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Rachel Kushner & Ottessa Moshfegh

Saturday, December 17, 2022
7:30pm Pacific Time
KQED Broadcast: 01/08/2023

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

We've made a recording of this event free to all. Please support our institution and these productions by making a tax-deductible contribution.

Join us for a conversation between two writers whose work – be it fiction, criticism or art theory- captures the spirit, concerns, and aesthetics of this moment.

“As a novelist who’s made it to the innermost sanctum of the literary world, Rachel Kushner willfully stands apart” (New York Magazine). She is the author of internationally acclaimed novels The Mars Room, The Flamethrowers, and Telex from Cuba, as well as a book of short stories, The Strange Case of Rachel K. Her career-spanning book of essays The Hard Crowd, solidified her place of authority amongst today’s writers, covering everything from a Palestinian refugee camp to her young life in the San Francisco music scene. Kushner has won the Prix Médicis and been a finalist for the Booker Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was twice a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction.

Called “easily the most interesting contemporary American writer on the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible” by Jia Tolentino (The New Yorker), Ottessa Moshfegh is a stand-out in contemporary literature. With worlds and minds that manage to be both dark and intricate, as well as elegant and neurotic, her writing trails a unique and poignant thread of what it means to live in the now. She is the author of the novels My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Eileen, the novella McGlue, the short story collection Homesick for Another World, and she has three film adaptations in the works. Her newest book, Lapvona, is a medieval fantasy set in a fictional village struggling with the sordid aftermath of a plague; “part Dostoevsky, part Poe, and entirely her own” (The Millions), the book showcases Moshfegh at seemingly her darkest.

Masks are required inside the venue. Policy subject to change based on San Francisco Department of Public Health guidelines and/or requirements of the featured guests. 

Photo by Ann Summa/Jake Belcher

Books Referenced

                  Films/TV Shows Referenced

                  • Saturday Night Live (Lorne Michaels)

                  Writers/Authors/Filmmakers/Artists Referenced

                  • Yiyun Li 
                  • Theodor W. Adorno 
                  • Herman Melville
                  • Edgar Allen Poe
                  • Demi Lovato
                  • Franz Kafka
                  • Václav Havel
                  • Bohumil Hrabal
                  • Ben Lerner
                  • Andy Warhol 
                  • Mel Brooks
                  • Mark Twain
                  • Eugène Ionesco
                  • John Coltraine 
                  • Dylan Thomas 


                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Hi, Rachel.

                  Rachel Kushner: Hi, Ottessa. 

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: It’s great to meet you.

                  Rachel Kushner: I actually call her “Tess.” But I feel self conscious about doing it in front of people because it’s a kind of flex.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I call you Rach, which is also a flex. Over text, though. I get to text Rachel Kushner. So, that’s a flex. 

                  Rachel Kushner: It’s so bright up here, I can’t see the audience at all.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: They’re all beautiful.

                  Rachel Kushner: Nancy Reagan and Mr. T are both in the audience tonight.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Now I’m nervous. That’s horrifying. Mr. T is one of my heroes.

                  Rachel Kushner: They’re Christmas people. They come out for anything that’s booked in December.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Especially in San Francisco. So speaking of San Francisco, what do you think of this city?

                  Rachel Kushner: Well–[to audience] she’s so slick. You had a first question for us! I thought, How are we going to start? 

                  I was walking here in view of the green and red-lit dome of City Hall and thought, That’s a trip, I got married there. And my parents got married there. And they’re here tonight, and they were married 24 years ago, and since I’m 25, we all know it was a shotgun wedding.

                  But I was there for their wedding. It was on my dad’s 60th birthday. And I don’t know what that means, except that once in a while, a little something of a regional or a civic pride sneaks up on a person unawares. Architecture can do that. I think the people that design these buildings had in mind the idea of a kind of personal moment of exaltation when you’re late for your own event and spot City Hall and go, “I got married there.”

                  So I have a certain nostalgia or affection for San Francisco, but it’s made of people mostly, the people that I grew up with and who are here, but otherwise, I left a long time ago, you know? And live, like you do, in Los Angeles, and when I come back to do a public event here it’s very strange because it’s a different audience and it’s more continuous with adult life rather than my own obsession with childhood or something like that.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I have a really similar experience when I go…If I’m on a book tour and I’m invited to go to Boston, which is my hometown. 

                  Rachel Kushner: Right, ‘cause you’re from Newton.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. And my events in Massachusetts are always excruciating. I don’t know why. 

                  Rachel Kushner: Really?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Maybe it’s because I know my mom is in the audience or my mom’s neighbor and I get nervous. But there’s something about going home that kind of undoes everything I feel intelligent about. And I end up making excuses for why I’m there, or getting hostile.

                  Rachel Kushner: Like it reduces you to your personal life that existed before you became a writer, which sort of, in a way, cuts the umbilical to the past, even as you draw from it heavily–we all do–to make art, right?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I’m thinking about The Mars Room, and this rendition of San Francisco in the nineties, which was when you were living here as a young woman. What was your experience of going back in time? How autobiographical was that? Was it more based on your observations of having lived there and the people on the scene?

                  Rachel Kushner: Oh, that’s a good question. Well, both, because autobiography for me stems from observation. So much of life is spent watching and recording. Not necessarily knowing that you’re going to use it later. But, I’d be curious to hear what you have to say about this. Like, when you find that writing is going to be the form that you use to bring your existence into a kind of coherence. I’m already defining it that way and how I describe what writing is, but the novel puts things into coherence and puts them into the round and gives experiences that I think exist inside of a person lodged there as image and mark. Maybe some people would call that trauma. I might under some circumstances and not under others, but those marks inside of you can reach a full new expression when you put them into the round in writing.

