A fascination with the depraved powers Ottessa Moshfegh’s fiction. Her first novel, McGlue, winner of the Fence Modern Prize in Prose, follows a drunken, hallucinating sailor around the world in the hold of a ship after he is accused of murdering his best friend, a crime he doesn’t remember committing. The titular protagonist of Moshfegh’s forthcoming second novel, Eileen, narrates her escape from the squalor of her young adulthood in the week before Christmas 1964. Eileen is a story of alcoholism, abuse, violent crime, child molestation, and starvation set in a landscape of freezing winter, vomit, and car fumes. It is unrelenting in its portrayal of the morally questionable, the strange and uncomfortable.
Moshfegh is a frequent contributor to The Paris Review and a winner of the 2013 Plimpton Prize, as well as a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and has recently completed a Stegner Fellowship. We met for the first time at Green Apple Books on the Park, in San Francisco this past April, the day she workshopped the last story of her just-completed collection. We got to talking about notebooks and she told me she only uses hers to record tarot readings. Really, I asked? Only tarot readings? I was intrigued. I asked if I could interview her about it the next time she came to New York.
We met at a taco shop in Fort Greene on a rainy Sunday. I had just left a screening of Josh and Benny Safdie’s new film Heaven Knows What, which fictionalizes the real-life story of its protagonist, also played by its subject—a homeless, heroin-addicted teenage girl who burns through a series of abusive relationships with other street kids. Moshfegh had spent the morning watching a documentary about child sex trafficking. So, we were both pretty upset. The rain didn’t help.
She took out the notebook and started flipping through it.
SG: Do you outline stories in your notebook, too?
OM: No, I usually just write on the computer. The notebook is more me-based and less work-based.
SG: The one that I’m keeping now, I’m trying to make much more about me and less about my work. I guess I’m trying to separate the two more than I have in the past.
OM: I need to have less separation.
OM: I think because, over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten hyper-disciplined about my work and compartmentalized it so much that it became the only compartment I wanted to be in. The rest of my life seemed really boring and pointless because it wasn’t my writing. I just hit a bottom with that. I was like, “If writing is all I’m doing, my writing is going to get so stale, like breathing the same air over and over again. Being in a stuffy room.” So, now I’m trying to live more.
SG: When I’m doing research, I keep it in one place. When I’m outlining, I keep it in that same place. And then when I’m thinking, just thinking freely, I let it into this other place. The interests—topically, they’re the same. But structurally, it’s different.
OM: When you’re writing, do you have to go back and refer to your research?
SG: Not very often. It’s just how I learn—how I record things in my memory. Otherwise, it’s just kind of in-and-out.
OM: Sometimes I’m astonished that I can show a piece of writing to somebody and talk about it and kind of understand what they see might not be working, but there’s no way I can really put that lens into words. Then I can sit down and read the story and identify exactly what needs to change. It’s so weird that the brain can work that way, on these really subtle levels. I was talking to Lorin Stein the other day about—it wasn’t necessarily a conversation about accessibility, but he was pointing some things out in a story that’s going to be in [The Paris Review] in the winter, a really subtle way of preparing the reader for a joke. And I said something like, “Sometimes I wonder if anyone but you, me, and like three other people on Earth are going to appreciate that gesture.” You know? And the artistry involved in something so subtle. I don’t know. I’m kind of losing interest in that.
SG: In what?
OM: In writing that is so highly evolved and sophisticated in its voicing that almost nobody could actually appreciate how finely wrought it is. Do you know what I mean? It feels vain.
SG: I do. I think Eileen is more accessible than, for instance, McGlue, and I think it has to do with the style, but it also has to do with the material. I mean, Eileen is an extreme example of a very familiar situation for a lot of families. It’ll speak to a broad audience for that reason, and also because it’s not structurally experimental in the way that McGlue is. But I know what you mean about writing prose in a way that very few people will appreciate—or maybe about fine gestures in your writing that only a few people will appreciate.
OM: You know when they talk about “close reading” or “close writing”? I’m not worried about that anymore. I’m not concerned that I’m going to fail at that. If I’m telling the story in the right way, the “close reading” will be correct.
SG: Do you feel different when you’re writing in a diaristic way and when you’re writing a short story?
OM: Yeah, it feels totally different. When I’m writing to myself, I’m really trying to process something, and it usually has to do with writing out my delusion and then trying to interpret what that delusion might be in service of, and then trying to comfort myself about the anxiety that the delusion was helping me cope with.
SG: Sometimes I feel silly when I write in my diary. I can’t get over the feeling that somebody is watching me.
OM: There is that. What do you think that’s about?
