What It Is to Be Human: Talking with Ottessa Moshfegh

By

In Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a young woman takes a year off life to sleep under the influence of various narcotics after the deaths of her parents.

“I knew in my heart—this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then—that when I’d slept enough I’d be O.K. I’d be renewed, reborn,” she writes.

Moshfegh, whose previous novels include McGlue and Eileen, also writes essays and screenplays, and has a story collection, Homesick for Another World. Her work has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Recently, we spoke through Skype about day-to-day life, the evolution of her third novel, and one’s relationship to news.

***

The Rumpus: What does a day in your life look like?

Ottessa Moshfegh: I’ve been in LA half the time, and the other half I’m in the desert where my partner lives. I’ve been traveling a lot, too. I haven’t actually been here that much the last six months.

These days I’m mostly trying to get through small assignments before I have to leave for the tour. I’ve been doing some research for a new book, but that’s a luxury, because I know I’m not going to be able to get to it until fall. I’m just enjoying it.

Rumpus: My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Homesick for Another World seem of the same mind. How did writing this novel compare to writing the collection, and to writing Eileen, your last novel?

Moshfegh: Compared to writing Eileen, this book felt more honest. I definitely felt like it was a continuation of what I was doing with the short stories, but more in-depth and also slightly a departure in what I let my character discover. If My Year of Rest and Relaxation had been a short story, it would have been condensed, but I don’t think I could have fit in a lot of her transformation. What was new in the novel was that it was important for me to think through a version of personal redemption. Instead of just leaving my character stranded, like I usually do in a short story, I was interested in seeing her through to the end of something.

Stylistically, some stories in the collection laid the foundation for it. In terms of how it compared to Eileen—Eileen was a very instructional book to write, and showed me things I had never really considered before like pacing and the arc of a plot, things like that. I couldn’t have done one without the other. But Eileen is such a singular being, set in a really different time, and the things I was thinking about were really different from when I was writing My Year.

Rumpus: Did you know from the beginning where you were going with this one? I noticed from the first page that it was set in 2000, and I thought, huh, this is an interesting choice.

Moshfegh: I didn’t know until forty pages in that it was going to be set then, or I had figured it out by then. And then when I realized it was set in 2000 and 2001, then I knew I needed to look at 9/11 and what that meant thematically, in the story and also literally, in terms of what was going to happen to my character, Reva. I knew pretty early on, but not immediately. The habituated behavior of the protagonist came first, and then I figured out that it was set in that time period.

Rumpus: Was this your working title?

Moshfegh: I had a lot of titles along the way. I think My Year of Rest and Relaxation comes from the text. It might be something that the character says, “this is my year of rest and relaxation.” So I always had that language but I didn’t decide on the title until I was finishing the book.

Rumpus: How much mapping out and planning did you do?

Moshfegh: I mapped this book out along the way, and it kept changing, and then it changed completely halfway through the process. When I’m writing a novel, I do want to plan—I didn’t pre-plan this one—but in writing at a certain point I had to plot it out, and it turned out that plot was completely incorrect, so I had to re-plot it. Planning is really helpful for me in novel writing. I can see why other people wouldn’t want to. But there is so much of her at home—I mean, the whole thing happens inside her apartment. Having to deal with a character who is asleep and at home made it necessary for there to be some kind of scaffolding for me to work with, energetically. Something was going to have to happen, something is being developed. I always felt that something was being developed, but initially I thought this meant that she had to leave the apartment, so I wrote a lot of this book in a different version, where she goes somewhere else. When I made this decision to keep her at home I discovered the purpose of the character Ping Xi, which helped facilitate the rest of the book.

Rumpus: Did you read over the material and feel like all the energy was in the passages where she was at home?

Moshfegh: Yeah, exactly. You never know what you’re going to find, what’s going to resonate. I miswrote the book, but I never could have figured the book out unless I wrote in that wrong direction. You know what I mean? It told me what I had to do.

Rumpus: What do you see the narrator doing after the ending?

Moshfegh: I didn’t really think about it. I wanted her to be in a place where she wasn’t certain whether she had actually found peace, or she was in a new delusion of peace, or she had just damaged her brain to the point where she had reached a state of peace. She alludes to a life beyond the book. But I never plotted it out.

Rumpus: What was your day-to-day process like for My Year?