                  So having grown up here, The Mars Room was definitely the book when I decided –at first, with hesitation–but finally committed to the idea that my narrator would be from my neighborhood. And her friend group would be my friend group. And many of her experiences would be almost identical to experiences that were had by young people that I knew growing up because I needed to be an expert at her life. And I needed to have a depth of understanding and a range of emotion from her outlook that was really particular and grained so that she would be believable and real because of what I was sending her into, which is somebody who goes to prison for life.

                  So I had to kind of draw on some of the more painful aspects of adolescence in terms of what other people went through as I witnessed it. And some of that personal experience was continuous in terms of my life in the 90s. I worked in the Tenderloin for several years at a bar I was just talking about tonight with a judge, Tony Kline, who’s here, called The Blue Lamp. Some of my friends from high school would come in there, and a friend who I was really close to growing up came in asking me to pawn her wedding ring for her. These things would happen. And those little details do end up in fiction, right? And they tell you when the opportunity is right to employ them for some other new means that also has a relationship to the world that you experience but don’t necessarily have insight on.

                  Do you feel that way about Massachusetts? Is Eileen that kind of book at all?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I think so. And what occurs to me in hearing you talk about it, Rach, is that it seems like having lived in a city, whether it’s San Francisco or New York–we’ve both lived in New York and we’ve both been living in L. A.–something about being an outward-facing person, as I know you’ve described yourself. There’s something about the density and concentration of the weirdness of so many people coinciding, so many lives coinciding in an urban center that really would feed a novelist’s imagination.

                  Your books are so full of so many people’s stories, and somehow there’s this throughline and the heart of the book throughout. I’ll talk about me, but I’m just kind of curious, how do you—and I’ve tried to ask you this sloppily before–how do you do it? How do you tell a coherent story with so many personal histories in it?

                  Rachel Kushner: I don’t know because I wouldn’t know how to do it otherwise, I think. I’m just really taken with what people have to say and how they… I really don’t know how to answer that question. I mean, it’s a compliment and a question, I think, so thank you. But, when people start to talk, I guess I’ve always been very interested in the way they tell their story. Cadence of speech is very important to me. So when I go to write, it’s dialogue that’s at the heart of things for me with characters. Structurally it’s going to be from one person’s point of view. And often I do go for, at least with The Flamethrowers and The Mars Room, first person narrators. So when other people present themselves in the book, with some formal exceptions in those books, they are presenting themselves as spoken characters, who are making an impression on the other characters in the book through the way they use speech to seduce or terrorize or convince or manipulate.

                  And once people start to talk, I just give them space to talk, because that’s how I know how to conjure their personhood into the book and make them feel lifelike to me. So maybe it just comes from being addicted to listening to people. These small interactions you have can be so rich, no?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Do you have a really good memory?

                  Rachel Kushner: I don’t think so, but I have noticed that because I’ve written more recently about specific experiences from childhood that are nonfiction. This essay, The Hard Crowd, that was the title essay for that book, was all about San Francisco, and it was a kind of catalog of youth, a way to eulogize an era, but also to think about what writers are doing when they eulogize, and what part of you is the same, and most parts are different. But, after I wrote it, a lot of people that I knew and also that I didn’t know growing up contacted me about that essay, like, “How did you remember this, that, or the other thing?” There were small things in it that I remembered. So I think that at that time I had a good memory because I always felt like I was watching everything and just soaking it in.

                  I think childhood is a time when you have a really powerful memory. I was just reading something that the writer Yiyun Li said in an interview, which is that children don’t really know that they’re children, which is not in a naive way, but they don’t think of themselves as children. They’re not like, “Well, I’m a child now and later on I will have the gravitas of adulthood.” There is incredible gravitas, I think, to childhood and youth, and then young adulthood, and I think I paid close attention in those years because of that. Because you’re looking for your bearings. 

                  Do you have this experience with your own childhood? I know that you used this Girl Scout camp as the background for your really great novel Death in Her Hands, and was it a way to revisit that world? Does the backdrop have something to do with you? Like what part of you is fused with New England? Your biographies always say “Ottessa Moshfegh is a writer from Newton, Massachusetts.” It gives everything a dark–

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: –Or “From New England.”

                  Rachel Kushner: Yeah, the New England thing. What’s up with that?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Well, it’s an important piece of me. I mean, I’m definitely not from Southern California, like, you can tell. In fact, someone came over the other day to take my picture and she was like, “You’re from the Northeast.” Just based on–

                  Rachel Kushner: –Was that the German people?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Well, she was an L. A. photographer taking it for a German magazine.

                  Rachel Kushner: Right, and she knew you were from the Northeast.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Just based on how my living room was decorated.

                  Rachel Kushner: Because you have Persian rugs and a grand piano. Did she mean you’re cultured?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Maybe.

                  Rachel Kushner: No, I’m joking. There’s a lot of culture in Southern California. Theodor Adorno lived in Southern California, but at least he was German. Is there something else in that living room that she’s connecting to?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I don’t know how much this is true for that photographer commenting on the living room, but, I grew up in a suburb of Boston, and both of my parents had only just moved there from different countries. And part of what taught me about the world I was living in in New England, was the stuff that was in the house. My parents came with, like, almost nothing. My dad had his violin collection and a couple of rugs.

