An Interview with Ottessa Moshfegh: Part Two
Charles Bukowski’s 1971 novel Post Office
Read Part One of our interview with Ottessa Moshfegh here.
Literary Bennington: So, as a child feeling like you didn’t belong where you were, what kind of books did you gravitate towards?
Ottessa Moshfegh: I definitely was into fiction. I remember going through a period of being really disappointed in the books that were supposed to be for my age group. My mom was kind of a hoarder and there were books stacked everywhere, up and down the staircase and shoved in every corner, and I would go to bed with a stack of books every night and do eenie meenie and just pick one. I was around nine and in the fifth grade when I read the first books that really moved me: The Catcher in the Rye and The Color Purple. But, oh, before that, the first non-fiction book I read was called Nigger by Dick Gregory.
LB: In the fifth grade?
OM: Honestly, maybe even before then. But Dick Gregory, who’s kind of a comedian, totally blew my mind. And then I read another book, also about race, called Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. It was about this white reporter in the ’50s who went down to the south in blackface to write a candid experience of what it was like to be a black man there.
LB: These were books that were just lying around your house that your parents were reading?
OM: Yeah… I also read The Autobiography of Malcolm X around that time.
LB: How were you processing these books at such a young age?
OM: Well, maybe I didn’t understand all the cultural significance, but the experience of feeling alienated and shat on in a world that you didn’t belong in I completely related to.
LB: Would you talk about what you were reading with your parents?
OM: No, I didn’t talk to anybody. My parents certainly hadn’t read those books.
LB: So you really absorbed a lot internally.
OM: I did. I read so much more when I was a child and an adolescent than I do now.
LB: At a reading you gave at Skylight Books in Los Angeles in the fall you talked about moving back to your hometown of Boston, Massachusetts and how you left home at seventeen with a kind of ‘fuck this’ mentality, which I really relate to and experienced in high school. I want to know at what times or moments, if at all, do you experience that vulnerable, insecure, self-loathing headspace that most teenagers inhabit? Because I think it’s a pretty hard thing to shake.
OM: I feel like that’s my baseline: teenage angst. But also when I was five and six I was really happy to be alive and embrace nature so those things are in tension with each other because the teenager is only thinking of the future. Like, ‘What can I get? How can I get what I want? How can I get away from what I don’t want? And how can I be better than this shit that I am now?’ And the five-year-old is like ‘Oh my God! This is amazing! This is so cool! I’m so happy to be here!’ So I feel a combination of those two things all the time. But I love that I’m still seventeen. I love that girl. She was so fucking brave and she was really a badass. Now I have this whole ‘I’m a mature adult, I go to H&R Block and I make my own decisions!’ attitude. And that’s really empowering and interesting in its own way.
LB: In that same reading you gave at Skylight Books you also said, “I feel like the short story is an invitation to just hate me…” Can you elaborate?
OM: I’m glad I said that and I’m happy that you picked up on it. I mean the short stories are so fucking hostile. Eileen was hostile too. Actually, everything I write is hostile. But writing is an action, it has to be aggressive—that’s just the nature of who I am. Although, the next book I write I think will have a different tone, but I think there’s an arrogance in the short stories just in how good they are. They don’t try and apologize for themselves and they always leave the reader on this note of like ‘What?’ They leave me on that note too. I read them and I’m just completely delighted, but I think that maybe if I was some twenty-three year old dude in Brooklyn, I might hate me. I’d probably be like, ‘Well who does she think she is?’
LB: This is the last thing I am going to ask you regarding that Skylight Books reading. I just found it very interesting, but you also said that in your short stories you humiliate your characters and didn’t want to do that in your novel to Eileen. Why is that?
OM: Well, because it was a novel and I’m asking whoever reads the book to be with the main character for almost three hundred pages. I think a lot of people hated her and didn’t like the book. People had such major issues with her personal hygiene. I really feel like the people who are so creeped out by her talking about B.O. or shitting are the people who have a lot of shame about their own bodily functions. But yeah, back to your question. I started to have respect for Eileen in a way that I hadn’t respected any of my other characters because I was living with her for a while. I also made this decision to make the narrator an elderly woman and I know some elderly women and they’ve been through a lot of shit. I didn’t want to just be like, ‘Look, another pathetic life. What delight can we experience humiliating this person?’ That just didn’t feel right.
Also, there were some major issues brought up in the book. Much more important issues than in any of my short stories, like children in prison, alcoholism and child abuse, sexual abuse, elitism, classism, sexism. All of these really weighty things. And Eileen is the one who is carrying them all to the reader so I didn’t want people to be like, ‘Well don’t listen to her, she’s stupid.’
LB: You have said that if you read McGlue and Eileen side by side you can see that you have been “…thinking about the same shit.” What would you say that shit is?