Moshfegh: This book was something that I worked on all day every day until I was done. The time that I gave this book was when it was the only thing I was working on. The short stories I could set down and pick them back up obviously. But this was a really consuming project. I was working on it in bed as I was going to sleep. It was a really intense couple of years with this one project.

Rumpus: Have many people asked you if this book is autobiographical? Seems like women get asked that question so much more than men do.

Moshfegh: No, but people do tend to want to tell me about their own insomnia. It makes sense. Everyone has such a personal relationship with sleep. But yeah, nobody has asked me. People have asked me where this character comes from. Maybe because she looks so different than I do.

Rumpus: I want to talk about Reva. She’s amazing. I wonder, because in an interview you did with The White Review, you said that you are more interested in sincerity than satire because you’ve been using satire as a tool for a while—and I wondered if Reva was one way in which you were trying to be more sincere and more earnest. And if you were trying this with the narrator, too, in a different way

Moshfegh: I think the focus may be more of a bridge between satire and sincerity. I mean, the ending is sincere. I didn’t see either of the characters as jokes. I respected that they were deep human people. And Reva is a very earnest character. She’s also ridiculous from the protagonist’s point of view. But there’s something really normalized about Reva. Not that she’s a victim, but she’s sort of a product. Her neuroticisms are such an obvious product of society that there was a way to fashion her where she was both human but I could have compassion for her, while also just hating what she was about. You know?

Rumpus: Yeah. More like hating that society made her that way? Some of my favorite scenes were when we see Reva’s house, when we go to her home after her mom dies. And it seems like Reva’s almost becoming more interesting to the narrator at that point. She talks about at the funeral home she’s reading about the pans they cremate babies in—that seems interesting, and something the narrator notes. And when she chokes on her speech at her mother’s funeral. Can you talk about how you handle Reva as she shifts as a character?

Moshfegh: Reva is forced to shift as a character when her mom dies and seems to be making some intentional decisions about how she wants to live. She also distances herself from the narrator. But inevitably, she doesn’t really change that much, except that she ends the friendship. It’s sort of mutual, right, but Reva is paid off in the way that only Reva would be paid off, through expensive unworn clothes, and when we see her again, she clearly has just turned herself off. She’s no longer involved with the protagonist emotionally.

So I thought about what it would be like to be Reva and to go through that kind of loss and to have a friend who, even when you needed her most, was still totally selfish and honestly incapable of opening her heart. For whatever reason. I’m not saying that judgmentally about the narrator. But she is incapable of being there for Reva. Because she herself is involved in a project that’s all about shutting down to erase her own trauma of losing her parents.

Rumpus: I think of the moment when Reva’s going to retrieve her dead mother’s shoes for the narrator to borrow for the funeral—when the narrator coldly refuses to grab the shoes herself. Yet she’s also thinking, in a sensitive way, “I wonder if I’m preventing her from throwing up by being down here.” You navigate the narrator’s dynamic with Reva so delicately. I like the narrator a lot, but she’s such an asshole in some ways.

Another character I loved was Dr. Tuttle. Her clarifying questions are brilliant: “When you say you’re questioning your own existence,” she asked, “do you mean you’re reading philosophy books? Or is this something you thought up on your own? Because if it’s suicide, I can give you something for that.” How did Dr. Tuttle get in the book?

Moshfegh: Dr. Tuttle was inspired by a real character, but I took it way further. Also, living in California, you meet people who sound a lot like that. The healing arts are really big here. So much of it is well-intentioned bullshit. And combining that with the evil of the pharmaceutical industry, Dr. Tuttle was born. She’s a tool in some ways, because she’s being used by the protagonist. But she also doesn’t seem to care. She’s an amalgamation of a lot of different attitudes I’ve found—people with medical authority who don’t give a shit about their clients, and also new-age thinking. I like the idea that someone so clearly insane herself is being entrusted with the psychic care of this woman. And I don’t think the book would have worked if she had been a serious character—there needed to be some slapstick about her, or else it would have gotten way too heavy.

Rumpus: The bodega was another aspect of the book I really liked. When you live in a city, bodegas are kind of like an extension of your home. They seem like such a comfort in city life, and her bodega remained one. The narrator didn’t fuck it up, somehow.

