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Ottessa Moshfegh

Monday, January 13, 2020
7:30 pm
Venue: Sydney Goldstein Theater

This event appeared in the series
"On Arts" Benefiting 826 Valencia Scholarship Program

Ottessa Moshfegh’s characters are wracked with depression, neurosis, and utter ennui, but the care with which she tends to them imbues her books with a humor and verve that tempers the dark subject matter. Her protagonists include a drunk sailor, an obsessive secretary in a prison, and a modelesque Upper-East-Side orphan addicted to sleeping medication, all of whose inner lives are depicted with exacting prose, fashioning worlds that teem with rigid schedules, confounding antagonists, and psychological twists. Moshfegh is the author of the novels My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Eileen, the novella McGlue, and the short story collection Homesick for Another World. Her stories have been published in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and Granta, and she is the winner of a Pushcart Prize.

“Ottessa Moshfegh is easily the most interesting contemporary American writer on the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible.” — Jia Tolentino (The New Yorker)

Isabel Duffy spent over ten years working in publishing and has interviewed many authors for City Arts & Lectures, including Anthony Bourdain, Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, and John Waters. She has contributed to The Believer magazine and is trained as a psychotherapist.


Books Referenced:

Transcript

Isabel Duffy: Hi, good evening. Welcome to City Arts & Lectures. I’m Isabel Duffy, and this is a benefit for the 826 Valencia scholarship. I can’t see you, so I’m doing a weird starey thing. And then they turn the lights really off and then I really can’t see you. 

Anyway, our guest this evening is the wonderful Ottessa Moshfegh. She is the author of four books. The first is “McGlue,” a novella about a drunken sailor. The next book was “Eileen,” which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. And the next book was a collection of short stories that had been previously published in other journals like the New Yorker and the Paris Review. That’s “Homesick for Another World.” And then most recently, it was the wonderful novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.” 

So I think that rather than me talk about them anymore, I think we should invite Ottessa to join us, and please join me in welcoming her to San Francisco. 

Welcome. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Thank you. 

Isabel Duffy: When was the last time you were here? Not on this stage, because… 

Ottessa Moshfegh: I can’t remember. Within the last year, probably. Yeah. 

Isabel Duffy: Well, it’s very nice to see you. I’ve got my cup of tea and I’ve got my four books, so I’m ready to ask you some questions, but I thought it would be really nice if we started with “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” which is the most recent, and whether you, if you wouldn’t mind reading a couple of excerpts for us. 

And just to kind of set the story and then we can talk about it a bit further, would that be okay? So I’ve labeled them with handy stickies. This is the one that says napping. And this is the one that says Tuttle. And you will know what that means. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: So I start with napping, right? 

Isabel Duffy: Start with napping. Or maybe, yeah. So let’s just set the scene quickly before. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: At work, I took hour long naps in the supply closet under the stairs during my lunch breaks. Napping is such a childish word, but that was what I was doing.

The tonality of my night’s sleep was more variable, generally unpredictable, but every time I lay down in that supply closet, I went straight into black emptiness, an infinite space of nothingness. I was neither scared nor elated in that space. I had no visions. I had no ideas. If I had a distinct thought, I would hear it and the sound of it would echo and echo until it got absorbed by the darkness and disappeared. There was no response necessary. No inane conversation with myself. It was peaceful. 

A vent in the closet released a steady flow of fresh air that picked up the scent of laundry from the hotel next door. There was no work to do, nothing I had to counteract or compensate for, because there was nothing at all, period. 

And yet I was aware of the nothingness. I was awake in the sleep somehow. I felt good, almost happy. 

But coming out of that sleep was excruciating. My entire life flashed before my eyes in the worst way possible, my mind refilling itself with all my lame memories, every little thing that had brought me to where I was. I’d try to remember something else, a better version, a happy story maybe, or just an equally lame but different life that would at least be refreshing in it’s digressions, but it never worked. I was always still me.

Sometimes I woke up with my face wet with tears. The only times I cried, in fact, were when I was pulled out of that nothingness, when the alarm on my cell phone went off. Then I had to trudge up the stairs, get coffee from the little kitchen and rub the boogers out of my eyes. It always took me a while to readjust to the harsh fluorescent lighting.

Isabel Duffy: Thank you. Before we talk about the next reading, could you just sort of set the scene? Why is your character, who is interestingly nameless, why is she napping?

Ottessa Moshfegh: Oh, should I have set the scene earlier? 

Isabel Duffy: No, you can set it now. No, this is a good moment to do that. And then we can explain why she goes to see Dr. Tuttle.

Ottessa Moshfegh: Well, the reason my nameless character naps is the same reason she sleeps. She just wants to be unconscious. And she feels that there’s something to be discovered and gained and somehow learned in her subconscious through sleeping through her life. And so, rather organically, really, she starts finding herself sleeping all the time. 

And we find out as the book goes on why she might want to avoid consciousness. There’s been some stuff that’s been heavy, let’s say. And so she has this job which where, which is like totally menial and superficial. She’s like the pretty girl at the gallery that ignores you when you walk in, when you go to look at art that you don’t understand because it has no meaning. 

And she has nothing going on except for her memories and her emptiness. So she kind of leans into her emptiness and wants to escape herself and comes up with this theory that she convinces herself is true, which is that if she can sleep for long enough and hard enough, let’s say, her cells will have the time they would need to reproduce the number of times necessary for them to have forgotten whatever cellular trauma might have been trapped in her body, because she feels like she can’t really work on her mind with her mind.

I mean, if her mind is broken and insufferable, better to work on it somehow on a different level than having to talk her way, you know, talk to herself, and talk her way through what’s ailing her. So she just wants to be, you know, knocked out. 

Isabel Duffy: And so she embarks upon a year of rest and relaxation.

Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of a misnomer, because it’s neither restful or really all that relaxing. So the title of the novel is supposed to be a little tongue in cheek. But you know, there was a spike in sales of the book at the beginning of the year. I just got an email about it. And I was like, I really think this is because people are like, this is going to be 2020. The year I rest and relax. So… 

Isabel Duffy: That’s brilliant. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: I mean, I hope that’s why they want to read it. But yeah, I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know if the experience of reading the book is all that relaxing either. What did you think? 

Isabel Duffy: No, it’s not relaxing. It’s not, no, I’ll be truthful. It actually keeps you up at night. Partly because, well for lots of reasons, but partly because there were sort of relationships that she enters into in a semi conscious state. And they’re somewhat scary. And no, it’s not, it’s not relaxing. You worry for her. I worried for her. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: That’s good. That’s a good sign. 