                  Rachel Kushner: How many violins?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Oh, I don’t know. 

                  Rachel Kushner: More than ten?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I haven’t ever asked him. But, it’s possible. And they had my sister, and a dog that they had smuggled out of Iran. Which is one of my favorite stories my mom tells. 

                  Rachel Kushner: They hid the dog?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: She hid her dog. She was wearing a coat with fur on the inside and she just put the dog in her coat.

                  Rachel Kushner: Wow. I thought they met in Europe.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: They did. My parents had the same violin teacher in Brussels at the conservatory there, and that’s where they met, and they were married, and then they moved to Tehran, thinking they would have their lives there. And that didn’t happen, so they moved to Massachusetts, and then I was born in 1981. 

                  I was sort of dropped into this world as my family was still adjusting, and learning about the culture. And both of my parents are collectors of things. My dad, my mother, me, to some extent, my siblings–we have all been kind of collectors, collecting antiques and my dad, instruments and my mother, housewares and art. I started collecting old things. And I think part of what was so important about that is the exploration. Like sometimes, my husband will ask me, like, “What’s your ideal day?” I’m just like, instantly, “Flea market.” Because it’s sort of like a museum that you get to interact with, and then take stuff, and buy stuff, and carry it home, and you have this piece of a history that wasn’t yours, but is now sort of inserted into your intimate environment in a way. And that’s kind of how I started relating to New England, was going to flea markets. Going to flea markets and sort of exploring…That’s how I saw other people’s lives. Also, garage sales and estate sales, sort of creeping around.

                  That felt important when I was writing Eileen, because it’s set in 1964, a time that I didn’t exist in, and imagining this–conjuring that world felt somehow more natural than conjuring some coastal New England town in the 80s, which I did exist in. Somehow, the mid-sixties, I felt more familiar with the materials and the light.

                  Rachel Kushner: You can build it from the stuff.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. And also I think having been a kid in New England, my relationship with the landscape and walking home from school, which is less than a mile, felt like it took me three hours because you could just explore what was. Like the leaves, and the snow, and the air, and the dirt, and those are some of my most powerful memories from childhood is just being alone, walking home, sort of looking.

                  Rachel Kushner: That phrase, “New England,” conjures that. Does it also conjure for you these kinds of early American writers like Melville and Poe and…?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Well, no, not them. But actually I took this really great course in college that was about really early American literature and with it, studied a bit of very, very early American history. And I always kind of loved the idea–I mean this is maybe not a popular way of looking at American history, but that the first people who came, who became the Puritans, were like,  kind of crazy? And this idea that they were going to find the new Jerusalem and then saw the sand dunes on Cape Cod, and their minds were so blown that some of them jumped into the water and committed suicide because they thought it was real.

                  Rachel Kushner: I don’t know that history at all. 

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: That I love. I also love that, so much went down in Massachusetts, and Boston in itself feels sort of like a museum, and it’s changed a lot since I was there and I feel like I don’t really know it.

                  I’m working on a project now that’s set in Boston in the early 90s and it’s kind of sending me back to that era and remembering, like you said, the architecture. It’s amazing how much we walk past things and they just like imprint, imprint constantly until they’re part of, a memory and a feeling.

                  Rachel Kushner: You started working on this new book, how long ago?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Oh, well I was just talking about a film script.

                  Rachel Kushner: Oh, this is not the novel about the 90s?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I guess I’m kind of into the 90s right now, because I’m also working on a new novel that’s set in a fictional city on the coast of southern England, and it’s about 1994.

                  Rachel Kushner: It takes place in England? 

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. 

                  Rachel Kushner: So do people say it’s the car park and stuff like that?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I haven’t had to use car park, but there’s a lot of talk about trash in the novel, so I’m using rubbish and bins a lot.

                  Rachel Kushner: I have a quote of yours. In terms of starting a new project, there was something I wanted to ask you about, or just bring up. This is a quote from Lapvona. [To audience] People read Ottessa’s novel Lapvona? It’s a very funny, very intense, profound novel:

                  [Reading] “Pleasure and fun were not cumulative, he believed. Everything had to be done again and again for it to have any worth. All that mattered was the matter at hand.”

                  And that is in reference to this tyrant named Villiam, who lives without a sense of history or even reality. And so he’s just experiencing almost like a person who has no capacity for a short term memory.

                  But when I read that quote, “Everything had to be done again and again for it to have any worth.” In a way, it speaks to me in terms of the experience of writing a novel. That each time I’m writing one, the only thing that matters is the book at hand that I’m writing. And I’m not kicking back and going, “Well, I’ve already written three others, so…”

                  It never feels that way. Is it like that for you too?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: It’s like that for me too. And in fact, I feel almost disabled by remembering the other books that I’ve written because I’m so afraid of repeating myself without realizing it, and then feeling like I’ve done nothing.

                  Rachel Kushner: That’s what you’re disabled by, is worrying that you’re going back into trod territory?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I guess I feel–“disabled” is maybe an insensitive choice of word–but, I feel like I need to be very careful to reject my past processes and my past approaches to the novel, because I know and believe that every new project needs its own process. And you have to sort of forget what you know to allow the new novel to teach you how to write it, right? Is that how you feel?

