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“We’re all together on this weird planet doing weird shit”: an Interview with Writer Ottessa Moshfegh

by Kameron Bashi
May 15th, 2017

Ottessa Moshfegh is the author of the novella McGlue (2014), the Booker Prize-shortlisted Eileen (2015), and, most recently, a collection of short stories, Homesick for Another World (2017). I first met Ottessa when we were both students at Brown University in 2009, and was surprised and delighted by the first story she brought to workshop—an eloquent, pithy, obsessive tale about a man who shoves a jewel up his ass. I had not seen her since we both left Providence in 2011, but we met up in late January to chat at The Tattered Cover, a bookstore in downtown Denver, as she was wrapping up her most recent book tour. What follows has been trimmed of its fat and gently edited for clarity.

—Kameron Bashi

I. AN ATTEMPT AT A GEOGRAPHIC CURE

THE BELIEVER: What was the attraction to California?

OTTESSA MOSHFEGH: I wanted to get the fuck away from winter. I was done. I had been living in the northeast—I grew up outside of Boston, I lived in New York for ten years minus two years that I lived in China, and then I moved to Providence. When I finished grad school I knew I needed to do something. I couldn’t stay in Rhode Island. The move to LA was definitely an attempt at a geographic cure. “Well, maybe if my environment is really different I will be different.” It ended up being kind of true.

I got to LA and I had one or two friends. I had no money. I could not find a job. I just wrote all the time. But I liked LA, I was fascinated by it. I knew I didn’t fit in there. In New England it was like, “I know I’m from here, but I still don’t feel like I belong here.” In LA it’s like, “I know I don’t belong here.” There are all these levels of pretension in that city. Every time you walk into a café or a bar or a restaurant in LA everybody turns around to see if you’re famous. Everybody can seem like a celebrity. You can meet somebody who looks like Joe Schmoe and he turns out to be the head of HBO or something. Or you meet a person who just won an Oscar and he looks like he just won an Oscar. And it’s a sprawling city, there’s so many different parts to it. The way that it’s segregated is really strange, and I’ve always been attracted to this one part of Hollywood. Hollywood is a lot of different things. Hollywood central is a freak zone, a lot of people living on the streets and hustling and then everybody else in their cars. It’s gritty and it feels dangerous and fucked up. You go to the Home Depot and it’s just exploding with people asking for work and slick assholes on their cell phones ignoring them. I live in East Hollywood which is sort of the end of the grit, butting up against Silverlake and Los Feliz which are the refined gentrified hipster zones, which I tend to appreciate when I need to get coffee, but I like living in the grit. I like feeling separate from that elitist civilization in some way, even though I don’t really “belong” in the grit either. But I do spend more than half my time now in the desert which is really nice—to be off the grid, remembering that the world is bigger than the city streets.

BLVR: What kinds of things have you done in your writing that you did not do or don’t think you could do if you’d stayed back home?

OM: I don’t think I could have written Eileen if I had been living in New England. I think I needed that distance, and also that sense of absurdity about New England culture. The thing about California is that it’s kind of a dream, and I started to feel like I was living in a dream. I still feel like that. Because of that I think I’ve been able to realize a lot of things that were just ideas. When I was living in New York City, it’s such a rat race, it’s so competitive and everything is so concrete and in your face all the time. If you’re like,

