The Rumpus Interview with Ottessa Moshfegh
Ottessa Moshfegh may not yet be a household name, but she has unequivocally established her presence in the literary community. Moshfegh was awarded the 2013 Plimpton Prize for her short stories in the Paris Review, and her fiction can also be found in publications such as Gigantic Magazine, Guernica, Noon, and VICE, to name a few. Moshfegh’s first book, a novella titled McGlue, came out last year and she was the first recipient of the Fence Modern Prize in Prose. In 2014 she received an NEA grant, and she is currently a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford.
Her latest work is Eileen, a novel about a twenty-four-year-old woman who works at a boys’ prison just outside of Boston. Eileen maintains an air of mystery about her exact whereabouts—she lives in “Xville” and calls the prison “Moorehead.” She speaks from the comfort of the future, looking back on this tumultuous time with the knowledge that she was once crippled by insecurity and loneliness. But this is a story about breaking down literal and metaphoric walls, a story about a life left behind. As Eileen states in her own words, “This is the story of how I disappeared.”
It is the winter of 1964 and Eileen Dunlop is living her final days in Xville. She lives with and watches over her father, a deranged and alcoholic ex-cop. When she’s not playing the dutiful role of daughter and buying him gin, she works and obsesses over a guard named Randy. Life for Eileen is painful and banal until she meets Rebecca Saint John, the new prison director of education at Moorehead. Their friendship is a kind of enlightenment for Eileen, and quickly she is sucked into a series of events that propel her past the point of no return. Moshfegh once again demonstrates her singular ability to create deeply-felt characters, and wields Eileen’s voice with an unparalleled authority and wit that will long echo in the minds of readers.
The Rumpus: You’ve said before that you find solutions in your writing, solutions to things that you’re fascinated by, horrified by, or suffering from. And that when you become obsessed with something, it becomes material for your fiction. What was the initial obsession or idea behind Eileen?
Ottessa Moshfegh: Betrayal. A sense of how one’s delivery into the world can feel like a betrayal, because we don’t get to decide. I was feeling like I’d been born in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. I don’t believe that anymore, not coincidentally two years after writing this book. I think that was the driving curiosity for me, thinking about real and fictional characters who could respond to that problem.
Rumpus: And so we have Eileen. Her voice is so distinct, and I think all of your narrators in your short stories as well have very distinct personalities. What does it take for you to feel like a story or a novel is authentically from that character’s perspective? What was the process of making Eileen one hundred percent Eileen’s voice?
Moshfegh: Well, the short answer is a lot of editing. And the other sense is building a relationship with the character. It’s just like sitting with someone you know. It’s very easy to predict when they’re going to shake their head or say whatever, but because I’m the author, I have to make Eileen do what I want her to do. And that’s why I gave her Rebecca. I just need to know her well enough that I can fuck with her and she’s going to roll with it. I knew that Eileen needed a friend more than anything. It’s just a process of communicating with the spirit of the character and making creative decisions.
Rumpus: Eileen’s choices constantly subverted my expectations. I was surprised by how her empathy waxed and waned and I was always left contemplating why she chose to do certain things. Not in disbelief, but because her actions were thought-provoking.
Moshfegh: I had to make Eileen an active participant in the story. I didn’t want her to be somebody who was pushed along by other characters and, because of that; I had to challenge what we expect of somebody like that. She didn’t just sink into her own delusions and live the rest of her life in Xville. She got out. And that’s not a spoiler. It’s a story of escape.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about Rebecca, since she’s such an integral part of Eileen’s escape. When Eileen meets Rebecca, she immediately romanticizes her. I think Eileen sees Rebecca as a manifestation of possibility, and where she could go, what she could do, a way out. She shares opinions and ideas with Rebecca but also sees Rebecca’s need for a new life and escape. Rebecca ignites something in Eileen, a confidence. How did Rebecca come into being?