SG: I think it’s related to what I was saying earlier about writing a first draft, that I can’t have anybody else in the room because it’s too embarrassing for me. I think it’s the same when I’m writing in the diary. I feel like I’m looking over my own shoulder and criticizing everything I write, because I’m not saying it very eloquently. I’m not coming there with an idea; I’m coming there with almost a non-idea, something that is irrational.
OM: I don’t feel like I’m keeping a diary. This notebook just feels like a place where I happened to write some things down. Diaries always felt too direct. Me trying to be my own psychotherapist. Is there anything more ridiculous? I want writing to be a solution. I prefer to look for the solution in my fiction.
SG: What do you mean a solution?
OM: I mean, whatever I’m fascinated-slash-horrified-by-slash-suffering because of, I become obsessed with it and it goes into my fiction, and in using it as material, I become its master. And yet, I’m its master only because I’ve been its victim. It’s like, “I know how you move, I understand your shape and influence,” so I can play with these demon-puppets, see what they do, and at a certain point, I’m in control, and the organic nature of the narrative will reveal itself to me, and the solution—how to let go of the shit—is revealed. I’m not saying I can have a problem, write a story about people who have that problem, and then through writing a happy ending, find a solution for myself. It’s not really that neat. But through wrestling with and surrendering to the fiction, I get to move onto something else.
SG: You can inhabit the world of the problem from a safe distance and see its solution without having to suffer the consequences.
OM: Yeah. I just sent my collection to my agent last week.
OM: Thanks. I knew that it was complete when I’d written the last story. It’s a story about a girl from another world trying to get back to that better place she came from. That was such an important story for me to write. It was like admitting to myself, “This is how weird I feel on Earth.” It’s a goodbye story to that struggle, in a way. By writing it, I got to leave this cruel, stupid place, which I think the other stories in the collection describe. What would it be like to say goodbye to this world? That is what the last story explores. It was heartbreaking to write. You know? This world is so weird and beautiful and I love so many people here. Even though it feels scary and painful, I want to stay. Because I get to love people. I think about my brother, another person not quite right for the world. Friends who have abandoned me, or been abandoned by me. Friends who have died. Boyfriends. People are so weird. Freaks and jerks, the weirdos, the artists, the liars, the magicians. I fucking love the freaks. So that’s really what the story was for me—the decision to stay here, to concede to living this life, and to loving the freaks, and being one of them. It forced me to dismantle my fascistic disciplinarianism and relax and laugh a little and be vulnerable, be weird. I cried a lot writing that story. It turned out very fairy tale-esque.
SG: Do you want to be writing fairy tales?
OM: No, that was just the voice this particular story needed.
SG: I’m asking because Tinker Bell was something we talked about earlier, and this land of the mystical hermit.
OM: Well, I like all that magical stuff. Fairy tales are very … it’s weird that they haven’t changed that much—a genre frozen in time stylistically. At one point they were contemporary. Were they meant to be moralistic?
SG: I think they were intended that way, but the lessons couldn’t possibly be the same.
OM: Right before I met you today, I was watching this documentary about sex trafficking children in America, and how sex offenders can spot children they can easily victimize just walking down the street—“not you, not you, you”. As a young person, I was aware that I was one of those victimizable children because I had had early trauma and I knew men with transgressive sexual boundaries could tell that about me and I could tell that about them. I feel like maybe these [fairy tales] about children who are victims are ways of illustrating that [dynamic] and—I mean, God, can you imagine how much rape there was “a long, long time ago”? Red Riding Hood and her wolf?
SG: You’re not even safe at Grandmother’s house.
OM: That’s almost the most important bit of information. Our grandmothers’ generation would probably tell us to be good girls, be nice. Meanwhile, that wolf is going to eat you. Kick him in the balls, girls. You need to be wise, be quick. Find the people you can trust. Tell everyone the wolf has developed a thirst for human blood. Don’t just tip-toe through the woods. Scream bloody hell if someone tries to fuck with you. And if you’re alone in the woods, bring a gun. Hermits are probably just sick pervs after all.
SG: That’s a good point about Red Riding Hood and the wolf. I hadn’t read it as a cautionary tale for Red Riding Hood in that particular way. Of course it is, though: “Don’t wander from the path.” But it is kind of messed up how it places all of the responsibility on Red Riding Hood.
OM: Well yeah, the story was written for the girl to read, not the wolf. Maybe this will inspire my next collection: stories for wolves and sick pervs.
SG: Actually, that sounds a lot like Eileen. What did you learn writing this book?
OM: I learned that the definition of hell is “never changing your mind.”
Paper Trail is a monthly column exploring the relationship between artists and their journals.