In 2017, I met Ottessa Moshfegh in a San Francisco hotel room on the press tour for her third book, Homesick for Another World. At that time, she was visibly rising into the position she has now assumed: an unexpected literary star, writing in the kind of acerbic, urgent voice that rarely reaches best-seller lists.
On that day, we spoke for The Believer’s then podcast, The Organist. We mostly dissected her near-mystical writing process, in which she hears muted voices speaking a kind of glossolalia and transcribes their rhythms into her prose. Since learning this, I have not read her work the same way.
The year after our first meeting, Moshfegh published My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), a darkly comedic novel that brought her work to a wider, more pop-tuned readership. During this time, her interviews became refreshingly honest, brutally direct, and unexpected in their revelations. To me, her public personality had become a parallel work to her fiction—an observation that the following talk suggests she might not appreciate.
In 2020, Moshfegh and I met again, in Los Angeles, where she’d been living for many years. She was doing press for her fifth book, Death in Her Hands, a bleaker, more introverted novel, which had, in fact, been written years before MYORAR. Its release, several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, transformed the narrative into a timely expression of the morbid dread that plagued the world.
When she arrived at my house, Moshfegh was hungry, and we searched my kitchen until we discovered some nuts that appealed to her. We spoke for nearly two hours, and she was kind and open throughout, despite writhing from back pain and some related arm discomfort—“just the most recent addition to a saga of discomfort,” as she put it. Afterward, she left for an appointment with her physical therapist.
I. “SACRIFICE YOURSELF FOR ICE CREAM.”
THE BELIEVER: Where do you live these days?
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH: I—we—moved to Pasadena several months ago. Yeah. Which is good. Yeah. I’m liking it.
BLVR: There’s no pressure to be culturally relevant out there.
OM: There’s no pressure, period.
BLVR: Pretty suburban?
OM: Yeah. Mostly I go to the dog park, which I like much better than the dog park I used to go to in Silver Lake. That was such a scene. And, I don’t know, my dog has more fun. It’s really green. It’s up against a mountain, lots of trees and birds. In some ways I kind of miss living in the city, but now every time I have to go back to East Hollywood, where I had a one-bedroom apartment, I can’t believe I lived here. So many helicopters and so much chaos.
BLVR: How would you say you’ve changed since the last time we met?
OM: Well, I’m three years older. I got married.
BLVR: You seemed pretty charged about it before.
OM: Oh, yeah. I fell in love hard, and ended up marrying the guy. What else? I’ve been working really, really hard. Harder than I thought I would ever work. I’ve just taken on too many things—not too many—so many things, and have had to reprioritize my creative goals, irrespective of my financial needs, in some ways. I got a dog. I published My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which felt like it changed me. It was a lot to deal with. I am just now recovering from a bunch of overexposure because of that book.
I’m hoping to approach this with a little bit more—how do I say it? I’m hoping to have somehow earned a new level of professionalism, which will afford me less stress and more easygoing-ness. I think, weirdly, that My Year of Rest and Relaxation may have seemed like the more personal novel, because it’s about a character that is in my age range and lives in a culture overlapping with mine. But actually I think Death in Her Hands is the book that goes deeper into my spirituality. I wrote Death in Her Hands while I was waiting for Eileen to come out, and I had written it for myself, really. I hadn’t ever expected I would get it published.
I wanted to have a project that would be a direct translation of the present moment in my imagination. I decided I was going to start writing, and every day I would write a thousand words, and I would stop only when I had reached the end of a book.
And every day I wouldn’t look back. I would just, you know, read the sentence I had written the night before or whatever and write another thousand words. And that’s how I got to know my protagonist and the way she works, and the way she thinks and handles reality. And it was really important that I had written that. That was the process for me, because it was about staying present in a way that resisted analysis, which was liberating and also difficult. It’s funny for me that this book is coming out now; in some ways, it feels truer to me than Homesick for Another World or My Year of Rest and Relaxation, because I think where I’m heading creatively in my next fiction is a place of a little bit more purity and less attitude. The book I’m writing at the moment is something I would describe that way. That’s part of my intention with it. So Death in Her Hands is not a flashy book about a hot blonde who does drugs, you know; it’s about something a little bit more…
OM: Modest. Yeah.
