I interview Ottessa Moshfegh at Caffe Vita, in Silverlake, earlier this month. Her novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation has been lauded as one of the best books of 2018. Her first novella, McGlue, will be reissued in January. I previously met Ottessa at USC for one of her readings, during which she defined herself “an overeducated egomaniac.” Then she specified: “But I don’t go around saying that I’m a genius. I work really hard. I just try hard and I do it. You just keep doing it and you get there. This is the secret.”
The Millions: I’m interested in this fact that you were a pianist. You said that once you were playing Chopin in a sentimental way and your teacher told you: “You don’t put sugar on a cake.” I think that this tells a lot of what your taste is when you write.
Ottessa Moshfegh: I think so. I mean, she taught me a lot of things. But I think voice, the subtlety of the voice, crafting a voice in the way that it translates to the ear is the same as music as it is and narrative writing. So that was huge part of the foundation of my taste and sensibility as a writer.
TM: In Europe we say: “Du sublime au ridicule, il n’y a qu’un pas,” which means: “From the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s nothing but a step.”
OM: I love that expression, that’s perfect, I love
it. That makes totally sense.
TM: You use a lot this word “tacky,” which is also the word I use the most since I moved to Los Angeles, and in your last book you write, “The more you try to be fashionable, the tackier you’ll look.”
OM: I moved to New York when I was 17 but I grew up in a suburb of Boston. Living in New York is such a rite of passage. The visual world there… I mean, it’s an education, about so much. Style, human behavior, culture, individuality, money, so many levels of adulteration and appropriation and being blasé. People move to New York and they’re wearing certain things and you’ll see them three years later and they’re talking different and have a totally different sensibility about what they look like. Even their faces can change.
Maybe that happens in every place, that you adapt and rise to the visual conversation that you’re living in.
I don’t know. New York in a way is a such visual place. It is a runway and it is so interesting. It would make sense that my character would be sort of superficial. Both the protagonist and her friend, Reva, they are sort of obsessed with the way that they look, in very different ways, but in both of them their obsession with the outside is a way to dodge the interior emotional landscape of their lives.
TM: There’s one scene where the protagonist decides
to clean up her life from all the superficial things, she gives away all the
expensive clothes and goes to Goodwill. So my sensation is that in a way she’s
stronger than Reva.
OM: Maybe more willing to step into who you are
instead of trying to be an invented person. Embracing humanity is it something
that people do very often in a way that is prescribed by commerce. I mean, even
like yoga. Things like this are supposed to be connecting with your body. There
is a certain culture of yoga studio. It’s a commercial institution.
TM: Of course, it’s like church in old society.
OM: Yeah. There’s something, kind of privilege, in
the attitude that poverty is cleaner than wealth. And I think that the book
sort of plays with that.
OK, so she gave all her shit away and now she’s wearing secondhand clothes, stuff from the 99 cent store. It’s a little bit delusional to think that just doing that, you know… only a rich person would see that as freedom.
TM: Right. And that’s why this book is so
successful. When I talk about it with my friends, maybe we grew up in Paris, or
Rome, or Florence, but we have the sensation to connect with this story, because
the society you describe is now everywhere. And now we have an additional
problem with social media. What is your approach?
OM: Social media makes me really anxious, and it makes me really hate people, so I just don’t use it. And it also feels like a real invasion of privacy, like a willing, I mean not even just this cyber privacy. It doesn’t really make sense to me that we can show so much of ourselves on the internet and then wandered around so we’re totally invulnerable. There’s something inherently dishonest about it, this friendliness. People aren’t really that friendly, I just don’t trust it. And I think that we’re all kind of getting to that point. Ultimately, what it’s best for now is for businesses, commercial entities, or a celebrity: to be able to advertise market to the masses for free.
TM: Right, because that’s what they are in the end. Celebrities reached a point where they’re commodities. And there’s this general attitude you described perfectly when Reva goes to pick up the protagonist’s expensive clothes bringing the shopping bags from Manhattan’s stores. You write, “I’d seen housekeepers and nannies do the same thing, walking around the Upper East Side with their lunch in tiny, rumpled gift bags from Tiffany’s or Saks Fifth Avenue.” And with social media we have the extreme form of this. A new kind of pornography. The representation of reality becomes more important than reality. Not only with clothes, but even with books. The fact that you post the picture doesn’t mean that you read them.
