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Ottessa Moshfegh: Fear of missing… nothing

At the gates of the pandemic, many of those who had read My Year of Rest and Relaxation could only turn their eyes to the author, Ottessa Moshfegh, with even more curiosity than that already aroused by the release of what was immediately an international bestseller. (And soon to be film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, surely the perfect pick for the task of bringing out a certainly dark and in some places uncomfortable story.) In fact, the novel tells of an unnamed protagonist who decides to lock herself up at home for a year, limiting her outings almost exclusively to the pharmacy to buy the drugs that allow her to stay asleep most of the time. This claustrophobia “predicted” only a couple of years earlier, does not, however, make Moshfegh feel like a Cassandra, as many have called her. Indeed, the similarities with the fear of the virus and the health of loved ones have little to do with the meandering nihilism palpable in My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Instead she tells us that while this last year has certainly been distressing for her, it has also been profitable and not too dissimilar from her normal life pattern. Made up, as it is, of rhythms linked to writing and a sense of a sort of peace with everything that happens… out there. Seemingly, of itself, not as interesting as the experience of writing fiction.

Ottessa Moshfegh: Fear of missing… nothing

What drives you to write?

The desire to write drives me to write. I love writing. And what I receive from writing is far greater than what I put into it. Even on the hardest days, the fact of having created something out of nothing, that act of magic, along with the hard work – sometimes pulling my hair out – is satisfying because it feels as though I am reaching for something that doesn’t really exist and making it real. It’s like praying for something and having it come true.

How much restlessness is there in everyday life?

A fair amount. I’m not sure how restless the average person is, so it’s hard to measure. I’m not someone who loves to go out and do things. I prefer to be restless at home and to complain about it, rather than exhausting myself of my restlessness by trying to go out and have fun. I like to go to estate sales and yard sales and look through other people’s stuff, their houses. If I can do that once in a while, my restlessness abates. Since my twenties, I haven’t been a going-out kind of person. My husband has to drag me places sometimes. I like being home where I can rest and snuggle with the dogs. Of course, there is another side of me that wants pure adventure. The only problem with that is that I tire easily, my back hurts, and I miss my dogs after about an hour...

You seem to be fascinated by the strange, the unconventional. Is it a curiosity that in your opinion is linked to writing, to having to develop characters, or is there something else?

I don’t think my curiosity is a response to the imaginative demands of my work. I think it’s all kind of the water I’m floating in. I am curious about extreme human behaviour. I watch a lot of YouTube videos about people who have done unpredictable things, compulsive things, horrible things. Getting to know about strange people makes me more interested in people in general, perhaps because I feel alienated from mainstream society – the weirdos pull me into a wider understanding of what humanity is. This definitely makes its way into my work, but I don’t really write about serial killers or hoarders. I think I tend towards characters with subtler strangeness, but strangeness just the same in that a “normal” person perhaps wouldn’t be so forthcoming about his or her peculiarities.

I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation in the summer of 2019 and remember thinking at the time that it would be impossible to stay at home for a whole year unless it was through some disease or personal reason. And then that happened to all of us. What made you think of writing such a strange and disturbing story?

The prompt was pretty basic, actually. I was staying with a friend for the summer on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where the protagonist of my story lives. I just started imagining a young woman living there, someone who looks like she ought to feel comfortable there but doesn’t. This coincided with a whim of mine to try going back on medication for my ADHD, which I hadn’t taken for years. It was extraordinarily easy to procure a prescription – the doctor asked for no proof of my diagnosis. In the end I’m not sure I took the pills more than a few times, but the experience of going to get them in New York – the doctor’s office was near the ruins of the Twin Towers – certainly made an impression.

And how did you feel when it somehow happened to all of us?

I honestly wasn’t thinking about My Year of Rest and Relaxation when the Covid virus forced us into quarantine. It was such a terrifying situation – anxiety was so high, I felt powerless, the future seemed apocalyptic and I was afraid of my parents getting sick and dying before I saw them again. I was relieved that the people I loved were staying home and trying to stay safe. I don’t know anyone who is so outgoing that the quarantine drove them crazy, but I can imagine it was harder for younger people. I work at home, so the pace of life wasn’t an extreme shift for me. I was lucky that I could adapt and didn’t lose much work. 

