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As If You Know – Ottessa Moshfegh

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Ottessa Moshfegh, the author of four books and her fifth Death in Her Hands coming in April 2020, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and a fiction finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, spoke on Monday at City Arts and Lectures. The air about her seemed still, focused. Her demeanor – somewhat indifferent with a dash of arrogance and coy – was steadily confident. She could shift from an impassioned monologue about craft like a professor at large to total inversion when talking about her obvious talent. Self-indulgence was not something she liked to linger on. When reminded of her early publications at Granata, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, she shrugged. “I was still nothing after that,” she replied. It reminded me of a little bit of Bob Dylan’s infamous interview in San Francisco in 1965. Throughout the talk I half-expected her to say, What do you wanna’ know about it? Her lack of acknowledgment was fuel to the audience’s fire of wanting.

In Ottessa’s self-assuredness, there was also an ebb and flow of vulnerability, embarrassment, and childlike innocence that accompanied questions like, “Where did McGlue, a story about a drunken sailor in 1851 accused of murdering a man named Johnson though he can’t remember because he’s blacked out, come from?” Moshfegh claims the subconscious or maybe just a weird interest in the historical account she pulled it from, but really, she didn’t seem concerned with answering the moderator’s question. The answer was in the work, or it wasn’t. It was really of no concern to Otessa, leaving the one asking the questions, a jovial woman within gray Bella Freud sweater with the numbers 1970 emboldened on the front, to move on.

Moshfegh came out in deep indigo, almost black patterned dress with what looked like faint pink Egyptian scarabs designs on the long sleeves and torso. She wore knee-high, dark chocolate boots, the same color as her hair that complemented her olive skin. I was struck by the air of, I suppose, of royalty, she radiated as well as the quick comedic zingers she belted out when she started talking about her most recent book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, published in July 2018. 

The book is about a traditionally attractive 24-year-old living in Manhattan in the summer of 2001. The unnamed narrator lives off her recently deceased parents’ money and works at a modern art gallery. She doesn’t treat her “best friend” Reva very nicely. “She’s not very much fun,” Ottessa says. The details when describing the protagonist’s therapist, Dr. Tuttle, office, as always, were hilarious and specific: “Wreaths of dead purple flowers and stacks of National Geographic magazines. The bathroom was crowded with fake plants and peacock feathers. On the sink next to a huge bar of cracked lilac soap was a wooden bowl of peanuts.” This pulled a spontaneous, unexplained laugh from the crowd which is common in so much of her work. She continued with, “That baffled me.” Another laugh. This ability to make a seemingly normal scene simply by coupling two random objects is one of the many toxic charms of Ottessa’s work.

They moved onto Ottessa’s first novel Eileen. She claims the novel was written to pay the bills and buy sandwiches. “And it worked,” Ottessa said with a sideways grin. “Weirdly enough.” When asked how she did it she responded nonchalantly, “First, I practiced writing for twenty years. I was really broke and living in LA and I had just gone through this massive education but for some reason, I thought I’d learn something I wouldn’t otherwise learn.” She went on to explain that she found a craft book called The 90 Day Novel. She found the shallow objectiveness of it ridiculous, but as an artist, she believes there comes a moment where the process becomes 2nd to a writer following their instincts and avoiding deliberating with themselves about whether they are or are not a novelist. You just have to do it, the processes be damned. “I didn’t believe I was a novelist yet because I hadn’t written a novel yet,” Otessa explained. “I just need to write a novel quickly, believe that I am a novelist, and move forward.” Laugh. “So I followed the instructions to be perfectly blunt.” Bigger laugh.

As a writer, listening to Ottessa explain her beginnings with Alan Watts’s book, I was reminded of my own origin story of putting pen to paper and the joys of not knowing what the hell I was doing. After years of pressure, both past and present, to be published, going through a grueling two years of a Masters program, and now writing freelance wherever and for whoever I can, hearing Ottessa say, “I didn’t have anything but the desire to write a novel.” This simple phrase harkened me back to the days where I wrote not for self-esteem, self-worth, careerism, or to challenge myself in a new form or whatever, but simply to write for the joy of writing. “You start off with nothing like I didn’t have an idea, I didn’t have a character, I didn’t have a voice, I didn’t have a location, I didn’t have anything. In the first 30 days, you just free write answering questions about who is your character. You try to answer it as if you know. That is what really taught me how to write a novel. Every day you show up and write as if you know, not because you know. It’s fiction, it’s not real. You’re pretending to be an authority on something you’re making up.” Ottessa went on. “Everything emanates from that person’s experience and their spirit.” That core idea of writing from a place of not knowing was so clear – really harkening back to Montaigne – that is was a blunt reminder of the freedom one can have when they simply let go and create into the unknown.

One thing I wish they had touched was Otessa’s profound wit and humor while detailing the absolutely grotesque, gross, and at times, child-like potty humor. As far as contemporary women writer’s working today, Otessa is the only one that comes to mind (please don’t crucify me…I know I should read more women writers and wish I had asked her who she was reading or has been inspired by) that, as a women in modern society, writes about traditionally unfeminine things. Passages like, “With the laxatives, my (bowel) movements were torrential, oceanic, as though all of my insides had melted and were now gushing out, a sludge that stank distinctly of chemicals and which, when it was all out, I half expected to breach the rim of the toilet bowl” are both hilarious, bold, and risky in terms of their placement in that novel. Yet, because lines like these and so many others are based so securely in the development of the soul of the character, Ottessa keeps her reader engaged. Contemporaries like Lauren Groff and Elif Batuman are some of the true greats of language, syntax, and can tap so directly into settings, but few possess the downright Molotov of absurd nastiness and self-deprecation that Ottessa is able to write with. Her ability to make me laugh, gag, cringe and question the “rules” society has quietly imposed on us over the years, extending beyond gender, at times, and focusing on what it means to be human. All of these qualities and more make Ottessa Moshfegh an author to never put in a corner because goddamn, she will most definitely write her way out of it. 

Death in Her Hands will be published on April 21, 2020.

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Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran is a freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Winner of the ClarkGrossman and Wilner Award in Short Fiction, his work has been featured in Drunk Monkeys, The Millions, Music in SF and more. He survives in San Francisco.