Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Stephanie Belk, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Ottessa Moshfegh about her book Eileen (Penguin Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Stephanie Belk: Eileen touches on some heavy and eerie subject matter, while the prose is controlled, eccentric, and elegant. What has influenced your style? Which authors do you gravitate towards?
Ottessa Moshfegh: My imagination has always been heavy and eerie—I'm a pretty moody, tortured person, big surprise. Learning not to take myself too seriously has influenced my work, and vice versa. I don't know which authors I gravitate toward anymore. I go through phases of not reading at all, particularly when I'm writing a first draft of something, which I'm doing now. The last book I read was a diary of Fernande Olivier as research because I thought the character in my new novel might be obsessed with Picasso's Rose Period. But then I changed my mind. Also, I have problems with my eyes, and I use them so much to write that reading anything that's not crucial is hard to rationalize.
SB: Eileen's isolation is palpable. She is an unmarried young woman in the sixties working as a secretary in a boys' prison, where she goes about her day donning what she has christened a "death mask," the stoic, impenetrable veneer she uses to go about her life. Her home life does not fare much better. Her father is an abusive ex-cop under house arrest for his alcoholic hallucinations, who flops around in a bathrobe and berates Eileen as she feeds him bottle after bottle while she silently seethes with resentment. Eileen might be tight-lipped in her interactions but certainly not on the page. Her character is self-absorbed, trapped in her twisted head and unable to remove her "death mask" even once she's stepped outside the prison, like in her budding relationship with her new coworker, the beautiful and elegant Rebecca, who she has propped on a pedestal, idealizing her to a point bordering on romantic.
Eileen has desires but she only seems to exist in relation to someone else, her mom's caretaker, her dad's servant, Rebecca's friend, and so on, yet Eileen's character seems so clear-cut and defined, her inner world is so rich and vivid. Did you have a vision for Eileen's journey when you first started writing the book or did it reveal itself to you as you were writing the novel?
OM: When I started writing, I knew Eileen was going to run away from all you've described, but I wasn't sure what was going to push her to do it. Growing up, I think, is a process of learning to recover from trauma. It's like building a muscle—tissue generates in the tears. So I looked at the difficulties in Eileen's life and formed her ambitions in response to them.
SB: I found that telling the story from the perspective of a much older and experienced Eileen so interesting. What pushed you in that direction?
OM: I wanted the story to be told from Eileen's perspective so that we would hear all her interior mental dramatics. But I also wanted the narrator to have the ability to make fun of those dramatics without turning young Eileen into an adversary. The older Eileen emerged as someone who could speak both from young Eileen's point of view and at a distance of fifty years' life experience. As a narrator, older Eileen is sympathetic and defensive, but she's also sometimes sarcastic, forgetful, and satirical. That was interesting to me.
SB: I read an interview you did with Vanity Fair, where you talked about how you prefer to keep a low profile and let your work speak for itself. I hear it's becoming increasingly difficult to break out as a writer without having some sort of online presence or public persona readily available. What has your experience been like? Do you feel that has impacted the reception of your work?
OM: People keep talking about the fact that I'm not on Facebook and how I keep a low profile, but I've done dozens of interviews since Eileen came out. I don't worry about whether my absence from social media might impact the reception of my work. Being a writer is a calling, a religion. It's a very private thing I do. It involves my relationship with myself and my deepest interests and spiritual quandaries, my pain, my fascinations, my instincts, my thinking. It is my life. Why would I ever want to put the details of that on the Internet? It's all in the work, anyway. I think of my public persona as a shepherd to the work. And with respect to the work, I wouldn't want to overshadow it.
SB: Do you have any words of advice for upcoming writers?
OM: Look in the mirror every day and kiss your reflection. Being a writer is a lonely life, and you have to love yourself enough for the loneliness not to destroy you. Also, study the English language. Don't rot your brains out surfing the Internet for "what's cool" or watching idiotic television as a substitute for relationships. Go for walks. Befriend older people. Be as freaky as you need to in order to protect who you are from the maelstrom of bullshit in your world. Remember that your work will be your best friend. It will challenge you and argue, it will love you, it will show you things you're afraid to look at on your own, it will piss you off, it will hold your hand, and ultimately, it will have a life of its own.
Ottessa Moshfegh's novel, Eileen, received the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction this year. Moshfegh is also the author of McGlue, a novella, and a forthcoming short story collection, Homesick for Another World.
Stephanie Belk Prats is from San Juan, Puerto Rico and is an MFA Creative Writing candidate in Fiction at The New School. She graduated with a BA in Writing and Rhetorical Studies from Syracuse University. She is currently working on her first novel.