An interview with Ottessa Moshfegh, Columbia Journal 2019 winter contest fiction judge. Conducted by Elliot Alpern, print fiction editor.
Your next novel, Death in Her Hands, is due to be released in 2020. Can you talk about the process of writing this, compared to your other works?
I wrote Death in Her Hands in a way I had never written before. Every evening, I wrote a thousand words. I had no plan, and I never looked back at what I had written. I just pushed forward. It was such a different process, because my usual method entails drafting and revising and moving and rewriting and obsessing over every move. In this novel, I stayed purely present in the moment, and it is reflected in the writing. I think I’ve captured the inner-workings of the mind of my narrator in a way I could have only achieved through forced improvisation and a kind of cleaning of the slate each day. Of course, I edited the book a lot once I had finished a first draft–it was an insane document.
How do you choose what to read for pleasure? / What do you look for that appeals to you in a work of fiction?
I look for an unusual voice that wholly persuades me to believe in the world of the fiction, something with spirit and self-control. My favorite fiction has inscrutable magic, which I perceive as an effect of the connectedness of the author to his or her higher register, soul. When I feel I have been expanded, less constricted by my own mind, I know I have just read something powerful.
When you read a piece of short fiction, how important is it that the work is transformative in some personal or societal manner?
I think transformation can be inspiring, but it’s very easy to cheapen a story by forcing a transformation narrative. The way I see it, if the narration is condensed, precise, and under enough pressure, the transformation can come through in a more subtle, artful way simply by building on the tension of language, rather than constructing a story device to further along a plot. That said, a single line can make me want to read a whole book. I just started “A Maggot” by John Fowles. When I opened the book, I glanced at the last lines of the short prologue: “What follows may seem like a historical novel; but it is not. It is maggot.” Of course I’m going to read this book. What the hell is maggot?!
After releasing the short story collection Homesick for Another World in 2017, you returned to the novel form in 2018 with My Year of Rest and Relaxation. How do you decide whether a story idea is more suitable for the short form, vs. a contained book-length work?
In the crudest terms, working on a novel gives me a feeling of stretching my arms out, and a short story makes me want to hunch my shoulders. I think it’s something about my relationship to the character’s predicament: if she is someone whose mind I can contain, in whatever slant I take toward her, she belongs in a short story. If she is someone whose mind feels like a mystery, I know I will need a novel to understand her. It also has a lot to do with the angle at the point of departure. A short story is a nose-dive, and a novel is the lift off of a spring board high dive.
Do you find any distinct challenges or advantages to writing a work set in New York City (as you did in My Year of Rest and Relaxation), compared to other settings?
The challenge and the advantage is that New York is so well known. It has really strong associative imagery, history, locations, etc. If a writer doesn’t know New York well, it’s obvious. And then the whole thing sounds fake.But New York evokes so much, the city as a setting does a lot for you. You don’t have to describe it in detail. Writers can take it for granted that it’s a place that already lives in the imagination of the reader. That can be used to great effect.
In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, your narrator spends much of her time watching movies and documentaries. Would you consider this similar to how you yourself unwind, or how else do you find ways to relax away from writing?
I love watching documentaries. My latest favorite is a series on A&E called “60 Days In.” It’s a reality TV show about non-criminals who volunteer to spend sixty days undercover in a jail in order to provide intel to the warden. Watching these individuals adapt to incarceration is fascinating, and it’s really impressive how some of them keep their cover going. Watching the first two seasons I kept thinking, “I want to do this.” I tried to figure out how I could get on the show. Then I realized it got canceled.
Ottessa Moshfegh is a novelist and screenwriter from Massachusetts. She’s the author of four books, most recently the novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which was a New York Times bestseller. Her next novel, Death in Her Hands will be published in April.