Bookforum talks with Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen: A Novel BY Ottessa Moshfegh. Penguin Press. Hardcover, 272 pages. $25.

I first came to know Ottessa Moshfegh's writing through her shrewd, darkly funny stories in the Paris Review, for which she won the Plimpton Prize. Much of her work deals in disgust (see her story "Disgust"), fixation, and the personal horrors we can't look away from.

Her new novel, Eileen, follows mousy, disturbed twenty-four-year-old Eileen Dunlop, who, like many of Moshfegh's young female protagonists, finds her small-town surroundings dull, bleak, and suffocating. By day, Eileen works in a boys' prison outside Boston and by night, she cares for her cruel, alcoholic widowed father in their hoarder's nest of a home. All the while, she dreams of violent calamities that might free her, until one day a charismatic new counselor arrives at the prison, embroiling Eileen in a false friendship and a scheme that ultimately forces her to escape. Eileen is a thriller that preserves the macabre humor of Moshfegh's short fiction. Her recounting of events maintains a razor's-edge balance between shock and inevitability that recalls Flannery O'Connor and Shirley Jackson.

While the voices of Moshfegh's characters are often uneasy and evasive, her own manner is candid and casual. We spoke on the phone about secret rage, eating disorders, and people who take themselves too seriously.

Eileen is set in the early 1960s in a suburb of Boston where the '60s haven't really hit yet. What drew you to that period and that place?

The book deals a lot with entrapment and isolation. For me, there's nothing more psychologically isolating than a small New England town in the dead of winter, because I am from New England and I lived in a suburb of Boston. This book is not necessarily autobiographical, but it is informed by my childhood and my imagination of what it would be like to live in a small town, where you don't meet anyone except the people in that town, where nobody comes and goes. That to me is interesting because the town becomes an interior space. Although the story plays out in a dramatic way—yeah, there's a plot—it is a very interior world of Eileen, her thoughts, her feelings, her perceptions and opinions, and how all those things change through the experience of the story she's telling. And I was very deliberate about setting the book in 1964. I like how you put it, "the '60s hadn't hit yet"—the '60s really hadn't hit yet. Period.

We meet two Eileens in the story: the twenty-four-year-old naïve, self-hating Eileen and the voice of the narrator, the older, more cynical present-day Eileen. In this way, she stands on either side of the realization that the authority and values of her native community are a lie. Which Eileen came to you first?

Eileen in 1964 was what came to me first, and I didn't even realize that present-day Eileen was the narrator until the second draft of the novel. I sort of had to rewrite it. Eileen at twenty-four, I think, is just such an overlooked aspect of what it is to be a female. That's why I thought she would be interesting as a character—this person we pass on every street corner, this self-loathing, insecure young woman who masks herself in docile, bland anonymity on the outside. While on the inside, she's just raging. That was exciting to me because she's a duplicitous and sinister character that I relate to. I still feel a lot like that. People don't know what I'm really thinking.

Why do you think Eileen stays home as long as she does? It seems as if she's been planning her escape for a long time.

Well, running away is really difficult. It takes a lot of courage; it's a huge risk. It's basically putting yourself at the mercy of the universe. You can ask the same question of anybody: What's the thing that is making you miserable? Oh, I hate my job. Well, quit. Why don't you just quit? It's not so simple. Oftentimes we don't change—we can't go through with it. And in 1964, society wasn't really set up for young women who don't have financial support to go off and make a life somewhere, alone, without a husband or anything. Eileen really didn't have any other options. She was without any opportunities.

That sense of routine oppression is something you see in a lot of literature by women from the mid twentieth century. I'm thinking of Sylvia Plath or Carson McCullers or so many others from that period, who recognized the lack of opportunities, even for really brilliant, exceptional women. Were you looking at contemporary authors?

No. My sense of what America was like for a woman is based so much on old movies and TV shows, and also the fashion of the time. I wasn't really trying to reference literary material. I was thinking about how influential the media is in one's psychic development.

