer, so why pretend things aren't what they are?

But I should stress that the book became my baby. My sweet, fucked-up baby. And now I'm having a new experience watching my baby walk off into the world, with people poking at it and calling it cute, etc. It's quite interesting. 

JY
Haha. Were you thinking of how the book might be received when you were in the process of writing it? There seems something very deliberate about the way Eileen is being branded, based the back cover of my ARC. 

OM
I have little to do with the branding. Of course I thought about how the book might be received, but my thoughts were completely incorrect. I didn't even understand what the book was about until about two months ago. 

JY
How were you incorrect?  

OM
Oh, I'd just been totally obsessed with the quality of the writing. I couldn't see the big picture. My thoughts as the neurotic mother were, "They're going to think this part isn't well-written...and this part...and this." Now I don't really care. 

JY
That reminds me of your interview last year with Lorin Stein in Bomb, where you mentioned that an editor had said Eileen had failed to live up to the expectations set by your short fiction. 

OM
Yeah. You want to talk about pain now? Insecurity? 

JY
Stakes, I guess. 

OM
What stakes? That seems like an MFA term. There are no stakes. You either write or you don't. Easy. If I'm basing my happiness and self-esteem on what some manipulative publisher might say, I'm a moron. And I'm not a moron. (Neither was that publisher.) Stakes for me are more relational, like, "Am I a good friend?" "Am I being honest in this friendship?" "Is this good for my spirit?" The insecurity I felt about moments in the writing of Eileen had more to do with my standards, less about risking anything. Does that make sense? Let's move on to another question. 

JY
Sure. 

OM
This one got me hostile. 

JY
Sorry. 

OM
Haha! 

JY
Likeability? Do you ever think about that? 

OM
Like, am I likeable? What do you mean? 

JY
Your characters. 

OM
Oh god, James. Have you been poisoned by that term? No. Fuck that. 

JY
I read stories for The Iowa Review. Earlier this year, in an editorial meeting, some of the other readers were coming down pretty hard on a story because they thought the narrator was creepy. I was trying to defend the writer. 

OM
We live in a culture that thrives on denial. We can re-elect a mass murderer, but an "unlikeable" female character is offensive. Sexist and idiotic. 

JY
Apologies in advance if some of my questions seem repetitive or self-evident. 

OM
Are you worried about how this will come across in your university magazine? Are you self-censoring? 

JY
Only because I don't want to seem like an idiot. I think a lot about being stupid or saying stupid things. 

OM
Why? Did people call you stupid? 

JY
No. I think it's mostly me. 

OM
Do you need more encouragement? 

JY
Haha, no. I think I'm OK. OK, here's one: could you talk about Eileen's voice? It reminded me in some ways of the voice in your story "Medicine," in which there's a prefatory note about the piece originating as a confessional letter. 

OM
That's a nice connection to make. Every first-person narration has an element of confession. Self-disclosure, as you said. 

JY
It feels talky, spoken somehow. Like I'm sitting across from someone.  

OM
That's the intention. 

JY
Sure. And feels slyly assertive at times. Especially at the beginning and the end of the novel. 

OM
Writing in the first person, when the author is operating under the fictional conceit that they're posing as someone else, is something I find fun to do. And posing the voice as if it's some literary genius’s is always completely obnoxious. You look at any hack MFA-er and that's probably what they're trying to do. It's a hard thing to pull off, to be pretentious. I think the only way to pull it off is to have the voice be self-aware of its pretension. 

Because when it's done without self-awareness, the effect is, "I'm smarter than you, reader. You can't see through my genius." And of course, I can...

JY
How self-aware is your narrator? As the reader, if I'm not paying attention close enough, it's like listening to my mom in the car and nodding along, going along with everything and the assertions she's making. 

OM
I don't think I've ever nodded along to my mother. Why wouldn't you pay close attention? I guess I don't get it. 

JY
Maybe I'm conflating two separate things. I don't even know now if the analogy is apt at all. 

OM
Can you explain? 

JY
I mean, when I think about the first-person, I think about subjectivity. So I think, joined with the fact that the novel is told retrospectively, fifty years from the time of the events, I wonder about her slant on the events she lived through. What is invented, what is speculated on. What needs to be asserted to make the reader believe this was a pivotal time in her life. 

OM
I think the book invites you to do that, yes. She's telling a story. She's making it dramatic. Like when you tell a story, you probably inflate certain moments for effect, and other moments you stumble over. What writers are you into these days? 

JY
Rachel Cusk, though I've only read Outline

OM
I haven't read that book. I've heard good things about it. Are you a student? 

