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Q&A: Ottessa Moshfegh on becoming a writer and her buzzed-about novel, ‘Eileen’

Ottessa Moshfegh

Author Ottessa Moshfegh talks about her stories and her novel, “Eileen.”

(Krystal Griffiths )

Reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s short stories is like watching someone use a cracked version of Google Maps that directs the user towards the exact person or place she doesn’t long for.
A man in China thinks he’s fallen for the cashier at his local Internet cafe but may have just fallen for filthy sex, or his ability to pay for it. A teacher hangs on to a summer home in a depressed town where she buys mysterious drugs -- powders, occasionally crystals -- from homeless people stationed in an abandoned bus depot. Species appear across multiple stories: teachers; superfluous, dumb boyfriends; crows; squatters; people with bad teeth.

Moshfegh’s voice suggests no particular moral stance: Resolutions are scarce. Her prose favors a blunt rhythm, unshowy but off-center. There are few rhetorical flourishes in her work, except for a slight uptick in levels of disorientation in her novella “McGlue,” in which a sailor from the 19th century languishes in the brig of ship, drinking himself into oblivion while trying to remember how he became imprisoned for killing a friend during a previous oblivion.

Moshfegh’s novel, “Eileen,” released in August, is narrated by a woman looking back at a younger version of herself. She is young and alone, except for her father, an alcoholic she lives with, loathes and cannot find a way to leave. Her day job is a grim administrative gig in a detention center for teenage boys. The book flips over and moves in a different direction when an implausibly glamorous woman shows up as the new in-house therapist. What happens after her arrival is only therapeutic in the most flexible sense of the term.

This interview was conducted over email as Moshfegh traveled from California back to the town outside Boston where she grew up. (The short story collection mentioned below, which combines new stories with work published originally in the Paris Review, Vice and Granta, will come out in January 2017.)

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Are you more comfortable writing a character you know will come to no positive end, or someone who has a shot?

I see every character’s end as positive. Each of my characters has agency, so I see him or her working toward a desired end. Sometimes people want to explode or be ruined. Nothing wrong or uncomfortable about that for me. If the nature of a character is that he’s doomed, then doom is a positive end. I’m not uncomfortable writing those stories. And I try not to assign value to conclusions. “Eileen” was a bit of a different process, though. She sets out from the start by saying, “This is how I got away.” So it wasn’t a question of whether or not, but how she would do that.

You said at your Skylight Books reading that your short stories feel more like you than “Eileen.” Why did you put out the novel before the story collection?

I was a relatively unknown writer, so publishing a collection the way I wanted to seemed unlikely. Also I was broke. Writing a novel seemed like a way to make some money, and I thought it might establish my name as an author on a broader stage, cast some light on me so that when the collection came out it wouldn’t instantly disappear. But “Eileen” wasn’t just a career move. I learned a lot by writing that book, and more by publishing it. I hadn’t ever thought of myself as a novelist, although I’d written “McGlue.” I discovered that I enjoyed the challenge of the long game -- the psychic taunts and misshapen emotional crescendos involved in fooling myself and the world that something I pulled out of thin air could exist as an imaginary reality, complete and meaningful in some way. It’s hard for me to see it as a real thing still, but sometimes I catch a glimpse. My short stories do feel more “me” than “Eileen.” They’re weirder, they’re more transgressive, they do more peculiar work, I think, on the reader’s mind. But now that the collection is finished -- it’s called “Homesick for Another World” -- it feels sort of alien to me now, too.

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Do you work consciously to make the narrators of your short stories so distinct from each other?

I don’t set out to distinguish one narrator from another. They feel like distinct voices to me, so it’s not an issue. There’s just as much autobiography in “McGlue” as there is in “Eileen,” I’d say. But I couldn’t hang with my own alcoholism for the length of time McGlue would have liked to had he not gotten locked up. Drinking was too much hell for me. I couldn’t tolerate the physical pain. McGlue seemed to actually enjoy that kind of pain, perhaps because it distanced himself from other sensations in his body. Poor guy, I really feel for him. His consciousness was really warped and self-reflective, but it was also very clear to me. I felt close to him. Despite all his denial and even my own thick-headedness while writing the book, his voice always seemed to me to be motivated by love.

