On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Ottessa Moshfegh, the novelist and short story writer whose new book is called My Year of Rest and Relaxation. It’s the story of a 24-year-old woman in New York, in the year 2000, whose feelings of despair and depression lead her to try to essentially sleep for an entire year via drugs and a very unorthodox psychiatrist. The book shares certain themes with her prior work, including her 2015 novel Eileen, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. As the New Yorker recently wrote, Moshfegh, 37,who was born to a Croatian mother and Iranian father, “is easily the most interesting contemporary American writer on the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible.”
Below is an edited transcript of the show. In it, we discuss how she came to write fiction, what she doesn’t like about New York City, and why she has had it with the politicization of art.
You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Chotiner: Where are you from, and how did you get into writing?
Ottessa Moshfegh: Well, I grew up in Massachusetts, and before I realized I was a writer, I was a pianist. But I was an adolescent. So, that was what I was doing before I was writing, was playing piano, and I don’t know. What else do you want to know about my background?
What did your parents do? Because that plays into the music.
Yeah, my parents were both musicians. My dad’s a violinist and a teacher, and my mother’s a violist, and she teaches violin and viola.
I’ve heard other writers say that an appreciation for music was helpful in writing fiction and just writing prose. I read that you learned how to read music before you learned how to read English.
Mmm hmm, or not just English. Anything. Yes, I think so. I think we all learn how to talk before we learn how to write. So, language is principally auditory, vocal, something we say, and it’s something we hear. Music functions in the same way. It’s not like I understood music. It’s that I had a sensibility and sensitivity to music from a young age as a language of sound that translated into my understanding of the way language works in its subtleties and its phrasing.
When you write a short story or you’re working on a novel, do you read it out loud? The ups and downs of a sentence: Is that important to you?
It’s really important to me, yeah, and I used to read out loud a lot more than I do now. I think I’ve maybe just either got sick of the sound of my own voice or just have developed a secondary voice that I can hear inside my head pretty clearly. But I also really like reading out loud in front of audiences. It’s fun for me, and it gives me a certain distance from what I’ve done because I can hear it in a voice that isn’t the voice inside my head. Even though it’s still my voice, I’m performing, so it’s always fun.
Do you do the audio versions of your books?
No. I have never done that.
It’s not that I’m not interested in doing it. I haven’t been asked, and I have never considered asking if I could do it.
You’ve got to be aggressive about these things.
But it’s a lot of time in a small room, right?
Yeah. It’s like this actually.
It’s, like, exactly like this.
So, when did you write your first short story?
I remember writing my first short story when I was 14.
And what was it about?
It was about a person who knocks on her neighbor’s door and kills him because he was playing the TV too loud.
Was this based on a true story?
No. I think I can remember the first few lines. It was something like, “I killed a man today. He was fat and ugly and deserved to die.” So, yeah, that was it.
You’d probably get in trouble for writing that now at 14, you know. If you turned that in, a teacher or someone would report you to the police.
What are they going to do to me?
Well nothing would actually happen to you. But you hear these stories now because everyone’s scared about violence, understandably.
I don’t know if they would do that to me because I’m a girl though.
Was there a time that you conceived, “Maybe I could do this for a living. Maybe writing short stories or novels is how I’m going to make my career”?
Yeah, that occurred to me when I was about 32. After I understood that I was writing, and I had been writing for almost 20 years, and that’s when I wrote Eileen.
OK. What were some of the things you did before then?
Like what? How did I make money?
Yeah, how’d you make money?
In high school, I babysat. In college, I worked at my college’s security office and then as a research assistant. I always had a job. I always had several jobs in college, actually. Now that I think of it, I did a lot of weird things. I was a teacher in Manhattan after I graduated from college. Then I moved to China and taught English and then opened a punk bar and worked as a bartender. When I moved back to the states, I got a job in publishing working in production, basically filling out forms and chasing editors down in this pretty fun company called Overlook.
