Ottessa Moshfegh interview: Eileen started out as a joke, also I’m broke, also I want to be famous | The Knowledge Dynasty

Ottessa Moshfegh interview: Eileen started out as a joke, also I’m broke, also I want to be famous

The books interview: the Man Booker-shortlisted author talks about writing a thriller to get noticed, exorcising her childhood and sexist critics.

So here we are. My name was Eileen Dunlop. Now you know me This is the story of how I disappeared. Ottessa Moshfeghs novel, Eileen, shortlisted this week for the Man Booker prize, centres on the escape of a young woman from a New England town where she has lived unnoticed and unloved. Her flight is made possible by a seductive redhead, an act of retribution, a serious crime and a gun: not surprisingly, the book has been tagged as noir and a psychological thriller.

Add its hint of unreliable narration, and Eileen might appear to be jostling to enter Gillian Flynns Gone Girl territory. Hollywood mogul Scott Rudin has bought the film rights, and the screenwriter hired for the project is Erin Cressida Wilson, who has just adapted Paula Hawkinss The Girl on the Train.

Yet Moshfegh, 35, is not usually a writer of Hitchcockian page-turners. For some years she has been touted as a crucial new voice in American literature. Her prizewinning novella McGlue (2014) is literary and experimental, and her short stories have been published in such distinguished magazines as the Paris Review and the New Yorker. The coming together of a hip young writers writer with genre fiction has contributed to the buzz that has surrounded Eileen since its appearance in the US in 2015. More significant is that this intense, singular novel both playful and fierce is not exactly what it seems.

I meet Moshfegh at her home in East Hollywood, Los Angeles, the day after she has learned of the Man Booker shortlisting. Id had a hard day, she says, and Id woken up at three in the morning in a state of panic, so went outside to smoke a cigarette and I dont smoke very much. When I came back in, I found the email from my agent. And I just wrote back: Holy shit.

Yet Moshfegh (the second syllable rhymes with leg) wasnt wholly surprised. She is candid about Eileen being a deliberate exercise in playing with the format of commercial fiction to get the attention of a big publisher. McGlue and her early short stories might have won awards, but they didnt pay much, and she wanted to write a novel to start a career where I could live off publishing books. That was my prime motivation for writing Eileen. I thought, fine: Ill play this game. And I still feel like Im playing it.

She didnt want to keep her head down and wait 30 years to be discovered so I thought Im going to do something bold. Because there are all these morons making millions of dollars, so why not me? Im smart and talented and motivated and disciplined and talented: did I say that already?, she laughs. I said: fuck it. Which was also: fuck them. I was pretty hostile. I thought: Ill show you how easy this is.

So Moshfegh went out and bought a book called The 90-Day Novel, by Alan Watt. Its ridiculous, claiming that anybody can write a great book, and quickly too. And I thought if I were to do this, what would happen, would my head explode? So I followed it for 60 days it was so boring. But it ended up as an Oulipian thing, struggling with a limitation, and it was actually interesting to conform to the rules. So it started out as a fuck-you joke, also Im broke, also I want to be famous. It was that kind of a gesture. Moshfegh pauses and frets though she laughs again that the Booker people will be disgusted with her revealing the origins of Eileen in such terms.

But of course this was only the beginning then it turned into a work of its own. In Moshfeghs hands, an off-the-peg novel structure was warped and elevated into something unique. For a start, the narrator, an elderly Eileen looking back to 1964, plays fictional games. And while the book has fun with suspense and noir cliche Rebecca, the redhead, is more an idea than a fully developed presence it is full of astounding and funny sentences that only Moshfegh could have written. Most importantly, the central character is an unforgettable and distinctively dark creation.

Eileen as a 24-year-old is miserable, full of anger and self-loathing. She wakes up next to her vomit after a heavy nights drinking. She hates her alcoholic father and wishes him dead. Though obsessed by her plainness, she wears her dead mothers frumpy clothes. She touches herself and smells her fingers. She hasnt yet dared to have sex, but stalks her fantasy man and believes her first time would be by force. Her house is filthy and she eats terrible food, when she eats at all. Addicted to laxatives, she tells of her basement toilet purging: torrential, oceanic, as though all of my insides had melted and were now gushing out Those were the good times.

This isnt unfamiliar ground for Moshfegh. The wonderful McGlue is written as the internal monologue of a self-harming sailor, accused of murder, who cant keep food down and who has nearly drunk himself to death. And the stories in Homesick for Another World, her collection to be published in January, are, she says, my first attempt to impress on people how weird it has been for me to feel alive. And I do that by using these puppets who are struggling with their absurd miseries. Moshfegh told Vice magazine: My writing lets people scrape up against their own depravity, but at the same time its very refined Its like seeing Kate Moss take a shit.

The vast majority of critics have embraced Eileen, but one used the words queasy and gratuitous. When I ask Moshfegh about the reception of the novel, she rails against those who want to know in this juicy way why I have written such an unlikable character. I just want to say: How dare you? We live in a world in which mass murderers are re-elected, she says, yet its an unlikable female character that is found to be offensive: its sexist and idiotic.

At the same time, I get it, she continues. Eileen is a character that makes people uncomfortable. She is not going to, you know, cheer you up. But might it not be liberating to hear the thoughts of someone who is completely ignored by society? Those readers or reviewers who focus on Eileens unlikability, she believes, probably felt ashamed when reading the book, and are unable to confront their own more debased impulses.