BLVR: When you say that the book is a reflection of your spirituality, what do you mean?
OM: Well, there’s the part of my spirituality that is beyond language because it’s spiritual. And then there’s a part of me thinking about my spirituality. And I can’t think without language. I think other people can, but I really can’t. So I have a language that I use to talk to myself about my abstract understanding of the spirit. And that language is something I kind of transposed and adapted for my protagonist in Death in Her Hands. It’s a lot of thinking about death and existence and what fault is and what it means to love someone and to be in a place. I mean, just these really essential experiences.
BLVR: Is love inherently spiritual for you?
OM: I think so. But I think love is kind of an overused word. Like, I love ice cream. Do you really love it? Would you die for it? Like, would you sacrifice yourself for ice cream? Do you feel like you know ice cream beyond your human form? No. I don’t think you really love ice cream. I mean, maybe you do. That seems kind of like a sad thing to love, but I think that when we love other living beings that are capable of love, it can be a very spiritual experience. I don’t know what else to call it. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe there is nothing, but I like to think of it as something greater than myself. Like the winds of the soul, moving through me.
BLVR: You’re not a materialist.
OM: No. I probably should be more of one. I’d probably pay more attention to my body and what it’s telling me, which I don’t do. So I end up hurting myself a lot by not listening, you know, taking those cues. And at thirty-eight, I’ve definitely started feeling like I’m aging, which may sound ridiculous to anyone who’s older than me, but it’s really happening. Things are starting to wear out. But, yeah, I’m not a materialist, although I do think that objects can carry a great amount of energy. Like a place.
BLVR: There’s animism, where all objects are infused with spirit.
OM: Yeah. I don’t think I am that sensitive, actually.
BLVR: Maybe pantheism is a better term?
OM: Isn’t that just where you believe there’s a god for everything?
BLVR: I think that’s more like polytheism. Pantheism is a belief that God is in everything.
OM: I have a hard time with that. ’Cause that means that God is also in Oxycontin. And guns. But… actually, yeah, I concede. I think God is in those things too. But I think we get to choose where we want to feel God the most, what ignites for us a feeling of connection with God. Things like drugs and weapons—those are pretty powerful objects; those vibrate at a pretty powerful frequency. As opposed to this paper towel, you know?
BLVR: Where do you feel it most?
OM: I would say it’s in my receptivity to my environment and my creative imagination. That’s where I feel it the most when I feel inspired.
II. “YOU SHOULD BE READING A BOOK OF LITERATURE.”
BLVR: I heard you say at one point that writing was a spiritual mission for you. When did it start being that way?
OM: The moment I started. I think I could probably put my finger on it when I really started writing, which was when I was thirteen or fourteen. It hit me very powerfully. And I understood that it was my destiny, and I didn’t fight it. I decided to invest in it because I knew there was going to be something really good there; it made me feel so much more alive when I was writing. I think anyone who feels like they have a calling, that’s just what they’re talking about. Right? I mean, I think if people met me in my daily life, they wouldn’t think I was particularly spiritual. I’m actually kind of shrewd and cynical and judgmental and hurried. I’m not someone who meditates or takes her time.
BLVR: So it’s not a daily thing for you. It’s more about your general worldview. Is that what Death in Her Hands expresses?
OM: More like what happens when you confront yourself when you’re completely alone. That kind of spiritual experience. Contemplating death. I still just can’t believe I exist now. And one day I won’t, and thirty-nine years ago, I didn’t.
It used to really trouble me. The idea of death and the concept of time in general. Space. What is beyond our planets? What is the atmosphere? Thinking about all of history—huge, overwhelming concepts—used to terrify and depress me. I used to really, really get lost in those.
But I think I just had a collection of experiences that maybe forced me to have some faith about it all and to understand that there was nothing to actually be terrified of. It’s just that I have to concede to being alive here. I’m not going to access another reality. I don’t need to worry about it. I can just have my small life, you know, in 2020 on Planet Earth, do the best I can to make it interesting for myself personally. Do what I feel like I’m supposed to be doing with my one shot and not worry about, you know, what’s happening one billion light years away.
BLVR: Do you think writing is a way of accessing another fictional reality?
