Ottessa Moshfegh chats with the Rumpus Book Club about her book McGlue, inventing a character from a newspaper article from 1850, body odor, and revisiting her work years after she finished writing it.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Where did this character come from?
Ottessa Moshfegh: McGlue’s character is based on a man whose story I found in a New England newspaper from around 1850. The article announced his acquittal. He’d been on trial for murder.
Amanda: You did such a masterful job of creating the narrator’s voice that I felt as hungover and brain-damaged as him … This book was an experience … I feel a little silly asking what actually happened just because I’m not sure I got it … Did Johnson ask McGlue to kill him?
Ottessa Moshfegh: I feel you, Amanda. McGlue’s narration isn’t exactly clear. It seems to me that Johnson did ask McGlue to kill him, yeah.
Brian S: Did the story get into much more detail than that? Or did you get to invent most everything in the book?
Ottessa Moshfegh: Brian, the article said that the reason for the acquittal was that McGlue had been in a drunken blackout at the time of the murder, and had suffered trauma to his head several months previous when he jumped/fell off a moving train. It also placed the murder in Zanzibar. And McGlue was from Salem. Those are facts I used.
Amanda: Wow! I love this so much more now that I knew it was ‘ripped from the headlines’ in a sense. Well done.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Amanda, I think in the end, McGlue didn’t kill Johnson because he’d asked for it, necessarily. It was a confluence of putting J out of his misery and a natural violent response to being intimate for the first time, with the kissing…
Kim: McGlue was the actual name of a/the man from Salem?
Ottessa Moshfegh: Yes, Kim.
Kim: And also an impossible love so one of them has to die? Johnson’s family could not have accepted it?
Ottessa Moshfegh: Totally.
Kim: Though it does seem an accepted fact among sailors. Or at least they seemed accepting of each other, if uncomfortably so, with Fagger’s character.
Brian S: I’m interested in your process of writing this novel. Can you talk a little about how you went about creating this narrative? How the voice came together for you?
Ottessa Moshfegh: I wrote McGlue over two winters while I was in graduate school in Providence, Rhode Island. It wasn’t easy on the psyche. I was really into channeling spirits at the time, and reading about necromancy etc. These were dark times.
Kim: Perfect final scene—loved it.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah, I think McGlue’s affection for Johnson was real, and that’s what frightened him so much.
Brian S: I’m writing some really dark poems right now. I know what that feels like.
Michelle: I felt like I couldn’t figure out if McGlue was using those around him or being used himself.
Ottessa Moshfegh: That’s interesting, Michelle. Can you say more?
Jen: Hello. Loved your book. Have you been to the various settings in the book and/or spent time on a ship? You write with such authority that it seems like you have.
Kim: I was fascinated by the alcoholic behavior and McGlue’s expectation that everyone around him would serve him up a bottle or otherwise exist to serve him.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Hi Jen. I grew up in New England, so I am familiar with the area. I’ve never spent any time on a boat. I did a lot of research and imagining…
Michelle: It just seemed as if in all his relationships (his mom, Johnson, the whores, Fagger) that he was getting something from them and manipulating them in some ways. But in other ways especially with Johnson he was using McGlue as an object of hi s love and a rebellion against his upbringing.
Brian S: Yes, to what Kim said, and especially when it came to Johnson, though his relationship with his mother is similar.
Kim: And then his horrid treatment of his mother. I don’t know the psychology of it, but I guessed that he grew up with having so few basic needs met, this is how he wound up interacting with the world.
Amanda: I absolutely loved when you wrote ‘there was a time I knew there was a god hearing my thoughts and I was careful what I let get said’. I totally remember having similar crazy thoughts as a kid. Luckily I didn’t take McGlue’s path and go stuff my ears with liquor. Haha.
Kim: Johnson was his muse in a way, brought out the most noble in his…doomed? existence.
Brian S: That was a favorite moment for me too, Amanda.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Michelle, I think what you’re getting at is an important aspect to his alcoholic personality. He both wants and needs connection with others, but can’t be honest with anyone. He’s pretty much fucked in that sense, intensely isolated with himself and his preoccupation with booze. He’ll use whoever he can, manipulate, lie, seduce, to get what he wants…
Michelle: Yes, but he is also getting used.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Willingly, I think.
