I was late, and I had to stand in the back. But I listened, captivated, as she effortlessly unraveled a tale called “The Weirdos,” which has since appeared in the Paris Review. It is one of many stories included in her newest collection, Homesick for Another World. Admittedly, it was hard to hear every word, but the sentences I caught filled me with an uncanny ambience. My head swam with her chaotic images: Egyptian crows, sickly palm trees, weeping primates. And so it was that I was introduced to the work of the now-acclaimed author, whose 2015 novel Eileen was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.
I have since consumed what I believe to be all of Ottessa’s available work. including her first novel, McGlue, which came out in 2014. Ottessa’s stories occupy a space of unrest, meandering like a hangover somewhere between mania and melancholy. We spoke on the phone shortly before the release of her new collection; she had just arrived home from a typical Los Angeles traffic jam, and I was sitting on the floor of my childhood bedroom.
CLARK ALLEN: You were interviewed recently for the Guardian about Eileen, and the headline for the article used a quote where you claimed that you wanted to be famous. I thought it obnoxious and baiting in kind of the wrong way, literary fame being distinctly different from what we typically perceive as fame. I was hoping you could clarify what exactly you meant by that.
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH: What I meant is that I need to make a living as a writer, so I need to be famous enough that people will buy my book so I can feed myself and pay my rent. And I don’t really care, otherwise, but I think you need to be famous to have that kind of mass appeal.
The whole country is clawing at Meryl Streep’s brief comments at the Golden Globes purely because she’s famous, and every time I see it, I think, “God, how awful.” But at the same time, I do think about the responsibility of an artist once they’ve reached such a platform.
I actually didn’t watch that so I have no idea what she said.
I didn’t either. I’ve just walked by a million headlines about it. It was some criticism of current political goings on, which may have been important, but the coverage is really just a distraction from current events. It’s not really about anything but scrutinizing this person purely because she’s famous.
I think Hollywood actors and television figures have it the worst. I don’t think literary fame is really up to the same kind of scrutiny. People don’t really care. I could tell you I voted for Trump, and would it really matter?
Maybe. It’s a pretty divisive issue. I was just wondering about your concept of fame. I was introduced to your work when I heard you read “The Weirdos” at Room 220 in New Orleans in 2013.
No shit. You were there?
Yeah. I showed up late, though, and had to stand in the back. When “The Weirdos” crossed my path again I had this revelation about the phrases that had stuck with me. The story doesn’t have a lot of movement, but the descriptions within it are so memorable. Throughout your new collection, Homesick for Another World, I find a lot of stories to be similar in that way, visceral descriptions of people and their existential issues, without much physical action. Can you tell me a little about the attraction to creating these go-nowhere tales featuring complicated inner lives?
I think there are enough stories on TV and in film that are all about plot, and literature has the advantage of being able to depict the inside of someone’s mind; that’s something really particular to writing. That’s why I’m a writer, and that’s what I’m interested in. If I was interested in action movies I would probably be rich and living in the hills or something … I don’t fucking know, but I’m not.
I’m interested in the way a character imagines his or her own reality, navigates it, gets it wrong, has a new idea, and rebuilds. I find that to be a pretty important experience as a human being. My life has a plot, certainly, but I live an internal life inside my head, and I think that’s probably true for most people, except for shut-down morons hypnotized by TV or sex or whatever. A lot of life doesn’t go anywhere, and what’s interesting is what happens on the inside in that time.
A lot of the characters throughout Homesick for Another World are sort of treading water. In “The Weirdos,” the boyfriend brings home a gun, and there’s the old trope that any time there’s a gun in a story it means it will have to be fired. But that gun is never fired; it hardly gets mentioned again. The main character, who’s clearly intelligent and thoughtful, seems content to live with this guy who can’t pull his head out of his ass and get anything done for himself, which seems coupled with some excuse for her to do nothing with herself, to find contentment in a rut.
I guess I would have to argue with you. I don’t think that they’re stuck in place. I think that they’re experiencing a moment of tension in not wanting to be who they are anymore. So there is actually a lot of movement within my stories. I wouldn’t say the female character in “The Weirdos” is content at all. I think her narrative is a large complaint.
“Content” is probably the wrong word. More like “resigned,” as if she has given up on trying to change anything. There’s a moment where her boyfriend has sex with her “until he’s done.” Like she’s decided he can just fuck her and she doesn’t even care. She has access to this gun, she steals her neighbor's money but doesn’t do anything with it. The story ends before we get to see her do the thing she’s working up to. The story “A Dark and Winding Road” also ends before the action takes place. There’s a guy who’s maybe living vicariously through his “trashy” younger brother, and he does something supposedly “trashy,” or transgressive, in the end, but there’s never any clarification on what he got out of it.