Moshfegh has said before that most people who pick up a book labelled thriller or mystery may not be expecting to confront troubling ideas about women in society I couldnt be like, Heres my freak book So Ive disguised the ugly truth in a kind of spiffy noir package. The great irony is that, to her, Eileen is not perverse. I think shes totally normal I havent written a freak character; Ive written an honest character.

When I mention the importance of drink in Eileen and her other work, Moshfegh tells me she drank alcoholically for five years from the age of 17 or 18, and then spent eight years in AA thinking deeply about alcoholism One of the first things you hear when you go to AA is that its not a cult, but it is a cult. I was indoctrinated, I was hard core.

And the problematic relationship between food and the body that features in her writing? Ive had eating issues since adolescence, and while I dont enjoy speaking about this publicly, I can say that theres nothing in my work that I havent thoroughly researched privately. As for Eileens body obsession, she has said its hardly surprising, even inevitable: we live in a culture of objectification women are judged by appearance first. This is why Im not putting my photo on my book jacket.

The bleakness of Eileens life is prolonged and taken to such a level its almost black comedy. In conversation, Moshfegh is funny about the trials of existence, and her short stories have been acclaimed for their comic timing. I used to be much funnier in person, she deadpans. I used to be hysterically funny. There was a period in my 20s when I was a crack-up. But she insists that even if Eileens misery and self-hatred might begin to seem absurd that doesnt mean its not real.

People are constantly being abused, enslaved, she has said. It happens all around us, every day, but weve become numb, so we do nothing. Eileen, which revolves around a juvenile prison, and the particular motivation for a patricide, is shaped by this anger. Then again, Moshfegh says she is completely fatigued and sick of having to talk about the novel as an object containing issues. For her it was an experiment, and a year on from its publication, shes very happy for it, but it is only one project among many.

***

Moshfegh has described herself as a lurker on the edge of society looking at the world and thinking: what a weird show. She was born in Boston to a Croatian mother and an Iranian father, both professional musicians. Her mothers parents joined partisan armies to fight the Nazis; her paternal grandfather owned half of Tehran before the family was forced to leave, with all assets seized, in the Iranian revolution of 1978-9. Her family was culturally rich but financially poor within an affluent Bostonian neighbourhood: Moshfegh was ashamed of their rusting car, but read the complete works of Hermann Hesse at an alarmingly young age, and was playing four instruments by the time she was seven.

My familys values seemed very different from the values of the world I was living in, she recalls. As a child, she always felt removed: I had this epiphany when I was five, sitting on the carpet in kindergarten listening to Mrs Balfour trying to teach us how to read the clock. It dawned on me that time was passing and we were all going to be dead whats the point? So I had that realisation, and then people were telling me to put my crayons away. And to get in line, and to smile. And I thought this was total bullshit.

Her sense of alienation is expressed with humour, but is genuine and profound. I felt like I was living in hell for most of my childhood and adolescence and my 20s, she says. There was a brief period in my early 30s when I felt life was OK, and now it feels like hell again. The shape the hell took is precisely what my work is about.

Moshfegh gave up music when the discipline and intensity it required was channelled into her writing. After her college years in New York humiliating she lived a life in her 20s: I got jobs, fell in love, moved to China for two years, fell out of love, got other jobs. She dates the beginning of her writing career to her MFA course at Brown University, during which, in 2010-2011, she wrote McGlue: Looking back Im astonished that I wrote it, I think its an astonishing book.

Writing the hallucinatory novella which is both a celebration of rhythm and language, and a historical gay love story with exotic locations almost felt like an exorcism. Before it was published, she had already begun the series of stories to be included in Homesick for Another World, which led to recognition, awards and fellowships.

The first story in the collection, Bettering Myself, is told in the voice of a damaged, alcoholic high-school teacher, who meets up with her former husband. According to Moshfegh, it is not so far from a true story. Im not the character. But it came from very close to home. As did the fairytale-like final story, A Better Place, which concerns a young girl who, as the author describes it, feels as though shes been lied to and doesnt want to live in a world at the mercy of others. The stories in between are highly varied and hugely entertaining, but most originate from a position of hostility or a difficult personal experience. Many of them skewer egomaniacal men and privileged people unaware of their bigotry.

Even as her renown has increased, Moshfegh has expressed discomfort with becoming a literary personality. If the literary world was a high school, she told Vanity Fair, I would be sitting with the goths, looking at everyone, being, like, Whatever. She has given up Twitter and Facebook tacky for a known author and tells me if I could unplug my internet completely I would I value my brain. But she is driven and ambitious what matters is the work, especially the new novel she is deep into, set in the New York art world in 2000, in which a woman hibernates for a year: In the long term, she says, I want my writing to be something important.

There may be aspects of promoting her novel that she finds wearying, but she smiles she doesnt mind being inconvenienced by the Booker, and has kept October free in her schedule in case. (If an American writer won it, she thinks, the media in the US would care more about the prize.) So what if, in some circles, Eileen gets bracketed with the bestselling thrillers by Flynn and Hawkins? Trying to protect its reputation as a postmodern work of art would not only be arrogant, but pointless. Besides, she retains a deep connection with her memorable and controversial central character, whom she grew to understand completely. Eileen is a living person, she says. And I have a feeling shes angry with me for talking behind her back.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh is published by Vintage. To order a copy for 7.37 (RRP 8.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/16/ottessa-moshfegh-interview-book-started-as-joke-man-booker-prize-shortlist

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