VANITY IS THE ENEMY: An Interview with Ottessa Moshfegh
I met Ottessa Moshfegh at her 1920s East Hollywood apartment, where she generously showed me, a stranger, her work space and her home. A Croatian-Iranian witchdoctor from Newton, Massachusetts, Moshfegh is living the entire realization of a self, a life of serous writing since the age of 15. She laughingly tells me in her kitchen that at the crux of breakdown several years ago, she volunteered as a test patient at the Hypnosis Motivation Institute in Tarzana and received 12 free sessions with a recent graduate. Since unplugging herself from the brainwash of polarizing dialectics imposed by fascists, she claims to have “the KKK and terrorists living inside her vagina.”
She is the least couched author I’ve ever met — too honest to negotiate her sentiments in the politics of present day. Fire burns in her brown eyes, one of which is reptilian and flashing, the other ancient redwood and water in space.
Moshfegh is the author of McGlue, a novella which channels a mid-19th century drunken sailor who murdered his would-be love in the port of Zanzibar. It won the Fence Modern Prize in Prose and the Believer Book Award. Her next book, Eileen, a novel, was a fussy perversion of Americana noir, and she wrote the first full draft, she claims, in two months using a how-to manual. It won the PEN/Hemingway Award, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I haven’t read either, yet.
Her latest from Penguin Press, Homesick for Another World, is a filthy sublime mount of mind-wrecking short stories, some of which have appeared in the Paris Review, the New Yorker, Granta, Vice, etc. I don’t fetishize these venues — her stories are too good for them. I have read them all. She is writing for us, for the integration of darkness into light. If you hurt her — the collective YOU — she may destroy herself and we won’t have her anymore. She makes life fun in a time when everyone hates everyone.
We met on December 1st, 2016. We drove in my truck with my dog to a restaurant near her home where we sat at a quiet table outside. We ordered a whole fish, scallops, linguine con le vongole, asparagus, arugula salad, two glasses of wine for the witchdoctor, and several coffees for me. We had both taken a Valium.
LUKE GOEBEL: What are you paranoid about? Is there anything? Because I read your stories, and it seems like, in certain stories, you are saying to the reader: “Beware, I’m the witchdoctor. I’ll do whatever the fuck I want — and you’re going to love it.”
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH: That’s how I approach writing. Of course I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want.
But that’s not what the world is doing right now. Everyone is playing privilege Olympics. Who can say what, who can’t say what, how dare you say what…
Yeah, I don’t give a shit about that.
How old were you when you wrote “Bettering Myself,” the first story in the collection?
And the same with “Mr. Wu”? Were you not afraid of what your parents thought? In these stories about eating poop, anal sex, making a whore lick her own poop off a Chinese man’s fingers? Scopophilia, coprophagia…
I don’t even know what those words mean.
It means, like, loving poop. People who lick poop. Love the smell of poop, where poop comes out of. The anus.
Ooooh. Yeah, I’m just now getting out of an anal obsession. I got an email from this guy the other day, who emailed me ten years ago for the first time because he had seen a picture of me in a bikini, and now he’s reading Eileen. He works for VICE. Anyway, he emailed me to ask me out for ice cream ten years ago and then chickened out. So he emailed me this week to say hi and blah blah. I looked back at our emails from 2007, and in the last one he’d never responded to, I’d written: “Have you ever read Philosophy in the Boudoir? Marquis de Sade says anal sex is best when the ass is full of shit. What do you think?” But I’m 35 now. You know? I rarely respond to emails.
Let me just go through these notes on some of your subjects: bad breath, halitosis, anal…play, puss, abandoned dildos, puke. Throatfisting?
People ask me why I find that stuff so interesting. Well, it is interesting. Disgust is an interesting response. It’s funny. But you had asked me about my parents. My parents aren’t Midwestern Christians or anything. My parents are badass. They don’t give a shit what anybody else thinks. My parents think I’m awesome. My dad reads everything I write. He has me on a Google alert. He reads everything I say in every single interview. He’s fascinated by me. Like, I am so lucky. If I had parents who shamed my creativity, silenced me, or wanted to me to be a good little girl, I probably would have committed suicide when I was 12.
I have that. My parents wanted me to be a good little girl. I should have committed suicide at 12.
Well, why didn’t you?
I just did a lot of drugs instead…And they’d have been so ashamed if I had. They’re so wormed into my mind.
I enslaved myself early on, growing up in a culture.
The culture I grew up in.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts. So, I dunno…I got poisoned by the things that you get poisoned by, the things of that world, the things of that time. It’s just all the garbage that I make fun of in my writing. People’s obsession with what people think of them, and that vanity. Like the note on my window: Vanity IS the enemy. That’s exactly what will ruin your life.
There are a lot of totems, fine things, expensive articles.
In my apartment?
No, in your book. Fine things pitted against the puss and the anus.
That’s what is so funny to me: the conflict of what we are, which is magical, but it’s also mechanical. I dunno. I’m so sick of talking about myself.