Well again, to argue with you, I don’t think getting pegged is necessarily “trashy.” It was an experience for him. The last lines from that story are something like, “it wasn’t this and it wasn’t that but it was disgusting — just as I’d always hoped it would be.” This is a man struggling with losing some autonomy, because he’s about to become a father. Wrapped up in that are questions about his virility, his sexuality, and how he measures up to his brother, who he sees as an oaf, but also more of a man than he is. There’s description of how loud his brother fucks his mentally disabled girlfriend. The narrator is kind of effete, and his brother is an animal.
In that story he somehow inhabits a scenario that his brother set up, waiting to fuck this meth-head, but instead of becoming the animal that his brother is, he feigns homosexuality in a way that, for him, is extremely exciting. He finally gets to be somebody else. I think that’s what I’m interested in, this question of whether or not we are allowed to be other people. Are we allowed to change? Do we give ourselves permission to grow? Are we even capable of making those kinds of decisions? Is there a will, or are we just being pushed around by our own personalities, just fucked to be who we are?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this book that’s been really popular, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Are you familiar?
I’ve never read it but I’ve heard lots about it.
I’ve skimmed through it; it’s all about minimalism, I think. One of the things it talks about is removing objects from your life that cause pain or nostalgia. But what if I want things that inspire anger, or melancholy? Life is messy. I’m wondering: Does having your characters confront these kinds of messy questions and ugly moods takes on a therapeutic role for you?
It certainly entertains me. Comedy is always sort of healing, but I really wouldn’t call it therapeutic. I would just call it my natural state. It’s interesting that you bring up that book and the concept of removing anything that inspires negativity because that’s exactly the project that my protagonist takes on in this novel that I just finished. I guess in a way I’m someone who abandons things a lot. I move every few years. My mom is someone who hoards beautiful objects, and I grew up in a culture that was very much an aesthetic one, and very silent in an emotional or psychological way.
I have intense relationships with objects, and I dare myself to throw out things that I love all the time. Part of it is the thrill of detachment, which I think is about the thrill of death — reminding myself that I’m not long for this world. That’s scary and cool and mysterious and fun. My characters are attached to things, often because objects are symbols that can do a lot in short fiction. But I would say that my stories are more about people’s relationships with themselves and not so much the objects that they’ve surrounded themselves with … but it’s all a metaphor anyway. Haha.
The last story in the book, “A Better Place,” which is definitely about moving on, ends, again, at what I felt was almost a climax. Can you elaborate on where that story came from? It’s the only story narrated by a child, and it puts it in this world that is not quite as grounded in reality as the rest of the collection.
I wanted to explore finding a way off the planet without having to die. It was the last story I wrote for the collection, which is basically laid out in chronological order in which I wrote them, and it did not surprise me that the first story is called “Bettering Myself” and the last is called “A Better Place.” In the four or five years that I took to write that collection I was in a period of recovery and self-betterment, and at the end of writing the book, which was the spring of 2015, I was pretty disenchanted with my world. I was living in Oakland, and I hadn’t made any friends there for the two years I’d been living there. I was pretty fucking depressed and lonely and thinking a lot about the existential question of why to persist living when things may never get better.
I have a pretty close psychic relationship with my brother, who is not my twin — like the brother is in the story — but is somebody who kind of haunts me. He’s my little brother and I love him very much, but he’s had a very different life than mine, and in many ways I think that I have a lucky star that he doesn’t. He has been in a place that he shouldn’t be; he’s incarcerated. I had also been thinking a lot about my ancestry, mostly on my mom’s side of the family. My mom is from Croatia and she met my dad in Belgium in a music school. They had my sister and moved to Iran, where my dad is from. But then there was a war and we were forced to leave, and they ended up in the United States. I’ve inherited a very weird set of ancestral fears and anxieties, which I think are particular to the political histories of the countries that my family originates from. I think “A Better Place” feels somewhat Eastern European. Does that come across?
You know, I fixated really heavily on the poison berries in that story, which drew a connection, for me, to Shirley Jackson. And that put it in a specifically American place.
Oh, that’s interesting.
I didn’t know if it was an explicit connection you were trying to make, or if it was a coincidental likeness to We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
That’s funny, because I was recently asked to write an introduction to a new collection of Shirley Jackson’s fiction. I took on the project because people kept comparing me to Shirley Jackson, and I’d never read a single thing she’s written, so this will be an interesting project. I have a stack of Shirley Jackson books that I need to read. I have to say, starting from her early work, I don’t relate. I don’t think our writing is similar at all.
I think if I were to draw a connection to you and another author … maybe Angela Carter? And that’s purely based on physical descriptions of specific things, and not on any actual events or content within the stories themselves.
Yeah, she’s cool. I think “A Better Place” may have some Angela Carter in it, the way that she’s rewriting a folk tale …
I was writing that story and I wanted off the planet, so that’s kind of where the question came from: this girl and her brother feel like they’re from another place, and they’ve wrongly been put here on Earth. They come up with a theory that they can go back to that place, which they think is better, and that theory is that if they each need to kill the right person. If they kill the right person a hole will open up in the world, and they can jump through it and go back to that better place … but they’ve got to kill the right person. The story came to me almost exactly as it’s written. It’s the most personal story in the collection, the only story I think I’ve cried over writing, because I was so moved to discover how much I love my brother. Not that I thought that I didn’t love him, but it’s a story about making this decision to leave people behind for your own sanity. I think most people who have difficult families can relate to that … right?
