In a sea of perplexing novels and short stories that seek to highlight the good in bad characters, Ottessa Moshfegh‘s work rises above it all with murky water dripping from its edges, forgoing the good altogether to reveal the worst in everyone. The Los Angeles-via-Boston writer prides herself on writing with a sense of unstable madness, whipping up stories about vomit-stained protagonists and vapid men, no blemish left uncovered. Her work is gritty and dark, but the 35-year-old author appeals to everyone, if only because she articulates life in a way everyone knows to be true but rarely gets the chance to read about in such mesmerizing fashion.
She moved west to change her lifestyle and, in the process, found a new location in which to pound out stories. Moshfegh published six stories in The Paris Review since 2012, rolled out her novella McGlue in 2014, and published her debut novel, Eileen, through Penguin Press in 2015. Suddenly the short story writer was a best-selling author. Her shadowy story about a bitter 24-year-old in the 1960s appealed to the morbid curiosity in readers, even if they didn’t want to admit that sat within them. Consequently, Moshfegh took home the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Eileen as well as a spot on the Man Booker Prize shortlist.
Now she finds herself with her first proper collection of short stories in tow: Homesick for Another World: Stories. And so her unsettling style of storytelling continues. Short fiction becomes a tool for humanization and the train wreck of everyone’s hidden mental state. She creates plots so rich with details that you begin to dream about the characters as if they’re people you actually know. But it’s when she spirals into the habitual stings within supposed beauty that Moshfegh’s work separates itself from other short story collections.
At 7 PM this Thursday, Ottessa Moshfegh will read from Homesick for Another World: Stories for free at Harvard Book Store. In advance of the event, she spoke to us over the phone about her upcoming in Boston, her obsession with grimy details, and why it took five years to publish what’s arguably her greatest work to date.
DIGBOSTON: You’ve written countless short stories over the years for places like The Paris Review and The New Yorker. How did you decide which to include in Homesick for Another World?
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH: It took me four or five years to write the collection; I always know it would be a place for stories that didn’t belong elsewhere. So when I finished it, it felt really complete. The last story in the collection is called “A Better Place.” When I finished it, I had an overwhelming and terrifying certitude that I didn’t need to write any other short stories — and I haven’t since I finished it about a year and a half ago. It was the focus of my entire life for the time that I was writing it. Having it out now is celebratory and also a little sad looking back to see my early 30s and the years when I was writing these stories, what concerned me the most, what I had to learn — a lot of hard stuff.
DIGBOSTON: Then do these stories reflect a lot of changes you went through even though they’re fiction?
MOSHFEGH: Yeah, I think so. Come the end of the book, I feel like I’ve answered the questions that have most plagued me. I knew, moving on, the next question would be a novel, one I’m just now finishing after working on it for a year and a half. The stories aren’t about me per say — sometimes there’s very autobiographical elements in a story — but it’s mostly what I’ve been thinking about, upset by, spiteful of, sitting in anger with…
DIGBOSTON: What were some of the questions stuck in your brain that you worked through by writing a story about it?
MOSHFEGH: The overriding question was: Are we all totally alone, moving with a single consciousness stuck inside our brains and bodies, can we really connect and communicate? If it’s so hard to do that, do we really love each other? And is it possible to really accept love? A lot of the characters in the stories ask themselves that question, seeking out love or self-love in some way, usually preposterously. What’s curious is how isolated I really am, and, paradoxically, by writing about isolation I came out of isolation. I love my stories and I love myself at this point, but when I started I don’t think that was the case.
DIGBOSTON: Well that’s good to hear. I’m not sure if you can pick, but what are two of your favorite stories in the collection?
MOSHFEGH: Two of my favorites are about brothers. There’s one earlier on called “A Dark and Winding Road” which is about a pseudo-intellectual Manhattanite on the brink of fatherhood and he goes on a trip to his family’s cabin in the woods to escape his wife who he believes is irrationally cruel to him. The reader gets a sense that this guy is in a panic over change and being asked to change. When there, he thinks a lot, smokes some weed, has some experiences, and a visitor drops by looking for his brother. The story, for me, becomes about someone feeling the hard way that we love people, like people in our family, who are essentially a different version of you. How is it that I get to be me and my brother gets to be someone else? Is it the luck of the draw or the shit on the stick?
The other story I’m thinking of is the last one, “A Better Place,” which is mostly from the perspective of a female twin child who tries to cope with the impossible decision of escaping a life she does not enjoy or staying in it to be with someone whom she feels affectionate. It’s somewhat sci-fi-esque, but in the end, it’s about deciding if you want to go elsewhere to be happy or stay safe perhaps with someone you love of your own blood. It’s how I felt when I decided to move to Los Angeles and, in turn, move away from some of the values I had been raised with.
DIGBOSTON: When boiled down, a lot of these themes and questions can sound particularly cliched, but they’re unavoidable, especially in short stories because the brevity of their structure essentially prompts that. Yours rarely do. They’re written in a way that addresses heavy, dark topics without rewriting a lesson we know too well. How do you avoid rehashing cliches?
MOSHFEGH: I don’t really have a worry about whether I’m repeating somebody because it’s so new to me. I wouldn’t be upset if I was writing a story that was cliche, honestly, as long as I could get somewhere with it. When you hit that note, you step away from your desk. You know, I like weird characters. I don’t know any normal people [laughs]. I do like cliches in my satire: the hipster in the story dancing in the moonlight is a distillation of all the hipsters I knew when younger. I tend to be mean, huh? I’m really hard on men, especially older men.
DIGBOSTON: But those blemishes, externally and internally, in your characters are trademarks of your writing. Why do you think you’re so drawn to that, the appeal of the grotesque?