                  Rachel Kushner: Yes, absolutely. It’s like, the past novels do not reassure, they’re not there as proof or reassurance that one can write a novel. Although, in some larger sense, I do know I can write one. But, the problems in the book I’m working on cannot be solved by anything I learned from past novels. Maybe that’s it. My entire sense of purpose is fueled by what I’m doing today, now, as a writer, this week, this month. It has nothing to do with anything that’s published. It’s not that it’s dead to me, it’s just not there. I was just wondering…This was only when I read that line that I had that thought, about the novelist’s version of reality is not necessarily a sense of time having passed and achievements having been made.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: It’s not necessarily cumulative.

                  Rachel Kushner: It’s not cumulative, thank you, yeah. 

                  Can you talk about the film thing that you’re working on also? You have many film projects.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I do. I have kind of everything happening at once right now.

                  Rachel Kushner: I remember when I met you, you said that you had taught yourself how to write screenplays.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Oh, yeah. I “taught myself.”

                  Rachel Kushner: Well, you’d figured out how to write them.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Yes. As in I figured out how to download the proper software. [Laughs] I mean, that is kind of where you begin. No joke – the software teaches you the form. And the form of a screenplay is really intrinsic to its purpose. Which is to communicate not just what’s happening, or what needs to happen in production so that the images on screen will be what should be there, but also the tone and the speed, the tempo and the style and the world of that place.

                  So it really is, for me, a totally different art form from the novel, but one that I feel like I have experience in because it’s still about description and dialogue.

                  Rachel Kushner: Yeah. So you love doing it?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I kind of do, yeah. It feels like I’m using a different part of my brain. It’s a different energy source required to use.

                  Rachel Kushner: It seems really fun, and I have dabbled in it only a little bit in terms of working with you on a screenplay that you wrote, but one of my questions tonight that I wrote down on my phone was: “What’s a straight shooter like you doing in a world full of bullsh*t?”

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Who said that?

                  Rachel Kushner: Me. It was a joke question just about like… Hollywood people, they want to have a lot of meetings. Fiction writers are not like that.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah, I know. You talked about observing and watching people and that being part of how we generate our own histories as writers. And–I don’t get out a lot. Like, I haven’t been getting out a lot for a really long time. 

                  Rachel Kushner: So you’re observing these people. 

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah.

                  Rachel Kushner: [To audience] Watch out! 

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: My social circles are very surprising to me these days. We can talk about Hollywood, but the truth is, I’m not writing Marvel Comics movies…yet. So, what I’m really dealing with are pretty interesting, open minded–

                  Rachel Kushner: –People who want to make art films. 

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. And a lot of them aren’t–actually most of them aren’t–even in Los Angeles. But yeah, straight shooter. I mean, I’m definitely not a straight shooter.

                  Rachel Kushner: I think I was just going for the rhetorical zing of it, straight shooter versus bullsh*t. But I think of you actually as a pretty straight shooter.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Well, that’s what I intend to be. But I think in order to be a straight shooter, you need to understand Point A to get to point B, and I’m always like, where’s A? I don’t know where.

                  Rachel Kushner: Well, that actually brings another question to mind which I had wanted to ask about: your relationship to humor. Your books are very funny. But it’s not always necessarily clear, nor necessarily should it be how much you’ve committed to the bit with some of the humor. Like, you dedicated your last novel to your dog.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. With utmost sincerity. I’m not joking. 

                  Rachel Kushner: But your dog can’t read.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: He doesn’t need to. I read to him.

                  Rachel Kushner: That was a full sincere gesture?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: It was. And so was the Demi Lovato quote at the beginning.

                  Rachel Kushner: “I feel stupid when I pray,” for people who don’t know the quote. Knowing you, I know that was sincere.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Sincerity and absurdity are not necessarily opposing forces. I think a lot of things that are meaningful are also meaningful because they’re unexpected and strange and we don’t think of them as important, but then they are. To be perfectly honest, I dedicated Lapvona to my dog, Walter, because he was a big part of the visual inspiration of the novel. He looks like a dog from Lapvona. And he sat on my toes most days that I was writing.

                  Rachel Kushner: [To audience] He looks like a hyena, her dog. He does. I know her dog. He’s very cute.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: He’s very cute and he has very crooked teeth. I think he has the strange sort of twisted beauty I thought Lapvona needed when I was building the world. 

                  Rachel Kushner: So that dedication was just an acknowledgement of his position as a muse?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Yes, muse and best friend. 

                  Rachel Kushner: That makes sense. And the Demi Lovato thing, I was thinking…What you just said is interesting, that sincerity and absurdity are not necessarily opposing forces. Sincerity can come delivered in a container of camp.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Yes. Tell me how you feel about it. Because there are certain characters in your novels that I feel like are more comedic than others, and yet you can also sort of poke fun at the more serious characters, too. Are you intending to be funny or do you just find yourself writing funny characters?

                  Rachel Kushner: I don’t know. For some reason that’s a hard question to answer. It’s a good question. I think that I want to be alive to irony in every phrase of every sentence that I write. And if I’m not, I’m not doing something right in terms of what pleases me and entertains me about my own work. There needs to be that kind of snap, where the absurdity of things are being brought to light through language. I think that’s one of the things that language can do so well and in terms of social milieu, like maybe with The Mars Room in particular, there’s a lot of humor. I thought people were going to ask me, “Is the humor here to lighten the heaviness of the theme of the book?” Like this woman going to prison for life. But that really wasn’t the case. It was more that I told myself, “If you don’t find the real humor that exists among these people who populate your book, you are not telling the truth about them.” Because people are funny, and also life is funny.