Kim: But he really couldn’t remember what happened that night. He really didn’t believe he had killed Johnson until the end? Or he just refused to acknowledge it?
Amanda: And yes to what Michelle said! I wondered if the ‘Johnson made me do it’ story was him manipulating the reader. Sort of like Ed Norton’s character in that movie Primal Fear. I liked that we had to constantly question McGlue, usually just as I started to feel sorry for him.
Michelle: Usually the other people in alcoholic relationships are codependent and need the chaos, but Johnson especially keeps him in chaos in a way and his mom doesn’t want or need him to still be around.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Awareness is funny.
Kim: I hadn’t thought of this novel as a movie but now that we are puzzling it out, seems like a perfect intense film.
Brian S: And because of the repeated head injuries, I was totally willing to believe that he didn’t know what happened, and that it was coming back slowly.
Michelle: I thought you captured the alcoholism, the DTs, sobering up, the craziness wonderfully.
Kim: Why did his lawyer give him a knife hidden in the newspaper? Did he want him to kill himself?
Ottessa Moshfegh: Thanks Michelle.
Michelle: I thought the knife was a hallucination.
Ottessa Moshfegh: I think the lawyer gave him his knife as a kind of dare. It was to say, “If you want to die, go ahead. Don’t waste my time otherwise.”
Michelle: Because it wasn’t there when he reached for it…
Ottessa Moshfegh: Maybe it was a hallucination? I don’t remember… Sorry.
Brian S: Ha! I love that you don’t actually remember for some reason.
Kim: No, wasn’t it the broken mirror that was the hallucination? Oh yes, that’s right, I loved the matter of factness of his lawyer.
Ottessa Moshfegh: I really love that lawyer character. I wish he’d had a bigger role in the book.
Kim: Cy Foster.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. I wish Cy Foster was my grandfather.
Kim: I liked when he told McGlue he smelled.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Cy tells the truth! Can you imagine how badly McGlue must have smelled after all that time in the bottom of a boat?
Brian S: And no one smelled particularly good in 1851.
Ottessa Moshfegh: I always wonder about that kind of thing. How did people have sex with one another when they only bathed what, like once every 6 months?
Kim: I was wishing the prison would give him a shower. Maybe that’s because I’m always wishing my ten-year-old boy would take more of them.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Poor McGlue, so stinky.
Did you really start to feel sorry for him? Someone said that…
Kim: Didn’t they like it better that way? Didn’t Napoleon tell Josephine not to bathe, or something like that?
Ottessa Moshfegh: Napoleon was a total pervert, though. I thought?
Brian S: I read something about this a while back. There’s a point after about 7 days where body odor caused by sweat doesn’t get worse, or not noticeably worse. The thing about McGlue was that he’d also been crapping himself in the meantime.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Or I’m thinking about the M de Sade.
Kim: M de Sade…sadistic. Yep.
Ottessa Moshfegh: True, Brian. I’ve heard that we don’t really need soap or shampoo.
Brian S: Napoleon did ask Josephine to forgo bathing because he liked her scent.
Ottessa Moshfegh: He must have been utterly filthy, covered in shit and semen and drool and blood.
Michelle: I did not feel bad for McGlue; I did feel bad for Johnson.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah, Johnson is weirdly the more pathetic character.
Michelle: I felt a little bad for child McGlue.
Kim: I felt bad for Johnson (was that name intentional), but if we are to believe McGlue’s story, he was in a bad way before he ever came across McGlue.
Ottessa Moshfegh: I think Johnson was the actual name of the murder victim, yes.
Kim: It works for your theme.
Brian S: Did I read correctly that McGlue, as a younger man, was basically a male prostitute in Boston?
Michelle: OK, was McGlue gay? Or was he just so drunk he was asexual?
Ottessa Moshfegh: I think he says he prostituted himself a bit. McGlue was homosexual. Or at least on the homosexual end of the spectrum. That’s how I understood his character. I don’t think he KNOWS he’s gay until the very end of the book. I didn’t!
Michelle: Me too, but then I wasn’t sure because he seemed at great odds with anything sexual.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah, he’s very repressed. I think that’s part of why he wants to drink so much.
Brian S: And yet he didn’t really think of himself as gay, because he’s so disdainful of openly gay men. I mean maybe there’s some self-loathing, but he doesn’t acknowledge that he’s doing anything gay.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Exactly. When you think of McGlue as a closeted homosexual in 1850 New England, does he start to feel like more of a ‘sympathetic character’?