Moshfegh: I thought back to all the female friends that I’ve made who have swept me off my feet. There’ve been three, maybe. The thing that they had in common was intense charisma and a targeted interest in me and what I thought. And then I thought about what I have; what is the most charismatic thing about me? Anybody that I like that you talk to about me will probably agree that when I’m hanging out with someone one-on-one, I have a tendency to build this attitude toward the world outside of us, it’s us and them. I’m with you here, and you’re with me, and we are in the club and everybody else out there is in that shitty club. The positive is I make people feel really special, and I also make some people really uncomfortable and judged, and I’m working on that. But I thought about charisma, targeted interest, and exclusivity. I knew those were aspects of Rebecca’s character that just had to be there for her to feel powerful to Eileen. Assuming that Eileen wouldn’t be too dissuaded or too intimidated. But I think Eileen actually likes to be intimidated.
For me, I enjoy intimidating people and I enjoy being intimidated. It is exciting. It’s cool to have an experience with someone where you challenge them, and they are afraid, and then they love you and they’ve grown. When that happens to me, I feel so blessed if somebody has opened my world up a little bit more. I think that’s what Rebecca does for Eileen. She opens up her world. Like you were saying, maybe it’s the world of possibility or the possibility of becoming someone else.
Rumpus: Eileen has Rebecca, and that friendship affects her character, but something that also struck me was the relationship between Eileen and her father. They have such a complicated bond and she feels so obligated to him as a daughter. I feel like you explore these limits of what one can do in her position with those circumstances. Eileen may see a possible future with Rebecca, but I feel she also sees that with her father in a negative sense, and what it may even be like to become her father. To me that was the foundation of her character, the struggle to break free from this duty and also to define herself in a new way.
Moshfegh: I like that reading. It’s an interesting idea to think about her becoming her father. If Eileen didn’t have the kind of spirit to fight her way out of there… but that’s the difference between her and [the imprisoned boy] Lee Polk. She isn’t in prison. She is metaphorically, and in many ways is limited practically. But she is not behind bars and she has free will.
Let’s say she was the kind of person who was too frightened of the outside world and had been even more damaged by the culture of her family and her life experiences so that she decided to make it work in Xville. The way that my mind works as a writer, I wonder if it would become an incestuous relationship. Is that a possibility for her to make it work? Obviously incest is not a good thing, but as a writer I entertain the possibility of challenging that. I grew up in a very black and white moralistic society and I’m really interested in ways of looking at things that we deem so wrong. Because they’re so wrong, the most compassion we can really have for somebody is, oh, they’re mentally ill, or they’ve been so traumatized that they know no other reality or possibility. But what if we had even more compassion? Is there a story plausible where incest is not inherently abusive? I don’t know. It would be an interesting story, let’s say, if Eileen decided that she was going to try to make it work at home and the only way to get her dad to quit drinking was to seduce him. That could be interesting.
Rumpus: But, ultimately, that’s not who she is.
Moshfegh: No, that would’ve been a different character. Eileen isn’t very wacky. She’s pretty milk-toast in many ways. You can talk about how “perverted” she is, I mean she’s totally not perverted. It’s not like she’s saying she wants to have sex with a dog. She’s still in puberty and she has shameful feelings around her sexual fantasies. Because it’s such an oppressive society, the fantasies get a little bit bigger than they would if she had an active social life. She didn’t even want to be anything. She just wanted to be able to sit in a room and not feel tortured by it, which is sort of the human condition in general. Eileen isn’t dreaming of leaving home and making it in the big city on Broadway. She just wants to go and eat a banana, you know?
Rumpus: She wants to be normal somewhere else.
Moshfegh: Yes. Exactly.
Rumpus: Your characters are often haunted by their desires, their inhibitions, their pasts and because of this they’re more complex and nuanced. Flawed, human characters stick with us longer. There’s more to think about. But some readers may reject them because they’re not likeable and relatable. How does the reader’s potential perception affect you when you’re writing your characters?
Moshfegh: I don’t write for the lowest common denominator. If someone is so hurt by the unlikeability of Eileen, I really have to wonder what’s going on with them psychically. Why are they so uncomfortable with that character? Is it because they relate, and they don’t like that? Or is it because they know that they are part of a system that ascribes all these values to women like Eileen? Or whatever, maybe it makes them feel bad. You know that’s why people don’t like unlikeable characters. It’s not that they’re not interesting. Everybody knows the most interesting character in a book or a movie or whatever narrative is the villain.
I didn’t write Eileen to make people feel bad but I did not write Eileen so that people with guilty consciences will continue to feel fine and never challenge the status quo. And the status quo, by the way, sucks. It sucks.