                  Shakespeare was really funny. My son, who’s 15 right now, is reading Twelfth Night, and he just finds it so hilarious. It’s bawdy and lubricious. And I said, “That’s what we do. That’s what I do too, you know?” I’m not Shakespeare. I don’t know if he’ll ever read a word of what I’ve written. But, I was like, “Yo, that’s what we do, find the humor.” I mean, and to me, partly that is what dialogue is for. Yes. It’s upping the tension in terms of the way that people speak to each other. And you can kind of communicate with your reader through the dialogue because they’re in on it. They’re in on the humor. So, it’s just about entertaining myself, I guess?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Can I read you a quote?

                  Rachel Kushner: Yeah.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: And you have to tell me who said it.

                  Rachel Kushner: I hope this isn’t a literary test.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: It is.

                  “We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

                  Rachel Kushner: Oh, wait, that’s a really famous quote, the frozen axe. Was it that South African writer who wrote Disgrace?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: No.

                  Rachel Kushner: Who said it?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Kafka.

                  Rachel Kushner: Oh, Kafka said that?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. I heard that for the first time two days ago, and I was like, “An axe for the frozen sea.”

                  Rachel Kushner: I’ve heard “the axe of the frozen sea” before, but why bring that up? 

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Well, because we were talking about humor. And then I was like, maybe this is a moment to bring this very self-serious quotation by an author who also employed a lot of absurdity and some humor. But I just wondered what you thought. Do you feel that way about your books, that they must grieve us deeply like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves?

                  Rachel Kushner: No. I remember actually, I went to Prague to go to this writing workshop there. It was called the Prague Summer Seminars. 

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I remember that. 

                  Rachel Kushner: It was right after the Velvet Revolution and Vaclav Havel, a playwright, was president, and everything was opening up there. It was a time when people were moving to Prague–there were hipsters living in Prague, and they had this summer seminar there, and it was at Charles University, where, I guess, Kafka had an office. He worked there. And then there’s the Czech writer, Hrabal, who’s a comic writer, and the joke was that Kafka would be having coffee and going up to stay up all night and tear his hair out at work. And Hrabal would be going down to drink beer and commune with his friends and these two different approaches to Czechoslovakian–as it would have been called at the time, or no, it’s earlier than that, but a kind of central European–sensibility. 

                  I don’t really know much about either one of them. I’ve read some Kafka. This thing about grieving more than for people you’ve known…That’s hard for me to imagine because people are so important to me. I don’t know really what to say about that. I mean, if he felt that way, that’s fine. I’m not really interested in making big statements about literature. My life is formed around art making. And it is what gives my life meaning and coherence. Because all the things that you absorb over the course of a day and a month and a life are then put to work and activated by this thing you’re making. And not only that, but–you as “me” in this scenario–as I go about my day, I encounter things that will either pertain to what I’m doing with my novel or they won’t. And that is the mesh, the threshing mechanism by which they are viewed. They’re either going in the work or they aren’t. And so, writing novels guides me on how to live. And maybe that’s more what I would say if I were forced to say something about it.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Mm hmm. I feel exactly the same way. The threshing mechanism of having a novel is pretty profound. Do you find that alienating at all?

                  Rachel Kushner: In terms of other people?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah.

                  Rachel Kushner: Well, I’m just so used to being alienated, you know? Just feeling a little bit apart somehow, lifelong. I think everyone feels that way to some degree. It might just be–back to like, the heaviness of childhood, you kind of know at a certain point that it’s just you and that you have to figure out how to be a child and how to get through it and then get into adulthood and figure that out. So the being separate part of it just seems normal. Do you mean alienated like in terms of doing something different that other people aren’t doing?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I’m more like you, but I’m just assuming that if you’re not looking at life as either, “this is for my work” and “this is something else”… Do you think other people can sense that about us?

                  Rachel Kushner: My parents are definitely onto it. ‘Cause I remember saying something about, “Oh, I want to listen. I want to be there when those two people talk.” And my dad said, “She’ll write about it if she’s there.” Maybe that’s a more jokey way of dealing with it, but I don’t know if people can sense it or not. I don’t really think about that. I do like living in a way that doesn’t draw attention to myself. And I wouldn’t want, for instance, this is such a different context and city, but Brooklyn. The whole idea of the Brooklyn writer and hanging out with people in New York, where like I walked down the street with Ben Lerner and people are like, “I love your books, man!” Because he’s so recognizable in Brooklyn. I adore Ben, and he’s not living for that recognizability. He married a New Yorker and she wouldn’t want to leave there, so that’s why they live there. But I wouldn’t want to live so close in proximity to these very limited little social rewards that come with being a writer where you are acknowledged as a writer and appreciated and rewarded for it in a social world–I would find that really stifling. I like living in a place where people just think that I’m the neighbor who comes out and sweeps her porch not often enough in a nightgown, and I interact with people who have no idea what I do most of the time. People I’m quite friendly with and know well, but it just never comes up, and I really prefer that. Do you feel that way?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: No. I don’t have those sort of engagements with people. Maybe it’s part, partly because I live in more of a remote little neighborhood, and I’m not walking to the coffee shop or making friends with my neighbors, really. But I have to say about Kafka, I do want each book to feel like a disaster. Like, that part of it, I really like.