Michelle: No, not for me.
Amanda: I thought he was sympathetic…
Brian S: It’s not the closeted part that causes the limited sympathy I have for him—it’s the abuse he took as a child and the alcoholism that gives it to me.
Amanda: But when I was in law school in interned at the Federal Defender’s office and felt bad for my murderer client too : )
Brian S: Was it just the newspaper article you used, or did you have court transcripts to work with, other public records?
Ottessa Moshfegh: I did a lot of research, but I couldn’t find anything else about McGlue. I had to make it up.
Amanda: How long ago did you finish writing this?
Ottessa Moshfegh: I finished the book in 2011.
Kim: It seemed clear from his revulsion and the descriptions of women’s bodies that he was not attracted to them at all, ever.
Ottessa Moshfegh: I have a lot of compassion for McGlue…Kim, I think you’re right. He wasn’t ever into women.
Brian S: Also, knowing what the alcohol of the day did to humans helped me have some empathy for him.
Michelle: I’m heartless 🙂
Ottessa Moshfegh: What did it do?
Kim: I like the nonchalance with with they visited the whorehouses. It was the expected thing, they didn’t even question it. Though it upset Johnson a lot more. I think McGlue just blocked it out.
Michelle: As a nurse I appreciated his intense need for alcohol while on the ship. You described coming out of that very well.
Ottessa Moshfegh: “Fagger” is sort of a nurse character.
Michelle: Except he keeps giving in to the thing that is poisoning him
Ottessa Moshfegh: That’s true. He’s not a very good nurse.
Brian S: Well, most booze was brewed/distilled in very unsanitary conditions, and was often adulterated as well. The term “blind drunk” comes from people drinking straight alcohol and losing their eyesight, for example.
Kim: Isn’t that what alcoholics and addicts do?
Michelle: He was very sympathetic to him.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Yes.
Kim: I agree with Brian about what inspires sympathy. Awful to feel rejected by your mother as a kid and then to lose an older brother unexpectedly.
Ottessa Moshfegh: It’s an impossible situation to have to tend to someone in the throes of addiction. Impossible for me, anyhow. I think I sympathize with McGlue because he’s really just trying to do the best he can. And he’s bold. He takes risks. He goes on adventures. I like that about him.
Jen: Did you start writing the book immediately after you read the newspaper article or was he one of those characters who haunted you until you had to write about him?
Ottessa Moshfegh: I started immediately. The voice came to me all at once.
Michelle: Can you explain the end? What happens to McGlue? Does he die? Commit suicide? Or just realize what he did and then it ends… (I grew up with an alcoholic, so I am predisposed to bias.)
Ottessa Moshfegh: Good questions, Michelle. He has a confrontation with Johnson in which they get emotional and start making out and in the passion McGlue stabs Johnson to death.
Kim: And how old was he about? Did I miss that detail?
Ottessa Moshfegh: He becomes aware of this, while in prison, and is recounting it in the present tense (I think).
Michelle: I couldn’t tell if it was all a flashback or if it was intermingled with what was happening present day.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Picture McGlue as a weathered young man, maybe 24. It was a flashback, but the narration was as though it was in the present.
Brian, what you wrote about alcohol in the day is fun. I liked reading that “Mad as a hatter” was an expression that came from the fact that the glue they used to make hats gave people brain damage.
Brian S: Yeah, the glue and the mercury used to work with felt.
So you finished the book in 2011 and it came out this month. How did you find Fence as a publisher?
Ottessa Moshfegh: I had the novella in a drawer for a few years. I’d sent it to a few people, but nobody knew how to publish it. People thought it should be expanded into a novel-length book, but that never felt right to me. Then Fence started this Prose Prize series, and Rivka Galchen chose McGlue as the winner. The prize was publication. Voila! Fence is great!
Brian S: They are, and I was very excited to see they’ve moved into prose.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah, I’m curious what they’ll publish next. They can pretty much do whatever they want, which is why I like them.
Brian S: What have you been working on since you finished McGlue?
Ottessa Moshfegh: Since I finished McGlue, I’ve been working on a collection of short stories. I wrote a novel called Eileen that is coming out with Penguin Press in August 2015. And now I’m working on another novel.
