For Ottessa Moshfegh, Novel Writing Is a Spiritual Experience

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Ottessa Moshfegh plumbs the absurd and the profane for the few moments of clarity one experiences under great duress. Her fiction, with memorably unreliable narrators saddled with unorthodox desires, dramatizes the manifold ways that self-deception perpetuates the conditions of our own misery—and, sometimes, a descent into madness. Moshfegh achieves all of this with pristine prose. In this way, she hews closer to Vladimir Nabokov than she does to her contemporaries; for both writers, language is simultaneously a puzzle box and a revelation.

Moshfegh’s latest novel, Death in Her Hands, was drafted between her breakout novel Eileen, which was short-listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, and 2018’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Hallucinatory at moments but always wry, the book begins as a mystery novel, with lonely old widow Vesta Gul finding an ominous note on the ground while out on a walk: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her body.” But there is no body or evidence of any crime, and the more Vesta lets herself hypothesize what might have happened to Magda, the more she finds herself turning her investigation inward, toward the sum total of her own life.

Before the book’s release in late June, the author and I chatted over Skype, with Moshfegh sitting in her backyard, taking puffs on a cigarette between her considered answers and an occasional whistle to her dog. We talked about divinity, her approach to art, and getting into her characters’ heads.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

—Rosemarie Ho

Rosemarie Ho: Death in Her Hands marks a departure from your previous work in that poetry pops up here and there as plot points—W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” is incorporated into a note Vesta writes, and the last lines of William Blake’s “The Voice of the Ancient Bard” becomes almost a refrain toward the end of her investigation. Could you tell me more about that choice?

Ottessa Moshfegh: Vesta is someone who hasn’t really been all that authentic to herself in life, so when she starts telling her story, it has a sense of performativeness. The performance is one that is literary, because she is contained by language, basically, so that seemed appropriate. There was also something naive about Vesta, how she has been in arrested development her whole life, since she’s never really been alone until her husband dies. She hasn’t developed a side of herself that would enable her to make straight declarations and speak plainly. She’s somebody who needs to decorate what she’s saying, because maybe she feels like no one will listen otherwise. Or maybe she doesn’t really know what she’s saying yet. I mean, I think a lot of the book is about her refinding her voice in her space.



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