Unusually for you, your next book, Lapvona, is set in the past, in the Middle Ages. It’s also a very dark period, where religion and magic, as well as nature itself, were sometimes confused. Where there was so much tyranny. And where the feeling of uncertainty was very strong. Are there any similarities with today's time? What fascinated you about this historical moment?

It’s funny, I hadn’t really expected I would write about the Middle Ages in Europe. The book’s first seeds got planted about a year before I began, and they were more about the scenario the main character finds himself in, rather than the time and place. But as I developed the idea, I found that Lapvona, a fictional medieval village, was crucial in providing a landscape for the story, a culture and a system of beliefs, politics, society. It is the first novel I wrote in the third person, from multiple points of view. Lapvona was a place I could go to look at the elements in every culture I know personally: power corrupts; capitalism hurts humanity and the earth; religion at its worst can be used to exploit and enslave people; people are prone to greed and delusion. [These are true], I guess, no matter what time and place.

In your books there is often a lot of imbalance between the characters, the power that some exert over others. Why?

I’ve never focused on that aspect of my stories in a very direct way; I suppose I just like characters who have innate conflict. A seductive character – in my opinion – is interesting because the power to seduce someone seems pretty rare and special, and yet it happens every day.

Your stories have to do also with a certain kind of isolation. What do you find interesting in this and how do you personally approach it?

I like isolation as a narrative strategy for a character because it allows me to see her as an individual confronting her own mind, without the distractions of other people and the world outside. I have been interested in narrative as a kind of non-theatrical monologue; until my newest book (due to be published in the US next spring), I’ve written novels exclusively in the first person perspective. I liked to write as though I was the protagonist narrating my own story, and my writing methods developed a bit like method acting. I really tried to set my body and face like my character, to go very deep, and sometimes stray very far away from my own mind in order to conjure a different one. That required me to set my characters apart, so I could study them in isolation. I could get in there with them and hear their thoughts and allow them free range to express themselves.

In this last year we have faced something highly unprecedented that has pushed us to be afraid not only of nature, but also sometimes of ourselves. How has it made you feel?

I think it could have a net positive effect if we really start improving the systems on which we depend. We still have this great divide here, which I see, in that a lot of work seems to be getting done about equal representation in entertainment industries, but the streets of LA are still teeming with unhoused people. I believe we should be addressing those people first, rather than celebrities.

Since your attention is always strongly drawn to weirdos, in your opinion what oddities will this phase open the doors to? Have you already thought about that?

I feel that I am more attracted to an imaginative realm of animals and nature, as well as ghosts.

How have you lived these months? In this issue of Pirelli World we are trying to explore how people have rediscovered their comfort zone and perhaps learnt to listen to themselves more. Do you think this is true? Do you think this moment has somehow opened our eyes to something?

Among many other things, my sense of time has been altered. A year passed without seeing my family, friends, and that felt truly bizarre. Perhaps it is southern California weather on top of the monotony that makes me wonder – every day! – what month it is. Is it Christmas yet? No, it’s June. As for the deeper, personal shifts, I honestly can’t put my finger on them anymore. I think that’s what adaptation means: you forget what you used to be like.

You have moved between many cities, something that in this period was very complex but which at the same time, thanks to smart working, we have come to realize that maybe living in the city may not be necessary. What made you move so much and what do you see in the dimension of the city and of living in more secluded places instead?

I moved around a lot when I was younger simply because my life led me in different directions. I’ve never lived for long in a secluded place; I need to be in some proximity to a city, even if I never go there. It comforts me here in Pasadena to know that Los Angeles is 20 minutes away, I can see it from the top of my hike. But I’ve gone there seldom in the past year of Covid.

This issue features an interview with Frances McDormand, who was hailed for her role in the movie Nomadland. Have you seen it? What did you think about it?

I have seen Nomadland and McDormand is always fascinating to watch, of course. I admire [the film’s director] Chloé Zhao very much. I loved [her film] The Rider. I thought Nomadland rode a line between peculiarity of character and cliché, which was effective in bringing such a quiet story to mainstream audiences. She caught a piece of the American landscape that I knew nothing about, and she did it very beautifully.

Is there a place you feel is your comfort zone?

For me it’s the parking lot of the [US pharmacy chain] Rite Aid. I can’t explain it, I just feel like everything makes sense there.

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