Ottessa Moshfegh writes not what we asked for, but what we need

Excavating the dark side of human nature, the author invites readers to find divinity in depravity

To read Ottessa Moshfegh’s fiction is to enter reality’s slippery underbelly: a world ruled by violent impulse, psychic instinct, and the disjointed logic of a half-remembered dream. Living on the fringes of society and seemingly, of reality, her narrators engage in perverse sexual compulsions (Eileen, Lapvona); drown their sorrows in drugs and alcohol (McGlue, My Year of Rest and Relaxation); and concoct fantasies so elaborate that they lose their grip on the real world (Death in Her Hands, Homesick for Another World). Depraved, delusional, and drawn to self-destruction, her protagonists are difficult to love, but hypnotizing to watch—and by embedding readers under their skin, Moshfegh makes voyeurs of us all.

One such character is Eileen Dunlop, the glum, self-loathing prison secretary at the heart of Moshfegh’s first full-length novel. Told from the perspective of an old woman looking back on her youth, Eileen chronicles the years she spent trapped with her alcoholic father in a dreary New England town, “languishing in the agony of not being beautiful.” Convinced she is “ugly, disgusting, [and] unfit for this world,” Eileen is tormented by her own plainness, and judges others just as harshly—obsessively analyzing other women’s appearances when she’s not busy abusing laxatives and swaddling her genitals in thick layers of fabric to ward off sexual urges. The only sources of pleasure in her life are a bottle of vermouth and reveling in her own bodily functions—that is, before a charismatic outsider named Rebecca shows up.

The book’s cinematic adaptation—a noir-ish psychological thriller starring Thomasin McKenzie as Eileen, and Anne Hathaway as Rebecca—was released last month to rave reviews. But when Eileen was published in 2015, Moshfegh felt that people didn’t get it. She was hoping to create a nuanced, honest depiction of how Eileen’s self-obsessed behaviors kept her trapped; instead, all critics wanted to talk about was how she was gross for always thinking about her body odor. “It was a disturbing book, and I think a lot of people prefer to think of women as not having these kinds of feelings,” says Moshfegh. “But the shift away from white men defining American literature is not a peaceful process—and when something is unbalanced, it tends to overcorrect.”

Eileen went on to win the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Debut Fiction and was shortlisted for the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Man Booker Prize. The week after the Booker shortlist was announced, Moshfegh confessed that she wrote the book in two months using a generic how-to manual.

When Moshfegh embarked on the exercise, she had a prizewinning novella, McGlue, under her belt, and a collection of short stories called Homesick for Another World; she was also barely scraping by on minimum wage, and was eager to get the attention of publishers. “I had an idea—which is, looking back, completely psychotic—that if I wrote a novel I could sell it, and somehow, that would get me through a year,” she says with a laugh. “I was so naive. But I think the hypnosis helped me believe it would actually work.”

This isn’t a metaphor: One day, when Moshfegh was driving to her job as a research assistant, she spotted a sign by the side of the freeway with the words “Hypnosis Institute” in big block letters. She inquired within and learned they were looking for test subjects. Moshfegh didn’t know anything about hypnosis, but soon found herself on stage in front of a live audience, having her suggestibility tested by a man in a tattered tweed blazer who smelled of cigarette smoke. A giant fake sunset hung behind them, “as if we were on the Tonight show.”

After being deemed appropriately suggestible, she was hypnotized; in return, she received ten free private sessions with a young Eastern European grad student, which she used to process her fears about writing a novel. “I went in every week, and was like, I’m terrified that I’m not going to be able to be a writer because I have no money. I’m afraid that I’m not going to finish the book. I was just basically like, I’m scared. I’m scared. I’m scared,” she recounts. “And she would hypnotize me and tell me that I knew exactly how to finish this book.”

“I got tired of people asking if my jaw fell on the floor because I got nominated for a prize. I’m like, Do you think that I believe my book is a piece of shit? No. I worked extremely hard on it! Why should I be broadcasting insecurity?

This side of Moshfegh is rarely seen outside of the hypnotist’s chair. In past profiles, she’s been characterized as self-assured, even haughty—an impression enabled by her blunt assessments of her own talent and emphasized by unforgiving pull quotes. But as she put it in a 2016 conversation with her then-interviewer, now-husband Luke Goebel, “Why shouldn’t I take myself this seriously? I’m fucking serious.”

