An Interview with Ottessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh is an American author and novelist. Her debut novel Eileen won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her subsequent novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation was a New York Times bestseller, and will be adapted for film by director Yorgos Lanthimos.

Moshfegh judged the Advocate’s 2022 Louis Begley competition for short fiction, and selected Yash Kumbhat's "Shaking, Trembling, Quaking, Rending." On May 13th, the fiction board interviewed her about her decision, as well as her upcoming novel, secret talents, approach to historical fiction, insomnia, and storytelling. Fiction editor Talia Blatt was joined by former editor Tadhg Larabee, and members Sidonie Brown, Serena Jampel, Eve Jones, Annika Inampudi, and Kyle Mandell.

This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.

Talia Blatt: Let’s start with your decision in the Begley contest this year. Can we hear more of your thought process? And in general, when you read fiction critically, what do you look for?

Ottessa Moshfegh: I'm always looking for something that grabs my attention and sustains it. Second, I'm looking for a story that I want to understand. And the winning story was one that I felt immediately confused by, and not because it was written in a confusing way, but because it was about something that I didn't understand. I thought it was profoundly deep, and I was very impressed by how the story is woven in an almost abstract way through firsthand experiences as told by various characters that are all part of this strange world, going through this disaster. And I also just thought that it was beautifully written.

TB: You don't have any presence on social media. We're wondering to what extent you think authors should participate in the online conversation about their work.

OM: I think authors should participate to the extent that they care to. I don't think that there's any real requirement or restriction there. I think for me personally, I'm doing this interview from my car because I'm so busy. If I tried to have a life online, I don't think I could live my life IRL in the same way. And this is the life I care to live. For me, the way that I work with language, and the way I express myself, is my art form, and giving it all to Twitter or Facebook feels a bit like energy wasted. I can have conversations with people, and I'm satisfied with those conversations, when it's not being published online by an app or mediated in any way through a third party. I don't know. I like direct conversations.

Tadhg Larabee: I was incredibly excited to hear, maybe a year ago, the rumors about Yorgos Lanthimos adapting My Year of Rest and Relaxation, since it's one of my favorite books and he's one of my favorite directors. And I was wondering, especially given what you just said about the importance of unmediated language to your art form, how you're thinking about that book being adapted visually. How is that process going?

OM: I've written a bunch of screenplays, and most of them are adaptations of my own work. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is definitely the hardest adaptation because the novel is so much an interior monologue, and moves around the inside of the unnamed protagonist's mind back and forth through time. It required a whole new lens for me to see it as a movie. And I can't really talk about what's happening with that. But it's been an interesting process.

TB: I think we were hoping to do something of a fun speed round. Short questions, whatever comes to mind first. So: What's on your night table?

OM: This novel Ramifications by a friend of mine named Daniel Saldana Paris, a Mexican writer. I've been meaning to read his book for a long time. And I just saw him in Mexico City last week.

TB: You can have three writers, alive or dead, over for dinner. Who are they?

OM: James Baldwin. Honestly, I would just want James Baldwin to myself. Yeah, him and two empty chairs. I think that would be one good evening.

TB: Were you popular in high school?

OM: Well, my high school graduating class was like 25 people. So it's hard to say. It was a very small school, very intimate. I think we all loved each other in a way that isn't possible in a bigger school. Two of my best friends now at almost 41 are friends I made in high school. So maybe I wasn’t the most popular girl in school, but I definitely had some really great friends.

TB: What was the last gift you gave someone?

OM: My friend stayed at my house dog sitting while we were in Mexico, and I brought her back a peyote-stitch, beaded bracelet.

TB: Any secret talents?

OM: Maybe voices? I have a secret ambition to be a voice actor and do cartoon voices.

TB: Can we hear some?

OM: Um, no.

TB: What keeps you up at night?

OM: My dogs.

TB: What gets you up in the morning?

OM: My dogs.

TB: What is one small thing that brings you joy?

OM: Probably when my husband comes home with flowers.

TB: If you didn't write fiction, what do you think you'd do?

OM: I think I might have ended up being some kind of executive. I don't know.

TB: Alright, that's the end of our speed round.

Serena Jampel: I really loved My Year Of Rest and Relaxation, but I was unsettled by it, particularly the femininity that's portrayed. I was interested in how you think about writing about women, because that book is a totally different femininity than I've ever read.

OM: Well, I think of writing about women the same way I would write about men: that they are human beings with very complicated egos and belief systems. Everybody has a past and everybody has a strategy of coping with what hurts them. I identify as a woman so often I feel that I am adjacent to my female characters because if they don't feel exactly like me — and they never do — I'm sort of observing them from the outside more. And weirdly, when I'm writing a male character, maybe because I'm not male, I find that I can feel possessed by the character best if I fully embody him. So I might imagine myself on the inside, rather than adjacent to him. But that's a very abstract way of answering your question.

