Q&A with Ottessa Moshfegh

Our booksellers are huge fans of Ottessa Moshfegh’s work, including her new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. We find her work weird, funny, thought-provoking, and just downright cool. As Mat put it, “Moshfegh’s writing is like willfully being kicked in the throat… Her books are a lot like drugs, and I am hooked.” Gregory says, “This journey is brimming with laconic humor, [Moshfegh’s] brand of ne’er do wells, and ample substance intake that all leads to one of the most existentially satisfying reads in recent memory.”

My Year of Rest and Relaxation Cover ImageWe couldn’t help being curious about the workings of Moshfegh’s mind, her quirks, and what makes her tick. So, we compiled questions from many of our booksellers and she was kind enough to answer many of them over the phone with us.

We hope your curiosity will be peaked and you’ll pick up My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and enjoy it just as much as we do. Moshfegh will appear at BookPeople Monday, July 23rd at 7pm, if you want to come ask her some more questions.

These questions and answers have been edited for clarity.


Abby: 2018 has given us quite a few books about drug use and abuse including Leslie Jameson’s The Recovering, Tao Lin’s Trip, Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, and now My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Do you have any thoughts on what has led to this sort of trend in books coming out?

Ottessa: I have not read any of those books actually. I don’t know why the authors wrote them. I know that this is something I have written about from my first book. So for me it’s not a good moment or bad. Maybe I am coinciding with some cultural movement, and that’s why I’m popular right now? But it isn’t a flash in the pan for me.

Jason: Yeah it’s a thread that goes through everything you have written. Like the psychiatrist that she goes to visit in the book, I’ve had similar experiences where they just want keep giving me medications until I just gave up because nothing worked. What kind of relationship do you have with the medical world? Did you talk to anybody about those kind of processes?

O: I feel pretty cynical. I feel like the pharmaceutical industry gets so much credit. I’m not really interested in adding to that conversation. You know people say, “This really helped my kid do well on his SATs” or “I started taking prozac so I could stay in this really dissatisfying relationship.” I don’t need to add to that—I’m more interested in looking at how arbitrary it is. The human experience is pathologized because pharmaceutical companies happen upon a chemical that affects our brain in a certain way, then according to the side effects of that chemical, pathologize a set of behaviours or patterns of thinking like delusions or issues so that they can market that chemical to people who are convinced they suffer like that. And we are allowing the pharmaceutical industry to dictate what our consciousness is and build this paradigm around what is right consciousness, what are right emotions, and what psychology is healthy, when actually it’s all based on money, and most of these drugs were developed like in Nazi Germany. Look at the history of heroin. It comes from Germany. People like to think about drug abuse as something for the low class, people who are uneducated, people who are immoral, when actually it’s very powerful people who are poisoning people, getting them addicted so that they die after paying all this money to them. It’s so evil.

J: Pretty much how I feel. Talk about heroin, amphetamine was something that really came out of Nazi Germany. They gave it to their soldiers so they could keep fighting longer and when injured.

A: This question is along those same lines—coming from Molly, one of our book sellers—I have no idea what I really mean if I say reading this book was therapeutic, but I do think it was healing. What do you think is the difference between therapy, especially the way our culture pursues it, and healing?

O: I think therapy can be healling, but healing is something that happens within a person, and therapy is something that you have. It’s something that you do, so it’s like the difference between eating and nourishment. They are correlated, but one doesn’t always lead to another.

M: You have written a lot about sex and mayonnaise albeit not necessarily at the same time, but they do have similarities—both are kind of gross, both kind of look and smell funny, and there is shame in certain circles when admitting ones love for them. Yet they are both essential in some ways. Do you agree and could you elaborate on this idea?

O: I think you are making a joke right?

M: I think so.

O: That sex is as essential as mayo, it is if you want a chicken salad sandwich. I think that I am interested in the grotesque nature of the human world and its perversions and where we find pleasure but also in how the judgements on those perversions are kind of arbitrary. They change from era to era. I mean 120 years ago, gelatin dishes were really high class. These days, Jello, you buy a package for like 59 cents. I don’t know if that answers your question…it doesn’t answer your question…ok, I agree with you.Homesick for Another World: Stories Cover Image

J: David Sedaris was in here last week for a signing and he plugged Homesick for Another World, and in the process of talking about the book, he said he thought you are a “creature” and that he thought your stuff was really funny but he was not sure if you thought your stuff was really funny.

O: No—I think my stuff is really funny.

A: Here’s a question from another one of our booksellers: Who’s the real life Reva—are you still friends with them, is she just a composite of several people you’ve known or totally made up?