Isabel Duffy: Oh, thank you. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: I mean, that makes me feel like I did like maybe an okay job. 

Isabel Duffy: Yeah, well and it’s an interesting situation because she’s not wholly likable. Likability is something we can talk about. Cause I think that’s, you know, there’s this question about whether women should or shouldn’t be likable, or have to be likable, and whether characters have to be likable. And she isn’t wholly likable. And she doesn’t treat her friend terribly nicely. And you worry, I worried for her, the reader worries for her safety. She gets in scrapes. So maybe this would be a good moment to read about Dr. Tuttle, because Dr. Tuttle is crucial in helping the nameless protagonist achieve her goal.

Ottessa Moshfegh: Right. So, okay, I’ll just read the excerpt. Okay. 

I started seeing Dr. Tuttle in January, 2000. It started off very innocently. I was plagued with misery, anxiety, a wish to escape the prison of my mind and body, et cetera. Dr. Tuttle confirmed that this was nothing unusual. She wasn’t a good doctor. I had found her name in the phone book.

“You’ve caught me at a good moment,” she said, the first time I called. “I just finished rinsing the dishes. Where did you find my number?” 

“In the yellow pages.” 

I liked to think that I picked Dr. Tuttle at random, that there was something fated about our relationship, divine in some way, but in truth, she’d been the only psychiatrist to answer the phone at 11 at night on a Tuesday. I’d left a dozen messages on answering machines by the time Dr. Tuttle picked up. 

“The biggest threats to brains nowadays are all the microwave ovens,” Dr. Tuttle explained on the phone that night. “Microwaves, radio waves. Now there are cell phone towers blasting us with who knows what kinds of frequencies, but that’s not my science. I deal in treating mental illness. Do you work for the police?” she asked me. 

“No, I work for an art dealer at a gallery in Chelsea.”

“Are you FBI?” 

“No.”

“CIA?”

“No. Why?”

“I just have to ask these questions. Are you DEA? FDA? NICB? NHCAA? Are you a private investigator hired by any governmental entity? Do you work for a medical insurance company? Are you a drug dealer, drug addict? Are you a clinician, a med student getting pills for an abusive boyfriend or employer? NASA?” 

“I think I have insomnia,” [which is a lie.] “I think I have insomnia, that’s my main issue.” 

“You’re probably addicted to caffeine too. Am I right?”

“I don’t know.” 

“You better keep drinking that coffee. If you quit now, you’ll just go crazy. Real insomniacs suffer hallucinations and lost time and usually have poor memory. It can make life very confusing. Does that sound like you?”

“Sometimes I feel dead,” I told her, “and I hate everybody. Does that count?”

“Oh, that counts. That certainly counts. I’m sure I can help you.”

Is that good? 

Isabel Duffy: Oh, can you read the bit, just a bit, the bit about her office. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Okay. Okay. 

Isabel Duffy: And what she looks like. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: So they make an appointment for the next morning, and she goes. So, 

Dr. Tuttle’s home office was in an apartment building on 13th street near Union Square. 

I should have mentioned, we’re in Manhattan.

The waiting room was a dark wood paneled parlor full of fake Victorian furniture, cat toys, pots of potpourri, purple candles, wreaths of dead purple flowers and stacks of old National Geographic magazines. The bathroom was crowded with fake plants and peacock feathers. On the sink next to a huge bar of cracked lilac soap was a wooden bowl of peanuts. That baffled me. 

She hid all her personal toiletries in a large wicker basket in the cabinet under the sink. She used several antifungal powders, a prescription steroid cream, shampoo and soap and lotions that smelled like lavender and violet, fennel toothpaste. Her mouthwash was prescription. When I tried it, it tasted like the ocean. 

The first time I met Dr. Tuttle, she wore a foam neck brace because of a “taxi accident” and was holding an obese tabby, whom she introduced as “my eldest.” 

She pointed out the tiny yellow envelopes in the waiting room. 

“When you come in, write your name on an envelope and fold your check inside. Payments go in here,” she said, knocking on the wooden box on the desk in her office. It was the kind of box they have in churches for accepting donations for candles. The fainting couch in her office was covered in cat fur and piled on one end with little antique dolls with chipped porcelain faces. On her desk were half eaten granola bars and stacked Tupperware containers of grapes and cut up melon, a mammoth old computer, more National Geographic magazines.

“What brings you here?” She asked, “depression?” She’d already pulled out her prescription pad. 

So then we get this speech about how she’s preparing her answer, and then she ends up just saying, 

“I want downers. That much, I know,” I said frankly, “and I want something that’ll put a damper on my need for company. I’m at the end of my rope,” I said. “I’m an orphan on top of it all. I probably have PTSD. My mother killed herself.” 

“How?” Dr. Tuttle asked. 

“Slit her wrists,” I lied. 

“Good to know.”

That good?

Isabel Duffy: That’s great. Thank you. 

You see, I think it’s testimony to the writing that I could just go, “no a bit more, a bit more,” and then, yeah, then it’d be 8:30. 

So where does this character come from? And so you mentioned that we’re in Manhattan and it’s 2000. And why 2000 and why Manhattan and who is she?

Ottessa Moshfegh: Who is Dr. Tuttle?

Isabel Duffy: Well, I’m curious about Dr. Tuttle too. I’m just, who is your, who is the main character? Where does she come from? We’ll come back to Dr. Tuttle. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Well, she comes from my imagination most of all, but I think she’s sort of an amalgamation of me and girls that I went to college with, or like women I saw on the street on the Upper East Side, that I just could not imagine what their lives were like.

Placing her on the Upper East Side of Manhattan was really important, because it was for me, like being a person on the Upper East Side felt like almost like a condition, like… 

Isabel Duffy: As opposed to not, as opposed to being a sort of superhuman. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: I mean, I don’t know. It was just, it just, it feels too, I mean, I can’t say that I’m totally foreign there because I have also like grown up with some privilege, and I don’t know, I’m, you know, not a hippie or something, you know, like I’m also kind of uptight, so. 

Isabel Duffy: Okay, good to know. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: But I didn’t fit in there at all. And I ended up, for other reasons, like spending a lot of time on the Upper East Side, and I just like couldn’t understand these people who looked so put together, like every hair in place, getting into like a private car. Like, where are you going? What is your life like? What is it like inside your home? Like, do you love yourself? Do you love your life? What else do you want? Because it kind of seemed like people who lived there, or I guess, in my like 19 year old self, the people who lived there had somehow like, they were never going to leave. Like this is where you settle when you’re rich somehow. 