Rumpus: I noticed that in Eileen, in addition to some of your short stories, that the narrators always have self-awareness as narrators. Eileen specifically says that she’s recounting the last days of being Eileen. Can you tell me about your decision to highlight the narrators as storytellers?
Moshfegh: I find first person to be the most fun voice to write in but it’s inherently pretentious because I’m asking the reader to suspend reality with me and entertain the idea that the person writing is not me. In order to do that well, I think, one needs to point out the artifice of the narrative. Somehow if the narrator is self-aware then it’s almost more humanizing and more relatable. It’s just a device in some ways, but I thought that for Eileen it’s important to say that this is her interpretation of the events. That’s a big part of the story.
I also want to say that what is cool about writing self-aware first person narrative is that the awareness is not necessarily the same awareness of the reader. I have a story coming out in the Paris Review and it’s about a hipster. He think’s he’s self-aware, he’s very introspective and analytical, but when you’re reading it you can totally see through his self-analysis because you have a higher awareness than he does. I like playing with that too.
Rumpus: Do you feel like third person feels more constructed in terms of already having some kind of awareness?
Moshfegh: The way that I see third person is it’s actually first person. Writing for me is all voice work. Third person narrative is just as character-driven as first person narrative for me in terms of a voice. I don’t write very much in third person. “Disgust” had its own narrative style and it was sort of a storybook style, which feels just as subjective as first person to me. On the opposite extreme is my novella, McGlue, which was so much about the voice that events and facts seem almost irrelevant.
Rumpus: So, Eileen works at a prison outside of Boston in the 1960s. But there are no overwhelming signs of Eileen being a “period piece” or feeling dated by certain details. There’s a universality there, a sense that this could be taking place in any small town at any point in time within the last fifty years. What did the research entail? And were there any books or stories you read during or prior to writing Eileen that influenced you?
Moshfegh: I don’t remember reading much at all during the writing of Eileen. I go through several years-long dry spells and I don’t feel like reading at all. I was working part-time for a guy in Venice, California while I drafted Eileen. He wanted help in writing his memoir. The research had a lot to do with the 60s, so that must have informed my sense of the place and time in my novel, and perhaps even the memoir point-of-view. He was also from New England. It was a fun job. I learned a lot about motorcycle clubs, Charles Manson, hopping freight trains.
Rumpus: I read in a past interview that you prefer reading short stories as opposed to novels. What was your relationship with the text when you were writing Eileen?
Moshfegh: What you just said, it’s from an interview a year ago. That opposition doesn’t exist for me anymore. In fact I prefer reading novels right now. Short stories are too much like daggers. And now that I’m done with my collection I’m more interested in different forms of writing and other kinds of narrative art. I’m working on a screenplay. But when I was working on Eileen, I definitely felt like I was taking a piss. Like, here I am, typing on my computer, writing the “novel.” It wasn’t that it was insincere, but there was a kind of farcical feeling I had when I was writing. I couldn’t have done it if I had taken it a hundred percent seriously because I would’ve psyched myself out. At the time I was doing a lot of self-hypnosis and I really think that the book wouldn’t have happened without it. I had to brainwash myself, like what I was doing was going to be really, really good, and then just accept whatever happened.
Rumpus: So for the future, you’re exploring all kinds of options. Are you still writing short stories?
Moshfegh: No, I’m not writing short stories. I finished my collection and I was like, I don’t need to write another short story. That doesn’t mean I never will, but that’s not what I want to do right now. I’m working on a personal essay, a screenplay, and I have two novels in the pipeline. I have a lot going on and I just feel like, me and the short story, we finished. And the next time it comes about it will be very different for me.
Rumpus: What’s changed?
Moshfegh: That’s just not where my inspiration is headed. Somehow subconsciously whatever I feel an interest in, I intuitively know what form it should be in. I had an inspiration for a narrative and I was like, this has to be a movie because it would be so beautiful as a movie. My short stories are so character-based and they’re also so private. They’re like a private world in each story and I’m getting more and more interested in allowing myself to investigate the big picture about this country, and about human beings, and about the planet, and about the solar system, and about the nature of the material world in general. And I felt like I needed to move into a bigger form.
Author photo © Krystal Griffiths.