Ottessa Moshfegh became something of a household name with the 2015 publication of her debut novel Eileen, whose protagonist-narrator charmed (and sometimes horrified) readers and prize juries alike. But Moshfegh has spent years cultivating a dedicated following of readers through her short stories, which she began publishing in a steady drip in 2012. In Homesick for Another World, Moshfegh arranges some of her best-known stories alongside previously unpublished work in what amounts to a symphonic display of brilliance. Her stories, and the characters that inhabit them, crackle with desire, debasement, cowardice and alienation—as well as bright flashes of real, unfiltered joy.
Paste caught up with the writer—who says she is done writing short stories—by phone in the desert outside Palm Springs, where she has been spending more and more of her time. “I think I’ll probably move out here—I feel great in nature. The city makes me a little bit insane. Or more insane.”
Paste: This is your third book, but readers first got to know you through many of these stories, which have come out everywhere from Vice to The Paris Review. What’s your relationship with these stories like now, several years after many of them were first published?
Moshfegh: They seem a little bit more permanent in the world, and they seem less mine—in a really good way. The positive response to my short fiction has been so heartening. When I hear that someone is excited by my stories, has a sense of what I’m trying to do and what I’ve done, that’s amazing. The collection doesn’t feel the same way my other two books did when they came out. With Eileen, I experienced a total mind-fuck introduction to the world of book publishing in a really large way. I learned a lot really quickly. And the book—and I—got a lot of attention. And I freaked out for a year because of it. (laughs)
With Homesick for Another World, I really took my time. This isn’t a collection of random fiction slapped together into a book. I pieced these stories together intentionally and thoughtfully, and I’m really proud of the way it moves and ends. I’m glad that it is going to exist in the world as a finite book. I don’t think I’ll be writing short stories again for a long time, so this feels like the end of an era for me, and the beginning of something new and challenging and mysterious.
I wrote the stories over four or five years, and a lot happened in my life since I started “Bettering Myself,” the first story in the book. So the stories definitely reflect the personal and spiritual growth and movement over time: I moved all over the country writing those stories. Fell in and out of love writing those stories. Was delusional and disillusioned and sick and recovered and all this shit happened—and I learned a lot—so the stories are in some ways an archive of my life in my early 30s. Some of them are thinly veiled non-fiction. With a lot of sarcasm and self-satire.
I write a lot from my own experience, yes. Who doesn’t? But the true experience doesn’t make for a great short story. And I wouldn’t have been able to have the objectivity and creativity to see what was funny or different or meaningful if it was nonfiction. I think fiction in many ways exists because trying to capture reality is like putting your hand into a flame that just keeps flickering and you can’t actually touch it. And with fiction, I feel that I can grab it like a rock. A magnetic rock. It feels real, and manageable, and magical at the same time.
Paste: Many of your characters are self-destructive, though only slightly: they know their limits and don’t often surpass them. How does writing allow you to play and find humor within the idea of destruction?
Moshfegh: Well, there’s this really cheesy Picasso quotation. “Every act of creation is an act of destruction.” (laughs) I think it’s really true. For me, dealing with self-destructive characters in a creative way is a means to search for salvation for these weird people. And, I love them, you know? Enough to want to kind of save their souls (laughs), in this pathetic, self-ridiculing way. I’m not setting out to ruin these characters, but they sometimes set out to ruin themselves. I think sometimes people try to ruin themselves out of boredom. Maybe they don’t like who they are. But in the end it’s kind of out of our control, who we get to be.
Paste: You have called your stories “hostile,” but it seems to me that there’s a lot of joy and warmth in your work. Your characters never really sink into despair, and even though they oftentimes seem to be pretty deluded, they are also really quite lovable. What do you attribute that disconnect to?
Moshfegh: Honestly, I think people like to be freaked out. I don’t want to read a book that doesn’t freak me out at least a little bit. I take it as a huge compliment when people are scared of me or my work. I think my public persona has been manipulated a tiny bit by the media, that’s out of my hands, but I do give a lot of interviews, and I’ve been totally obnoxious in some of them, and it’s because I am obnoxious, and sometimes the interviewer is too. (laughs) It’s cool. At the same time, I write because I love writing. And I love myself. And I think maybe that’s something that makes people uncomfortable, that I could love myself despite all the ugliness that’s clearly inside of me coming out in my work. Self-love is a hard-won achievement, oh God. I spent the first 32 years of my life mystified by how to love myself and the world that I was in, and I was really angry about it.
I’m 35 now. And as life goes on and I’ve been granted this incredible, unbelievable blessing of getting to live as a writer—a one in a billion chance that a writer gets to do that—I understand that I can’t waste my efforts by trying to be safe, or trying to appeal to people who are cowards. I’m brave, so you be brave with me. This is what I have to offer, the universe has conspired to make it possible for me to write what I want, so I’m not going to lull readers into some sort of hypnotized stasis, which I think media tries to do, keep you trapped in your own fear. I want to excite people about new possibilities, and make them aware of the fascist mind-numbing game which is commercialism through media-addiction. Of course, it’s complicated, because I need to sell books, too.