So I was curious, because it just seemed miserable and cold and windy and the way that the streets are laid out is so, I don’t know. I mean, I also kind of love it there. But so she…I mean, the East River is so cool, and you could see Roosevelt Island. I mean, it has some good points to it, but. So she kind of just like, came out of that.  

Isabel Duffy: And these sorts of waiflike girls in galleries that, 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. 

Isabel Duffy: That just, as you say, are just there to ignore you as you arrive. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Right. I mean, she’s somebody that I would have never wanted to talk to, because–. 

Isabel Duffy: She wouldn’t want to talk to you either.

Ottessa Moshfegh: Well, that’s rude. She probably would have read the book though. 

Isabel Duffy: She probably would. And then she would want to be your best friend. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Well, too bad. 

Isabel Duffy: You don’t want to be her best friend, she doesn’t treat her best friend very well. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: No, she doesn’t. She’s not a great pal. 

Isabel Duffy: She’s not a great pal. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: And she’s not that much fun. Until she gets prescribed this new drug, and then she’s kind of a lot of fun. Maybe. We don’t know. But yeah, she isn’t, you know, okay, let’s talk about likability now. Cause it seems like a good moment. 

When I published–and maybe this will help us talk about “Eileen” a little bit, because when “Eileen” came out, “Eileen” is about someone very different from this character. Eileen is very specific in her, like organic, like, body odor-ness. She’s really kind of distracted by her own mortality in its most physical sense. And her primary fascination is her own disgust with herself and wanting to indulge in her disgust and kind of subject others to her disgustingness. 

But you know, all that said, okay, she’s kind of unattractive in a certain way, or at least that’s how she presents herself. That’s kind of like her mask, is like, don’t get too close. I’m a monster. Even though on the outside, she’s just this like mousy 24 year old, you know. Not like, nothing that special. Nothing that terrible, nothing that beautiful. 

But after having talked about that for so much, like post publication of “Eileen,” it kind of got to me that there was a certain limitation there. And I started thinking like how a character looks in a novel is really important, especially when they’re a woman, because the appearance is so central to your identity, how you’re treated, what opportunities you have, what’s expected of you, and how you see yourself. 

So, when I sat down to write “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” I made a really deliberate decision, very conscious, which I don’t usually do. I usually just kind of like, let things come. But I was like, “I think I’m gonna make her a babe.” You know. Because A., I don’t know how to do that, you know? It was like, well, how do I do that? And how do I put myself in that body? Like in the body of a tall, sort of like willowy like beauty with blonde hair. Like in the book, she’s like, people think she looks like Amber Valletta, who is this like gorgeous supermodel from the 90s. Just like, I dunno. Fascinatingly beautiful, and also like very, very American. How do I do that? And I didn’t know. So I had to write it out. I mean, I had to feel it out and imagine it. Like, what does it feel like to walk in the room and have everyone hate you a little bit? You know?

And so I imagined it was very, very alienating and difficult to know who to trust.  And I looked at my own assumptions, assumptions I make about beautiful women, especially like beautiful blonde women. And this isn’t like, I’m not condoning any of these judgments. I’m not saying like I’m right, but like, I don’t know.

I mean, I think maybe it’s just like having grown up in a certain era. I mean, maybe, I think it’s different now. There’s a lot of different beauty standards. It’s still all very difficult, whatever. But when I was growing up, it was like tall, skinny, white, blonde, blue eyes. And I was none of those things. Fine. But like, what is, so what is the experience of being that thing? I forgot what I was talking about. 

Isabel Duffy: Well, we were talking earlier, what I think you’re coming round to Reva and to likability and there’s, you know, a pressure on women to be likable and to appear a certain way. And if only I was X pounds lighter or boobs were bigger or smaller or whatever, I would be likable.

Ottessa Moshfegh: Right. 

Isabel Duffy: I will be better in some way. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Okay. So I remember what I was going to say. 

Isabel Duffy: Okay. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Thank you. 

Isabel Duffy: You’re welcome. That’s why I’m here.

Ottessa Moshfegh: You’re the best. 

There was a certain freedom I discovered in writing this character, and it was that if a woman isn’t obsessed with the way that she looks, like, if it’s not her struggle, she can struggle about all kinds of shit.

I was like, I can cut straight through all the superficial bullshit to the existential question. What is consciousness? Why does it feel so terrible? How do I get out of it? 

Isabel Duffy: Yeah. How can I numb it? 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. So I couldn’t have this character just sitting around in her apartment in a vacuum. I needed someone to come be a mirror. And also a battering ram, is that what it’s called in football? I don’t know. 

Isabel Duffy: No, a punch bag.

Ottessa Moshfegh: A punching bag? 

Isabel Duffy: She’s more of a punch bag. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Poor Reva. So Reva’s this character’s best friend and she is, I don’t want to say she’s an opposite, but the, it’s an antagonistic friendship in which the protagonist is everything Reva wishes she could be, except Reva actually, I think has… Reva has a sensitivity that the protagonist doesn’t have, and it’s a sensitivity that is like deeply emotional and insecure and sort of hardworking. And the protagonist doesn’t have to do anything. Any of those things that Reva has to try so hard at, the protagonist just has it automatically.

She doesn’t have to go to the gym. Boom. She doesn’t have to work, her parents left her tons of money. She doesn’t have to like look for a boyfriend because she doesn’t want to get married because fuck that. And Reva is kind of like, well, you know, “I want a normal life. I’m not like you. I have to try hard.”

And you know, all of those trials kind of become a perversion for Reva in the way that she sees herself, in the way that’s, I think, really common for women in their twenties where they’re like, “I have to change and be better, or else I’m not okay.” 

So Reva’s bulimic. She’s having an affair with her boss and this really kind of dysfunctional relationship. Her boss is married. She’s constantly looking for some solution outside of herself, constantly reaching for some self improvement scheme. You know, reading books and listening to tapes and paying for classes, whatever. 

And so she kind of interrupts the protagonist, just walks into the apartment every so often to talk about her life and to say, “I’m worried about you.”