OM: I think you have to assume that the world you’re creating is in an alternative reality; however, it is absolutely not a reality. It’s fiction. And I think that’s something I try to remember, so I don’t go crazy. I have a certain amount of agency in it. I still get to make creative decisions, because writing a novel can really sweep you away. In an awful way too. It can trap you inside of itself if you forget it’s an invention.
BLVR: Have you experienced that?
OM: Yeah, I would get trapped all the time. When you’re drawing a portrait of a world, you use details. And those details become the defining, limiting boundaries around that “reality.” If you haven’t put in a certain detail, you might be going along through your narrative and hit a wall. You’re like, Oh my god, I forgot to put a door here. You have to go back and reconceive of that whole thing with a door there. I’m being metaphorical, but that’s what I’m talking about. It’s like, How do I move forward? I’m just hitting the same wall because I haven’t created the reality I needed for the story. I just didn’t know back then. But now I do know, so I go back and do it. That’s how I know I’m missing something.
BLVR: Have you ever felt on the precipice of losing your mind?
OM: Not so much in writing. More when I’m watching films. There are some Charlie Kaufman films where I have really almost lost my mind. When I’m writing, I feel like I have a certain amount of control. I mean, I probably have gone a little bit crazy, and up until, like, four years ago, before I met my partner, there was no one there taking my temperature. I was just doing my weirdness. But now sometimes Luke [Moshfegh’s partner] is like, “Wow, you’re really crazy today.” And usually that takes the form of mania for me. Where I feel kind of possessed, overexcited, and I can’t stop.
BLVR: Has reading made you feel that kind of crazy?
OM: Yeah. But I haven’t been reading very much. Actually, I haven’t been reading at all, which is sad.
BLVR: On purpose?
OM: Hm. Maybe a little bit on purpose. I’m kind of ashamed of this, actually. I was reading for research on a project. And then I got so busy. After I had done all the writing work I could do in a day, I couldn’t deal with any more words. I just wanted to look at stuff. Or hold my dog, or sit outside. There’s a part of me that is like, Why are you watching that show? You should be reading a book of literature.
III. “THE BEST KIND OF BACKGROUND NOISE IS A SLEEPING DOG.”
[A leaf blower starts outside the window.]
OM: Look at all that grass flying around.
BLVR: You get allergies?
OM: Yeah. I have really bad allergies.
BLVR: I’ll make sure this window is sealed tight. [Closes window]
OM: It’s OK. My allergies are like anxiety.
BLVR: Like, they’re psychosomatic?
OM: I mean, they’re real. But if I know there’s lots of dust in the air, I’ll be like, Oh, my eyes are really uncomfortable.
BLVR: I have eye drops if you need them.
OM: The leaf blowers always seem to come on when I start to write.
BLVR: Is it pretty important for you to have quiet when you work?
OM: Yeah. I mean, I can handle a certain amount of background noise. The best kind of background noise is a sleeping dog. I think I write better when my dog’s asleep next to me. I’m in love with my dog. His name is Walter and he’s one year old. When I’m not with him, I need to talk about him constantly.
BLVR: You’ve mentioned him three or four times today so far.
OM: I didn’t know I needed a dog until I got him. Luke has had a dog since I met him, and we still have her. Her name is Jewely and she’s wonderful. But Walter is mine and he knows that I’m his mom and that his dad is his dad, but he can come and go. I’m his mom. And I don’t have any kids. So maybe it’s like all the maternal energy I would have given to a human baby is just getting funneled into my obsession with my dog, which I think is healthy for me at this moment. Do you have any pets?
BLVR: I grew up with a dog and I’d like to have one again, but we keep moving around the world, which makes it tricky.
OM: I know. I feel like if I hadn’t gotten Walter, I might never have moved into a normal, real house. It might have just been like, I’ll just rent this shitty apartment forever, you know, and maybe be a little bit happy to be so unstable, but he kind of gave me a push into wanting that kind of stability. I didn’t realize that having a house was going to feel like such a responsibility. And I guess that sounds naive, but it really is true.
BLVR: You own the house?
OM: Yeah. I mean, I’m going to be paying for it for the rest of my life.
BLVR: Is this new lifestyle affecting your work at all?
OM: I hope so. I hope it is grounding me. I’ve been feeling very, very productive the last couple of months. Well, sort of out of necessity, ’cause I’m working on film projects, and those require having to deal with other human beings who have certain expectations and schedules. I have to get to work. Which I like.