Yes. That came through, her conflicting feelings. It’s hard to describe that emotion. I guess, well, congratulations on that success?
Thank you. You know, I lost a friend when I was 19, someone who was really important to me in my adolescence, and well, it’s really fucking hard to lose a friend. This girl died, and when somebody close dies your whole life changes. You start wondering where they’ve gone. I used to have dreams that she would call me on the telephone and tell me where she was. I remember once she told me she was on some military base and they were taking good care of her. Shit like that.
This collection is relentless, moving from one enormous heavy emotion to another, so it’s heartening to hear about these pieces of yourself within it. I’ve wondered if it would leave some readers numb. Do you have any thoughts on engaging readers who are uncomfortable approaching something that frightens or discomforts them?
I would say if you can’t tolerate the book then you might not have a sense of humor at the moment, but maybe you will later. I mean, it’s also a funny book — it’s not all pain and sadness. I’m kind of making fun of it. “Oh God, the pain of humanity. Oh God, life is sooo hard.” It’s really like, “C’mon everyone.”
You write from a lot of perspectives in time, place, gender, et cetera. The reader isn’t able to predict who or when will be next. Do you have a preference for writing one particular type of person or place?
I like to stay within the timeframe of my own life. For my short stories, at least, I prefer to stay within the decades that I’ve witnessed. I was born in 1981. There’s a story called “Nothing Ever Happens Here” set in Los Angeles in the late ’80s. I enjoy writing from the perspective of both men and women. It’s interesting for me, but I don’t really care much about gender. I like making fun of everybody. I’ve written two novels from the perspective of a woman. My first was from the perspective of a man and my next novel will be from the perspective of a man. I suppose I like to keep a balance. I’m very sensitive to being pegged as a female author because that is not “who I am.” I just happen to have a vagina. I don’t identify that much as a woman, I never really have, so I feel pretty lurid in my imagination. I think my best book is my first, McGlue, which is set in the mid-19th century. I would like to write more work set in the distant past.
Some of the criticism of your last novel, Eileen, revolved around how shocking it was, which I found really silly. Why do you think people find her shocking?
Because they’re brainwashed morons?
Cool. I think that’s right. Something that has stuck with me about the character of Eileen that, as she navigates this really shitty landscape, she can’t directly get what she wants — she has to be more circuitous, less assertive, about it. Do you find that analysis accurate at all?
Yeah, I think that’s a good read. You know what? I’m 35, and my complaints about patriarchy are all fading because I think everything is such bullshit. Patriarchy is part of our history, sure, but I don’t need to believe in it or subscribe to it or anything. I couldn’t write Eileen again; I couldn’t write such a pathetic female character again. I think about this less and less though. I’m less concerned with gender politics the older I get. I’m less concerned with sex too. I don’t give a shit. I think it’s mostly just capitalism.
You’ve said you wrote Eileen just to grab people’s attention. I felt it was very much like one of your short stories, until the major turning point in the book; then suddenly some other book is happening. It almost felt like, in the process of writing it, you might have said: “Well fuck it, let’s get this over with.”
Haha, dude I’m not talking about that. I’m not going to shit on my own book!
Haha, okay. That’s not exactly what I was trying to get at …
I was writing that novel out of desperation, and in it, I realized that the only thing that was going to be interesting for me was if I started fucking with the conservative tropes of novels. And with that, too, structure. I really bent the exposition of Eileen, I think to the point where I lost a lot of readers. I’m sure there were people saying, “Nothing is happening in this book. This is just some fucked up girl describing her fucked up shit.” I did that deliberately, but I don’t know if I would do it again. I did it to play a game with the novel itself.
What are our expectations for a novel? Well, first of all, it needs to suck you in. You need to try to fall in love or fall in hate with the characters, and you need to be invested in what happens to them. But I just wanted to ask: “How much can you tolerate her? How much can you take, until I do the fucking plot twist?” That was me inserting myself into a project, doing a little bit of performance as a writer. I did write it, it’s my book and it’s from my imagination, but it was a new project for me. It was an experiment and I didn’t want to fully go mainstream and sell out, so I bent some expectations on the way a novel is supposed to move.
You mentioned that you just finished a new novel. Are you going to continue focusing on novels or return to short fiction?
I’m not writing short stories anymore. I’ve pretty much fallen in love with the novel form. I’d like to write an animated movie script and I’ve been writing more essays than I expected I ever would … Which means I’ve written, like, four essays.
I did see your piece in Lucky Peach on mayonnaise, which I enjoyed. What were some of the others you’ve done?
I did a piece on the writing craft for The Master’s Review. It’s called “How to Shit.” I did an essay for The New Yorker on coyotes. I’m going to DC in a couple of weeks on inauguration day to write something about what the fuck is going on, what I observe in the city.