Overlook Press. Then I got a job working as the assistant for an oral historian named Jean Stein who since passed away. Then I went to graduate school. While I was in graduate school, I supported myself by dealing vintage clothing. Then I moved to California and could not get a job for a year. Actually, ironically, it was when I couldn’t find a job that I decided that I was going to try to support myself as a writer. I think the universe was just conspiring in a certain direction like, “Do not get a job and get sucked into a nine-to-five thing that’s going to exhaust you and suck your soul out,” because I really … my heart … I’ve always wanted to write. I mean, I’ve always written. There hadn’t been this moment where I’m like, “Oh, I need to make money somehow with this.” I had always really separated money from art. It took this year of being, like, barely able to pay rent to be somehow like, “OK, this is actually worth it to be this poor if it means that I’m free to do what I want with myself creatively.” Then it was like, “Well what would happen if wrote a novel and tried to sell it?” That’s how Eileen happened.
So when Eileen came out, it was extremely well-received and got nominated for all these prizes and so on. But some people also criticized it. I read an interview with you where someone said, “Some of the criticism of your last novel Eileen revolved around how shocking it was. Why do you think people find her Eileen, the main character, shocking?” You said, “Because they’re brainwashed morons.” Why do you think some people found it so shocking? And what disturbed you about some of the response to the book?
I think that we are all brainwashed morons, maybe some of us more than others. Maybe for most people out there, they think I’m exaggerating when I say this. But people were really upset that Eileen was talking about her body in this way where it was really gross to them. It really disagreed with their sensibilities and I had to defend myself. That kind of person isn’t going to be rude about it. They’re going to say things like, “So how did you come up with this disgusting character? I really found her just despicable. It’s a wonderful book, but Eileen is just awful, awful, so unlikable.” There’s nothing wrong with her. The difference between Eileen and anyone else is that Eileen is the one narrating a book about her life, and she has these very pubescent obsessions that we’ve all had and are just too embarrassed to ever admit. So, I can’t remember what your original question was.
I guess what I was trying to get at, or when you talked about people being brainwashed morons, was that it seemed like some of the criticism of the book to me was that people were uncomfortable with the fact that there was a young woman writer, you, writing this character about a female protagonist who in some ways they found gross. So, the thinking went, why would you write a female character like this? Why is she so gross? It did feel that there was somewhat of a gendered reaction. I think that if a male writer had written about a gross male character, it would not have been the same. That was my reading, but you might disagree.
I don’t know. I mean, it just occurs to me now. I’m also kind of naïve because I’m not a part of this social media, political bandwagon, like neoliberal, fascist stuff where all we do is police each other. So, I don’t really understand how that works.
But what you’re saying makes me think that people were upset at me for not having a more righteous heroine, and maybe that it reflected poorly on women in general, which is totally ridiculous. I completely reject that reading. But you guys can think whatever you want. It’s so silly this idea that art is supposed to be like a substitution for the value system that your parents are supposed to teach you.
You know why? It’s because people started using television to babysit their children. This is why this problem is happening. So suddenly television is raising our kids right now, and now, it’s television and your phone, right? Instead of people actually talking to one another about what they feel is right and what is a good role model for their kids, they’re like, “Oh no. These are things that the media is responsible for,” when the media are the last people who should be responsible for anyone’s ideals. I don’t know when it happened, but probably in the last 20 or 30 years, art and entertainment became so conflated that we can’t separate the two.
So now, art is being laden with this burden of having to always represent characters in a way that’s going to support whatever sociopolitical ideal is in fashion at the moment. I’m all for people evolving. But I think that if we start putting that kind of pressure on art, we turn ourselves into robots with no imagination and no freedom. So, get over it.
Art is becoming more politicized because people are doing things for attention on the internet.
You’re not on social media, I’m gathering, from this conversation?
Well, I look at it sometimes, but I’m not a participant. I mean, you can tell this makes me, like, kind of pissy.