OM: Yeah. I mean it’s all about images. I don’t
TM: About McGlue, you said that it’s the book you loved the most. Do you still think it, and if yes, is it because it’s set in the 19th century and so you could write it outside of this dynamic of extreme capitalism, or are you referring more to the style?
OM: I think it was the process of writing the book that felt the most spiritual. But I think it’s also more comfortable saying that that’s my favorite book because it’s the least like me. I mean I don’t know. I like all my books. McGlue has a special place for me because I don’t really know where it came from. I think it came from a place that I’m not so easily in touch with. So it was a difficult book to write, and felt kind of miraculous at the time.
TM: Did you write the book before having an agent?
OM: Oh, yeah. I was in graduate school when I wrote
the book. I’ve barely published anything. I had the freedom of that kind of anonymity,
like nobody was going to care. I could really do whatever I wanted. Not that I
can’t do whatever I want now, but there is just a difference pressure. I know
that if I write a book right now, it’s not just me. Other parts of the world
TM: I think that it’s kind of funny that everyone
always refers to your writing as noir or stuff like that.
OM: I think people talked about Eileen as noir because they’re sort of playing with that noir novel genre, in its formalities and with some of the elements of the story. But I’m definitely not a noir writer. I don’t think anyone who reads my short stories would say this is a noir collection.
TM: I love how you’re always able to find a voice. You
have your personal style but actually everything is always different.
OM: I feel that is the challenge. That is the project. I’m in the voice of that particular story. And I know what you mean. I think stories are about people wanting to change. Whether is change in a misguided way or more profound.
A lot of writers might disagree with me, but I think that stories are
illustrations of transformation.
I don’t want my character to be the same on page one as page 250 or else haven’t given the reader something. I like artwork that I feel like I’m different now that I’ve experienced something.
TM: I think that some readers don’t like your
stories because they make them uncomfortable and put them in the condition of
question themselves, and not everyone is open to this kind of process.
OM: There were times in my past where I was really interested in making the reader uncomfortable because I felt so removed from the reader. When I was writing Eileen and some of the stories I was so nervous that I wasn’t going to be allowed into the world, financially speaking, to have a life as a writer that I was kind of angry. So my approach to writing was like a little bit volatile. Sort of like “fuck you” what drove a lot of my creativity—sometimes, not all the time, but I can identify that.
TM: You said that in your writing you balance
satire and sincerity and regarding your characters that you both relate and
make fun of them. And I think that the reader can agree or disagree with you
but they know that what they’re reading is authentic. The truth, at least your
OM: Or the truth of the character. I think it’s more challenging to hold onto a sort of old philosophy when you’re working on something really different. This book that I’m writing now is about a Chinese teenage girl from the early 1900s and she kind of came to me as a spirit, like “I need this book. You’re going to write this book.” I can see her sense of humor, but I don’t see anything satirical about her. I have no interest in exploiting her vulnerabilities, whereas in my last novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation I was really interested in doing that.
TM: I know that you don’t like to define yourself
as a female author.
OM: You know, if it’s a male author we just call him an author. So having to qualify my identity as a female author is silly. I think we know what it is. We’re at the beginning of a kind of movement and when things change the pendulum swings to an extreme. I feel a little bit like, maybe I caught a good wave and if I had been writing 20 years ago maybe people wouldn’t be as interested in me, but it just corresponded to the times that someone named Ottessa Moshfegh, people would for socio-political reasons feel pressure to pay attention to her. But also I think people do respond to my work and not because I’m a woman or because I have a weird name. Nobody wants to be successful because they’ve been pigeonholed.
TM: Absolutely. But unfortunately, still, at your last reading the boy came out with, “How could you write from the male point of view?” You would never go to a male author’s reading asking how could you write from the female point of view.
OM: I disagree. I thought that was a fine question and I answered him sincerely, but it seemed I was making fun of him. And that’s why I think people were laughing, but actually it’s a good question, like, how do you write from another person’s point of view.
TM: Yes, but my point was more that you would never go to a male author’s reading asking that because you’re just used to it. Even back in time, nobody has never asked to Flaubert how could he write from Madame Bovary’s point of view.
OM: Yeah, I take your point and maybe there’s a little bit of that, but I didn’t think that. Who knows why he asked that question. He seemed very nervous.
