Ottessa Moshfegh - A Writer's Writer

Ottessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh’s fiction is candid, smart, and vital. Her stories pull from the ordinary, spinning and moving in unexpected directions, often culminating in ways that are equal parts satisfying and open-ended. Her characters are slightly off-center, surprisingly relatable portraits of people trying to navigate their way through the world. In every sense, Moshfegh is a “writer’s writer” who will make you think, laugh, question, and then think a bit more.

Ottessa Moshfegh is the author of the novels McGlue and Eileen, and the forthcoming short story collection, Homesick for Another World. She is a frequent contributor to The Paris Review, and her stories have appeared in Granta, The New Yorker and Vice, to name a few. Ottessa was awarded the Plimpton Prize by The Paris Review, the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, and her novel Eileen has been shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.

Tonya Kelley: Firstly, before we dig into your writing, I can’t help but notice your lack of ‘online’ presence. In this day in age, where life is so web-based and blogged and tweeted, how have you managed to keep a low Internet profile? What is behind the decision to stay out of the social networking scene?

Ottessa Moshfegh: The best thing about not being on social media is that I have no conception of what I’m missing, except for all the irritation that led me to go ‘offline’ in the first place. I was never big on Twitter or Facebook, and as my work began to be published, I found it very distracting and oftentimes upsetting to see myself as an Internet identity. So I got off.

TK: Your short story “Bettering Myself” is one of my favorites. I question its listing as ‘fiction’ in The Paris Review, as the narrator seems so reliable and the story so gripping and honest. The narrator’s oddly co-dependent relationship with her students, an ex-husband who will pay her to stop calling him, a magical moment with a Diet Coke - from where do you draw these elements, scenes, and storylines? How reality-based is the ‘fiction?’

OM: “Bettering Myself” took a long time to write, as it was the first story I wrote from the authorial perspective that would inspire the entire collection. I spent months with the narrator, so I got to know her peculiarities well enough to glide over them fluently. There is always plenty of ‘reality-based’ content in my fiction. Sometimes I invent places or institutions, but in “Bettering Myself,” I didn't. If you look at a map of the East Village in the late 90s, you could track where the narrator lived and worked and went out to eat and drink. I had worked very briefly as a high school teacher, so I drew a little from that experience. And I lived in NYC for nearly a decade.

TK: I also happen to be an Eastcoaster turned Westcoaster. Do you feel that the change of scenery has affected your writing? What do you miss about New York? Boston? Do you see yourself going back?

OM: I miss New York and Boston every day--the trees, the smell of the air, my family, memories. I have mixed feelings about New York City as an institution of culture, so I prefer to exclude myself from that place and just pop in now and then for professional appearances. I find Los Angeles to be an isolating place, and that’s been advantageous for my writing--there are very few distractions here and I can focus easily on my work.

TK: You brought up a great point earlier about getting to know your narrators, subjects, characters, and so on. Do you find that you can relate to some of your fictional narrators more than others? I’m particularly interested in your relationship with Eileen (from the novel Eileen) who has been described as “one of the strangest, most messed-up, most pathetic…yet endearing” first-person narrators. How did you ‘get to know’ Eileen? Given your relationship with the narrator, do you agree with the aforementioned assessment?

OM: I do find it easier to align my thinking with certain narrators’ more than others’, yes. Eileen was basically an exaggerated projection of certain aspects of myself. I think that the assessment of her that you quoted is pretty subjective. Some don't find her endearing at all. Reading and relating are such personal experiences; everyone has his/her individual relationship with the character. I must say that I’m still highly suspicious of anyone who thinks Eileen is a baffling figure. She’s simply responding to her environment and coping the best way she knows how. I don't find her very strange, but I suppose that’s because I invented her. She isn’t a stranger to me.

TK: How do you feel about the possibility of Eileen being made into a film? How do you think Eileen would feel about it?

OM: I’m tremendously happy that Eileen has a possibility of being made into a film. I’m curious, as the author, what the adaptation will look and feel like. Eileen, the character, would probably find it ridiculous and humiliating, but also very flattering in some ways. It would all depend on how she is depicted. If they cast her role as a real heroine, then she’d be in heaven.

TK: While your short stories seem to deal with more ‘everyday’ concerns, both novels - McGlue and Eileen - involve bizarre, gritty cases of murder. What drew you to that subject? Where did you make the jump?

OM: First of all, I’ve always been fascinated by murderers, so exploring the subject in my work felt natural. In my two novels, I have tried to answer a few questions--why do people kill one another? Can I sympathize with a murderer? What would I do in his/her position? Could I kill someone? We never know, I think, until we’re face to face with our worst nightmare. I have used longform fiction on these occasions because there’s more room, and probably, cynically, I felt that a story of great length would need something violent and mysterious at its center.

TK: Where did writing start for you? Do you find you're always creating stories, evaluating and observing situations with the intentions of putting them on paper in some way, or are you able to ‘break’ from being a writer?

OM: Writing started for me in adolescence. Occasionally when I’m at a boring event or have to talk to people I don't like, I’ll go into a section of my brain that stores up observations and makes little character sketches, and I’ll be writing in my head while carrying on with chit-chat or some inane discussion. It’s a clear decision to retreat and detach, and to be a calm witness when I’m feeling hostile or threatened or uncomfortable. But generally, I live my life more in that fuzzy liminal space of inspiration and experience. All my fiction is a reflection of my own inner life experience, and oftentimes outside life delivers the perfect parable with which to describe an abstract process. So I don’t exactly take breaks from being a writer. It’s just part of who I am.

TK: Have you ever felt you’ve injected too much of a person or situation from your own life into a story and feared how it may be received by the subject? If so, have you made alterations to the story? What do you consider ‘off limits’ when it comes to writing about yourself or those around you?

OM: Yes, I have written drafts that mimicked people in my life, and sometimes I’ve done it vengefully. There is nothing off limits when it comes to writing about myself, but there are things in my life that I find more interesting than others. And I don’t write or talk much about my family. The families in my fiction are nothing like mine. I respect my parents and siblings too much to want to exploit them in my work. I consider myself to be a very satirical writer, and I don't have a sense of humor about my family. Also, certain people in my family have asked me not to write or speak about them, and I must honor that.

TK: With your collection of stories Homesick for Another World about to be released, what’s next? What are you currently working on?

OM: I’ve been working on a novel tentatively titled “Trouble Sleeping.” I'm excited to be closing in on a full first draft. There is no murder in this book. (But there was in an old version, actually--I had to cut it out!)

TK: Do you have any ‘writing rituals’ you can share?

OM: Well, at a certain point in writing this new novel, I’ve started sleeping with my computer. Having it beside me, speaking to me in my sleep, feels important. It’s a novel that’s very much about sleep, actually. So I guess it’s just the natural creative progression.

TK: Writing and the ‘business’ of writing don’t always go hand in hand. What advice would you give to writers who are embarking on the business side of writing? Working with publishers, editors, agents, and so on.

OM: My advice is to wait until you have complete confidence in your work before you present it to anyone in the publishing industry. The business of publishing is fickle and weird, so you’ll need to have firm ground and lots of love for your work.