Well, that makes for a good podcast.
Talking about all this stuff. Politics, the way that we use the word politics right now, is really murky, because what politics are … OK. What do you think politics are?
What do I think they are, or what do I think they should be?
No. What does the word mean?
It’s too all-encompassing. It’s everything in our society. It’s all the divisions in our society. It’s the president. I don’t know.
I can’t give a quick definition of it.
So, art that’s political isn’t just about the president, right? So politics has just become a synonym for opinion. It’s like, “Oh, this is my opinion. My opinion of the right or wrong of society is what politics are.” We need a different word for how we talk about that rubric in art because art is not a teaching tool. Art is a separate experience. I mean, look at Nirvana. Do you think Kurt Cobain was sitting there sketching out his own politics? That’s not the root of his inspiration. Things became political because there was a dialogue about music. Am I wrong?
No, I think you’re right. I think that there are probably writers or singers who felt differently. I think writers have written things thinking that it will cause social change of some sort, Bob Dylan. But broadly speaking, I agree.
Art is protest.
Against reality. So, good, but protest and activism are very different. I’m not working for a cause. I’m just working to change your consciousness for the moment that you’re reading my story.
Did this idea for My Year of Rest and Relaxation come to you all at once or all in stages going back a long time?
I had the character first: this really unhappy, spoiled, young woman who I liked. I liked her judgmentalness and her superiority. It was fun to occupy her mind space. What she kept telling me was that she just wanted out and she just did not want to participate in the bullshit. So the premise revealed itself through her character.
It seems like one of the things that occupies you is human physicality. You talked about the descriptions of Eileen that you wrote, and this book is full of thinking about people as their physical form and what they’re doing at a specific time whether it’s sleeping or what actions they’re taking. I was just wondering if that’s something that you’re sort of conscious of?
Am I conscious of people’s physicality? [Laughs.]
Well, no. You write about it, though, in a way that I think that a lot of writers don’t. You seem interested in your characters’ physicality.
Right, but you’re asking me if that happens in my daily life.
So that was a poorly phrased question, which I will rephrase. I was saying, as a writer, does talking about this particularly interest you?
No, not really because I think it makes people, when you’re sitting in a small room with them, really uncomfortable. If I’m like, “Let’s talk about your face.” You know?
Well, the audience can’t see my face. So if you want to give any thoughts, feel free to make any jokes.
No. You’re absolutely a lovely looking man.
Oh, thanks. Thank you.
There would be nothing that I could say about you that would be remotely interesting other than you’re absolutely gorgeous.
Thank you. My mother’s going to be happy to hear that. But as a writer, it’s not something that interests you particularly, character’s physicality?
No, no, no. It is. I think I’m interested in physicality in fiction because writing is a very abstract art. I don’t have a picture to show you. I have to write it. But in the description of somebody, I can get really weird and particular. So I will do that, so that character feels really real to you.
I read a quote from you. You were talking about your time in China, which you mentioned. You said, quote, “It was 120 degrees every day and I had lost all my connections and I felt like I was just wasting my life dying. At some point, I stumbled on a picture of a dead person on the internet and I had an adrenaline rush. It made me feel that life was deeply valuable and also there was an excitement about seeing something so private—sort of death porn.” Then you went on to start Googling images of dead people every day. You say, “I just got into the habit. It gave me energy.” I somehow connected that to the way you describe bodies in your fiction.
I think so. It’s really easy for me to just live in my head and disconnect from physical reality. When I disconnect from the physical, what I’m doing is denying the fact that I’m going to die one day. So, working backwards, if I remind myself in my mind that I’m going to die one day, it’s going to reconnect me to my physical embodiment in the physical world around me and I get to be more present.
I read another interview with you where you said, quote, “A lot of decisions a writer makes are instinctual.” When you look back on your writing career, do you feel that your instincts have changed in some way as you’ve gotten older?