OM: Self-delusion, addictive thinking and addiction to substances for sure, freedom and entrapment, obsessive affection and desire, ‘leaving home— coming home— leaving home,’ parents, origins, and more generally, an internal dialogue with the psyche—and a troubled one at that.
LB: How do you feel about the teaching and discussion of books in the classroom?
OM: I guess I’m starting to appreciate it a little bit more, because younger people are coming to me being like ‘I read and appreciated your book’ in and out of class, and it’s great that people are reading and having experiences with texts. I’m coming out of such an unpleasant time being in an institution and having to be a creative person in an institution and feeling like I had to rationalize and defend every move I made in a way that was really annoying. So, I have mixed feelings about the classroom. I would like to teach once. I think it could be really challenging for me. As somebody who sees herself as an outsider, I’m sure I’m not as much of an outsider as I think I am. When I relate to other people and hear about their process and talk about things in common terms, my fear is that I am going to lose some of my peculiar magic about writing, but maybe it would just challenge me to understand myself a little bit more. I don’t know. We will see.
LB: If you had to teach a college class on a single author’s work which author would you be excited to explore and teach?
OM: This is a really ignorant answer, but honestly, the only writer I feel like I really understand and am excited by is Charles Bukowski. In his novels I feel like he isn’t doing anything complicated, but what he is doing is really hard. I would like to examine them more closely and I think they would inspire really interesting conversations.
LB: What is your favorite novel of his?
OM: Probably Post Office. I was just thinking about it on the drive over here because Oprah Magazine asked me to write a couple of sentences about a book that continues to inspire me. And I’m like, ‘Oh man, they don’t want to hear about Bukowski, but that’s what they’re gonna get.’
LB: Would you be interested in having work adapted for the screen?
OM: Well, hopefully Eileen will be a movie. It’s been optioned for a film and I’m really excited by the idea of going to see some huge Hollywood movie based on this weird book I wrote. So we’ll see about that, but I mean, I would be curious to work with any filmmaker who wanted to adapt anything that I wrote if I liked what they did.
LB: If you had to adapt one of your own short stories into a film, which one would you choose?
OM: You know what, there was a story called “Slumming” about this middle-aged woman who goes to her shitty country house and does drugs and she’s a total snob in this white-trash town and I think that’s an interesting premise and could be expanded a lot.
LB: Would you ever want to write an original screenplay?
OM: Yeah. I am really interested in writing for the screen and have started to do that a little bit.
LB: Advice for writers contemplating a creative writing MFA?
OM: I would just say think hard about what kind of armor you need to wear. It depends on how easily influenced you are. I know people who pull their hair out worrying about what people are going to say about their work and I know other people who float in and out and are totally into their own shit. So just be aware and get to know yourself and your relationship with your work and to criticism. Make sure it’s really what you want to do because it’s years of your life and then if you don’t want a career as a writer that degree isn’t going to do shit for you.
LB: How do you feel about artists being interviewed about their work?
OM: I do think it’s important. I like interviews like this more than interviews for the press because they’re sometimes trying to pitch their perspective of my work and get me to talk about it in a way that matches up with their idea. But yeah, I think it’s important because a lot of times it can be helpful to illuminate not the work per say, but conversations about literature and what’s happening in literature at this moment in time. Like how people are thinking about it because otherwise it’s just up to the critics.
LB: What is a question you’re sick of being asked?
OM: I’m sick of this question that’s like, ‘So you’ve written this really disgusting female character… why?’ That’s an annoying question, but I think it’s an important question and I’m trying to answer it more and more honestly without being like ‘Oh, fuck you.’
LB: What is a question you wish interviewers would ask you?
OM: Maybe something like, ‘What are you struggling with in your work right now?’
LB: What are you struggling with in your work right now?
OM: I’m at a point in writing my novel where the novel has become this kind of oracle and it’s basically like, ‘Okay Ottessa, you’ve gotten to this point and now you need to go and have these experiences before you write the next part, not because we need you to go do research for this scene, but because we need you to internalize this thing that must be understood by the author of what is going to come next in the book.’ And that’s been really challenging and it takes a lot of courage to be, ‘Okay I’m going to back off from you because I don’t want to fuck you up and I’m going to go over there and go be vulnerable and honest with somebody or like make a huge decision and move or go do this thing.’ So the book and I have this relationship and it takes a lot of trust and patience and in the meantime there is a lot of anxiety. Not about the book, but just about life.
The book I’m writing is basically a hallucination. So the theme of consciousness in the mind is huge and death is a main topic. Death and love and attachment and sleep. It’s about a girl who hibernates. Like when we’re asleep, are we sleeping? Do we exist?