You know, after that Guardian interview came out.
Was that the one where you talk about writing Eileen using a how-to, wanting to be rich and famous? How much of that interview was real?
They made it a little sensational. Whatever; they’re trying to sell newspapers and I really did say that. Afterwards, I felt humiliated…
You read it and afterwards thought, “Oh I sound like kind of a big shot?” But you are kind of a big shot.
No. I don’t know that I sounded like a big shot. I was like, well, what they didn’t say is that I’ve been writing for like 20 years and that I’ve dedicated my life to this, made every sacrifice you can make as an artist. I’ve struggled, and for me to pull Eileen out — it was a fucking miracle. No, it wasn’t just a miracle, it was fated. It was a fated miracle. Eileen is the miracle that saved my life, basically. That gave me a life of not hiding. Because I could have not written Eileen and just, like, hid for the rest of my life, but, it’s like, I know I can do something important with the talent and the channeling ability that I have. I can help us all out, a little bit. Because I’ve been gifted with this perspective and a knack for creativity and craft.
My heritage is actually really important in terms of who I am. Not to get too much into it, but my family on both sides were living in moments in different countries where a fascist regime took hold — Croatia and Iran. On my mother’s side, both her parents joined the Partisan Army to fight the Nazis. And on the other hand, my grandfather in Iran, who was a self made, basically illiterate billionaire with ties to the Shah, was forced out at gunpoint and lost his fortune.
So I have a different historical perspective on the nature of humanity than the girl who grew up next door to me in Newton. And with what’s happening in the world, in America, in the West, right now, with the rise of the new fascist regime, I think I might be a voice that could actually have some sort of evolutionary effect on us as a people. And that can sound really haughty.
I don’t think that’s a haughty thing to say.
Ok…so why shouldn’t I take myself this seriously? I’m fucking serious.
Right now we live in a world where people aren’t allowed to talk. And we’re all facing these crises — dying oceans, new world fascism, I could go on, and I have for 350 pages in my new book. A lot of people are being policed online, on social media, on expression, on their art. A lot of people aren’t taking the giant leap that you took, to say: “I’m going to do what I want. You can all go fuck yourselves. I’m going to keep creating to survive, to make a better world.”
Okay, but you know, I’m also super privileged. I have taken advantage of a lot of opportunities at institutions that I fucking hated. And I did it so I could support myself as a writer.
Let’s move on. What about this theme of betterment, like in the story? “Bettering Myself” with the alcoholic Catholic schoolteacher? She’s trying to get better, right?
She’s just a fucking alcoholic. If she really wanted to get better, she’d just stop drinking.
You mean go to a meeting?
No. Just like stop fucking drinking and meet herself for the first time. Are you an alcoholic?
Yeah. But that doesn’t bother me. Nothing that you’re saying bothers me. You can’t bother me.
I was in AA for ten years. Can I get another glass of that Pinot Grigio?
There’s a lot of drugs in Homesick for Another World. “Slumming” is about a professor who goes every summer to a shithole town where she buys dimes of whatever the abject drug dealers are selling in a bus station bathroom, and she has mystical encounters with the drug oracles. How do you know drugs? Did you shoot heroin? Or do meth?
No. Not heroin or meth, no.
Someone asked me to ask you if you write in a trance.
Sometimes I do.
Are you a witch? Are you in a cult? Are you an alien?
I hate cults.
Are you an other-dimensional being?
Yes, I am.
Do you want to talk about that?
There’s not much to say. I’m only conscious of what’s going on in this human form.
I’m always amazed at your freedom to roam while maintaining suspense and tension. How do you do that?
Timing is everything. I guess every story is trying to get me somewhere; I’m trying to go somewhere. If you’re going to go somewhere you need motion, velocity, a destination. It’s like planning out how to choose to enjoy a day. “Today I think I’m going to take it easy in the morning, then go for a hike in the afternoon and get really hot and sweaty, and then I’m going to call someone I have to confront about some bullshit and then I’m going to get really drunk and I’m gonna watch Charlie Chaplin and then I’m going to go to sleep.” You know.
But how do you get a story to be so free? I remember when “The Beach Boy” appeared in the New Yorker — I remember pulling over and getting lost for an hour and coming out stunned. You captured the meaninglessness of modern civilization, especially for the bourgeois world of New York City, in a way I’d not seen in our time. You pinned a skewer through the heart of that whole body of culture. How did you get to see the dream from outside the dream, the brainwash from outside of it, so you could sever the head of the current beast of culture and show it to the reader?
I astral project and look down at reality. Barf. You know the answer to this question. I can see it in your face. Don’t you think we should keep the secret? I’m kind of selfish with my freedom. I don’t want everyone else enlightened and preachy. It’s like going to a yoga class and some chick in lip-gloss is explaining how to be at one with the universe. Hell no, Luke.
Your characters are all wrecks.