Paste: Each of your characters is so immediately recognizable as your own. It really feels like there’s this whole universe of weird little Moshfeghian creations. I’m curious—first how you grow to inhabit a character, but second—what relationship do you have with a character once you’ve sent it out into the world?
Moshfegh: When I was in my late 20s, I used to write in front of a mirror, inhabiting the characters, seeing the character in a mirror and becoming that person, looking at the facial expression—writing a line and then looking at my face and being like “oh yeah, that’s him.” (laughs) I write so much about the first person, a lot of it feels like channeling a spirit, a ghost, a disembodied voice that speaks through me. When I first meet a character, she usually comes to me around the corner. She’s like, “Psst, I’m talking to you.” And I don’t know immediately who she is. So I write a lot, and edit a lot, and circle back around until the voice is clear.
And I have to know my characters more intimately and more cleverly than they even know themselves. So that’s I approach the story—the situation a character put himself in will reveal precisely what it is that he hasn’t had the courage or strength or ability to see himself. And he’s going to see it or he’s not going to see it, and I’m going to show it to the reader in a way that’s either totally direct or couched in weird shit. And in the course of doing that, I fall in love with this character. He becomes real. I think about him and I care about him, and then I also hate him in the way that you can hate somebody you love, and I want to ridicule him and abuse him and imagine the worst-case scenario to watch him squirm. It’s a relationship. (laughs)
Paste: There’s this cliché about literature being this really effective vehicle for making us more empathetic. Do you buy that? Is that why you write?
Moshfegh: I don’t know. When I step back, I mean sure, yeah. I think that’s why I’m on the planet: to be a force of good. But I guess yours is a question about the purpose of art, and if it’s here to make us more empathetic? I don’t know—a lot of art has inspired hate. I don’t really believe that the correct direction is always positive. Humanity is…weird, and we seem to gravitate to a variety of directions. I think the purpose of writing is to provide a space where a reader can escape into another world and by doing that inhabit a different area of herself that she didn’t know about previously. That’s the power of the imagination. We imagine new possibilities, and the world gets bigger. The universe feels bigger to me when I’m reading something really good.
Paste: I’ve read that you’re working on a screenplay and a book of essays and a new novel.
Moshfegh: No, I’m not writing the screenplay anymore. This new novel completely usurped my life and I’ve been working on it for a year and a half. I finally finished a first draft. And I’m really glad that it’s almost over; it’s been a pretty intense and painful process. The next thing that I want to do is just straight comedy. (laughs) I feel like I’m graduating out of the world of pain. It’s getting boring. And I want to have some fun.
I’ve been asked to write essays here and there, and when they’re exciting, I take them on as a challenge. I’m flying to DC on inauguration day—I want to witness what the fuck is going to happen that weekend. (laughs) All these people in one place on the planet, feeling things, saying things passionately, and I just want to see what the vibe is. Press coverage and social media will include so many opinions, and I think it’s going to be really hard—at least for me—to separate fact from agenda. So I want to be an observant reporter of the scene. We’ll see if I can pull that off!
Paste: What kind of freedom do you find in working across genre—how does that free you up?
Moshfegh: Well, there’s nothing more boring than doing the same thing over and over again. And also…people are actually reading my work. It’s not quite a responsibility but it feels like an opportunity to say and reflect something interesting about what’s happening in our world right now. When I was in my 20s and writing experimental short fiction—I didn’t give a shit about what was going on in the world. I was just young and self-involved and really sad and self-destructive and could barely see out of my own head or past the mirror. And now that I am maturing, slightly, I want to explore the world I hope to be living in for another 50 years, knock on wood. And if people are listening, then I want to contribute a new voice to the conversation.
Paste: You’ve said that you have an on-again, off-again relationship with art. Where do you find yourself right now? Are you reading anything interesting?
Moshfegh: Well, I fell in love with a writer named Luke Goebel recently and I’ve been reading what he’s been writing, which is fucking brilliant. Somehow I’ve been listening to a lot of American rock and roll for the first time. What else? I went to LACMA to see this James Turrell installation called “Light Reignfall,” where this fake lab technician lays you down, kind of like you’re going into a CAT scan, and slides you into this enclosed pod. Inside the pod, it’s as though you’re surrounded by 360 degrees of digital screen, this intangible light source, and you’re wearing headphones… I’ve never felt happier than in that pod—not on any drug, not listening to any music. It starts off just pure blue, and I thought, “oh, fuck, I’m nowhere, I don’t exist,” and then this light show starts happening and goes into these sounds, and you just…you transport, and you go to outer space, and you kind of confront yourself and your consciousness, and then your consciousness disappears. It’s so beautiful. I love losing consciousness!