Portrait of Ottessa Moshfegh by Krystal Griffiths
Ottessa Moshfegh is a novelist, short story writer, and a previous Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She received the Paris Review’s 2013 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, the Fence Modern Prize in Prose, and the 2014 Believer Book award for her debut novel, McGlue (2014). Her second novel, Eileen (2015), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction, and has been optioned for a film by producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men, The Social Network). She has published numerous short stories in The Paris Review and The New Yorker magazine, and her first short story collection, Homesick For Another World, comes out in early 2017.
Last fall Moshfegh sat in on a session of faculty member Benjamin Anastas’s Reading and Writing Short Stories class, where she discussed character development and her writing process. She recently returned to campus to read an unpublished short story as part of the Literature at Bennington reading series. I sat down with the writer on a Wednesday afternoon to discuss books, childhood, men, Bukowski, and sex.
Literary Bennington: The last time you visited Bennington, you mentioned you grew up very seriously playing the piano and that both of your parents are music teachers. How do you think their professions and music in general has influenced you and your writing? What was your transition out of the music world like?
Ottessa Moshfegh: Well, the transition took a while. I was really serious about piano, but then I discovered that I was a writer when I was probably around thirteen. I was doing both really passionately except that my writing life felt really distinct from every other aspect of my life because my parents are musicians and I grew up in the classical music world. The only person who was reading what I wrote at the time was this mentor I had who lived in Detroit. I would send him everything that I wrote in the mail, and I wrote, like, a story a day. I was completely obsessed with writing fiction. My writing was much less plot driven then. Actually, I didn’t start really thinking about plot until 2011 or so.
LB: What happened in 2011?
OM: 2011 was when I finished graduate school. But there is an amazing writer named Robert Coover and I took a course with him—I think it was the last time he ever taught this course. It was an undergraduate course, and he had been teaching it for decades. I can’t remember the precise name—something about ancient narrative texts—and we read ancient narrative texts and talked about them narratively, including plot. We discussed and appreciated what was happening in a piece of text. I had come from a very experimental background, partly because I had been a musician, so I was much more interested in the sound of words and the narrative voice rather than where the words were taking me in terms of narrative. I was much more atmospheric and interested in the psychic resonance of language.
I realized that everything I had been so obsessed with doing was actually the thing that I needed for the exposition, and that I wanted to make the stories I ended up writing with narrative. I think that happens to a lot of young writers. I haven’t taught that much, actually, but having visited workshops and having taught a little bit, it seems like some people are much more interested in creating a world and maybe they approach it from a more nebulous source of inspiration. Other people come to it with a story idea. Like, ‘Oh it’s a guy and he goes and does this and then this happens.’ I was much more the former. So when I discovered plot and what plot could actually do—which to me makes a story more inclusive because you’re drawing a reader into something that’s happening—you’re giving them forward momentum through the story.
It set up this thing for me where it was like ‘Duh’—when things happen in a story the world of the story shifts. I was like, well, that’s really interesting, because I’m really interested in the way that characters can transform through a story. I had been doing it before in this very internal way and in a very indirect way because I would start in this expository realm, like ‘a character, a person, with a consciousness, describing her environment or her daily life,’ then you wouldn’t know what was pushing her towards something new. But then with plot you do and it’s a very tactile thing that you can work with. At first that seemed really tacky, and then it seemed really interesting.
LB: You mentioned that you had a mentor in Detroit that you’d send your writing to as a kid. How did that mentorship come into being?
OM: I went to an arts institute summer camp called Interlochen.
LB: I think I’ve heard of it. You pick majors there, right?
OM: Yeah, that’s right. It was funny because I had wanted to go for music and I missed the audition deadline and I remember my mom called me at school and she said, ‘I’m signing you up for creative writing.’ I was like, ‘Oh fuck that, like anyone’s gonna be able to teach me how to write. That’s idiotic!’ But then I met the Detroit guy, whose name is Peter Marcus, and he completely blew my mind. I totally fell in love with his point of view and his approach to writing. It was as if he appeared like an angel at this camp, so we had a really close mentor-esque relationship, and it was really encouraging. I feel lucky that I met him.
LB: Are you still in contact with him?
OM: No, unfortunately we didn’t stay in touch, but we did for years.
LB: Do your parents read your writing?
OM: Yeah, my dad has read everything. They didn’t when I was younger, but when I started publishing my dad put me on a Google alert and now he reads everything. Every review, every interview.
LB: That’s really sweet.
OM: It’s a little bit annoying, to be honest. I’ve told him to stop and I don’t think he has, but he understands my reasons. If I know my dad is going to read something, I’m not going to talk about several subjects. Or I will but I’ll be unconsciously self-censoring, which is a problem.