If Moshfegh has her guard up, it’s for a good reason. She’s often navigated interviews with journalists who are “fishing for soundbites,” or been faced with sexist questions, like the time an older male journalist asked, point blank, why the “pretty” female protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation didn’t use her looks and her body to make money. “I asked him, ‘Why don’t you use your body to make money?’” she says. “Then I called him an asshole, told him to fuck off, and walked away. My publisher told me that he wrote a very good review of the book.”

For Moshfegh, arrogance is a form of armor: necessary first because she wasn’t being taken seriously, and now because her success invites criticism. But it’s not that Moshfegh is uncommonly full of herself; it’s that she’s uncommonly honest. “I know I can write a really good short story because I’m the one evaluating it: I read it and I’m like, Damn, that’s making me feel something I’ve never felt before. I think there’s something novel about a young-ish, weird person being like, I’m unapologetically talented,” she says. “But I got tired of people asking if my jaw fell on the floor because I got nominated for a prize. I’m like, Do you think that I believe my book is a piece of shit? No. I worked extremely hard on it! Why should I be broadcasting insecurity?

Moshfegh was raised not to pander—not just out of respect for herself, but out of respect for art. “The truth is, I think that every single artist needs to be arrogant,” she says. “Because everyone on the planet, other artists included, doesn’t want to believe that you can do something they couldn’t do.”

The second time I interview Moshfegh, she has just woken up. “Oh god, I’m just seeing what I look like right now,” she groans, shaking her hair out of loose braids. The conversation turns to writing, and then hobbies we have to avoid writing; 20 minutes later, she is showing me a series of tiny vintage toy cars she bought on eBay. “I love collections of stuff, so I buy a lot of things on the internet and I try to get rid of a lot of things on the internet,” she explains. “I’m always sifting through things and like, putting them in the trunk of my car for three months before I actually go to Goodwill. There’s a lot of looking at objects, and being like, Why do I have these? And why did I need to wash them meticulously and then Google them and figure out where they come from?

There are toy cars, but also vintage photographs; pink bomber jackets with pink lettering; and vintage silk chiffon scarves in a variety of hues, which Moshfegh holds up to the camera so I can see the details. “Actually, this one would look good on you. The tangerine color would really work. If you send me your address, I’ll send it to you in the mail,” she says. A few days later, the scarf arrives in a small, hand-addressed envelope. She’s right; it really works.

Moshfegh can often be found at the post office mailing items for her Depop, where she sometimes sells old photographs with writing prompts to fans. When you have so many photos, she says, you come to realize that not all of them are meant for you. “When someone buys one, I’ll start wondering what kind of person they are—based on nothing, really, just their name and address—and I’ll try to conjure them in my mind,” she says. “God, I sound like such a weirdo. But let’s say Caroline Treasureton from Nebraska orders a black-and-white photo. I’ll think of her, and take a stack and look through them, and when I find the one that feels appropriate for whatever reason, then I’m like, That’s for her. She needs this.”

Hunting for special objects is an integral part of Moshfegh’s family culture. Growing up in the Massachusetts suburbs, Moshfegh would spend hours combing through thrift stores with her musician parents, who accumulated an impressive assortment of string instruments, antique furniture, and old paintings. Taking after them, she’s “obsessed with things and where they come from,” and is even having a special closet built to house her own collection. Upon reflection, she thinks her parents’ interest in collecting things might have been a way of making up for what was lost: having fled the turmoil of the Iranian revolution in the ’70s, they arrived in America with only her dad’s violin, her mom’s clothes, some rugs from Tehran. “That was it,” she says. “So it’s like, as a family, we’ve been amassing a horde of fictional family history that we don’t have.”

Moshfegh always stops at yard sales—“as a writer, there’s just no reason not to”—and she always makes sure to buy something, because she’s “getting something out of the experience of entering someone’s cast-off world.” You can learn so much about a person by seeing everything in their life that they’re willing to part with; plus, these people let her into their garage. Usually, this purchase is just a token of appreciation—but sometimes, a special object glimmers among the rubble: “I see it, I notice it, it stands out,” she says. “I pick it up, and I know I was meant to find it because it is bringing something into my life from its past.”