“I’m gonna be a writer!” Everybody’s like, “Yeah, you and all the other assholes on the subway.” There isn’t a lot of space for the detached, free-floating movement of the imagination. And when I moved to California I started doing this self-hypnosis thing, which is basically like [Rhonda Byrne’s] The Secret. Based on the theory, reality is a projection of consciousness, so if you believe—more than just think—but believe, subliminally, that something is true, it will become true because you will make micro-decisions based on the reality that you have faith in. And I started doing that, and I think part of it was living in a city where everybody was aspirational. Everybody wants to be a star, and it wasn’t like, “I wanna be a star!!!”—it was like, “Why am I pretending like I don’t want to be a writer who can make a living? Why am I trying to grovel so that I’ll feel at home with all the other grovelers?” I actually want to be exceptional. I mean, it’s my life, of course I want to have a good one. So it was like, okay, I’m gonna really believe that this is possible. If I had stayed in New England or New York, constantly recirculating and regurgitating the same ideas about what it means to be successful or what it means to be smart, or even what a writer is supposed to do, I don’t think I would’ve had the balls to write a novel like Eileen. I also would have had such a limited experience that I couldn’t have written the stories in the collection either. I needed to shake myself up and look at things in a different way when I fell back down.

BLVR: The historical weight of the East is too much to deal with sometimes. It’s hard to just get out from under.

OM: Totally. I think it’s the oppression of the colonized world. You can’t be a free spirit in a place that feels like it was built on lockdown. I don’t need to feel 100% safe, but I have to feel like there’s room for me to go a little bit insane if I’m going to have good ideas. Because a good idea is a new idea and if you start going around like, “I have this new idea!” most people are gonna be like, “I’ve never heard that before, that sounds fishy.” I’ve been on this tour and people have been asking me, “What advice do you have for young writers?” I tell them: a) get off social media; b) don’t ask your friends what they think about your work or your ideas. You need to focus and be insane within yourself to build your sandcastle. The mind is so malleable and you need to have a steel trap around it, at least while you’re working on something.

II. “DISGUSTING, JUST AS I’D HOPED IT WOULD BE.”

BLVR: I read that you’ve been recently thinking about Picasso, American Psycho, Whoopi Goldberg, Steven Spielberg, Kissinger, and Damien Hirst. What, specifically, were you thinking about American Psycho?

OM: I think American Psycho is an amazing book. American Psycho was the first time I saw first-person interiority really go to a place—forget all the murder—just the way that the voice talks to itself and talks to the reader, so directly and so self-referentially, and the way that the character reveals himself through his obsessions with superficiality had a huge effect on me. That’s exactly how people reveal themselves, through their obsessions with the way that they appear, because all we really get is the way that we appear to one another. That book was really fucking deep. And it was also a satire about murder, murdering women. How did he do that? American Psycho is set in the 1980s in New York City and I have set my new novel in the late 90s, so I was thinking a lot about that world of rich white New York, the young people and the scenes, but mostly curious about how we engage with a narrative voice that is—we know—losing its mind.

BLVR: In an interview with Lorin Stein for BOMB, talking about Gordon Lish, you said that “his writing philosophy tended to birth narcissistic, solipsistic, exclusionary prose.” You love it, but there’s no vulnerability. How important is vulnerability to you as a writer, and what is the mark of a vulnerable piece of writing?

OM: For me writing isn’t a mental exercise, it’s barely even a literary exercise, it feels like a spiritual experience. So I may have poopoohed Gordon Lish’s tactics as a teacher in that interview, but I actually think he’s brilliant. What you can’t teach someone is how to find the door. You can’t give someone a door to another universe. You can tell them that the door exists, and if they’re stuck in the hallway you can be like, “You’re stuck in the hallway,” but you can’t open the door for them. There are a lot of smart people being really thoughtful and writing really interesting things, but that isn’t what I want to do. It’s never felt like what I’ve been called to do. And I have to risk sounding really arrogant when I say that because I’ve gone to Ivy League schools and been privileged in all these ways in the world of ideas, but I’m not as smart as you think. I’m not really depending on what I learned in college to write these books. Those were just parts of my life experience. I’ve dedicated a lot of my life as a writer to understanding how to hear the divine voice, or the music of the spheres, or whatever it is that we do when we’re making art, making something out of nothing. Figuring out how to do that is much more important than knowing how to execute a good line. I don’t think about that anymore, I just write.

BLVR: How does vulnerability intersect with “transparent” language or the conventions of literary realism? Is it easier or more viable to reach vulnerability in a traditional prose style?