You mentioned Sylvia Plath, and she happens to be a fucking genius. It's really hard not to be depressed, as a woman. It's hard not to be completely disappointed in the world and the way your intellect is received or ignored just because you have a vagina. All the issues Eileen is facing are totally typical, and people keep coming up to me, and they're like "Oh my God, Eileen is so weird." But is she really weird? Is her response to her life really unexpected? I don't know. I sort of assume that everyone feels pretty uncomfortable when they're twenty-four. You don't really know who you are yet, and you desperately want to be you and yet you don't have the maturity or the power to figure out how to do that. It's a struggle. The twenties—God, it sucks.

In the first section of the novel, Eileen tells us: "This is the story of how I disappeared." She also calls the town X-ville, and names the prison after a landlord she didn't like. Throughout, there's an emphasis on invisibility, on being anonymous. What is the impulse behind that?

Eileen's present-day narrator character may not want to give particulars because in some ways she's protecting herself. This also brings up the question of the occasion for telling the story, and that's up for debate. I think the wrong answer would be that this is a confession. Confession implies a feeling of remorse or guilt, and I don't think that is the motivation. Anonymity is part of her self-preservation.

This book is very plot-driven, more so than your short stories or the novella McGlue. How did you develop the structure?

Working on a short story is very different for me—the work has a different tonality. When I was writing the novel, I just wrote it. I think I wrote it in two months. It was awful, and I almost threw it away. Then I rewrote it many times, through editing my initial manuscript. With a short story, I can spend six months generating the language that's going to go into it. But with a much longer project, I didn't think that I would have the patience to deal with click-clacking at my keyboard or whatever for a year and a half. That's just not my personality. I'm pretty intense and pretty disciplined and pretty impatient, so I was like, "I'm just going to do this and it's going to be fucking awesome." I had to keep telling myself that daily, constantly, or else you can just give up on page four and be like, "Meh. I'll just write another short story."

Eileen's story is in some ways unrelentingly bleak, and yet you find so much dark humor in her situation. One of my favorite scenes is when the warden gives a speech before the Christmas pageant in which he compares the plight of the boys in the prison to the story of Jesus. Humor seems be a way of opening things up for you, confronting volatile topics, or offensiveness, or backwardness.

I just think writing that takes itself so seriously that it can't see the ridiculousness in itself is lame. I can't stand people who don't have any sense of humor. If you can't see the humor or irony in a situation then you might as well be dead. Seriously. A lot of it is about being self-aware. How often do you sit down with someone and they're completely not self-aware? Your first thought is, "Who is this asshole? Does he not see that he's totally not self-aware?" Well, no. Those are people I'm totally not interested in talking to. I like making fun of them though. People like the warden. That character, he's kind of an archetype. Here's this guy who runs a prison for children, lecturing them about morality and God. A warden is a total pawn in a system that is absolutely disgusting. With somebody like that, if he had self-awareness, he would kill himself. What he's doing is evil. He needs to be taken down, and I like that Eileen lets his voice run in that scene so people can hear how ridiculous it is.

Much of your work explores different forms of excess and addictive behaviors, whether alcoholism or hoarding or violent imaginings. These characters find themselves in routines of doing the same thing over and over again.

I'm really interested in how people respond internally to being abused. I assume that everybody walking around has been abused. We live in a very abusive culture; it's extremely violent. We've all suffered, and we've suffered unfairly. All of us. We've all been hurt, some more than others. Privilege factors into it a little bit, but it's also extremely personal and has a lot to do with your family and your upbringing and stuff like that. So I'm curious about how circumstances in life and experience can be reflected in a character in terms of the expression of internal struggle. Addiction, in my life, has been a perfect expression of feeling powerless and therefore trying to exert some control or modulate your awareness through a substance. These are coping mechanisms. I don't know any addict who started shooting heroin for fun. It's an escape, it's a way to deal with life, and if you get addicted to it, it becomes life.