                  Rachel Kushner: Oh, you got applause from back there. The making of it or the effect of it? Or neither?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Both, and I think that my test for how–I’m gonna hate this word–how successful a book is, is if I can read it and still feel destroyed by it the second time.

                  Rachel Kushner: Of your own book?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Of my own book or anyone else’s book. I mean definitely I test myself on my own books in that way. I want to be moved deeply and not know how to proceed so that there’s a bit of damage. In the sense that when something breaks, and you tie it back together, then it gets stronger. You know, that there’s a purpose to that disaster.

                  Rachel Kushner: I would agree with that. I just had this thought, that I just finished a draft of a novel, and it was like a nine month bender that I was on. I’m taking a break right now from it. But each book, I mean, it’s hard to generalize them, and yet, there’s a sense of trying to create the conditions of possibility for me to have an encounter with my own unconscious. And that when you do that, you uncork something. Like some kind of genie comes out of the bottle and the genie has something to do with you, but it knows things that you don’t know and is going to manifest in patterns and imagery and a sequence that you’ve simply could not have imagined before you did the work, sentence by sentence by sentence, and you build the thing. And it has to kind of feel quite perilous. Like it could crash on the rocks. If it weren’t like that, and you could anticipate, then it would be more like a paint-by-numbers Warhol painting or something. It would be kind of cute and coy and like a gesture. But a novel is never a gesture, right? 

                  A gesture to me is a delimited thing that you have control over, and you know where it begins, and you know the shape that it takes, and you know how it ends. But a novel is not like that. No? It opens up something very mysterious inside the person. Yeah. Vicious things, even.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Like what?

                  Rachel Kushner: Moods and possibilities for more violent types of interactions than one has in everyday life. It’s a desublimated space. And that’s partly what it’s made for, I think.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I’m with you on that. Also I cannot wait to read your new book. Congratulations. 

                  Rachel Kushner: Oh, thanks, Tess.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I find that there’s something addictive about that dangerous space of being in a novel and also being in it by yourself. Where the universe feels like it’s conspiring toward playing a role in your struggle with this thing. And, a lot of very uncanny coincidences happen, to the point where you almost feel like you might be paranoid schizophrenic.

                  Rachel Kushner: Like that’s the threshing mechanism I’m talking about where things in the world indicate to you that they are auditioning for space in your book. Does that always happen to you with every book?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Yes. But weirdly, the project I’m working on now… Maybe not so weird. I made this very deliberate decision, and I often don’t feel like I have agency to make decisions once I’ve really committed to a book and understand a little bit of what it is, but I made it, a decision and a commitment to myself that I was going to write this book slowly. Which I don’t usually do. And, as a result, the uncanny thing is happening in a different way. And that is more that each time I write…When I write this book, I’m generating some new words, but I’m also going backwards and moving things around and remembering things and where I left them. Every single time I go back to this book, there’s at least a paragraph that I don’t remember writing. And it does kind of freak me out.

                  Rachel Kushner: Because you wrote it a while ago?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: It could have been yesterday. It could have been the night before and I’m waking up in the morning.

                  Rachel Kushner: That’s good! I think writing really is about, I sometimes say it’s like having encounters with yourself in a dark alley, but you’re literally having them like, “Who put this food in my mouth?” You know that old Saturday Night Live short term memory thing? But I love that feeling. Like when I go back and read some of my own work and I don’t remember writing that part because I was really in some kind of jag. It’s wonderful. Well, I’m excited to read that, too. Are we just supposed to go to the audience? I can’t remember what they told us.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I don’t know, are there questions? I had so many other things I wanted to ask you. 

                  Rachel Kushner: I did, too. 

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Rachel, what is the purest form of self expression?

                  Rachel Kushner: [Laughs] Well, I would say that I think I could speak to the most accurate experience. The form that can give you the closest experience to what it’s like to be inside someone else’s consciousness is the novel. I don’t know about the purest form of experience, but I had a question where I was thinking we could talk about composing music and writing novels because I think there are so many overlaps between the two in ways that there are not overlaps with other art forms. But why don’t I just turn that one back around on you? What is the purest?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: The purest form of self expression to me is singing melody, I think. Without words, like [singing] “Laa”…

                  Rachel Kushner: I disagree with that, only because the people who can really sing, it’s lucky for them that it happens to be the case that the purest form of self expression depicts them in the best light.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: What? What if you’re not a good singer?

                  Rachel Kushner: Well, then your self expression will not have the same clarity of qualities that the good singer’s has, which is why I think that it’s not necessarily a pure form of self expression.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Okay, well, I guess self expression and art are different.

                  Rachel Kushner: I was thinking that they are, and I immediately went to art. I don’t know about other self expressions because I’m really interested in repressions and how they work. Because I think that they function well for the artist. 

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah, those are good. 

                  Rachel Kushner: They’re little engines.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Okay.  

                  Audience Member 1: Hi. From Mel Brooks to Mark Twain–there’s so many different forms of comedy–to Ionesco. And it seems to me you have a lot in common, but you have a very different relationship to comedy. And I’d like to hear a little bit more about your feelings about comedy in general. Like the Kafka quote, the whole purpose of writing seems to take comedy and sort of ignore it completely. Twelfth Night. Wonderful. And I’d just like to hear more about that.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Oh, I think that comedy can be just as devastating as anything really sincerely dramatic. In fact, I sort of think of comedy as the highest art form. That doesn’t mean that it always makes you laugh. I mean, even in this quotation–”a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”–I find that to be hilarious. It’s so overdramatic. A lot of the humor in my work is by accident in that same way. In fact, that’s sort of how I developed the humor and my style of writing in my collection of short stories. I would write each one sort of just off the cuff, from the heart, really trying to vibe the character and would be struggling to really profoundly capture the depths of this person. And then I would read it back and I would laugh because the self seriousness was so ludicrous. And so seeing those two sides and how, yeah, you know, you take yourself so seriously, you kind of become a satire of yourself. That is sort of how my comedy developed.