BLVR: I heard you were drafting a screenplay for [your first book,] McGlue.
OM: Yeah. I’ve been adapting McGlue, which is really fun. Ten years after writing the novella, I am translating it into a new form. So I feel like I got to know my character even better, in a new way. The book is so bleak, but screenplays have to be direct, or else no one will know what you’re talking about.
BLVR: The language in McGlue is like a thick, wet fog. That book is so much about its language, whereas film is more about story.
OM: The image and the action.
BLVR: So is the screenplay radically different?
OM: It has all the same characters. Some of the details have changed. A little bit of the story had to shift. And that’s just something I discovered when I was making it. I was like, Oh, I had thought x, y, and z happened, but it’s really z, y, and x, you know? A certain character has a little bit more of a role. It takes place almost entirely on the ship, with a flashback.
BLVR: Are you thinking of doing more film projects?
OM: Yeah. I like working in film. I haven’t seen a film produced that I’ve written, that’s been finished yet. And I’m curious what that experience is like. I want to be a novelist, but I also know I can’t just write novels for the rest of my life. I don’t know, ten years from now, maybe I’ll be directing a movie I wrote. I’m just going to put that out there so it feels real ten years from now. I’ll be forty-eight. I mean, that’s not that young. Let’s say five years!
BLVR: Five. Wow, that’s quick in film land.
OM: Five to six years.
OM: So I need to start writing that script.
BLVR: Maybe today.
OM: After I leave, I’ll do that.
BLVR: I just finished an adaptation of my book, which is also pretty language-oriented. I ended up having to rethink the whole thing as plot. I’d always thought I disliked plot, but now I’m starting to understand how you can think about a structure as a form of art in itself—a scaffolding made with beauty and elegance.
OM: Yeah, I love plot. I don’t know if I think about it as plot. More like story line, but one thing I’ve discovered I love about writing movies is that I ask myself different questions when I’m in a scene. When I’m writing a script, I’m asking myself, Well, how can I make this the most dramatically interesting moment? What unexpected thing could this person say? Like, maybe I’ll write it one way and then I’ll write it the opposite way. I really love writing dialogue, even though sometimes it’s easy to feel like I’m cheating because sometimes people just aren’t really saying anything. But when I’m writing fiction, I’m writing everything at the same time. You know what I mean? Everything is everything. It’s almost too much to try to think about. I just know it when I’m doing it.
BLVR: How do you understand story line versus plot?
OM: Story line is what we’re following throughout the course of a narrative. Plot is the facts of what happened. But this is just the way I see it. I think a lot of times you don’t tell a story exactly in order. The plot is the story in linear motion. The story line is what you choose to show in what order about the plot. That’s how I see it.
BLVR: Plot is cause and effect. It’s the direct effect of one action on another, whereas story line is the actual journey through that plot.
OM: I mean, here’s a plot: A young man is hit by a car. His girlfriend has to call his parents from the hospital to tell them he’s in a coma. His parents drive down from Sonoma and get there right after he dies. They don’t know that the girlfriend is pregnant, and she secretly has been wanting to get an abortion, but now she’s thinking it through. That’s the beginning of a plot, let’s say, but the story line could be a car screeches around a corner. A girl on the phone says, “Hold on,” presses a button for a vending machine in the hospital. Then two really worried middle-aged people come running in. I mean, you don’t have to say everything in the script. Everything can be embedded in your scene.
BLVR: The trajectory of your books, at least as they’ve been published, suggests you’ve moved away from using language as the primary material and toward a language that services the story.
OM: Well, for a while the language I was infatuated with was a different kind of language. Like the language I discovered in my short stories. I fell in love with that kind of language. But the book I’m working on now is a novel, and it’s narrated by a ghost. And the way she uses language is more like McGlue than Eileen. I mean, it’s strange. It’s so much about the way it sounds.
BLVR: Do you read things aloud a lot when you’re writing?
OM: I don’t anymore. I mean, I think I did it long enough that now when I’m reading, I can hear it in my head as though the narrator’s saying it. Sometimes I still do. And I’ll find it humiliating and I’ll know I have done the wrong thing. Sometimes it takes me doing that for me to be willing to give up some passage I’d been slaving over.
