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.
Sarah Gerard: Do you always use composition notebooks?
Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah, I’ve been using these since I was a kid. I really like them.
SG: How many have you filled now?
OM: Oh, probably twenty, twenty-five. Maybe more. I used to write stories by hand, so I would fill a lot. I don’t do that anymore. Mostly I just use my notebook for notes or to-do lists. Sometimes, if I’m suffering and sick of it, I’ll write about my feelings like I would in a diary. And then when I’m feeling hopeful, or confused, I’ll do a tarot reading for myself and record the spreads in my notebook. See, like these little diagrams.
SG: What do you suffer about?
OM: Shit, well, I’m not from this dimension. I’m like an alien in a human body. I come from a different place, a different plane of existence. I can’t explain that other place because I don’t know it in this lifetime, I don’t have memories of it, but I know it is a softer place. I’m not comfortable with life on Earth. This life here feels really harsh and painful. It has felt like torture here a lot of the time.
SG: That was the feeling I had today after I read Eileen for three hours and then went to see Heaven Knows What. I left feeling like I’m not fit for any of this. How do you cope?
OM: There isn’t one answer. I wish there was. Like, I tried to develop a plan for how to deal with life in 2015. [turns page, shows me plan]
SG: What did it entail?
OM: Well, at the time I was under the delusion that happiness was a product of self-discipline, so I came up with this really disciplined Ayurvedic lifestyle. I just couldn’t stick to it. Who can take a hot bath every night?
SG: I made a plan for myself last weekend to do this particular writing exercise every night for half an hour and I couldn’t even find half an hour to do a writing exercise every day, so, a bath every day would not fit into my schedule. [points to the words “Tinker Bell” written alone at the top of a page] What’s this?
OM: I had a dog named Tinker Bell, born when I was a year old, in Newton, Massachusetts. We called her Tinky. Tinky’s mother was this crazy-looking little poodle with dreds that my mother had smuggled out of Iran during the revolution. She smuggled this dog onto the plane inside her fur coat, took the last flight out of Tehran before the borders closed, stopped in a few countries along the way, then settled in Newton. I was born, and then my mom’s little dog had a litter of puppies. We kept two of them. One died and the other was the runt, and that was Tinky. She was really special, you know? We never owned a leash for this dog. She was psychic, totally psychic. She was small, with blond and red wispy hair and glowing green eyes. She lived until she was 18. The summer she disappeared, my family was kind of falling apart. My parents were separating, my sister was overseas. My mom and my brother were in Maine and my dad was out of town. I was home from college spending every night with my boyfriend and working in this little health food store during the day. When nobody was looking, Tinky just walked away one day. I kept expecting her to come back. She was so independent, and knew the neighborhood and often just roamed around, sleeping under lilac trees, scampering in the sun. Every day she didn’t come back, it sank in a little deeper. She was gone. She knew that it would have been too hard on me if I’d found her body. So she just kind of … flew off. It was so sweet of her, so considerate. But anyway, I like this idea of Tinker Bell as a character who only exists if you believe in her. And I like that when I saw Peter Pan produced on stage at my sister’s high school, they just used a flashlight to be Tinker Bell—a little spot of light, and yet she was a distinct character. Very mystical.
SG: I used to have a VHS that my parents taped off the TV of Mary Martin in Peter Pan, the stage play. I watched it all the time. Tiger Lily was my favorite character—she’s the Native American princess. She doesn’t have any lines in the Disney movie.
OM: It’s funny talking about this and thinking about Never-Never Land, and thinking about how I often don’t feel like I’m meant to live in this world. Never-Never Land must be real for a lot of people.
SG: It’s where you’re always a child.
OM: It’s a softer place, it’s magical. [turns the page] So, this is what it looks like when I do a tarot reading. It’s a fifteen-card spread. These three cards [in the center] represent me. Basically, in this particular spread, the cards say that there is indeed an end to a particular sorrow I was asking about. I just need to be patient. Maintain your dignity. Be confident even though you might feel like shit. This sorrow will end, though it isn’t over yet.
SG: Do you see that it’s coming to an end?
OM: Yeah, it ended. [flips to the back] This is the last time I wrote in this notebook, which was a week and a half ago, on my 34th birthday. It was an odd spread. The cards were coming to life in a new way.
SG: In what kind of new way?
OM: In a world-building way. I drew the Hermit card. The Hermit is a trump card and it’s supposed to mean illumination from within, divine inspiration, wisdom, circumspection, retirement, etc. And the image of the Hermit on the card made me think of an actual hermit, an old, cloaked man carrying a lantern through dark woods. He is family with nature and in service to gods: I was imagining this character who lives in the forest. If you’re at peace in isolation, in nature, you become a mystic—that’s just the way nature works. You become psychic with animals and plants and the wind, all weather. Feelings in the air, your own body. All that shit. It’s just true. Everything else is a construction that human beings have made. The Hermit doesn’t even really need human language.
SG: It reminds me of that man they found recently who had been living alone in the woods for twenty-seven years. He just disappeared from this mountain town one day, and had been surviving by breaking into people’s houses and stealing food and clothing. He hadn’t spoken to another human being for almost three decades. And then finally they found him because people kept reporting these burglaries. He hadn’t lost the faculties of language at all—it took him a while to start talking again, but when he did, he was very eloquent, and explained all of these things that had happened inside him that enabled him to live. He had become happier in that state. I think I would like to live alone in the woods.
OM: Complete isolation is one thing I want, but I also want to be with people outside of the isolation of my own consciousness. I want to be everyone all at once.
SG: That’s what fiction is, isn’t it? It enables you to be anyone.
OM: Yeah. But you sort of have to be the Hermit in order to have the ability to accomplish that. You have to be psychic.
SG: What is this: “Birds and neighbors”?
OM: Oh, so then I was—
OM: Then I was imagining—I mean, when I was lying there thinking deeply about myself as one does on a birthday, and seeing myself and my life from a distance, I really felt homesick for another world. And practically speaking, as a person alive in 2015, I don’t feel at home anywhere on the planet. I don’t feel like I’m an American. Surely, I have some American attributes, but I don’t identify with this place. Every time I move somewhere new, it’s refreshing to feel like an outsider. After a couple of years, I get really disheartened. I haven’t related—these aren’t my people. I haven’t found my tribe. I grew up in the northeast. My parents are from two different countries. I can’t live in either of those. I can’t identify. So, I was like, Where would I want to be? Well, my own country. I thought about Ottessaland. Who would I want in that place?
SG: Who do I let in? And then birds came first.
OM: Birds, of course. Wolves, because every place needs a few wolves or there would be no stories to tell. Neighbors. Mushrooms and eggplants. Camels, gold coins, midnight creatures. Aladdin and Scheherazade. Some spooks behind funny curtains … orchids, peacocks … uncrossable oceans.
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.