And the protagonist is totally numb. And doesn’t really care. She doesn’t really care until she’s kind of forced to be in an intimate  situation with Reva that’s kind of beyond her control, which is the funeral for Reva’s mother. And that in the way that Reva’s a mirror, having the protagonist at Reva’s mother’s funeral brings up all of the protagonist’s shit about her own mother’s death and her father’s death. So she’s kind of re-experiencing it all. 

Isabel Duffy: I think that you, I think there’s a really interesting parallel between the relationship between this protagonist and Reva, and Eileen and Rebecca. And so, Eileen, or maybe you should explain who Rebecca is and how Eileen meets Rebecca because I’m, I think that you really, I think you write really beautifully about these relationships between women and how complicated they are and how there’s this constant push pull between sort of, you know, crushes and rejection and competition and support, and how, you know, from very little, girls are put into these, you know, very complicated dynamics. And how as we get older, you know, I’d like to think it gets easier, but I’m not sure it does. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: I mean, I think we should, we can agree that it’s not every relationship.

Isabel Duffy: No no no. Not every relationship. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: I mean, these are, part of the reason the books are designed around the relationships, right, is that the relationships reveal something about the protagonist that would otherwise not have a platform for. So it’s like a fictional trick, you know? 

But, in Rebecca, I mean, in “Eileen,” Rebecca is this sort of fictional character, I mean a fiction within the fiction. She is also like the protagonist from “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” beautiful and tall, and like has this kind of command of her body and her own elegance and wit that she can manipulate people.

And in particular, manipulate Eileen. And Eileen has this like really sort of dreary job working at a boys, a correctional institution, and Rebecca is hired to be the new head of education. And it’s 1964. This is like, this is 1964. So Rebecca comes in and kind of takes an interest in Eileen, and as we’re reading Eileen’s narration of their friendship develop, we’re like what does this like woman see in this girl? What is she after? And it just seems unbelievable that someone like Rebecca, who’s so magnificent and glamorous, would care about this weird young girl that doesn’t really know anything about the world. So. 

Isabel Duffy: And yet ultimately she’s a conduit for,  in a way for Eileen’s ultimate triumph. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. If you think it’s a triumph, I dunno. 

Isabel Duffy: I think it was a triumph. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: I mean, what I like get confused about with Rebecca is that I think I had to imagine her as a whole person with a backstory, but I think actually in the book, she’s kind of a flat character. Like we don’t, because the whole book is told from Eileen’s point of view, we never really see Rebecca’s vulnerability in her private moment. Like we never see Rebecca like figuring something out or struggling with anything. She’s a performance, you know? 

But when I think of Rebecca, I think of her like I think of the protagonist, like a completely well rounded person. I mean, well rounded character. And I like, I know like the background of her education, who she studied with, like why she’s interested in what she’s interested, how she got to this, like insane and totally arrogant decision to do what she ultimately does in the book. So I think that helped in imagining how they corresponded, Eileen and Rebecca.  

Isabel Duffy: That actually, can we come back to Dr. Tuttle for a second? Because that was a question I had about Dr. Tuttle. And so, you know, we have these sort of snapshots of Dr. Tuttle, again seen through the protagonist’s eyes, and she’s such a fascinating character to me, and so wholly unethical and  wondrously maverick, and is…So, do you know everything about Dr. Tuttle and who she is and where she lives and what her house looks like? And how do you choose what we get to know and what you keep to yourself?

Ottessa Moshfegh: That’s a good question. I don’t, Dr. Tuttle–I didn’t want to know Dr. Tuttle. It’s kind of like… 

Isabel Duffy: There’s the difference.

Ottessa Moshfegh: Do you really want, when you go to the doctor, do you really want to like know what your doctor is like, like outside of a doctor’s office? It was kind of like that experience. 

Isabel Duffy: I wanted to know–no, I don’t. But my doctor doesn’t have peacock feathers in the bathroom and peanuts and you know, a cat they call their eldest, you know. So that just the way in your writing, the way you just dropped into that psychiatrist’s office, yes, I want to know Dr. Tuttle. And I want to know how she gets to be, you know, prescribing this crazy drug and why? Why is she doing it?

Ottessa Moshfegh: Well, what I can say is, and this is really the most I can say cause I don’t have that much wisdom about it beyond, sometimes when you’re writing–or when I’m writing, speaking only for myself. Sometimes when I’m writing, I’m like really figuring things out and I’m deleting a lot and making notes and going and observing people and making notes and coming back and struggling to put this portrait of a character together. And it’s laborious and complicated and hard won at the end. 

And other times I sit down and this person appears to me, fully formed, usually kind of ridiculous, and is like, “here, write this,” and pfft, that’s it. Dr. Tuttle just was Dr. Tuttle from the beginning. I didn’t discover anything about her. She was all just there from the beginning.

And she even kind of revealed to me that during the book–and I don’t know if anyone really reads into this part of the book at all–but she’s developing her own practice as the novel continues and she gets more spiritual and sort of metaphysical. And yeah, seems to, like at the, toward the end of the book is, has even said like, “I’m kind of abandoning my psychiatric practice. But don’t worry, like I will keep taking care of you.” Cause she’s just on her own trip. 

Isabel Duffy: Literally. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. 

Isabel Duffy: Well maybe this would be a good moment to read, just because we’ve been talking about the two books alongside each other, maybe this would be a good moment to read a little bit of “Eileen,” if that would be okay. From the British edition. Picked up at the airport. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Just read it with a British accent.

Okay, so this is the opening of “Eileen.” 

I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some cloth bound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist. Note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, a bitten lip. I looked like nothing special. 

It’s easy for me to imagine this girl, a strange young and mousy version of me, carrying an anonymous leather purse or eating from a small package of peanuts, rolling each one between her gloved fingers, sucking in her cheeks, staring anxiously out the window. 

The sunlight in the morning illuminated the thin down on my face, which I tried to cover with pressed powder, a shade too pink for my wan complexion. I was thin. My figure was jagged. My movements pointy and hesitant. My posture stiff. The terrain of my face was heavy with soft rumbling acne scars, blurring whatever delight or madness lay beneath that cold and deadly New England exterior. 

If I’d worn glasses, I could have passed for smart, but I was too impatient to be truly smart. You’d have expected me to enjoy the stillness of closed rooms, take comfort in dull silence, my gaze moving slowly across paper, walls, heavy curtains, thoughts never shifting from what my eyes identified: book, desk, tree, person. But I deplored silence. I deplored stillness. I hated almost everything. I was very unhappy and angry all the time.