Yeah. I think what writers do is they’re constantly developing their instincts as writers. There’s something that makes me grimace when I notice a pattern. I’m like, “Ugh. I’m still doing that thing, that’s still my instinct?” I will try to effort my way into growing through something. But I also think there are a lot of aspects of my writing that are just always going to be there probably. I mean, unless I, like, just did a lot of ayahuasca. I don’t know.
What would be an example of some trend or something that you notice and you say like, “Oh, I’m still doing that”?
I’m doing research for a new novel, and I had taken a year off after I wrote My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I didn’t want to write another novel for a year. As I was retrieving the bits of inspiration the universe was sending me, I was thinking, reflecting. It seems like the things that I write have an impact on my life, and I’ve been writing pretty dark stuff. So maybe I should try to be intentional this time and write something about a good thing happening to someone. So I was like, “OK, I’m going to do that. I’m going to do that. I’m going to do that.” This next book, which I have yet to write, is going to be … It’s going to be the new horizon for me, and it’s going to reflect back in a positive way.
I start to do research and I’m just following the breadcrumbs for the story, and I’m totally back where I started. Like this is another dark story about someone doing dark shit that it really titillates me to think about and I’m really curious where this is going to go. But what I think got answered, like my prayer for something new is a different level in the fiction, which I’m hoping is a level of more sincerity. So, I think if want to develop a new instinct, it’s an instinct maybe not to resort immediately to satire.
Is sincerity similar to realism? Or is it something else?
It’s something else. It’s an attitude. I’m not that interested in realism and fiction the way that you would say some fiction is pretending to be nonfiction. I’m not interested in pretending to be nonfiction. But I am interested in making things believable and tactile even if the reality of the fiction isn’t exactly the reality that we’re familiar with. Wait, what did you just ask me?
I just asked if sincerity was similar to realism.
Yeah. So sincerity I think is more tonal, and sincerity for me is something that lives in the space between me as the author and the narrator as a character. I don’t know if that makes sense, but there’s a relationship there. If I approach my narrator more maybe with reverence, even if it’s not something that you can even see in the words if you analyze them it’ll be really hard to parse out the difference. But there’s an attitude that is maybe less comedic.
You are one of the writers of our generation who lives in California rather than New York. Do you think that’s affected your writing in some way? And do you ever miss being in New York where it seems like so many writers want to congregate?
I think it’s freed me up a lot to not be in New York, and I like living in California. It still feels like a different country to me. I really like my friends here, and California is really starting to feel like home. I mean, Southern California. I have some family that just moved out there, too, so that makes it even more like home. New York City is … I do miss New York, but I don’t want to live there now. New York is a place that feels so competitive to me. Everyone that I know is trying to do the same thing and struggling in this way that makes writing seem more like a series of accomplishments and good liners at cocktail parties than actual art form that you do alone at home.
I think it’s because that’s where the book industry is. People get confused. I get confused when I’m there. I’m like, “Oh, it’s just a bunch of cocktail parties.” That’s where I think it’s like, “Oh, it’s like an awards thing and then running into somebody at a coffee shop.”
Although when we started, you did say, didn’t you, that that you were more comfortable with seeing your writing as both a passion and a career?
Well, it became a career because I did not want to have to go back to all of those jobs that I listed for you. I didn’t want to have to do that. If I could make a little bit of money writing a novel, I was going to do it. I mean, I don’t think that makes me a hypocrite. I don’t want to be homeless.
I was not saying you’re a hypocrite.
But what does that have to do with New York being full of, like, praisers?
I was just drawing a connection between thinking about writing as both something that pays the bills and a passion with people, novelists congregating in New York and working there, but also spending their time with industry people and publishers and cocktail parties. That was the connection in my head.
Oh, OK. Well, yeah. I don’t know. I don’t actually go to cocktail parties. But it seems like that’s something that people do.
Ottessa, thank you so much for doing this and for coming into the studio.
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