TM: Yes, and very young and nice. It’s not about
OM: Maybe I’m wrong but I think that is a very good
question. I mean the answer is always really stupid: I tried my best, so I
observed and imagined what it was like to think as another gendered person.
TM: I don’t think writers or artists really have a
OM: I do. I think the female and male minds work
very differently in their biology, the way that language has developed over the
last how many thousands of years was part of the patriarchal system. Written
language is inherently more male logic linearity. Femininity is more in the
realm of emotional intelligence and intuition. That’s why it’s very difficult
to argue between the gender. Mostly women learn how to argue like a man. So I
do think that writers, maybe it’s different for visual artists, whatever
everybody’s brain is different, but I do think that women writers have a
different experience and sensibility than male writers, because by their very
nature. I think maybe part of this whole movement for equality try to suggest
that we are the same, which we are not. The work we need to do is to learn how
to value both genders for the things that they’re given us.
TM: I saw this interview where you were joking about the fact that female characters in literature are always described as “the magic source of drama.” And it’s true. I read this year Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms and I was horrified by Catherine Barkley. I mean, there’s the war, people die around them, and she keeps talking about the fact that she wants to be skinny so that he can love her again.
OM: I mean, Hemingway, I don’t know how self-aware he was, but I have to give every writer the benefit of the doubt, that these are just completely blind self-presentations. I didn’t read A Farewell to Arms but I have to believe that a writer isn’t necessarily as stupid as his character might be in your assessment. So maybe there was a deeper intention, I don’t know, we make decisions. Getting back to your point of human being impetus for spiritual change, it makes perfect sense, because maybe one of the only things that can disarm the male ego is romantic love and sexual desire. So I don’t think it’s necessarily stupid, but I do think that it’s not very creative. It’s kind of boring when that is the thing in a book or a movie, “This magic girl!” You’ve seen the movies all the time. It’s like there’s a very cliché—like, the hair and slow motion closeup on her mouth from the way that she moves her eyes and she’s looked at. But you know, she doesn’t have a will or an intelligence unto herself is where the things start to be problematic.
TM: Yes, because they focus on the ideal of the perfect woman as society trained them to think.
OM: Men and women play that game. I mean I think that’s the difference between dating and sleeping around and then falling in love. When you’ve fallen in love with someone, that person has to become your best friend. So you’ve got to get to know them. They can’t just be some kind of anachronistic fantasy.
TM: I don’t think beauty exists in general.
OM: What do you mean?
TM: Ideal beauty changes with society. During the Italian Renaissance women had to look like Botticelli’s paintings, now they have to starve to be super skinny. But even when you fit in your society’s standard the truth is that beauty is about personality.
OM: Yeah, I understand. I think photography has
changed a lot of things to capture the way that someone looks in a way that is
beautiful but there is no living beingness in their beauty. With painting it
was probably different because you had to sit there for hours and there was a
relationship that took up time with the artist. Photography just becomes this
thing like you can take a photo of someone and they don’t look like themselves
at all. And now with technology you don’t even need to look like yourself. You
just have a Photoshop.
TM: I think you’re right. Beauty is when you’re
OM: Yeah. I think that health is the first source of attraction. Beauty and attraction. I mean we’re attracted to what we find beautiful, it’s subjective. But looking healthy… that’s what makeup has been for in many ways. The history of makeup is really long and very very interesting but one way that it was used was to hide the disease of prostitutes so that they could continue to work. Isn’t it weird that aesthetic got like that Kim Kardashian, Avatar-type makeup style which makes people look like cartoons? It is so attractive now when it’s actually like a mask.
TM: That is what I was referring before when I said
a new kind of pornography. Even though they’re not naked, it’s even worse. I
don’t think nudity itself is vulgar. You can be naked and elegant, and be all
dressed up that way and be really tacky.
OM: I think that Kardashians are really important
cultural family for digital media. They look like Avatars and you can you can
only see them on TV.
TM: Or social media.
OM: Right. They come through your phone or
television or computer and they’re fielding some new sense of what a person is
in this weird way. A person is an emoji, a person can be an emoji and then they
can also have a baby. It’s just weird.
TM: You said that you’re not intimidated by
inspiration and that you just sit and work.