That said, I don't think of Eileen as an addict. She has a pretty debilitating eating disorder, which is not something that people are noticing much in the book. She talks about chewing and spitting, which is really prevalent and doesn't get talked about a lot as an eating disorder in mainstream culture. She's bulimic. She abuses laxatives, and she has some anorexic tendencies. Not to pathologize her, but she doesn't like taking care of herself. There is some sort of emotional gratification that comes from abusing her own body. I think that is a direct response to her life situation. Her preoccupation with her body, its shape and how it compares to other people's bodies, the smell of her body, which she's completely terrified of, her menstrual cycle, which she's so ashamed of, not wanting to have a figure that would make her seem like a woman because the implications of being a woman are pretty awful in her experience. All of those things contribute to an unhealthy relationship with her body, and the thing that it runs on, which is food. I feel like in mainstream culture we think about eating disorders as so much about wanting to be thin and pretty, but that's just a small part of what they're about for some people. They're really about anxiety and self-preservation. I think that if Eileen were her real self in X-ville, she would probably be dead. She needs these coping mechanisms to get her through it.

It's interesting to hear you describe how food is tied up in becoming a woman versus staying small or staying a girl. Eileen sees herself as both prudish and depraved somehow. She's aware of that multiplicity in herself and acknowledges that it is something she can't reconcile.

Most intelligent women have a similar experience. Women, in general, are violently objectified everywhere you look. We live in a patriarchy that has pushed this objectification to the extreme. How do you reconcile being intelligent and wanting to be attractive? It can get very complicated, and it feels almost impossible that one wouldn't have to make a sacrifice in either direction in order to exist.

Eileen tells us she likes books about awful things. And in a lot of your stories the characters reveal that they're big readers. Do you think about what they read?

No, I don't. I have a huge blind spot when it comes to literature. I think it's odd. I don't really understand it. I have this sense of books being greater than they really are, or worse, so to read one and for it to become real, it's sort of this disappointment. Not always a negative experience, but I have some hesitancy to really read very much. So I can come up with an idea of the kinds of books a character might have on their bookshelf, you know, but I probably haven't read them. There's a story coming out in the fall issue of the Paris Review about this privileged white male Brooklyn hipster, and I imagine that he's read Chekhov and David Foster Wallace and, I don't know, Dostoyevsky. And I have read Chekhov, but I'm also thinking about the idea of Chekhov and what it means to be someone who reads Chekhov or any of these guys. They're known entities. But I like discovering authors, and then I'll read everything they wrote.

Who's someone that you've read everything they wrote?

I've read all of Charles Bukowski's novels multiple times. I recently decided to study the novels of Anne Tyler, which proved to be fascinating. Looking at the course of her career and how she shifted gears is really interesting. Her first few novels were so bizarre, and I can't believe they aren't more popular. I had to hunt for them.

It seems you're interested in books as cultural signifiers versus books as texts, and the tension between your opinion of a book and its established weight or value in literature.

I guess I am objectifying books in that way.

I've never heard that particular anxiety described, but it makes sense.

I also just really don't like a lot of stuff. I'm not a reader who is obsessed with books. I love the form and I love the medium, and I have been around the literary community since I was in my early twenties. I'm not wowed anymore when I meet a really famous author. I'm not striving to win any awards. I may not write another short story. I may not. I don't know. I finished my collection, and I'm like, "What's next for me?" I want to expand. Books are just one thing. There's a lot more that I'm interested in doing. I didn't know that about myself until a couple months ago. I was always like, "I'm a fiction writer. That's my mission, is to write fiction."

But now that medium seems like it's not the limit for you?

No, it's not. Exactly. Limit is a good word. I need to be learning something new, and that's what I'm doing. I'm writing a screenplay right now, and it's totally blowing my mind thinking about story and character in this more dimensional way. It's cool.

Chantal McStay is a writer from New Jersey. She is a graduate of Columbia University, where she studied English and creative writing.