I tried to control myself and that only made me more awkward, unhappier and angrier. I was like Joan of Arc or Hamlet, but born into the wrong life. The life of a nobody, a waif, invisible. There’s no better way to say it. I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen. 

Isabel Duffy: That’s great. Thank you. So we’re, in this novel, and this was your first sort of novel novel.

Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. 

Isabel Duffy: I’ve never known, where does a novella stop and a novel begin? 

Ottessa Moshfegh: 75 pages. 

Isabel Duffy: Is it really?

Ottessa Moshfegh: I don’t know. I actually think it’s something like 65,000 words. Something like that. 

Isabel Duffy: There is an official cutoff. So this was your first novel? 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Yep. 

Isabel Duffy: And you wrote this, as you’ve said, to buy sandwiches. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. That was a lot of the driving ambition there.

Isabel Duffy: The driving ambition was to write a book that would pay the PG&E bill and buy sandwiches, and it worked. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. Weirdly enough. 

Isabel Duffy: Tell us how you did it. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Well. First I practiced writing for 20 years. I should say that. 

Isabel Duffy: And had, and won prizes. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. 

Isabel Duffy: And was published in the New Yorker and the Paris Review and all kinds of very prestigious places. So you were already very respected as a writer. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: I guess. Not, no, not really. Actually, no, not when I was writing “Eileen.” That all happened kind of at all at the same time, later.

Isabel Duffy: Ok, alright, ok.

Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. I was really broke. I was living in LA. And I was kind of just like…I had gone through this, like massive education. I had gone and gotten, you know, and studied English and a concentration in creative writing. And I hated going to school. But I, for some reason I thought like, well, I’ll learn something that I wouldn’t otherwise learn by going to classes and like talking to others.

I went and I got my masters in fine arts at Brown, which is a really cool program, but like nobody taught me how to write a novel. That was like the last thing that anyone–that was like so tacky. Oh God, how to write a novel? That’s like asking someone like, what is style? Like you can’t describe it. But actually writing a novel is a craft, and like a very pragmatic thing in a lot of ways. And the novel is kind of like, I think, at least these days, very much in line with like traditional cinema in the way that it’s structured. 

And so I gravitated toward this craft book called “The 90 Day Novel,” which sounds ridiculous. And, you know, as an artist, I guess I have to believe that there comes a moment where like process–it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing. You have to follow your instincts as a writer. And my instinct was that if I deliberate with myself, I will talk myself out of doing this because I don’t believe I’m a novelist yet, because I haven’t written a novel. I just need to write a novel quickly, believe that I’m a novelist, and move forward. So I followed the instructions, like, to be perfectly blunt. 

The first 30 days you answer a series of questions. You start out, I mean, okay, I’m not trying to say that anyone can do this. I think probably 99.9% of people who buy the book fail to write a novel. Like, I bet you. Or maybe they just never, like, I don’t know, whatever. 

So the first 30 days, you start off with nothing. Like I didn’t have an idea. I didn’t have a character. I didn’t have a voice. I didn’t have a location. I didn’t have anything except a desire to write a novel. And the first 30 days, you just free write, answering questions about who is your character. And when you’re writing it.

Isabel Duffy: Just stream of consciousness. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. And you try to answer it as if you know. And that, I think, is what really taught me how to write a novel. Because every day you show up, you write as if you know. Not because you know. It’s a fiction. It’s not real. You’re pretending to be the authority on something you’re making up.

So that’s how I discovered–I mean, you know, everything is kind of, everything that a person writes, I think, emanates from that person’s experiences, their spirit, their intentions, their karma, their life work, whatever, their relationships. It’s all combined and messy and perfect. And, Eileen really was someone like lodged inside of me and it took a lot of drafting after those 90 days were over to discover her. 

And in fact, the first draft that I wrote of the book was in third person, which if you’ve read the book, might surprise you, because the whole book is about it being in first person. It’s a retrospective. It’s this woman who is now in her seventies looking back at her life in her 20s and so much of the writing is kind of this like indulgent nostalgia for herself, pitying herself, celebrating herself, hating herself, and loving to hate herself and all of those things.

So you know, it was a, I learned so much writing that book. I learned so much about my own discipline, and like what I was capable of pushing myself to do, even when I was like, this is garbage and I should throw it away. Which I felt, honestly, like a couple of times. And I kind of feel like it taught me how to be delusional in some ways that can lend themselves to success.

Like in that writing as if, or like that kind of like the arrogance you need to be an author, you know. A writer? Eh. Like an author, someone who like, can really take up space and be solid. I don’t know. 

Isabel Duffy: Well, you’ve said elsewhere… I think that’s a really interesting point. And you’ve said elsewhere, that it’s not cute to be self-effacing. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Right.

Isabel Duffy: It’s, you know, you are a writer, you are a good writer. You are proud of being a good writer. It’s important for us to be able to, you know, sit up tall and say, “these are the things I can do and I am accomplished and I do them well.” And I think that the thing that’s, it’s surprising to hear about the 90 day novel, as an exercise, because “Eileen” is such a literary book. And so well crafted. And so, you know, there isn’t a spare sentence in there. 

And one tends to think of those, you know, writing exercises, and, you know, every day in my email there comes a new master class from so-and-so video thing or something or other. And you tend to think of them as being for, you know, genre fiction or you know, how to write a romance. In England that used to be Mills & Boon. And anybody could write a Mills & Boon novel and you know, and it would sell in the local news agents. And that way there was a formula and you just had to follow it. 

This clearly isn’t that. And in it, you have these, you know, well, you have Eileen herself who is a unique and extremely memorable character. And a setting and a place and things that are just so on, and like, I think that’s why I think people like to know how the novel came about, because it’s a surprise. And it’s a surprise I think also for readers who admire your work so much to hear the discipline that goes into it. I mean, I am not surprised to hear that you’re a disciplined writer, but that you just sat down and said, “I need to pay the car insurance. I need to write something that will sell.” And it gets bloody listed for the Booker Prize. I just think that’s a huge, wonderful surprise. So congratulations for that. 

And in fact, there’s a sentence in “McGlue,” that you, where you say, I underlined it. Here it is here. You say on page 75, this is before “Eileen.”

You say, “‘what you cannot do, let God do,’ he tells me. ‘If you start writing, it will come. The real story is up in there. Have faith.'” And so that, I don’t know, there was something that’s a thread for me through your writing and things I’ve heard about you, you know, interviews I’ve read with you, that there is a kind of, it is almost more a spiritual exercise, or that there is, you know, more than a craft, I sit down with my pad, with my pencil, and my cup of Earl Grey. Can you speak a bit more about what that is?