O: She’s a composite of several people I’ve known, myself, people i haven’t known but that i’ve watched, and also a bit of imagination.

A: Going in sort of a different direction: Imagine you are in a dream and you come across a character from some of your previous work. What would you do?

O: I’d say thank you.

A: I like that. A lot of modern literature seems to be totally fixated on the “female friendship” and how twisted and obsessive it is, usually with a murder or sexual component. What I liked about your depiction is that it seemed to replace sexual tension with disgust, which often requires the same level of devotion. Why is disgust such a powerful adhesive, once she—spoiler alert—transcends? Can the friendship last at the same intensity?

O: I don’t think that their friendship is based on disgust. I disagree.

A: OK, what do you think it’s based on?

O: Desperation and projection.

A: I like that too.

J: So when I read your stuff—I don’t always listen to music when I read—but for yours for some reason, it always pops up. When I was reading Homesick For Another World, I was listening to a lot of PJ Harvey, and for some reason I equate that with that book. And of course for Mcglue it was the Pogues-Rum Sodomy and the Lash. There couldn’t be anything else that went along with that. It just fits. But I have not been able to figure out music to go with your new book yet. I don’t even know what I’m asking—do you listen to music? Do you like it? What do you listen to?

O: I don’t listen to that much music, which is something I don’t really understand about myself. But I think that when I wrote this book, I was listening to a lot of different things. I don’t know what the soundtrack of this book would be. I feel like the soundtrack is like static on a tv—it’s actually so gray in its way, I can’t really hear it.

J: Yeah, like ambient noise. So now I’m going to go back and read it again and listen to a bunch of Brian Eno I guess.

O: You know what actually, when i was working on this, for a lot of the time I was trying to use sonic frequencies. I have chronic back problems, a lot of nerve pain, so I was listening to a lot of like 40-minute-long tracks on youtube that were just like *high pitched squealing*.

A: Molly asks what do you think is the core draw of New Balance sneakers to the young cool man?

O: Well, this is a young cool man at the turn of the millenium. I don’t know if these are popular in the same way I think that they appeal to a post-alternative male groups interested in filling in to an outsider aesthetic that was not capitalist brand obsessed but nostalgic, and likely ugly, to prove the absence of vanity and also to attract women who didn’t want to be threatened by egotistical masculinity.

A: OK. I’d agree with that.

M: I’m wearing New Balance right now, and yes, I was a young man in 2000.

A: From Gregory: Your writing has qualities of existentialism and absurdity. Are you interested in one more that the other?

O: I don’t know if I have been able to separate one from the other until recently, but even when I can, it’s only for a moment and I recently had to deal with some death that was very near to me, and I think I understood better how my personal spirituality is contingent on absurdism. Not because it is random and goofy, but because if I get attached to anything that I think is sacred, I’m building up rubrics that discount all these other things when everything is sacred; even the stupidest meme on Buzzfeed. If I start judging things, I’m just going to trap myself in a really small world, so I’m trying to see the depth in everything. I’m not saying that meme holds the secret to the universe. I’m just saying, oh yeah, that too…you know what I mean? Yeah, that stupid stuff too.

M: So, I have kind of a 2 part question. I’ve read that your next book is going to have a male protagonist, and it might be a period piece. So I’m curious what you can tell me about that and also, I wanted to know at the same time—many of us men who’ve read your stuff really identify with the male characters, or maybe not always identify, but they really make a lot of sense. I’m just curious if you have any idea why you are able to write in that perspective in way that many of us cannot articulate for ourselves?

O: I don’t know. I don’t know where you read that, but I’ve been talking about my next book way too much, I’m only on page 2. I’m really excited about it, but it’s not a male protagonist, it’s a female protagonist who tries to pass as a man—a Chinese immigrant during the Exclusion Act. Why does it make sense that you think that my male characters resonate with men? Why wouldn’t they? You’re asking that because I’m a woman, but I don’t know. I think I can understand, maybe because I’m not a man so I’m not projecting my own experiences, so it’s actually in some ways more fun to write male characters because it doesn’t feel complicated to me. It’s not about me.

J: Ottessa, you are not on any social media networks except for the one #OttessaMoshfegh on Instagram that I assume somebody else is doing on your behalf that shows pictures of your books. In this day and age, does that feel liberating to you?

O: Is it liberating to me to not have social media accounts? Yeah.

J: That was a stupid question, I already knew the answer to that. I don’t even know why I asked that.
We’re very grateful to Ottessa for answering our questions, wide-ranging and weird as they were, and can’t wait to have her in the store to pick her brain even more. In the meantime, we hope you pick up her book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, so you can see why we became such fans of her in the first place.

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