OM: I don’t know, maybe it’s the thing that I was just raised to do. If we’re given something, you take it and you do it. When I have an idea for a book it doesn’t feel like “Oh I’m so smart.” It feels like actually that idea has come and landed on me and it’s my job now to execute it, so you better do it.
TM: Can I ask you about your astrologer? Because since I read your interview in The New Yorker, I’ve been telling to all my friends this story about the astrologer and your fiance.
OM: [Laughs.] I really trust this one type of science, part of my belief system. I consult her about a lot of different stuff. I started talking to her, maybe, five years ago.
TM: Do you feel it as a sort of destiny?
OM: Yeah. It helps me to see the larger framework
I’ve been on leave from teaching this year, so it’s been a uniquely good 12 months of reading for me, a year when I’ve read for only one reason: fun. Now when I say fun… I’m a book nerd. So I tend to take on “reading projects.” The first was to work toward becoming a Joseph Conrad completist. I’m almost there. I warmed up with critic Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Conrad in a Global World, which granted me permission to remember the capacious scope of his perspective, his humanistic genius. His masterwork was hard work, but Nostromo belongs on the shelf of both the most important and most difficult of the 20th century. The Secret Agent blew the top of my head off—it’s funny and deeply relevant to our moment, about a terrorist bombing gone horribly wrong. Under Western Eyes is all I got left. 2018 isn’t over yet.
But then much fun came in reading whatever, whenever. That started with a heavy dose of Denis Johnson. The new posthumous collection of his short stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is uneven, but the title story is one of the most sublime pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I do not understand how its series of narratives work together and I don’t want to. I finally read Fiskadoro, which deserves more credit than it gets for starting the cli-fi wave—it’s set in a Florida, a number of years after global ecological catastrophe hits, and everyone thinks Bob Marley is god. All of which led me to Lauren Groff’s Florida. “Snake Stories,” the finest story therein, is as good as fiction gets. Which pushed me toward Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which from the first paragraph of talky lyrical cadenced prose and sharply depicted parental verisimilitude (I coined that and you can’t have it!) had me hooked. That led me on to Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck, which is her most accessible and relevant book to date. Wow is she smart/funny. Which led me to finishing up both Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege, and Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which are as different as books by one author come and both revelatory. Which led me on to read three stories from Mavis Gallant’s Collected Stories. In the intro of that book, Gallant implores her reader to read her as she’s meant to be read—one story at a time, put it down for as long as a year or more, pick it back up. So that’s what I do. “The Moslem Wife” is my new favorite.
That’s not what I did for Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, a book of satirical stories in the Saunders/Vonnegut mode that’s as gleefully violent as it is gleefully intelligent. While I was reading that one I decided I should really read Ottessa Moshfegh’s novella McGlue—also violent, intelligent, and gleefully so. I’ve always wanted to read more of a writer I suspect Moshfegh is disdainful of, Evan S. Connell, and having already been through Mrs Bridge I read Mr Bridge, which is elliptical and wry and smart. Which led me on to James Salter’s The Art of Fiction, which is just a talk he gave at UVA before he died, but which is full of useful advice from one of the best prose stylists of the 20th century. That led me to Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others—Spiotta is one of the most interesting stylists of the 21st, and all her powers are on display here. And that led me on to a new sampling of the work of one of my heroes, Grace Paley, The Grace Paley Reader, which FSG put out last year. I’ve read all her stories, but seeing them paired with her poetry opened my mind to her even more.
So that led me on to poetry! I like to read all of one poet every summer. This past summer it was Louise Glück. Hers might be the toughest-nosed, lithest and sharpest project of our lifetimes. And her books of prose about poetry, American Originality and Proofs and Theories, demand to be read and reread. I also fell in love with the wry perspicacity of Dianne Seuss, whose Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl slew me. Jason Morris’s Levon Helm is full of brilliant right-hand turns, turns of phrase and hard-won truths, and is the winner of the best title in the history of books. Chris Tonelli’s second book, Whatever Stasis (second-best title), made me laugh, then think, which is the right order. My colleague Airea Dee Matthews won the Yale Younger Prize a couple years back, and that book, Simulacra, is as razor-smart as they come, chock full of Plath and Stein and genius. I reread it twice. I also slammed through Galway Kinnell’s Collected Poems, and I never knew how weird and smart his long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World” was. Which prepped me for the extravagant original voice Daniel Borzutsky brings to The Performance of Becoming Human. I’ll read everything of his now. Same for Monica Ferrell. Her new book You Darling Thing is full of poems that are lyrical, spare, dry as bone.