Well, I’m a wreck. I’m a wreck. But I’m a perfect wreck. I’m the most self-assured person I’ve ever met, very arrogant at times, sure. I can’t make a wrong move. I know what I’m doing. Mostly I’m hyperventilating like I need to get this done and move on to the next era of my life — my next book, a movie, a house in Mount Washington.
So what do you really want people to know about you? Because in an era of professionalism and professional ass-kissers, how come you won’t take the pandering bait and try to make people like you?
Well I pander sometimes, but I’m not going to pander to you, Luke. Because I like you already, and you’re real and crazy like I am, so there’s no point. Okay?
Okay, maybe, but what you’re confessing is you’ve been through the eye of the needle? You’ve been pricked deep with poison tipped darts? You won’t lie for money? And they shortlisted you for a Man Booker? Are they nuts?
Yes. Everyone is nuts.
What’s with these dark curtains that keep descending? Over your characters, I mean. Story after story, it can be drugs, it can be sex, they go into these blackouts.
I carry a lot of darkness. I’m very dark, and I’m very fragile and tender.
Coming over to your place, I felt like I was going into witch territory.
I’m here to tell people the truth they don’t want to hear. As pretentious as that may sound, it’s exactly what’s been happening. I’m not trying to conquer the world. I’m not trying to pull any scams.
What are you talking about?
Well, when that Guardian article came out, I didn’t think it gave people the right impression of me, but now I think it absolutely did. Because it’s true that I don’t care if people hate me or misinterpret my intentions. They’re reading my books, that’s all that matters. I am not important. My personality, whatever, like sure, that might inspire some different feelings in people, but the work is what’s important. You can talk to me all day and I’ll say a million different things depending on my moods.
But as a rebuttal to the Guardian thing, I’ll just say that I’ve dedicated my life to being a writer and I haven’t done it selfishly. I’m writing for all of you fucking assholes, and I need to figure out a way to do that. And I also think, don’t flatter yourself, I published a book before Eileen. It was called McGlue. I got two thousand dollars for it, almost nobody fucking read it, and it’s so much better than Eileen. But nobody wants to talk about McGlue because it’s too far away from the commercial crap that they’re used to reading. So I knew I needed to write something that was going to be reminiscent of the crap that people are used to, so it wasn’t going to threaten them so much. I needed a way into the mainstream, because, you know what? How do you expect me to make a living?! I’m not going to be making cappuccinos. I’m fucking brilliant! I don’t know what people expect me to do. I needed to be proactive. And Eileen ended up being a very important book for me. It taught me a lot and it allowed me to have a lot of conversations with people about repression, and the repressed world was exactly what I was entering as an author so I can make it better. And now I just want to be like, fuck that. I’m so happy this collection is coming out, because I feel like people can laugh when they read it, men can read it and not feel estranged. I’m incredibly cynical about the public.
No shit. Spoiler alert: this is the new high water mark for short stories. You’ve created the bridge from masters of the past to this new pivotal moment.
I don’t need everybody to love me; that’s been established. But I’m really sensitive internally and it’s hard to say difficult things and then feel the energetic backlash without it being completely depressing. Because I’m not saying anything to be mean. I just want people to wake up. I’m heartbroken by how brainwashed and enslaved my fellow humans are. It’s heartbreaking.
In what way? If you had to pinpoint it, how are people being brainwashed?
I think the institutionalization of everything has whitewashed people’s imaginations.
A category for everything?
Yes. Variety has become very limited. Variety is this branded variety. It’s really hard to break free of the categories that are prescribed to you. And I feel so bad for the millennials. God, they just had their universe handed to them in hashtags. Our conception of God is a master-slave relationship, and it’s been bred into our DNA for thousands of years, and it’s going to kill us. I understand not everyone is going to feel happy reading my work. That’s fine. I’m not going to kill myself. I love being alive. I love myself. I love my imagination. I love my life. I love a lot of people. I love the planet. I’m an optimist. I’m not going to be a Kurt Cobain or a David Foster Wallace and be like, “This world sucks and I don’t want to be here.” I’m not like that. Like, “This world failed me and I’m going to leave, and fuck you.” I’m not like that at all. I have a lot of love for this world. You know what I mean?
Yup, and I love you. Why are you crying?
You’re the one who’s crying, you little bitch. Luke!
Ottessa Moshfegh received the Plimpton Prize for her stories in theParis Review, and was granted a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. Her novella, McGlue, won the inaugural Fence Modern Prize in Prose and the Believer Book Award. EILEEN won her the PEN Hemingway Award for debut fiction. Her newest collection of short-stories, HOMESICK FOR ANOTHER WORLD, is out today from Penguin Press. She currently lives in Los Angeles.
Luke B. Goebel is a writer, editor, and professor living in Southern California’s Mohave Desert between Joshua Tree and Whitewater. His first novel, Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours, won the FC2 Ronald Sukenick National Book Award for Innovative Fiction. He is twice recipient of SMU’s Award For Young Writers. He is Prose Editor with Autre Magazine in Los Angeles and has gotten off all social media since this interview took place–except Instagram: IG: Lukelikesglue.