Ottessa Moshfegh: I mean, I think it’s the, I want to say yin and yang, even though it’s not quite right, but there’s…Things happen, or at least I’ve found this to be true, when there’s…

Like, okay, let’s look at talent. Like talent is great. It’s great if you’re talented, but it’s not going to get you anywhere past middle school unless you exert effort. Right? So like talent and effort combined get you something. Where does the talent come from? And I feel the same way about inspiration.

Like what is, where does that come from? Like, how do I know that I’m supposed to pay attention to certain things because they’re going to be the breadcrumbs that I will follow that will end up at, you know, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.” How do I know that? What? Like why do I have those instincts? I have to believe that there’s like some greater power, whatever. Whether it’s like something in my soul or something in my subconscious, something that I can’t control that’s greater than me. 

But also I have to work really hard and I have to be up for it, you know? And being up for it means like making sure like I’m capable. That means, well, it means practicing. Like I really believe in practicing. Practicing writing. But also like practicing using my mind. And that’s why, that’s where I think you get into living the life of a writer. It’s like, you can’t live the life of somebody else and then go home and be a writer. Like a writer is constantly collecting, learning, testing, observing and, so in essence, all of those micro-decisions I make on a daily basis become my work. You know, like, should I turn left or right? Well, I dunno, the light is really interesting over there. Or not, you know. 

And when I am writing, when I am the happiest when I’m writing, is when I feel plugged in. And it’s kind of like, if you’re not a writer, you know, maybe you’ve had like a moment, like when you’re dancing, when you’re just like, “this is effortless. Like, I can’t make a wrong move. I’m just following the music,” you know? Or like if you’re a basketball player and you’re going down the court and you just know you’re going to make the basket, you know. Some, there’s like some kind of charge that is like, you’re on the path and there’s no interruption, and that’s just ecstasy. It’s total ecstasy. 

And it’s also fascinating. Like I’m much smarter as a writer than I am as a human being. You know, in my relationships or whatever. I’m much more imaginative, I’m much weirder. I mean, I feel free. 

Isabel Duffy: Okay. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: So, and that, that’s like a spiritual experience. Freedom. 

Isabel Duffy: Freedom. I’m just, coming back quickly to what you said about practice. I know that your parents, you come from a very musical background. Is that, do you think that your, you know, your training as a musician, as a pianist and clarinetist, or? 

Ottessa Moshfegh: God, how do you know? 

Isabel Duffy: I’m Dr. Tuttle? Just, you know… 

Ottessa Moshfegh: In the ether. 

Isabel Duffy: In the ether. Probably Twitter, I don’t know. Anyway, you have musical training. Do you think that discipline is part of, and coming from an arts background, do you think that has been a big part of kind of teaching you what it takes, or what it means to be an artist? But also your parents, I’m imagining, are supportive of what you do and encouraging and… 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah, I mean, I think they were, I mean, first of all, yeah, totally. I mean, being a classical musician is like being a ballerina or something. I mean, it’s like unheard of how much my–like my sister who trained as a cellist when I was little, like she was just constantly practicing. And the pressure to be so, to have the facility and technique in order to produce something that is like absolutely divine and divorced from the menial technique of moving your fingers? I mean, that’s what I think is so crazy about music. I mean, at least playing an instrument. I think maybe the voice is a little bit less mechanical, but I was a pianist, and it was like, this is a mechanical–I mean, you’re hitting a key that moves a lever that strikes a string. I mean, you can just do this all day and it’s the same thing inside the machine. And you have to get so good and so sensitive that you can turn that machine into something like completely mystical and like pure emotion and sound, you know, and movement. Like that is the miracle.

And I wasn’t very, I was, I wasn’t that good at piano. Like I was never good enough at piano. And I’m glad I was never that great a pianist because I probably would’ve went on to go to music school instead of pursuing what I really wanted. But I learned about discipline. I mean, I had… 

It’s funny that you mention being a clarinetist because I was a terrible clarinetist and then never practiced because I hated my teacher. He was an asshole. He used to say things like, “you are nothing to me. You are less important to me than the speck of dust down, like embedded into that rug. Play it again.” And that was supposed to like motivate me to be great. That never worked. 

But I had a really wonderful piano teacher and I also had amazing writing mentors, like people that just like went beyond what was appropriate to support me as a writer. I was really really lucky.

Isabel Duffy: That’s invaluable. That’s really great. And have they kind of, did they continue to, do you to continue to send your work to the same people you’ve always sent it to for early reads? Or do you not do that or? 

Ottessa Moshfegh: I mean, it’s changed now. I mean, now I show, I usually show my work to my husband, who’s also a writer and… But I’m much more private at this point. I mean, I don’t like sharing a draft of a novel until it’s ready to send to my editor. But I have like some friends that are usually early readers who are really different from me. People who aren’t writers, you know. And they always point out something like, “right here, she’s wearing a red dress and here she’s wearing a purple dress.” And I’m like, “Oh, I missed that.” 

Isabel Duffy: It’s okay. You need the continuity people. They’re helpful. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: No, it is helpful. Yeah. 

Isabel Duffy: Can we talk quickly about “McGlue?” 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Sure. 

Isabel Duffy: Because I loved “McGlue.” I thought it was wonderful. And. Well anyway, why didn’t you read just the first page and a bit? 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Okay. 

Isabel Duffy: Yeah. Maybe just page one and two and then we can talk a little bit about that.

Ottessa Moshfegh: Zanzibar. I wake up. My shirt front is stiff and bibbed brown. I take it to be dried blood and I’m a dead man. The ocean persuades me to doubt, to reel my head in double, triple takes towards my feet. My feet are on the ground. It may be that I fell face first in mud. Anyway, I’m still too drunk to care.

“McGlue,” a wrathful voice calls out from the direction of sunshine, ship sails hoisting, squeaks of wood and knots tight. I feel my belly buckle. My head. Just last spring I cracked it jumping from a train of cars. This, I remember. I get back down on my knees again. “McGlue.” This McGlue, it sounds familiar.

A hand grips my shirt and pokes at my back, steers me to the plank and I get on, walking somehow. The ship is leaving. I puke and hold onto the side of the stern and belch bile for a bit, watching the water rush past until land is out of sight. It’s peaceful for a small while after. Then something inside me feels like dying.