OK so wow this is getting long, but being on leave apparently I had a lot of time to read. Cheston Knapp’s debut essay collection Up Up, Down Down is as intelligent as any book I’ve read this year, and he is a true inheritor to DFW’s explosive genius. I would gladly read Marilynne Robinson on the history of drywall, and What Are We Doing Here? is about a lot more interesting stuff than that, including the most erudite readings of the ills of American culture published this year. The title essay should be required reading for anyone who teaches at, attends or has attended a college or university in America. Mary Gaitskill is also a longtime favorite, and her Somebody with a Little Hammer is like a Christmas gift for every day of the year—“Lost Cat,” the long personal essay at its center, will now be on my syllabus every year. I clenched my teeth and everything else through Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. The latter was just godawful. Maybe next year we could do the Year in Attempting to Unread? Oh, and I just finished Jill Lepore’s new long history of the U.S. through the lens of Il Douche’s presidency, These Truths, where I learned more about polling and the failings of our Constitutional democracy than I thought possible.
OK OK this is getting long but I feel like we all sometimes forget that we read journals like the air we breathe. This was a particularly good year for The Paris Review—editor Emily Nemens’s first issue had exciting new work by Claire Vaye Watkins and Louise Glück. Tin House is on fire, and the Candy issue was a winner, with an essay by Rebecca Makkai about Hungary that’s right in my wheelhouse, and a deeply weird dark story by Julia Elliott. The May/June issue of The Kenyon Review alone had poems by Bruce Smith, Terrance Hayes and Jorie Graham. Bradford Morrow’s Conjunctions is always great, and its “Being Bodies” included an essay by Rick Moody on Lazarus that I’ve been thinking about since. The last issue of Salmagundi had essays on cultural appropriation by Allan Gurganus and Thomas Chatterton Williams that clarified things for me. And let’s all shed a tear for Glimmer Train, a tiny mag that launched a thousand story collections. I just read an issue with stories by Jamel Brinkley and future star Alexandra Chang, and it will be sorely missed.
OK OK OK I’m almost there I promise! This fall I went on a jag of reading two contemporary European writers I think will be up for Nobels in the next decade. The first is Hungarian novelist Lazlo Krasznahorkai. He’s already been short-listed for the International Booker Prize twice, and won once, and with each of his books New Directions puts out his legend grows. His masterwork Satantango feels like the starting point—or did, until The World Goes On came out this year. It’s a beautiful object, and as naturally both a story collection and a novel as anything I know. This also sent me back to reread Samuel Beckett’s Murphy and Molloy, as I think Krasznahorkai might, along with Coetzee and maybe Bernhard, be the only writer I’ve read who is a true inheritor of the Beckett strain. I had a similar excitement for German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go, Went, Gone is maybe the best fiction yet written about the refugee crisis. I had to go back and re-read the last two pages multiple times to fully appreciate their genius.
OK OK OK OK! I’ll stop but only after saying that my favorite mode of reading is reading side-to-side religious texts and contemporary books on physics, and then thinking a lot about cosmology. It keeps me sane. My three favorite reads of 2018 were Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, Adam Becker’s What Is Real, and the audio version of Richard Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures. The audiobook is Feynman lecturing at Stanford in the 1960s, and it’s like listening to a character from The Godfather telling a rapt audience about how quantum physics works. Among other things it’ll make you nostalgic for heavy regional accents.
Alongside that reading, I read the Quran, and Idries Shah’s The Sufis, along with David Biale’s epic history of Hasidism, called… wait for it… Hasidism. Biale finished the book alongside a dozen other scholars, and it is and will be the standard on its subject for decades to come. And lastly, I’ve been reading the teachings of Reb Nachman, father of Breslov Hasidism, with a rabbi friend. This reading cuts against the grain of everything above. It is not to grow informed or to seek new aesthetics. It’s a minimalist endeavor. Every page of his Likutey Moharan is a revelation and an enigma, and it calls to be read very, very slowly. Like, three or four pages a week. It slows me, calms my mind and realigns me. We should all find time for reading projects like that.
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