There probably could not be a better moment to get a writer’s take on the dark side of human nature—from our powers of self-delusion to our impulses, be they romantic or grotesque.
These are just some of the themes that recur in Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut collection of Short Stories entitled "Homesick For Another World." Her debut novel Her debut novel, "Eileen," won the PEN Hemingway Prize for Best Debut Fiction, and it was nominated for the Man Booker. Moshfegh joined Boston Public Radio to discuss the new collection, her unconventional characters, and more.
JIM BRAUDE: I was going to ask you midway through the interview: why is there no photograph in your book? When Margery handed you today’s Globe where there's a half-page photograph of you, you put your hand over the photograph. What’s that about?
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH: It’s hard to see yourself blown up in a picture like that in the newspaper.
BRAUDE: How about a tiny picture on the book jacket?
MOSHFEGH: I never wanted my picture on the books. I find it weird that people can see what I look like. The whole point of being an author is I’m invisible. If I wanted to be a movie star that would be another thing…I hate having my picture taken. I hate it.
MARGERY EAGAN: You wrote a book, "Eileen"...tell us how that came to be.
MOSHFEGH: I grew up in New England and I write a lot about New England. I’ve written two novels set in new England. My first was my first book "McGlue," which takes place in 1850 about this drunken sailor from Salem. So New England has always been looming huge in my imagination. It’s where I grew up. It’s where I learned how to be, in many ways. I left because I hate the winter. I moved to California about six years ago. So when I sat down to write "Eileen," I wanted a character that felt captive in her environment, and there was nothing more oppressive to me when I thought about New England in the winter where you can barely get out the driveway. That’s where "Eileen" started.
JIM BRAUDE: For "Eileen," I read you followed something called the "90-Day Novel," by Alan Watt.
MOSHFEGH: It’s a true story, but I think it’s an easily misinterpreted story. I started out as an experimental writer. Playing with form and structure and language in ways that aren’t necessarily commercial. When I was 30, 31 I moved to L.A. and I was completely broke. I knew I wanted to be a writer. I knew I had to be a writer, that it was who I was and I didn’t want to have to get a job that would take up my whole day so I had no time or energy to write when I got home. I thought, in this very Victorian way, actually, I should write a novel so I could sell it and make a little bit of money.
Though it seemed like a ridiculous idea, it was also a huge creative challenge. I had written a novella before, I had never written anything that long. I had never thought about the structure of a novel in any kind of formal way, I just absorbed them and loved them. I found this book, "The 90 Day Novel," and took it on as an experiment. What would happen if a weirdo writer like me decided to write a commercially viable novel? It turned out I didn’t exactly do that. It’s not a perfect, three-act structure the way you see Hollywood movies work. But it was really interesting as an experiment and I learned a lot from writing the book…
I ended up with a terrible book. No offense to "The 90 Day Novel," but you can’t crank out a book and it be good in 60 or 90 days. There’s a lot of editing. I ended up rewriting it several times but that was part of a creative experiment. I didn’t pull it out of a hat.
BRAUDE: You write a lot about dysfunctional women, and we are all fine reading about dysfunctional men or men like this. That we’re comfortable or used to. But we’re not so comfortable reading about women similarly situated.
MOSHFEGH: Why is that?
BRAUDE: That’s my question. In your story"Bettering Myself," Miss Mooney has some issues. I was wondering if Miss Mooney was Mr. Mooney, how would I have felt differently? I haven’t resolved that kind of thing yet.
MOSHFEGH: We’re sexist as readers, definitely.
BRAUDE: How do you get around that?
MOSHFEGH: Oh, I don’t care. People are going to be sexist, they’re going to be racist, they’re going to have expectations and I’m going to write whatever I want to write…
I think we’re uncomfortable with women who are dysfunctional because we’ve all had mothers and we want women to be caretakers. It’s a really easy button to press on somebody, the moment a woman is not hospitable. We get really uncomfortable.
To hear more from author Ottessa Moshfegh, tune in to Boston Public Radio above. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.