Ottessa Moshfegh and I used to work together at a tiny New York City publisher. Since then, she’s become an increasingly well-known fiction writer. Her last novel, Eileen, came close to winning the 2016 Booker Prize! Her latest novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, is a mesmerizing portrait of a woman’s attempt to—with the help of pills and a year’s worth of sleep—pupate, alone in her apartment, and emerge reborn. In urgent and assured prose, Moshfegh frames her unnamed narrator’s spiral-out with the tension of a page-turning thriller. Interviewed by phone from a vacation in Hawaii, we spoke of Moshfegh’s attention to detail, her observational detachment, and how bad I was at my former job.
MERCURY: I’ve mentioned that we both worked in book publishing together. Was there anything from your time at Overlook Press that you could parlay into your writing life?
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH: It was important to see the way the book industry works. Even though we were at a relatively small publishing company, it was illuminating and also very disillusioning. The publishing industry isn’t always a place that, first and foremost, appreciates creative accomplishment. The 19-year-old interns were reading the unsolicited manuscripts. What it taught me was: “I’m going to have to learn how this machine works, and figure out who can be my advocate.” I didn’t want to get caught up with the majority of writers who don’t get a real shot.
You had a cooler job, being in production. It seemed like you would just call somebody, and, weeks later, a bunch of books would show up. And they’d look awesome. In publicity, I’d just hang out in my office all day waiting for people to call me back.
Yeah. I remember that you had a lot of free time [laughs]. Working in production took advantage of that neurotic, worried planner part of me. I didn’t really call anyone on the phone. Everything was handled through spreadsheets and distressed emails. And the books sometimes came out right.
They were pretty cool!
A book never turns out that bad. It’s not like you’re accidentally going to say, “I want this book to be one inch by 17 inches,” and nobody bats an eye. If you do something out of the ordinary, people at the press are going to call you to clarify: “Is this what you meant?”
The unique details in My Year of Rest and Relaxation blew me away. Do you find yourself having a mental camera on things all the time, just observing people?
Yeah, I think I’ve always been that way. I’ve always been a total loner. So, it would just be me and the voice in my head—and that voice really liked to observe. I think it’s easier to be able to describe things when you’re at a distance from them. When you get too close to something, you lose your objectivity. Not all of my descriptions are objective, but you need to know what something looks like before you start making opinions.
The pupation project of your unnamed narrator is very alluring. From page one I was like, “Yeah!” Is that how you imagined a reader would react?
I think it is what I intended. I didn’t want people to read this book and say, “Oh I’m reading this book about a drug user.” I wanted them to buy into her delusion. “Yeah, this is the project. It feels like it might work. She isn’t an idiot.”
Absolutely. I was like, “Wow, she’s got me. She knows what’s up right now.” So much of her journey is just doing what she wants to do, not caring about how she looks or what people think.
I feel like she’s able to operate from that place of indifference because she’s so privileged. She has no one to depend on, therefore she’s completely self-dependent. She doesn’t need to raise money, and she’s made it, so she barely needs anyone’s attention or affection. That’s earned her what might be perceived as freedom, but it’s actually a sort of purposelessness. It’s complicated.
There are lots of shocking events, but they’re not shocking for the sake of being shocking. How did you make it so, when the reader gets there, we accept, “Yeah man, of course she took a dump on the floor?”
The book is mostly concerned with interiority. And the narration of real-time movement is kind of embedded in her interiority. So what we get is the causality of everything. Nothing she does seems out of the blue because we understand exactly where she is and what she’s thinking.
What advice would you give to young writers?
If you have my kind of constitution, I would detach as much as you can from other people. If you’re somebody who needs a lot of support, my advice is to be really honest with yourself about the reason you’re writing. If you really just want to be popular, there are easier ways to do it. If you’re really a writer, take yourself extremely seriously.