I turn my head and cough. Two teeth skip from my mouth and scatter across the deck like dice. Eventually I am put to bed down under. I fish around my pockets for a bottle and find one. 

“McGlue,” says the cabin boy, the sissy, “hand that shit over here.” I swig it back. Some spills down my neck and wets my soiled collar. I let the empty bottle fall to the floor. 

“You’re bleeding,” says the fag. 

“So I am,” I say pulling my hand away from my throat. It’s dark rummy blood. I taste it. Must be mine, I think. I think of what use it may have if I get thirsty later. 

Fag looks worried. I don’t mind that he unbuttons my shirt. Don’t even beat his hands away as he steers my neck one way, then the other, too tired, inspection time. He says he finds no holes in me to speak of. 

“Aha,” I tell him. 

Fag’s face has a weird sneer and he looks a little scared and hovers there over me, red hair tucked carefully into a wool cap, a dot of sweat sitting in the trivet of his upper lip just below his little nose. He looks me in the eye, I’d say, with some fear. 

“No touch,” I say ruffling the blanket back up. It’s a gray and red striped blanket that smells of lamb’s milk. I hold it over my face while fag goes about. It’s good here under the blanket. My breath shows in the dark. So dark, I could almost sleep. 

My mind travels the cold hills of Peru where I got lost one night. A fat woman fed me milk from her tit and I rode a shaggy dog back down along the river to the coast. Johnson was there with the captain, waiting. That was trouble. Hit warm with the rum now, I close my eyes. 

“What have you done?” says the captain, next time I open them. The blanket is stripped away like a whip. Saunders removes my shoes. I hear the boat creak. Someone walks down the hall ringing a bell for supper. The captain stands there by the cot. 

“We want to hear you say it,” says the captain. I feel sick and tired. I fall asleep again. 

Isabel Duffy: Thank you. I think, I wanted you to read that just because I think it provides such an interesting contrast to the women that you’ve written, again, first person. And you do have this  uncanny knack, an ability to get right inside not just the mind of someone else, but their body. And you’ve written, in all these books, there’s the kind of, there’s that moment where his teeth come out and scatter across the deck, like dice. I think that your writing’s so visceral. 

And I wondered whether that was, if that’s something you’re looking for in your reading, as you’re reading other people’s writing. Are you looking for, not necessarily sort of graphic descriptions, but are you looking for a physical response? 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Sometimes. Sometimes. Sometimes I just want to be like, I want someone to sing me a lullaby. You know? And other times I want to be horrified. But I think I always want a different experience, an experience that’s different from me. And, I mean, what’s so weird to me about “McGlue,” I wrote it now like over 10 years ago, is that I still don’t, like, I still don’t know where it came from. Not really.

Like I don’t, I know where the story came from, but I don’t really know where he came from within me. I mean, maybe, maybe I thought I was that damaged. I don’t know. I mean, maybe I felt that way. But he’s like completely broken in so many ways. And it was a painful book to write, honestly. To occupy like the mind and body of someone so deeply that it can come out so obliquely. I mean that’s one thing. 

I’m actually writing a screenplay adaptation of this book. 

Isabel Duffy: Oh, wow. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: I’m rewriting a screenplay adaptation of the book. And I’m having, so I’m like revisiting the story again. And seeing like the angle, like “McGlue” is  written at such an acute angle. Like “Eileen” is totally perpendicular, I would say, and “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” is like maybe a little obtuse, but like with “McGlue,” the obliqueness of the narration allowed for like so much play in the language because that’s what’s kind of covering the truth, is that language. So it’s really wordy. I mean, it’s very much about words and… 

Isabel Duffy: Oh it’s wonderfully wordy. I mean, I think it’s a, you know, and such that there are a lot of words in a very slim, again, not that, you know, nothing–it’s kind of very intensely flavored. There’s nothing gone to waste.

So, we have to stop, because we’re going to take some questions from the audience. And, so what will happen now is the lights will come up and please raise your hand if you have a question for Ottessa, who will also be signing books afterwards out in the foyer. So if you want to get your book signed, she will be there. But raise your hand and someone will come to you with a microphone and we can just about see you now. 

City Arts & Lectures: This question is coming from the front and center. 

Audience Member 1: Hi. Thank you so much for this talk. It’s been really great. A couple of times tonight you were sort of talking about your process and I just got the sense from you, or even you said it very directly, that you know, you’re doing a lot of observing as you’re writing, and you’re sort of putting the novel together. So I thought it’d be fun, maybe, if you have like, what are a couple like you know, your best like people-watching moments, in sort of like building up these characters and starting to write about them? 

Ottessa Moshfegh: Oh my God. My mom from day one.

Isabel Duffy: Your mom?

Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. I mean, my mom is probably the most interesting person on the planet to me because she’s my mother. And she’s also very like mysterious and very mannered and funny and clever. And I mean, I say my mom also because I’ve studied her so well, you know. I’ve studied, and I’ve studied her my entire life, like, the way that she moves, the way that she’ll crack an egg, you know, how she answers the phone, when she showers, how often, what position she sleeps in, how she talks to people at the grocery store, how she drives, you know, like everything. How she picks out fruit. Like every detail. I mean, I’m sure she has an enormous private life that I am not privy to. But you know, like, the way she’ll pet a dog. Those things have always been things that I’m making notes. 

You know, it’s when, and when I say making notes, it means I’m remembering and I’m paying attention. Because there’s something beautiful and meaningful, because it’s my mom doing it. And I think that’s helped in loving characters actually, like loving characters that don’t always do things that I would want someone to do to me. Just having that kind of sensitivity, like, you know, how do they hold their, are they gripping their fist while they’re talking? You know, like things like that. Those seem really important. 

So I haven’t like just seen something hilarious that I can share with you. Although walking around San Francisco, oh my God.

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the middle of the orchestra. 

Audience Member 2: Hi. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about the end of “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.” There’s a line in there that I think is “pain is not the only touchstone for growth.” And there’s so many times that it seems like you want to speak through the character and other times that it seems like what she’s saying is supposed to be ironic. And so I was just wondering what that line meant and what the ending is supposed to mean. If you can speak about that. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: I don’t remember exactly where that line is. But I remember writing it. And it was, yeah, that was a moment that I felt like, okay, I’m going to put words in my character’s mouth. Because I was sick of people telling me that pain is a touchstone for growth. I just think that is so effing sadistic. And I wanted that to be something that my protagonist could discover, because she’s been so motivated by her own pain. So is it possible to change your life without having to suffer the consequences of not changing it? It’s like, do you have to always hit bottom before you get up and move? So yeah, that, I can’t really say how that corresponds to what the ending means.