Eileen at 24, the age at which the story takes place, has elements to her personal identity that I really can’t tolerate anymore in myself and others: She really drank the Kool-Aid in terms of accepting social conditioning. I wish she’d have just pushed her father down the stairs and driven to Mexico and lived on the beach. I hate that her freedom came at such a high cost to her safety. If I had to write the book over again, I’d have her freeing all the kids from the prison, strutting around naked in a fur coat in X-ville. I wouldn’t have indulged Eileen’s relentless self-obsession.

Do you think spending more time with Eileen than any of the short story characters affected your relationship, made you worry more about her?

Living with Eileen for so many pages fully ensconced me -- and I hoped the reader too -- in the hell of her situation. I really stretched the exposition until a point of disgust. I felt as Eileen did, that she was biding her time, counting the days of her life and all their morbid mundane contributions to her own hell and the hell of others around her. I wanted her woes and obsessions and compulsions to be repetitive and annoying enough so that in reading through to the scene where she visits Rebecca’s “house” on Christmas eve, the reader is about to give up on any grand dramatic action. Her identity caves in at a moment of moral blow-out. She had to get out of X-ville, and the only way she could do that was under threat of more hell. She was finally given a choice, seduced into it, and she made it and then was alone with it, and so she took action. I felt closest to Eileen on her final drive out of X-ville, bidding adieu to the quaint stupid town frozen in its meaninglessness, on her way to a new life, a mystery, an actual future. It’s true that in my short stories, hell is suffered through in only short delusions. I respect Eileen’s plight.

The characters in my short stories feel more fabricated, and more comical. I love them, but I wouldn’t care much if a few if them died. I always saw Eileen as a survivor. I was willing to brave through her hell with her, describe it and all its peculiarities once and for all. The novel felt more like a journey. The short stories, like exposes.

At your LA reading, a woman asked you about becoming a writer and you said it was much a decision about not becoming a pianist. Can you expand?

My piano teacher growing up was probably the most important teacher I’ve ever had. I was her student for over a decade in Boston. In an indirect way, she taught me that art could be a container for my relationship with myself. As a kid, I wasn’t sure I could tolerate my experience of consciousness without wanting to kill myself, so I really needed to learn how to speak to myself internally -- the me and the not-me -- know what I’m saying? So I fell in love with music.

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If you were to read my early work, stuff I wrote as a teenager, you’d see that I was much more of a musician than I was a storyteller. I wasn’t interested in plot or anything like that. Yet I wasn’t a poet. I loved sentences. But the way words carried weight for me had less to do with their literal meaning than their resonance and sway on a page. The way they made impressions in the same way sound makes an impression. Some music is very literal, of course, but the mind listens to music in a different way than it reads. I guess I was putting words where the music was in my mind. My writing was mostly atmospheric, and about the way it felt in a room, or a road, or just the tension between two people. The actual storytelling came later on.

I learned that I enjoyed telling stories. And once I started to do that, the piano became very limiting. I was talented, but I didn’t want to be a pianist. I would come home from school and practice piano and go down to the basement and jump rope and watch movies and practice piano some more and then hide in my room and read books I found lying around the house. The house was full of books, crammed in all over the place. I remember reading all of Herman Hesse’s body of work when I was 10. I think some German friend of my mother’s died and she inherited all his books. I don’t remember what any of them were about. I wonder what I understood. My favorite books were by James Baldwin and Richard Wright. I really loved discovering those on my own....

I wouldn’t have survived the life of a professional classical pianist. It’s like being a ballerina. You’re either the best, or you are invisible. And you have to worship the genius of others...I still love the piano, the ecstasy of it all. But every time I think of the hell I went through as a kid -- with the sole exception of my piano teacher, it was a completely abusive education, studying music as a young person, very much like ballet, really -- I wish I had studied jazz. Is it too late?


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