IV. “YOU WHO ARE WORKING AT WHOLE FOODS.”
OM: So what did you think of Death in Her Hands?
BLVR: I found it to be a lot more intimate and personal than your other books, even though the narrator was seemingly different from you. I felt like the attitude in My Year of Rest and Relaxation allowed it to keep you, the narrator, at an arm’s distance, which was one of the primary gestures of it as a satire. Whereas this book seems very naked. The language is simpler. There’s no artifice, perhaps because of the way you wrote it. To what degree were you editing?
OM: I edited it a lot, but I didn’t rewrite, per se. I kind of just accepted what was there and tried to make it better.
BLVR: But this book felt much more existentially bleak to me. Like a bottomless well. Less of the bitter, cynical bite from your earlier writing—are you done with that? You think that’s a youthful way of seeing the world?
OM: I mean, it felt very youthful. I purged it. But I never know what a character’s going to demand. I tell her story. Whatever. That’s cheesy, I know.
BLVR: Do you feel comfortable with a book being called satire?
OM: Not the whole book, but some of it is typical. Yeah. I mean, if you call a book a satire, that means it in its entirety as a project is satirizing something. So no.
BLVR: Do you think any books actually function that way?
OM: Maybe. I’m thinking of a bad book written by a comedian or something. Just one agenda or something.
BLVR: Earlier, you had said your creative goals had changed a lot. What did you mean?
OM: Well, this book is coming out and I’m hoping I can keep it out of my heart as much as possible. I mean, I always try to do that. I don’t want to have to think about how people are reading and judging me. It kind of fucks me up to have to think of myself as someone that everybody has access to. But when I’m actually doing publicity and on tour, a lot of people have access to me. And I find it hard to have good boundaries in those situations, especially at a book reading. Because these people have left the comfort of their homes to come engage with me about my work. And I just want to give them as much as I possibly can, but that’s exhausting. I’m just kind of tired of the same conversations and hearing myself talk all the time.
BLVR: Do you ever consider not putting yourself out there?
OM: Yeah. I consider that in every book, and then I’m like, Wait, it’s really unfair to my publishers. It also just seems like my destiny to have to be challenged that way.
BLVR: Do you think your personality isn’t tuned to that mode?
OM: I mean, there are some writers that just seem like they come alive in front of an audience. Like they want to be the star. And they have a lot of energy for it. And others on the other end of the spectrum, like, completely crumble when having to face any kind of public exposure. I think I’m exactly in the middle. I like reading to an audience. I mean, not all of my work, but I love reading short stories to an audience. And I generally like talking to the audience. Talking one on one to journalists is a different experience.
BLVR: Is this uncomfortable?
OM: I mean, it’s not as comfortable as not saying anything and sitting in my car, but it’s not traumatizing. Yet.
BLVR: Do you read about other writers?
OM: No. I don’t read reviews. I don’t give a shit about anyone else’s life. Why would I care about you who have written this book any more than you who are working at Whole Foods? I see you at Whole Foods every day. You who have written the book, I’ll never meet. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I’ll take the book at face value.
BLVR: So you don’t ever read biographies?
OM: Oh, no. I don’t think I’ve ever read a biography.
BLVR: You’re just generally not that interested in people’s lives.
OM: Not unless I’m sitting next to them at dinner. I’m not that nosy. I respect the writers I respect, but I don’t want to know how they did what they did
BLVR: I think people want the work to continue sometimes. And the only way it can continue is through the para-texts, the writing around the work.
OM: I mean, it’s really because of the internet.
BLVR: But biographies and press existed long before—
OM: Maybe there would be an interview in a journal or a newspaper. Sure. But people weren’t clicking through hundreds of articles.
BLVR: There’s that book of interviews that Nabokov put out called Strong Opinions. It’s a collection of his interviews, and he wrote and edited each one. He published it as a work he had authored, as if he’d written it like any other book. He was taking control of the whole process so he could turn it into a kind of autobiography.
OM: I also want to say it’s different when you talk to someone who is also a writer, like you. It’s a totally different conversation when talking to someone who is just a reader.
BLVR: Do you think most people speak about writing as if it’s purely an intellectual practice?
OM: I mean, it’s weird when you’re talking about what occurs in one’s mind. How much of what we say and write is governed by our intellect? Not that much, I think. For me, it’s instinct.