OM: I think so, I think so. Going back to American Psycho and the way the voice works—you and I understand that the narrator is not an author, but there’s the illusion when you’re reading that the narrator is the author. In fiction the narrator is a performance of voice, and it can be any style of voice, but I’m interested in the ways that a voice that knows it’s telling a story is actually telling a different story than it intends to. In the way that I can sit here and tell you what I had for breakfast, but I’m really telling you that I’m having an affair, something like that. And I don’t think my writing is plain, but I think a lot of my characters are just talking. There is vulnerability there, in that we can start to see through them, we can start to see where they’re deceiving themselves.

BLVR: A handful of your stories in the collection center around yuppie bourgeois-types who, over the course of the story, negotiate relationships that seem very different from—and possibly opposed to—the relationships in the worlds to which they’re accustomed. In “A Dark and Winding Road,” the narrator goes to a cabin for a solo getaway, lists all the favorite things he’s brought to eat—cornichons, smoked trout, sheep feta, Toblerone, etc. By the story’s end he’s met a young woman and participates in something he calls “disgusting, just as I’d hoped it would be”. What happens over the course of the story?

OM: Well, a girl shows up and pegs him with a dildo, but before that they probably smoke some crystal meth. That story is about masculinity in a lot of ways, the performance of masculinity, or what it means to be a man’s man. The narrator’s brother, MJ, is a brute and Charles is effete. He gets to eat fancy food and live in Murray Hill in Manhattan and complain about becoming a father, and MJ has a semi-retarded girlfriend at some point and doesn’t give a shit about anything. He plays video games and squeezes his zits and seems free of a lot of the things that his bourgeois brother is completely obsessed with and made miserable by. So Charles goes to the cabin, smokes weed, confronts himself in his darkness and laughs at himself a little bit, and this girl shows up saying that she’s there to meet MJ and Charles decides to pretend to be his brother’s lover. And then does this inspired performance of what he thinks a flamboyantly gay man would do and say. It’s that performance that is really the transgressive and transcendent experience for him. MJ has made Charles feel like he’s a pussy or a wuss or whatever you call men who aren’t lumberjacks. So veering further into some homosexual identity or less heterosexual identity is fascinating for him, and is the thing that frees him enough to have a transgressive experience with this crystal meth-smoking pretty young girl who shows up and uses a dildo, we presume, to have sex with him. And the end of the story is a confirmation that that isn’t who he is. That isn’t what he actually wants. “It was disgusting, just as he had always hoped.” I’m not saying “Oh he figured out he’s straight,” that’s not exactly it. He’s settled on being safe, feeling safely who he is in his bourgeois pussiness. He isn’t now going to go and be this wild man and be sexually liberated, he’s probably gonna go back to his pregnant wife and be slightly ashamed and never tell anyone it ever happened.

BLVR: Your work is filled with pimples, pus, fat that people don’t want on themselves or find repulsive in others, disabilities, various levels of drug and alcohol abuse—people on the fringe. In “No Place for Good People,” the narrator takes a job at a residential facility for developmentally disabled adults. He says, “They were slow, of course. You can call them retarded. That word doesn’t offend me as long as it’s used the proper way, without pity.” Does pity have a place in your work?

OM: I don’t really pity any of my characters. I hold my characters under a harsh fluorescent lamp and ask “Who are you?” I’m not doing their makeup or giving them hairdos. They present themselves to me as they are and then I let them say what they want. Usually they’re saying something too honest.

III. A FUCKING TREAT

BLVR: Your narrators all seem very sober. There’s a kind of clarity to the speaker’s vision from story to story.

OM: I wrote the collection in total sobriety. I was sober for years, up until six months after finishing that book. I didn’t have a drink for over ten years. So there is a clarity and sobriety that is unflattering, but real.