Moshfegh has had this experience with words, too. Her first novella, McGlue, was inspired by an article from an 1851 New England newspaper that she stumbled upon one day at the library. “It was just one long run-on sentence: ‘Mr. McGlue the sailor has been acquitted on the count of murder which he was found guilty of committing in the port of Zanzibar by reason of his being out of his mind since having hit his head when he fell from a train several months prior and because he was in a blacked-out state of drunkenness at the time he stabbed a man to death,’” she recites, near breathless by the end. “And I was like, Oh, whoa. That sounds important to me.

“When Moshfegh starts a book, she says, it becomes like her employer: It’s her job to show up every day and do the work. The rest, she says, is alchemy.”

Moshfegh set about channeling the spirit of McGlue. The result—an experimental novella about a drunken sailor whose traumatic brain injury prevents him from remembering if he murdered the man he loves—was described by critics as “visceral, frank, unforgiving, violent, and grotesquely beautiful,” and went on to win the inaugural Fence Modern Prize in Prose. Of her choice, Rivka Galchen said that the book was “a sextant of the psyche [that] works its grand knowing through the mouthfeel of language.”

I know what she means: Moshfegh’s prose lures you into a trance, leveraging the sonic quality of language to evoke an emotional response that often exceeds the object it describes. She credits this capacity to her background in classical music: “As a former pianist, I had been thinking of music as a translation of sound to feeling.” Her love of writing was unlocked at age 12, when her mentor encouraged her to approach it the same way.

In the past, Moshfegh has described writing as a means of coping with the strangeness of existence: “[an] attempt to impress on people how weird it has been for me to feel alive,” as she said of her first short story collection. In an essay for GQ, she said that “as I write, I feel a subconscious excavation is underway, like I’m digging through layers of sediment to the bones of some long-buried self. I’m scared of what I’ll find there, but I like being scared of myself.” When she’s depressed, she says that writing a book “helps me make my feelings somehow tangible and manageable,” that it “grounds me and connects me to generative energies, or whatever.”

When asked to describe her process, Moshfegh has, in the past, likened it to that of a typist: “But that’s more like my fantasy, or at least, it was,” she says. “Sometimes, writing feels completely impossible: like pulling your own teeth out, or trying to move something with my mind.” What she really meant by that is that she’s always believed that creativity is conjured from something beyond the self—and in her writing, she tries to attend to that belief. “It’s not about me, but about letting the book be extruded through my mortal form,” she says. “I take some responsibility, but I’m not in charge.”

When Moshfegh starts a book, she says, it becomes like her employer: It’s her job to show up every day and do the work. The rest, she says, is alchemy.

“Everything the book needs, you discover. Everything that happens in the world is, to you, somehow a message from the universe about your book.”

Every day, Moshfegh makes a list of things she wants to do (she holds today’s handwritten list up to the camera for me to inspect). There’s usually some writing, some emailing, three square meals, and a walk with her husband and their four dogs (when she says this, she spells the word out W-A-L-K, to avoid getting their hopes up). Often, these walks transform into a creative jam session; having co-written Eileen together with the director William Oldroyd, they’re now collaborating on a number of cinematic projects, including a fictionalized screenplay loosely based on the life of Helen Duncan, a spiritualist famous for producing ectoplasm and being the last person to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Moshfegh is working on a new novel too, but is struggling with writer’s block, maybe for the first time ever—hence the hobbies, “which are more like addictions, really,” she adds dryly.

The problem is that this book doesn’t seem to want to be written from her home in Pasadena: “It’s like I need to be in a foreign environment to access the words,” she says. It comes to her easily in Brighton, a small seaside town in England that resembles the fictional town where the novel is based.

Procrastination is out of character for Moshfegh. Goebel describes her creative process as fearless: “She’s never worried or anxious, she just thinks of each book as if it’s already written, and it’s her job to figure out how to get it there,” he says admiringly. She’s never met a problem she couldn’t solve; as he puts it, “I could walk into the room to find her hovering six feet above the ground, and I’d be like, That’s Ottessa. She figured it out. She always figures it out.