                  Rachel Kushner: That’s a good answer. Yeah, and your books are so funny. Knowing you, I can see that there is that…Sometimes I’ll read something by you that’s just so cutting, and you’ll go, “No, it was a sincere investigation of myself.” You know? With the character, like My New Novel. That character has a very funny book. I don’t know what to say about humor, except that I think that sometimes I can get into a mood where, I feel quite attuned to certain kinds of institutional humor, which isn’t to say non-human humor, because people make institutions, but just to give an example, when I was writing The Mars Room, I happened to be in Texas, and I was at the Travis County Jail with some students of mine. We went there to do this tour, and the guy who was giving us the tour showed us the intake handbook for new prisoners, and it was called, like, The Travis County Guide to Correctional Life as an Inmate in Texas, and it was 40 pages long. And then the guide gave us, he said, you know, “All inmates”–and people don’t really use that language, but that was the language that he used–“are required to read this book. And then we give them this other book to also read first.” And that book was called The Guide to the Guide to Correctional Life in Travis County Prisons and Jails. And it was 130 pages. 

                  I just feel like life is full of these things. And fiction is a perfect place to kind of let them run free. And sometimes a little hyperbole just lets people get closer to the truth. You gotta exaggerate a little bit so that they can feel the hurt.

                  Audience Member 2: Hi, the idea of a successful novel being one that destroys the reader, really resonated with me. That sense of timelessness and desolation after finishing something that really struck you to your core that you get when you’re done with it, is one of the most powerful experiences I can think of. Is there any common thread you found in your work or in other work that gave you that impression? And it’s kind of for both of you.

                  Rachel Kushner: Do you mean to have that, have like a devastating experience while reading a book?

                  Audience Member 2: Yeah, and specifically like, Ottessa had expressed it earlier, the sentiment of it, and I’m not sure how to convey it better, but where the book really connected with you at a very, very fundamental level, and kind of changed the way that you think about the world to the point where you’re, for me at least, where it’s almost, I’m unable to think about what I’m going to do next once I’ve put the book down.

                  Rachel Kushner: You mean as readers.

                  Audience Member 2: Yes.

                  Rachel Kushner: For me, The Brothers Karamazov, I would sayI was just talking about that tonight before I came here–was like that. I’d actually never read it until I read the new translation that came out about ten years ago. I was by myself at a residency–this sounds like a lucky life–in Italy, reading that book, I guess it was like 2016, and I got to the end. And I remember the feeling, sitting in this chair, getting to the end of The Brothers Karamazov, and just crying uncontrollably. So, I guess that book, which just presents two main opposing worldviews concerning goodness and innocence. But a range of other ideas within that. And there’s a scene in the book where Alyosha gives this talk, they call it “The Talk by the Stone,” and he’s addressing these children, whose peer has just died, another child, and they’re all very sad about it, and they’re memorializing their friend, and their teacher, who is in a priest-like position with these kids, says–

                  Wait, is Alyosha a priest? I can’t remember now. Somebody in the audience will know this book much better than me and I will out myself as having been a sloppy reader. But I read it all in a rush and it’s quite a long book, it’s like 700 pages. And there’s a scene where Alyosha is telling the children, “Take the feeling that you have right now for your friend and carry it with you in your heart always.” And it felt like an incredible lesson in what innocence is. Which is a pure feeling–I’m sorry for the person in the audience who just heard me talking about this earlier tonight–but it is a pure feeling, and I decided that’s what innocence is. And that pure feeling you take with you later and it’s inviolable and it stays with you also. And it made me so sad for everyone and especially people who take acts later that violate their own innocence or have their innocence violated later by other people. But somehow the idea that there’s a purity there at the heart was a bittersweet illumination for me that was definitely a transforming, life changing moment as a reader. 

                  [To Ottessa] Did you want to answer?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: I would just say, I find that if I’m reading something, and it has gripped me and I’m in another world and in another consciousness and I have kind of forgotten where I am, I’m so suggestible that anything–this could happen with a lot of different kinds of books–could make me feel really disoriented when I’m done. But I think that the feeling that I look for in my own books is to feel like I don’t know anything when it’s over. Like somehow the book has just completely undone itself and I’m now almost stunned and stupefied. I love that feeling. It makes me feel like I have the desire to understand myself now, walking around as a human being, rather than being trained on a kind of virtual reality experience within the book. And I like my endings. I wouldn’t finish the book if I didn’t like the way they end. And usually someone dies, say, every single time. Maybe there’s another way. I’ll figure it out.