Kim: McGlue’s interactions make a lot of sense when you think about how young he really was. Were you also channeling any literary influences when you wrote it? Maybe that’s the wrong way to word the question.
Brian S: And what’s it like to have to refamiliarize yourself with something you’ve been away from for a while?
Ottessa Moshfegh: I wasn’t channeling any one literary voice per se, mostly just the spirit of the times as it existed in my imagination from when I was a kid.
It was really odd to go back to McGlue after a few years. My writing has changed so much since i finished it, and it was surprising and funny and embarrassing to see what used to fascinate and trouble me…
Brian S: Have you reread it as the publication date neared? Prepping for readings and such?
Ottessa Moshfegh: I didn’t edit the ms much, though. I haven’t read it since August. I’m doing my first reading on Thursday night in San Francisco. I’ve never read any of it aloud, and haven’t wanted to until now.
Kim: Do you feel that living on the other side of the country has changed your writing?
Jen: Why haven’t you wanted to read it aloud?
Ottessa Moshfegh: The book is so disturbing to me, I don’t really want to read it again!
Yes, Kim. It’s given me more room for a wider perspective.
Jen, I always felt a bit frightened of McGlue’s ghost. And I guess I haven’t wanted to be his ventriloquist, only his scribe. (How cheesy!)
Kim: Interesting. I’m trying to square that with my experience of the Bay Area. Maybe you are referring to the writing community?
Ottessa Moshfegh: No, I just mean getting away from my family. Being “away”…
Jen: Not cheesy at all. I get it! If you could have any one person (actor, friend) read it aloud, who would you choose?
Ottessa Moshfegh: I’m not really involved in the writing community, apart from having some friends who are writers and have the same fellowship as mine at Stanford.
Michelle: Skip this if its too personal, but was McGlue influenced by people you know in real life or more by research and channeling him?
Ottessa Moshfegh: Hmmm… Daniel Day Lewis?
McGlue was based on personal and spiritual experiences.
Kim: Wait, what? DDL? Okay, now I really like McGlue.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Ha! DDL is too old by now, though.
Jen: Oh that would be great. He would bring that There Will Be Blood intensity.
Kim: That’s what I was just thinking. I think he has a son but he’s not old enough yet, and Daniel Day-Lewis has just the right messed-up, broken quality.
Brian S: Now I’m imagining the worst possible voice for McGlue, and I’m getting Tobey Maguire.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Tobey Maguire would be great!!!
Kim: No, not Tobey Maguire.
Ottessa Moshfegh: James Franco!
I wish I could see all these guys audition.
Kim: Really? Isn’t he the sweetheart from Cider House Rules?
Amanda: Yes! James Franco!
Jen: Adam Driver?
Ottessa Moshfegh: Justin Bieber’s breakout dramatic role… Or Andy Samberg from SNL.
Kim: Oh no! 🙂
Ottessa Moshfegh: I’m totally kidding about all these Hollywood guys. If McGlue was to become a movie, I would want to play McGlue. In drag.
Brian S: Legit
Ottessa Moshfegh: This has been a lot of fun.
Michelle: I totally read him as a young John Malkovich / Daniel Radcliff hybrid.
Kim: So who would be Johnson?
Ottessa Moshfegh: I was just wondering that—Johnson. Ideas?
Michelle: That’s Tobey to me, lisp and all.
Brian S: A young Rupert Everett.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Interesting. Matt Damon might be interesting…
Brian S: I asked earlier who you’re reading these days. Any recommendations for us?
Ottessa Moshfegh: Oh, right now I’m reading some Murakami.
Kim: Well, how old might Johnson have been, 27?
Ottessa Moshfegh: Sounds about right, Kim.
Kim: I’m so intrigued by the details I didn’t think of many big-picture questions. Glad that other readers did!
Kim: Are you reading in the Boston area? I will check your page.
Amanda: Tobey Maguire could make McGlue seem a little bit too sympathetic—too much like Nick Carraway to Johnson’s Gatsby.
Michelle: Thank you, this gave me a different on the book and characters. Excellent writing.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah, TM is a joke. Forget him!
Kim: Johnson would be the milder polished character.
Amanda: Thanks for shedding some light! I don’t feel like I’m drunk with a head injury anymore!
Ottessa Moshfegh: Correct. Ha! I’m glad, Amanda. Thanks for all the great questions. I really enjoyed talking to you.