Goebel says that Moshfegh is psychic, a medium, and a true mystic. She’s predicted things, sent him to be with family just before they died. She’s “tuned into a collective wavelength”—and when she works, she is channeling something beyond herself. “Ottessa has a profound respect and fearlessness about approaching the divine. A lot of people respect the divine, but they fear it or they keep it at a distance,” he says. “She’s not afraid. It’s her work. It’s her life. She’s always in relationship to something higher.”

From an early age, Moshfegh has always believed that her fate was predetermined. “As a child, I can remember talking to myself with a certainty—not that everything was going to be okay, but that my destiny was unavoidable as long as I survived,” she says. “The ‘as long as I survived’ part was important because, from a very early age, I had this self-destructive bent that has been hugely influential on who I am now… Knowing that about myself, and being in a place where I do not want to self-destruct.”

Moshfegh has, as she puts it, “a natural tendency to take things too far.” In the past, this has led her toward bulimia and alcoholism; in the present, it looks more like becoming so addicted to work that she doesn’t sleep. But while Moshfegh’s art often leads her to the brink of madness, it’s also what saves her from succumbing to it. “A lot of the self-discipline that is necessary for me is the discipline of staying sane and keeping a routine so that I can continue to exist, and not let the process destroy my life, so I can keep writing,” she says. “That part of myself that learned how to regulate—to stop myself from self-destructing—it exists because I don’t want to fail. Because if you don’t regulate yourself, then you become your characters.”

A lot of the self-discipline that is necessary for me is the discipline of staying sane and keeping a routine so that I can continue to exist, and not let the process destroy my life, so I can keep writing.

Moshfegh’s are characters whose inner monologues are unlikely to win audiences over, yet hold readers captive all the same—and by embedding us in this headspace, her writing allows people to “scrape up against their own depravity.” Isolated, alienated, and abject, her narrators have a slippery relationship with perception, seeing beyond the farce of everyday life, or perhaps past it, becoming too embroiled in their own selfish motivations to perceive the people around them. Often, they grow less reliable as the story goes on, falling prey to delusions so elaborate they threaten to swallow them whole (sometimes literally: In Homesick for Another World, a young girl believes that if she kills the right person, a hole will open up in the earth, returning her to her homeland.)

This is also the case with Death in Her Hands, a 2020 novel about an isolated widow who becomes so invested in a half-imagined murder mystery that she forgets about the death of her husband, trading a real tragedy for an imagined one. Moshfegh takes this one step further in her breakout novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which follows a jaded, recently orphaned rich girl’s attempt to drug herself into a year-long slumber, hoping that her problems will be solved by the time she emerges from her pharmaceutically-induced chrysalis. For readers, inhabiting this headspace can be cathartic, disconcerting, even unmooring. One friend of mine credits My Year of Rest and Relaxation with prompting the psychotic break that landed him in the hospital, convinced he could stop time.

The author herself is not immune to these reality-warping effects: “Every book seems to push me, at times, into periods of mania and utter despair. Sometimes, writing in first-person can become a sort of method acting: there are things I need to figure out that can only be resolved when I’ve put myself in the position of the character.” When she’s really in a novel, she finds that the world around her begins reflecting the fictional life that she’s conjuring, like a strange trick mirror: “Everything the book needs, you discover. Everything that happens in the world is, to you, somehow a message from the universe about your book.”

This was especially true of Moshfegh’s latest book Lapvona, which explores the role of religion in a corrupt medieval fiefdom. At the time of writing, she was re-evaluating her own relationship with God. Growing up without religion, she always thought of it as a shortcut: an easy out for people unable to grapple with the terrifying uncertainty of the universe. “But recently, I started bumping up against the limitations of my own beliefs, and it humbled me, because I saw that my own faith was not perfect,” she says. “My personal religion has been evolving. And one of the gifts of that is I’m—I hope to God—less arrogant.”

Moshfegh still doesn’t believe in God, but she does have faith in the creative process. Since she was a child, she has always believed that art is from beyond us, conjured by something greater. She also believes, increasingly, that the universe is conspiring to teach us things. “That’s what Lapvona was for—not that I knew that at the time. The book happened, and there was a reason it was for me,” she says. “That’s the thing with faith and creativity: You don’t get what you don’t get what you ask for. You get what you need.”