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
How did you begin Eileen?
Eileen began percolating when I heard the story that inspired Lee Polk’s character. When I moved to LA in 2011, I met a documentary filmmaker, Josh Rofé, who was, at the time, shooting ‘Lost for Life,’ a movie about juveniles serving life sentences without possibility of parole. Josh told me the story of one of the young men he’d met. The abuse this man had suffered as a child was so unbelievable to me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. A year later, when I decided to write a novel, I went right back to that story.
Many aspects of Eileen’s life are rather dark and disturbing – was writing her an unnerving experience?
Writing is always an unnerving experience! But no, inventing Eileen’s personality and behaviours was actually delightful and even a bit cathartic. I had no idea how much her character was going to challenge readers. We expect female characters to be sympathetic and well-intentioned. I believe this is due to a psychological habit based on our need as children to be cared for by our mothers. Since the book is very much about the potential dangers of that expectation (looking at the mothers in the book, one ought to be very wary!), Eileen’s character had to reflect the realistic outcome of a life devoid of love and care. What actually unnerved me most about my experience with Eileen was seeing how shocked people were by the character’s complexity and ‘darkness,’ as though they’d never met a woman with rage or self-loathing before. I really think it’s odd!
The book is narrated by Eileen as a much older woman, how did the space between narrative and narrator affect the development of the story?
The space gave me a perspective on the story, so that the narrator’s voice could be self-consciously subjective. The older narrator’s emotional distance from the story isn’t always clear, and occasionally the fifty years between the young Eileen and the older narrator seem to disappear; the narrator speaks as though she’s back in the throes of the story, deliberating with herself and feeling everything all over again. But one has much more control over a story told in the past tense. Eileen’s authorial manoeuvres manipulate the narrative according to what she wants to convey. Memory never is fully truthful, after all. We all select and distort what we remember. This is one reason that memoir-esque narration appeals to me: it reflects the fiction-making aspect of the human psyche.
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.
SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2016
SHORTLISTED FOR THE GORDON BURN PRIZE 2016
SHORTLISTED FOR THE CWA NEW BLOOD DAGGER AWARD 2016
Selected as a Book of the Year 2016 in The Times, Observer and Daily Telegraph
Fully lives up to the hype. A taut psychological thriller, rippled with comedy as black as a raven's wing, Eileen is effortlessly stylish and compelling. - Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The Times
The Christmas season offers little cheer for Eileen Dunlop. Trapped between caring for her alcoholic father and her job as a secretary at the boys’ prison, she tempers her dreary days with dreams of escaping to the big city. In the meantime, her nights and weekends are filled with shoplifting and cleaning up her increasingly deranged father’s messes.
When the beautiful, charismatic Rebecca Saint John arrives on the scene as the new counsellor at the prison, Eileen is enchanted, unable to resist what appears to be a miraculously budding friendship. But soon, Eileen’s affection for Rebecca will pull her into a crime that far surpasses even her own wild imagination.