MOSHFEGH: For two reasons. One: I’m fascinated by them. If I can perceive a character in a grotesque way, it’s because I’ve gotten really, really close to them. When you get close enough to anyone physically, you can see the pores in their face and the scum on their teeth. Somebody very beautiful can suddenly turn disgusting, and that’s very important to remember because we live in such a superficial time. It inspires my imagination when I start thinking about what people are like when they’re sitting on the toilet. What’s people’s relationship with their toilet?
The second reason is an offshoot of that: I think we’re really cruel to one another in our expectations of civility, to the point where we have all these social morals that are really oppressive. I understand why they exist, but I think it’s not my job to do anything but make fun of them. You’re cool. You burp and fart and shit and need to lose five pounds, but who cares. Don’t be so uptight about it.
DIGBOSTON: Do you have any rules you follow when writing short stories like that?
MOSHFEGH: The rule I follow is I don’t write when I don’t want to. That doesn’t mean much, just that I stand up and walk away a lot. It’s more a rule of discipline and respecting the design inspiration. Don’t force yourself to work on something that isn’t calling out, you know?
DIGBOSTON: It’s funny you bring that up because I was curious about external pressures to write. You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you wrote Eileen, your debut novel, to stabilize your income because short stories don’t pay. Why decide to play this game, the way the publishing industry works, if you weren’t interested in long-form stories of that nature?
MOSHFEGH: Well, I really, really am a writer, and every time I took a job where I didn’t get to do that was heartbreaking for me. It’s like, if you’re a singer but you’re spending your days as a phone sales operator, you’d probably feel like you’re wasting your voice. In this really victorian way, I was like, “I’m really broke. I should probably write a novel.” I had been publishing short stories but there was no collection to sell. I also had lived in New York and been around publishing, and knew that you publish a novel so you get to do a short story collection, so the whole thing was in service of myself. The funny thing was that I wrote Eileen and totally fell in love with novel writing. I just finished another novel and I don’t see myself writing short stories again for a very long time.
DIGBOSTON: What was it about writing novels that won you over?
MOSHFEGH: The journey and torture of it all. I learned so much writing this new novel. It’s called My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which is completely ironic because it was the hardest thing I’ve written and I did not rest at all. It’s just a fucking trip. Every day, life and art become a symbiotic trip where you pay attention to an inner voice that makes you think you’re going crazy. I deleted probably 500 pages writing this. Now it’s done and it’s not even 300 pages, but it took me all over the world, into my past — I got back into a relationship with my old boyfriend, like, what the fuck am I doing? — which I understood later was for me to see what I needed to revisit, like life’s research, to forward the plot.
DIGBOSTON: What do you hope readers take away from Homesick then?
MOSHFEGH: Honestly? I hope it makes them laugh. People can take literature too seriously. The negative reviews of my work — which is funny, I don’t like reading reviews, but for some reason I always cave and read them if they’re mean — talk about how my work is depraved and too dark. I think of myself as a satirist. If you can’t see what’s funny about us, I don’t know if you have a sense of humor. Maybe you’ll grow one later.
DIGBOSTON: Maybe it’s a reflection of how you grew up. You spent most of your childhood in Boston, right?
MOSHFEGH: Yes, I went to public schools in Newton until I was 13 and then I transferred to a private school in Back Bay with the most brilliant teachers, challenges classes, and 130 kids total that a good number of whom became lifelong friends. It’s so majestic and magical and beautiful — all of Boston is. It still feels like home, but not a place I necessarily belong in.
DIGBOSTON: What are some of your fondest memories from that time?
MOSHFEGH: My parents are both musicians, so I spent a lot of time at the Conservatory from a young age. I spent every Saturday there. From age five on, I would wander around this crazy building. I knew every secret door and passageway. There’d be people practicing tubas in the basement. It felt so magical. It was the great ‘80s on Huntington Ave [laughs]. They’re not just fond memories but formative memories, like seeing the ancient Egyptian stuff at the MFA with my mom.
DIGBOSTON: What was it like growing up with your mother, or both parents actually, since they immigrated to Boston from Iran and Croatia?
MOSHFEGH: Their cultures were different from one another’s… and they’re also just weirdos. The culture I grew up was personally and intimately foreign. It wasn’t attached to nationalistic, ethnic identity. We were weird, really smart people, each with our own strange obsessions. I had a brilliant older sister and a brilliant younger sister, and, I don’t know. The house was full of books; I read stuff at age nine that I had no way of understanding. My parents were super supportive of anything creative or academic. They were very understanding of me needing to be a writer, never pressuring me to do anything else, which is a lucky way to grow up.
Though, I had more objectivity than my neighbor or whomever because my parents were entrenched in the history of the culture. That doesn’t mean I was impervious to American values. I certainly watched a lot of TV and grew up loving American cinema. Along the way, you get indoctrinated and brainwashed about the way people are.
DIGBOSTON: Over the weekend, I’ve been thinking about the way we can use our professions to fight back against a government that’s stripping us of our rights as Americans. In what ways do you think writers can use their platform to rebel against a political dissolve?
MOSHFEGH: Do whatever the fuck you want. Read whatever turns you on. Go to a library instead of taking a recommendation off the internet. Now is the time where there is so much conversation, most of which is trying to tell you what to do instead of what’s best for you. Everyone wants to police one another about what they deem valuable. I think the radical thing is to sit quietly. We live in a society where we’re rarely given quiet moments. Don’t spend those quiet moments on Facebook. Take a bath. Think about what you want to do today.
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH. THU 1.26. HARVARD BOOK STORE, 1256 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 7PM/ALL AGES/FREE. HARVARD.COM