Moshfegh: Yeah. She says, “I couldn’t fuck things up at the bodega. That would really inconvenience me.” It’s funny that you talk about it as being her home. I mean, they’re the only people who keep track of her in a certain way, and they see her every day or more. And when we’re spending a certain amount of time alone, those interactions become so important. They are a big part of city life. And they’re often family-owned and run, which is something you don’t get that much elsewhere. They’re intimate spaces. And it’s also her touchstone for the outside world, where she’d see that the news was happening, on the news stand. And that people were living lives, going out, whereas her life wasn’t really moving or changing. So it was an important environment for her to have.

Rumpus: Was that something you were thinking personally about a lot, needing to isolate yourself from the suffering, from the news, and what’s going on in the world today?

Moshfegh: Yeah. And I was also thinking about the power of this media. I was also thinking about how my ideas of 9/11 came through the news, and seemed to be planted in such a way that made it impossible to think about a certain version of a story. And about how we processed it together, and how the whole city became dependent on this narrative that had to do with the hopeful, Christian, good and evil tale, that we cling to in the face of indescribable anxiety. Everybody had PTSD. It’s like when someone close to you dies, all of a sudden you want to believe in Heaven. You’ll believe in whatever you can to feel safe, right? So I thought a lot about what we as a culture decided to believe about 9/11, in order to feel safer. And a lot of that had to do with news.

Rumpus: I have a strange relationship with the news. I don’t read it often.

Moshfegh: I also have a strange relationship with the news.

Rumpus: I guess most people probably do, on some level.

Moshfegh: But a lot of people take it for granted. They think that’s what happened. I’m not in journalism. I don’t know how editors decide what to publish, from what point of view. I don’t know how any of that works. But I know that writing is subjective. So I don’t trust anybody. And I know that ironically in the age of the Internet, and unlimited information, it seems like we’re being told more, that there’s more investigative journalism than ever. But it has also pulled the curtain back a little bit—but we’re also being shown that the news isn’t trustworthy. And the news also has a lot to do with money.

Rumpus: So the narrator is feeling that sleep, or whatever her version of sleep is, a kind of detachment, or nesting, is the chrysalis, and she wants to emerge renewed. Do you think most people will be optimistic about her renewal as they’re reading?

Moshfegh: I would clarify what you said a little bit. I think that her project is based on a delusion. There’s only a certain amount of sleep we need in order to be healthy animals. And sure, some people who have a lot of trauma might need more rest and relaxation. There’s some people that need to sleep more. But what she’s doing is justifying an escapist addiction in hopes that it will cure her of the very thing she’s trying to escape, which is the nature of addiction period. It’s like, oh, if I just keep drinking this alcohol I won’t want to drink anymore. If I’m never conscious, then my consciousness won’t be a problem. So I don’t find her project to be hopeful. But there is hopefulness in her story somehow.

A lot of this is inherent in the book in a way that it can only be described through the fiction. So, for me to try to describe it, I’m only going to be 75% correct. And the redemption that she does find has to do with her relationship to the outside world as it’s illustrated in how she’s being used by this corrupt young hipster artist. And her submission to his art project, where she judges it, and judges him. She knows that he’s full of shit, but she’s still using him. And that attitude is really present right now, in a lot of us. Where we know that this thing is shady, but we’re just going to use it for our purposes anyway, and so we’ve become immoral in that sense. And the people with morality have to make such a big deal out of it that morality has become a hashtag movement. We’re not balancing what it is to be human anymore. We’re either completely self-centered and self-serving, or we’re trying to lead an almost competition of who is the most politically correct.

I’m not writing because I have a better solution, I’m just seeing that, and I think it’s really weird. That this is what’s happened, and I think a lot of this has to do with media. So that’s why I gravitated toward 9/11, and the experience of something very real, which was immediately mediated for us—and, if you ask me, mediated incorrectly. I don’t think we’ve ever heard the full truth about how it happened, and how premeditated it was, and who, in this country, was involved. I don’t think any of us have that information, though I think a lot of it is available, and a lot of us choose to ignore it. Because it interferes with the version of reality that we were fed in the throes of trauma.

So I was also thinking about art and the art world. Not to say that the art world was ever authentically interested in human revolution through visual creativity. I don’t know. It’s an industry. Industry is always based on money, on supply and demand and curiosity, and on cultural phenomena. But I was also thinking about how the way that art shapes the way that we think. So it made sense to place this book in the year leading up to 9/11, and to have this narrator involved and uninvolved in the art world, looking at it all, and using it.

***

Author photograph © Luke Goebel.


Maria Anderson is from Montana. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Big Lucks, and The Atlas Review. She is an editor at Essay Press. More from this author →