JY
I just finished from Iowa with my MFA. 

OM
What will you do now? 

JY
Write a novel, buy lots of sandwiches. I don't know. Still trying to figure things out. 

OM
Where are you from? 

JY
The suburbs of Portland, Oregon. 

OM
Never been there. I'd love to go sometime. How old are you now? 

JY
Twenty-nine. You? 

OM
Thirty-four. Do your parents support you as a writer? Do they get it? 

JY
Yeah, I think they do, actually. 

OM
Do they read your stuff? 

JY
No. Not yet at least. 

OM
I can't hide it from my family. They read it. They love me. They are all artists. They are amazing. Sometimes I worry that something might hurt them, but they never let on if it does. 

JY
I see. 

OM
I asked my dad recently if there’s anything he'd never want me to write about. I was asking specifically about nonfiction. (I've been writing about my family.) He said no. 

JY
The Lucky Peach essay on your mother hating on mayo and refusing to buy it for you when you were a child was excellent. I especially loved this section toward the end, when you're an adult and you and your mother meet for a meal in New York, and your mother orders something with mayo in it:   

“You know that has mayonnaise in it,” I told her once the waiter went away.
“And?”
“It’s nasty, don’t you think?”
“A girl needs some fat in her diet,” she replied. “Otherwise, nutrients don’t get absorbed.”

OM
Haha. That wasn't the precise exchange, but I love it too. 

JY
I mean, no one can be expected to hold up to the standards they set for others. We're human. 

OM
Yes. But it's actually more like, it's hard to set standards for yourself when they're self-destructive, and you're a mom. 

JY
Can we talk a little bit about the body? 

OM
Like what? 

JY
I loved the part in Eileen about laxatives. 

OM
I appreciate you pointing to that part. Nobody else has. What about it? 

JY
I mean, just how it feels embodied, lived-in—like all your pieces. I was complaining to a friend that I couldn't think of a work of fiction where the protagonist had to leave a party, say, or miss some kind of appointment because they had to poop really bad. Does that make sense? 

OM
Of course. You're referring to the elitism of modern day literature. You don't write about poop. 

JY
Apparently Knausgard does

OM
I'm not interested in Knausgard's poop, but I think it's weird that we've become so disconnected from the body, characters in books are like talking heads, and then occasionally they have sex or get hit by cars.... It was important to me to show the reality of Eileen's body obsession. People keep coming up to me, telling me, "Eileen is SUCH A WEIRDO." Really? Wouldn't you be an OCD-eating-disordered stalker if you had her life?

And the truth is that we live in a culture of extreme violence and objectification. It's pretty much impossible to live in this world without body obsession. And self-loathing for that matter. 

JY
Sure. 

OM
So while Eileen's laxative abuse might seem "extreme," it's so much more common than people want to acknowledge. 

JY
Sure, and also judgments based on outer appearances. 

OM
Our capitalistic structure would fall apart if women actually started loving the way they looked. Women are judged by appearance first. This is why I'm not putting my photo on my book jacket. 

JY
In your work—through your characters—you seem stubbornly unwilling to let those superficial judgments pass by unexamined. 

OM
Well, this isn't a theoretical interest. It's personal. Men still talk to me like I'm a twelve-year-old. It's amazing. 

JY
You once said in an interview, "Sometimes your characters insist on winning." It felt very profound to me. 

OM
How so? 

JY
I'm thinking about Mr. Wu from "Disgust" and also Eileen. 

OM
Well, yeah. 

JY
I don't know what they're winning, but it feels apt. Even dare I say likeable? 

OM
They're not succumbing to the obstacles. They're heroes. I don't see art as an illustration of how fucked up our world is, but as an opportunity to rise up out of the muck and to have an elevated experience. If Eileen was some passive do-nothing, there'd be no story to tell. It would be this story: "I was miserable. Nothing happened. And then I died." But nothing didn't happen. She came a long, long, way. And she loves herself. 

JY
Maybe I misread that. I interpreted the ending much more cynically. 

OM
I think you did. She's not a passive do-nothing. Her story is victorious. 

JY
That makes me feel better. 

OM
Idealistic in a way, because people ended up getting what they deserved. The real victim is Lee Polk. Let's hope in the sequel he escapes from prison. OK, James. I hope you got what you wanted. 

JY
Thanks, Ottessa. I hope this wasn't a waste of your time. 

OM
The self-deprecating humility is actually a disservice to your intelligence. When you write your sandwich book, maybe that's something the character can "have victory" over. 


James Yu is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His fiction has appeared in Ninth Letter (web).