                  Audience Member 3: Hi, I have a question about an experience as a writer that would be unique to Ottessa, I guess. There has to be this moment before you’ve had a successful novel or novel that’s been well taken where you’re sort of holding this potential future in your hands of being an author and you’re living in 1980s New England with non-American parents, and that’s somewhat bold to have as like this thing in front of you, I guess, and you’re deciding like, I’m gonna pursue this creative, somewhat unsafe career, and I’m going to do it by writing these really intense, uncomfortable novels that I don’t know how people are going to receive. So you’re just being yourself in this world where I imagine people have expectations. Like, in New England school systems, you’re in the literary world. People are assuming they can name drop authors or artists and you’re familiar and you’re kind of paving this unique way, I guess. Before all this, what were these, what were the things that you held onto that had you keep going and kind of push through to where you are now?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Well, just to lay some groundwork, you’re not 100 percent right about what was going on. And what I can say without having to explain all of that is that, I understood that if you want to be great at something, you need to work harder than everyone else you know who wants it. I’m not quite sure why, but I understood that. And I also had this sense that I had a lucky star. And I knew that because from the age of 14, my writing life was illuminated by somebody who saw what I wanted to do and encouraged me to keep going. And that was a mentor. 

                  I don’t have a mentor anymore. I don’t want a mentor now, but when I was an adolescent it was extremely important. I also had a mother whose parenting style included telling me that I was the best. And that everyone else can go to hell. That contributed to a lot of problems as a young person, but what it also did was imbued me with this very necessary arrogance that I think a writer needs in order to pursue making something out of nothing and expecting that other people will read it. You need to have that confidence. Whether it’s based on a delusion or not doesn’t really matter.

                  So that, working extremely hard and needing it, knowing that if I didn’t do this, I’m not quite sure I would want to stick around. That’s how desperate I was. So, those things. 

                  Rachel Kushner: That was a great answer. 

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Thanks, Rach.

                  Rachel Kushner: I was thinking also because your parents revere art and are art practitioners. I think that makes a really big difference in the life of a young person. Obviously there are outliers who just sui generis become artists. I always thought we kind of have that in common, even though my parents are not artists, they’re scientists. But your parents bonded over classical music and my parents bonded over John Coltrane and Dylan Thomas, but bonded over art, where people who make art and a reverence for art is very alive in the house of the child.

                  Audience Member 4: Can you talk about making this movie, this writing of the film? How that started, or how you work together?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: So, I met Rachel four years ago, maybe? And we didn’t really get to be close friends until she had asked if I would be interested in writing the screenplay adaptation of The Mars Room. Which I immediately wanted to do because it’s such an incredible novel. That’s really where it started. We talked a lot. We had a lot of meetings.

                  Rachel Kushner: Fun meetings, just us two.

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah, and we went through drafts of the screenplay. What’s incredible is that I’m not not just working with a great novelist, but a great novelist who also can think in cinema. So, it was really fun. I mean, I don’t know what else to say.

                  Rachel Kushner: So fun. We kind of constructed a story together, and Ottessa wrote a script, and I don’t know, we haven’t talked recently about what our plans are for it. There was a producer involved who’s had some issues, but we have it back from him now. Or I guess I have it back. 

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: You have your book back. 

                  Rachel Kushner: I have my book back from him, yeah. And we just have to find the right director.

                  Audience Member 5: So from the perspective of a layman who is not a writer, it’s very easy to think of the work of a novelist as sitting down one day and saying, “I’m going to write a book in which this will happen and this will happen and this will happen.” And then you fill in the words and there you go. But what resonated with me over the course of the talk is, Ottessa, you mentioned that you build worlds from objects and, Rachel, you mentioned that you build characters from dialogue and cadence and things like that. And so, the novel, you also said, will leave you stupefied and confused and disoriented. It unleashes something inside of you, that you don’t entirely have control of and these are all sort of things that you brought up. So what surprised me essentially is that it was not as simple and linear as I thought. And what I wanted to know was… What it’s like when you’re writing and your characters kind of come to life, as you write. They begin to surprise you with their actions or their thoughts, or the narrative is all of a sudden something that you could not have conceptualized before you started writing. What is that experience like as a novelist?

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: Ecstasy.

                  Rachel Kushner: So fun. It’s like the best drug you’ve ever tried. [Laughs]

                  Ottessa Moshfegh: There’s the intense pleasure of it, but then for me, that moment, it might last a while, or it might last a moment. And, then it’s sort of like trying to lucid dream. You’ve been gifted this clarity, but now what, you know?

                  And so there’s a lot of, for me, trying and then waiting and changing my mind and trying to do something totally different, thinking that maybe the right thing will emerge. And eventually it does, but it isn’t predictable and I often find that when I’m in that state of ecstasy, that too will run out because I’ll start questioning it and I’ll be like, “This is too easy. How’s this happening? Is this all right?” Even if it is. So I don’t know, it is kind of the struggle between what feels like a divine act, beyond me, and then me, toiling.

                  Rachel Kushner: I don’t know what to add to that, except maybe I would just say there are smaller moments, that when I’m not necessarily deep into some feeling like I’m tunneling to the center of the earth and I can’t stop until I get there–which is a feeling that I have had at times, and even recently–but there are smaller, more subtle moments where I have the kind of satisfaction that I think you’re pointing to in your question where you realize that you have a lot more to say about something that has been jarred or nudged free by something like an object, or a phrase, or an image. And then it’s all there for you, and you’re going with it. 

                  How I would summarize those moments is–and I think this is true for everyone–There are things about the world that only I know. And I think there are things about the world that only each person knows. And the act of writing fiction is a place where you can somehow create the magical conditions of possibility where those parts of you can speak. Because you don’t have access to them in everyday life. Unless you just piss your talent away, socializing or something like that. But since we don’t, it’s all locked away.

                  Transcribed by Gabriel Hawkins