BLVR: In the same story the narrator says, “I rarely interacted much with anyone back then who wasn’t retarded. When I did it struck me how pompous and impatient they were, always measuring their words, twisting things around. Everybody was so obsessed with being understood, it made me sick.” Do you identify with him, do you see that as something we suffer from? Too much discourse?

OM: Yeah, totally. I think we waste a lot of time trying to convince other people that we’re right. A lot of times we don’t actually care what another person thinks, we just want to say what we think. To hear it reflected back to us and that we’re okay, to hear that we have been understood and that we’re correct—so that we can continue to be who we are in the ways we’ve been being, and we have nothing to feel bad about and everything is just fine. Even if what we’re talking about is, like, police brutality. “I’ve decided that this is what I think, and this is the way that I’m gonna present my thoughts, and if we disagree then you’re wrong.” Meanwhile what is that conversation actually accomplishing? Seriously, what is it accomplishing? This whole thing with the police. There are more civilians than there are policemen, right? Why are we letting them kill us? We’re letting that happen. So stop fucking talking about it. This is why I can’t stand social media. Or internet news or anything. I can’t stand anything basically. This is why I need to be living in the desert. I don’t like the conversations. I don’t know what people talk about anymore. I feel pretty divorced from the new generation. I feel old and then I also feel completely immature.

BLVR: Returning to the theme of pity, the narrator in “Slumming” maintains a cool distance from the residents in the small rundown town where she spends her summers and says, “I didn’t want to have to talk to them, get to know them or hear their stories. I preferred to keep the residents of Alna as part of its scenery…From a distance, I watched the way they congregated then dispersed. Heads hung at mid-level neither noble nor disconsolate.”

Both pity and callousness seem to require distance. Is the distance of pity the same as the distance of indifference? How do you see pity and indifference in relation to distance?

OM: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pity. Like if you saw a dog having just been hit by a car, you would pity that dog. But then what do you do? Do you leave it there to get run over by more cars, or do you step into traffic and hold up your hand? “Stop! An animal has been hit!” and carry the thing to safety? Indifference is the saddest state of being. It’s like PTSD—you’re not gonna fight, you’re not gonna run, you’re just frozen there, feeling nothing. It’s very easy to have conversations when you’re sitting there feeling nothing, to talk about the weather or what you had for lunch, to Instagram what you had for lunch. We’re all suffering from trauma. This world is so crazy. How do we feel safe here? I think that’s the question everybody’s asking, “What do I need to do to feel safe? Like I’m okay?” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

Distance is where people get really confused. If you stand really far away from someone you’re like, “That’s not me. I’m so far away from that person. That person is so different from me.” It’s easy to forget that people—refugees from Syria, for example—are exactly like us. However we get spun down from heaven into the physical embodiment, however this happens that we get to be who we are—whether we choose it or it’s random—I could have been born Donald Trump, or I could’ve been born the dog that got hit in the road. And I am Donald Trump and I am that dog, and so are you. We’re all together on this weird planet doing weird shit. Sometimes I think I’m a nihilist because it doesn’t matter, none of this matters. We’re all following the will of some unknowable higher power, probably the stars manipulating our cellular magnets. We think we have all this agency, but do we? Do we really? Can you choose to be brave when you were born a coward? Can we be deprogrammed from the brainwashing that we grew up in? I think we can, but I think we need a lot of help. We need people to point out the bullshit and be like, “That’s bullshit. This whole conversation is bullshit. Go outside and pick up some trash.” Instead of complaining that your neighbor’s dog is barking, go over there and give it a fucking treat. It’s very easy to say that, but I stand on the sidelines all the time. I don’t want to get involved. But I don’t think I’m a total coward. My work is the way that I involve myself in the conversation, in what’s actually happening. But I’m a writer. I hide at home most of the day. But if there was a dog in the road I would go and get it. I hope that I’m the kind of person who would step in between somebody holding a gun at somebody else. I would like to be that stupid. I’d like to be that in love with life.

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