TB: Your answer reminds me of conversations the board has had recently about autofiction. I'm curious what pieces of yourself you find appearing in your work — if it's like looking at a funhouse mirror.

OM: When I look back at my work, it is an archive of my curiosities, and the things that fascinate me, things that repulse me, things I find really funny. Still I don't actually identify with autofiction, and I'm not quite sure I understand what it is, not that I need to. I've always been interested in first person narratives because it's a way of writing from a different perspective, unique to your character. I've always thought about that kind of storytelling as voice-driven, almost like a song. It also has a lot to do with acting. And because it's such an interior form, or it can be, I think it's really easy to project the consciousness of the author onto the character. That's really common, and really funny to me, because if that's so, then I'm not a creative person. I'm just writing about myself. Trust me, if I wrote about myself, it would be really boring.

TL: On the subject of proximity to yourself, proximity to our world and our time, I'm really excited for your new book, which is historical fiction. I'm wondering how you wrote about a time so far from our own, and people so different from ourselves.

OM: Thanks for asking about the new book. It’s funny — I've written several novels that could be called historical fiction, but I've never really thought of them as being part of the genre, in that formal way. Like my first book was a novella and it takes place in New England on a ship in 1851, and I've been working on a long term novel project that takes place in Shanghai and San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. Lapvona, the new book, felt more like it was playing with the genre of fable than the genre of historical fiction. But it is not in any strict sense of the word, a genre book, or at least I didn't intend it to be. I love research, and my methodology of research is really unscientific. I see research as part of the creative process, in that, in each detail that I find, I find a new trail of breadcrumbs to follow, into the next subject, the next article, whatever is going to bring me closer to understanding how to describe, in language, the world of my story. So I never mean for my work to be historically accurate. It's more like I'm stealing from history to inform my own work.

Eve Jones: On this note of the creative process, what does it look like for you to sit down and write? Do you have any rituals?

OM: Good question. I really wish there was a ritual, because then I could just, like, do it. Usually when I'm writing a first draft of something, like a novel, I just set aside a certain number of hours each day, and have a goal to write a certain number of words. It's different when I'm writing a short story. A short story, because it's shorter, because you can sit back and hold it out and look at the whole thing at once, the process of drafting is way more one of revision and rewriting and moving things — it's like a constant shifting collage, until the story snaps into place. But when I'm drafting a novel, I just try to keep moving forward every day, so there is a kind of rigid discipline. And when I’m revising, I have a really specific method. It’s very boring, but it looks like me with my manuscript and a pencil, for hours and hours each day over and over and over again, until I can read it though and not make any scribbles. Then I’m like, okay, here's a draft.

TB: Your work seems to really relish in disgust, especially as it relates to the body. I'm curious — why disgust? And has it changed the way you relate to or inhabit your own body?

OM: I think it's more that my feelings about my own body were showing up in my writing. Revulsion has always been a prevalent emotion in my experience, especially when I was younger, starting from puberty up until a couple of years ago. Disgust was a primary emotion for me; instead of getting angry or sad I felt disgusted. I think that's why I've had to write about it so much—it's part of my make-up. I don't find the human body disgusting. I actually find human intelligence kind of disgusting. But I like conflating the two. I do think there's a lot of value in writing about a character's physical being. Reading is such a thoughtful process, that I think we do it to escape the physical world. But if you can bring the physical world back into that experience, I find that very interesting. Having a visceral response to literature is something I think is important to keep up the power of the written word. It's also just sort of my jam.

Sidonie Brown: We discussed the ways in which the self creeps into writing. But on the other side of that coin, I'm curious if you find writing creeping into your life. For example, the narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation just has this intense apathy. While you were writing that character, did you notice apathy creeping into your life?

OM: No, but what I can say is that you're absolutely right that whatever you're working on starts to appear in your own life. I think that's true for everyone I’ve talked to who works creatively. I had struggled with insomnia before, in my early twenties, but it hadn't been a very big deal, not a big enough experience to write an entire novel about sleep. I mean I've always been fascinated by sleep, and I'm always really tired, so I think that's more what motivated me to write about rest and relaxation. But as soon as I finished writing that book, I developed horrible insomnia. I lost the ability to fall asleep. That really felt unlucky, and weird, uncanny.

TB: Last two minutes — we're all here because we're college kids who like to read and write. Any words of warning or inspiration?

OM: I don't really recommend seeking a career as a creative writer, but if you are supposed to be one, you will totally not care that I just said that. It's extremely hard, and it's extremely unlikely, even if you're a fucking genius, that you will get the attention that you so desire. It's a real gamble. And it's extremely hard work. If you want to be great at something, you have to work at least five times harder than you think you do. But you guys are all at Harvard. So you're probably all overachievers. I would say, Jesus, go swimming. That's my advice. Go swimming.