I’m writing a new book and there’s all this sex in it and it takes place in New York. You know, sex in New York is a whole different story.
LB: Yeah, it definitely is.
OM: Isn’t it funny.
LB: Does the book take place in present-day New York?
OM: No, it actually takes place in 2000, 2001.
LB: So right around 9/11.
OM: The book ends right before 9/11. I didn’t really understand why I set it there and I still am kind of confused about it, but anyway, if I am going to be writing intimately about blowjobs or ‘eating pussy,’ I don’t want my dad to read it.
LB: I remember when you last visited Bennington, you cited Scott Spencer’s Endless Love as having some of the best sex scenes you’d ever read. Did he influence your writing at all in your new book?
OM: I feel like that book gave me permission, or rather, it allowed me to give myself permission to write explicitly about sex. There’s a scene in a story I wrote called “Disgust” where the protagonist, Mr. Wu, is having sex with a prostitute, but the way I’m writing about sex is really graphic and cynical. I’m interested in how graphic you can be in writing about sex and still turn on the reader. Because the actual description of sex kind of gross, but then you’re also creating a visual, imaginative experience for the reader that’s going to trigger all these hormonal responses.
LB: Speaking of Mr. Wu, I was curious about how intentional you are while developing your male characters as a woman in the 21st century because in a lot of your short stories, like “The Weirdos,” “Disgust” and “The Beach Boy,” you created really potent male characters that seem, in their own ways, kind of grotesque.
OM: Speaking in hindsight I think I was bitter and I didn’t know any really good men. I felt really shat on my whole life as a female so I was angry. Writing these kind of pathetic male characters felt really good to me. I mean, now I’m in a different phase than I was back then and I’m much more interested in vulnerability and intimacy of my characters and in my own life, so I’m starting to write about the transition from that cynical point of view.
LB: Did you feel a sense of catharsis with your relationship to men after writing those kinds of male characters?
OM: The catharsis is just a function of being honest, you know, so I try to be honest. Now I’m interested in different things about people so I’m writing about them in a slightly different perspective.
LB: In an interview with Hazlitt Magazine you say, “…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…” Have you always felt this way?
OM: I still feel that way a lot of the time and actually the story I’m reading tonight is precisely about that.
LB: The previously unpublished story?
LB: What’s it called?
OM: It’s called “A Better Place.” I go through really intense periods of alienation and also being a writer you’re by nature isolating, but I always felt like a complete weirdo. I mean I think actually being published more broadly and having the opportunity to talk to people about the way that I think and how I work and what I am interested in has made me feel like less of an outsider. I think that 98% of artists feel like outsiders, but then again, I do feel like it’s my responsibility to tap into something that is common to us all.
LB: Did you feel like you were able to explore that part of yourself through writing more so than playing music?
OM: I was a classical pianist so all the music I was learning was by dead white men, basically, and I had the most incredible teacher and it was definitely an extremely creative thing. But there was a right and wrong about it and it wasn’t my art, so you’re just kind of a conduit. So writing is really much more important to me.
LB: Do you consider yourself spiritual?
OM: Yeah, definitely. I have had intense periods of deep self-exploration where I really didn’t feel like I was part of daily life at all. These days I’m trying to embrace more of the mundane reality because I need to feel grounded right now, but yeah, I’m not religious. Spirituality is important to me and usually when I am making more of an effort to remember it, I’m feeling better about being alive.
LB: Your short stories tend to be very funny and it’s clear that you have a great sense of comedic timing. I’m curious how deliberate you are when using humor in your work.
OM: Comedic timing I feel like is a huge part of the short story-writing rhythm. Because you’re working in this small space, the rhythm really matters. So a lot of the time, I’ll have the instinct where I’m like ‘Oh, I want to laugh here’, but I won’t know what it is. So yeah, I think about it a lot. It doesn’t really feel to me like an inventive process; it feels more like a natural one with the short stories.
LB: So your short story collection, Homesick for Another World is finished. Will you continue to explore writing short stories or…?
OM: I’ve already said goodbye to them! I had a hard goodbye and I’ll talk more about it at the reading tonight, but basically I wrote the story I’m going to be reading, which is the last story in the collection, and I was like ‘I don’t need to write another short story.’ Not in this period of my life anyway. Who knows what’s going to happen, but I started this novel that I’m working on now and I put it on hold and finished the collection and now I’m back to working on it and I’m, like, in it. I couldn’t possibly write a short story right now. My heart is elsewhere.
Part two of this interview will be posted on Friday