Interview: Ottessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh, author of the darkly complex Eileen, tells us more about the inspirations behind it, the challenges of the novel and a shoplifting secret from her past

Otessa Moshfegh

Any space can be a prison, I think, if you don’t want to be there

Eileen works at a youth correctional facility. Was the idea of entrapment central to your conception of the book?

Imprisonment has been a central theme in a lot of my work. My first book, McGlue, begins with a man being locked up in the bottom of a ship after murdering his best friend in the port of Zanzibar in 1851. The novel I’m writing right now is very much about being trapped in interior spaces, both physically and mentally. In Eileen, I saw the boys’ prison as the externalisation of psychological entrapment. I also saw X-ville and Eileen’s house as prisons. Any space can be a prison, I think, if you don’t want to be there.

The narrative is in part propelled by Eileen’s infatuation with her glamorous new colleague Rebecca St John. At what point in the process did Rebecca occur to you as a character?

I invented Rebecca as a means to catalyse a transformation in Eileen’s otherwise deadeningly routine life. I often work in themes of class, mixing high-brow with low-brow, intellectualism with bodily functions. Rebecca appeared to me as the glamorous idealist in order to exploit and destroy Eileen’s own fantasies about how to achieve happiness; Eileen sometimes thinks she needs to be beautiful and rich in order to be free. She learns, however, that that is total bullshit.

The book is set in 1964, how did the period setting affect your writing of the book?

My hope in setting the book in 1964 was to capture the precarious moment in American history between the repressed cookie-cutter 1950s and the revolutionary 1960s. I imagined that time as one of great tension and excitement. Eileen would have had some sense that the country was at a crossroads, I believe. The cultural shift runs in tandem with the change in her paradigm for living.

The book is set in the greater Boston area – where you are also from. Was the sense of place important to you in the book?

When I was growing up, there was nothing creepier than driving through a small town in New England covered in snow. There was something inherently twisted to me about living such a confined existence with your family, I thought. ‘How do people not go crazy?’ So it was important to me to capture that sense of claustrophobia in X-ville. Eileen, at twenty-four, feels all the typical angsts and lusts any of us did at that age, but because she’s trapped where she is, those feelings become perverted, as feelings tend to do when they’re not expressed.

You are also an award-winning short-story writer. What are the challenges of writing in a longer form?

The challenge of a novel is that it requires a commitment to my own transformation through the writing of it, which is terrifying and beautiful. Writing a short story can be a very powerful experience, too, but I’ve never grown as much as when I’ve been writing a book-length piece of fiction. My work both reflects and dictates my life experiences. When I’m writing a short story, I tend to rely more on the past and present to inform the fictional world and characters’ attitudes. When I’m writing a novel, I can plunge into the story unaware of where it will lead me both narratively and experientially. The future is a mystery, as we say. The novel I’m currently working on, without my consent, really, has become a book about intimacy and vulnerability, two things I’ve tried to avoid for thirty-four years. You can imagine my gratitude for my art, and also my intense fear of it. Good thing I’m not a complete coward or I’d have backed off from this stuff many years ago. God, I love being a writer. It’s never boring!

Eileen is a gifted shoplifter, did you do any research in this area for the book?

I went through two major shoplifting phases as an adolescent, and I was usually very good at it. The only time I ever got caught was at a supermarket in a small town in New Hampshire – I put a wine cooler in my pocket. This was New Year’s Eve and I was thirteen years old. I was on holiday with my best girlfriend and her mother. Her poor mother… The store manager was pretty miffed and called the police, but all they did was make me call my parents. My sister picked up the phone when I called, and I told her to pass on the message to our parents that I’d gotten in trouble for stealing a pack of gum. The cops didn’t know, however, that in the back of the police car, on the way to the station, I took out the half dozen packs of cigarettes I’d hid in my inside coat pockets and stuffed them under the seats. I was lucky I didn’t get charged. Many people’s lives are ruined for lesser crimes, that’s for sure.

Can you describe your average writing day?

I start working around eight, take a break for lunch at noon, work for a few more hours, then go for a walk or meet a friend, come back, fiddle with the work, putz around, pull my hair out, eat dinner, reconsider the day’s work and then make a mess of things for a few more hours so that when I wake up, there’s a new dilemma to be solved. I’ve been in the trenches with this new novel for several months with little progress on the page. It’s a very different book than Eileen, which had an intuitive structure, a clear cast of characters, and an emotional arc that I could predict. This new novel is like a psychological jigsaw puzzle and half the pieces are flipped upside down.

What’s the first thing you ever wrote?

The first real piece of fiction I wrote was a science-fiction story when I was twelve. I wish I had it. I remember how much it spooked and moved me to create this post-apocalyptic dystopian universe. I’ve always been attracted to the transportive quality of stories. The title of my short-story collection, Homesick for Another World, (due out January 2017 in the US) really nails my fascination and relationship with fiction.

Can you tell us what you are working on now?

My new novel is about a young woman who attempts to hibernate for a year in her apartment in New York City. It’s very sexually graphic. Stay tuned.

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