The ending, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think you need to know, but the ending to me was like her awakening. Her physical awakening toward the end of the book, like the last couple of chapters after she’s gone into this, like art thing with Ping Xi and is in this like coma and being used as a muse slash subject for this artist who’s locked her in her apartment.

She wakes up out of that, but she hasn’t really woken up like mentally and spiritually, emotionally until she’s watching the footage of the jumpers on 9/11 and sees something like beautiful in it. That’s when it’s like, she’s awake in that moment. She’s awake in the moment to observe it. And that’s why she videotapes it. Because she needs, she wants to feel that over and over again.

City Arts & Lectures: This is from the center, slightly towards the right. 

Audience Member 3: Hi, you mentioned that an early draft of “Eileen” was in the third person, and it is a very intensely first person narrative, and so is “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.” I was wondering if you could talk about how “Eileen” went from a third person narrative to a first person and just the general approach to writing and how you think through “this is going to be a first person or third person piece.”

Ottessa Moshfegh: Well, in the case of “Eileen,” I read it in third person and it, there was something missing, and I didn’t know what it was. Having written it in third person, I had captured this kind of posturing and sarcasm in the narrative voice, where it was like, because I had written it in third person, I had allowed myself judgment and subjectivity from the outside, and I knew I had to put it in first person just instinctually, like I went to bed being like, “if I can’t figure this out tomorrow, I’m throwing this book away.” And then I thought, I’m just gonna throw it away, because why be precious about something if you don’t know it. And I’m like, I’m not going to do it. And I woke up just knowing that I had to rewrite it in first person.

So I just literally rewrote it. I mean, some passages and descriptive language stayed and then got morphed along the way in drafts. But what I found was that because there was this narrative distance in third person, it kind of clued me in to how Eileen could narrate this retrospectively with layers, rather than just like a flat translation of how events unfolded.

But there were some kind of layering of herself and how she knows herself as a 75 year old, versus what the experiences were of the 24 year old. Like I could have written, I could have rewrote it in first person in present tense and it would have been a completely different book. So I dunno. I guess it was a blessing that I had written it first in the wrong point of view.

City Arts & Lectures: This question comes from the front to your right.

Audience Member 4: Hi there. Thanks so much for this conversation and thanks so much for your writing. My main question is just with “Homesick for Another World,” in your short stories, how’s that process for you? And do you feel like those are, could become novels, or is it a totally different process for you?

And then I also just have to ask  have you read Hanya Yanagihara who wrote “People in the Trees” and “A Little Life”? And that’s just something I just really wanted to know. But mainly about the short stories. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: I haven’t read that. I haven’t read anything by that writer. The, no, the short stories definitely don’t feel like novels. They feel like songs and dioramas weirdly. Writing a short story is awesome, partly because you can write the whole thing and know where you are. Like your reference point from beginning to end is not so distanced that I have to like read an entire book to remember what, where I am. Like in the drafting, it’s really easy to forget what you’ve written, but when I write a short story, I almost always pick up my writing from the very first line.

So like oftentimes when I’m writing a short story, I will have worked on this enormous opening for the story, because every time I’m writing, I’m writing from the beginning. And then that opening just gets cut and I’m starting at, you know, where I have actually found the voice and am in a moment of the story that’s interesting. 

And I work on the short stories really holistically. Like it’s almost, it doesn’t, sometimes it doesn’t feel like writing. It’s just like pure revision. It’s like I have one sentence. All right. I have like three words and I know kind of like the sound that I want to produce with those words and I’m reordering them and adding words and discovering there’s a person in the story and that person’s talking and where am I and what does this person want to say?

And I dunno. But it feels so much more about language, like in what language can reveal in and of itself, in the way that it sounds, rather than like the way a novel has to like push a plot and be an adventure. Or it doesn’t have to, but I want it to, so. 

City Arts & Lectures: This is from the center. 

Audience Member 5: Hi, I hear you have a book coming out next year, and when will it be–what is it about and when will it be here in the United States? 

Isabel Duffy: Excellent question. Didn’t get to that. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: It’s called “Death in Her Hands.” It comes out April 21st. And it’s about a woman in her seventies who has moved to a cabin in the woods. She’s a widow and she has a dog. And every day she’s been walking this path through the forest. Like she’s the one who wore the path through the forest. And the book opens on the occasion of her walking the dog and finding this note on the path. And the whole book kind of is her imagination of where this book, where this note came from, why it says what it says, who is it for, who put it there, and what’s happened. So it’s kind of a murder mystery. Yeah. 

Isabel Duffy: I think we’ve got time for one more question. 

Audience Member 6: This is from the back and center. Hello. I loved “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” and I found something really funny about it and the criticism of the art world and just the pure disdain like the whole book kind of conveys for that world. I really want to know where that came from. Thank you.

Ottessa Moshfegh: I mean, it just came from my own opinions. My experience of the art world in New York really coincided with the timeframe this book takes place, which was no coincidence. 

I was taking a sculpture class at Columbia with an artist who is now like a really famous and successful artist and has like this mid-career retrospective at The Whitney, Rachel Harrison. She gave us a weekly assignment to go to a different gallery every week, and I would go, and this was like 2000, 1999, 2000…2000. 

And it was like, it was so crowded, like it, like art was really fun in this ridiculous way it seemed like, at least in this one part of the world. This was when like Damien Hirst was cutting animals in half and everything was so in your face and like over the top and so expensive.

Like art got much more like sterile and minimalist, I think after 9/11. But like the turn of the millennium from the ’90s, where there was like just so much. That’s kind of where I, that’s where I experienced the art world. And that was an important part of me understanding what I was doing in the book. 

Because when I started writing “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” I didn’t understand yet that I was in the year preceding 9/11. Like I was not thinking about what time, I was thinking, “well, it’s kind of contemporary.” But it wasn’t until I started trying to describe the art in the gallery where the protagonist worked that I got that I was in the year 2000. Just based on like what was coming to me in terms of what art was in the gallery. And that was like part of the, that was one of the funnest parts to write was writing the art in the gallery.

Isabel Duffy: Well I think that’s it for this evening. It’s been such a pleasure. Thank you so much. 

Ottessa Moshfegh: So nice of you. Thank you.