Voice, vulnerability, and putting the intellect to bed.
Ottessa Moshfegh received the 2013 Plimpton Prize for Fiction from The Paris Review, where she has now published four stories, with one on the way. Her first novella, McGlue, will be published by Fence Books this month.
The following interview was conducted by e-mail during August and September 2014, with Moshfegh answering questions from New York, Paris, and Nairobi.
Lorin Stein Unlike your stories—at least the ones I've read—McGlue is set in the past. How did you come to write an historical novel?
Ottessa Moshfegh McGlue is set in 1851. It was inspired by a brief article in a New England periodical from that year. I have lost the article by now, but the moment I read it, McGlue's character emerged in full form. It was one long run-on sentence, as I recall, and read something like: “McGLUE. Salem. Mr. McGlue the sailor has been acquitted on the count of murder which he was found guilty of committing in the port of Zanzibar by reason of his being out of his mind since having hit his head when he fell from a train several months prior and because he was in a blacked out state of drunkenness at the time he stabbed a man to death.” There was the whole book right there: the character, the plot, the deformed language. I felt like I'd struck gold. I'd grown up in New England and could relate to McGlue’s self-destructive rebellion in the face of all that Puritanical cold. Once I started working on the book, I could hear him rambling around in my brain, impatient and wild. I spent my writing-energy trying to squeeze that chaos down into prose. Most of the book came out of me that way—painfully, as if possessed. It was important that I not think too hard about what I was writing down. When I started intellectualizing, the voice shut down. It helped to be diligently, uselessly researching what was happening in mid-nineteenth-century America. I couldn't tell you what I learned, but the research was a good distraction.
LS By “intellectualizing,” what do you mean?
OM My mind is so dumb when I write. Each story requires a different style of stupidity. I just write down what the voice has to say. I use my intellect in the final stages of editing, when I stand back and get thoughtful about what the story actually is and what a stranger's experience of it might be. At that point I can separate myself from the voice and “intellectualize” if necessary. But I must wait until the very end to deal with the story on that level. If I try to process what I'm writing while I'm writing it, the work gets stiff, meaningless, forced, and then dies. I'm not saying I don't get ideas. I obsess about the work when I'm not at my computer. But that's just more stupidity. I don't know how the mind works, but isn't there a part of it that deals specifically with reason and sense? The brainy asshole of the mind? The nerd on the dance floor in a tweed jacket, drinking sherry, constantly parsing and analyzing and judging and shaking his head, making faces? That asshole is my intellect. He's a really shitty writer, as you might imagine. I don't rely on him when I'm composing. He goes to bed and has a little wet dream about how smart everyone will think he is when the story's published. What a douche bag!
LS You've touched on something I love about your writing. Each of your narrators is different from the others, and yet you always seem equally at home in their heads, whether they're old or young, man or woman. Take the narrator of “A Dark and Winding Road”—a young man uneasy in his own masculinity. A douche bag, you might say. Do you remember how his voice first came to you?
OM Last summer I went up to Maine where my family has a summer place on a lake outside Bangor. The area is rural, poor, beautiful, scary. It's the Maine in Stephen King's It and The Body (which turned into the movie Stand By Me). My family's property is an old Girl Scouts camp with three small cabins. I'm always terrified up there. I went there alone and spent most of my time watching movies, canoeing, and editing. In the afternoons I drove to the closest McDonald's to use the Wi-Fi. One day, I was changing a lightbulb in one of the cabins and found an old pornographic VHS tape. Just the cover, actually. It was hidden up on a crossbeam. I looked for the tape and couldn't find it. That night was cold so I made a fire in the wood stove and ran out of newspapers. I burned some of my writing, which put me in a dark philosophical place. I found this little paper box to burn. There was a crack pipe inside. Also, I'd just spent time in New York City, and so the disparity between New Yorkers and my neighbors on the lake came into question. I guess at the time I was feeling that New York was a ridiculous place full of pathetic egomaniacs, and I wanted to lash out and take a big shit on all that. Thus the narrator of “A Dark and Winding Road” was born. I don't know if that answer will make sense to anyone who hasn't read the story. In a more general way, finding the voice has less to do with the imagination, and more to do with designation, like casting an actor in a movie. I ventriloquize the voices at first, but then they pretty much take over. That was particularly true in McGlue.
LS What do you mean, “designation”?
OM I mean I'm not sitting around going, What can I invent? Rather, there are tones and language and inflections to my thoughts and feelings. If I'm moved to express them in a story, I assign a voice to them, and the voice will dictate the story. I designate that task to the voice. You do the talking, I say to it. Am I making sense?
LS I think so. You don't sit around trying to think up stories?
OM Do other people do it that way? Like Hmm, what should I write about today? The way I “get ideas” for stories is from everyday life, what ails me, what scares me, what makes me laugh. Of course. Somehow I don't feel I'm ever staring at a blank page. Something triggers a desire to write, and so I do. Presto, the page is no longer blank. Right now I'm working on three short stories and another novel. I've had a lot on my mind, I guess. I also keep an e-mail chain of notes to myself containing first lines, or fragments of a voice, or things to write about, like a to-do list. They're just little placeholders for when and if I go back and revive that scrap of inspiration. I don't like keeping a notebook these days. Paper and ink depress me.
I just looked at the list. A lot of the entries are repetitions of things, events that haunt me, secrets I've kept. The most recent entry was "You ain't nobody Until somebody Kills you—find out what rap artist this is." Of course, it's Notorious B.I.G.
LS Of course. Could you share a couple of first lines or donnés that never went anywhere?
OM “sweet teens.” story of a truly closed and fake and boring person. THE JEREMY/JAKE WEEKEND.
You saw them here first.
LS What was “The Jeremy/Jake Weekend” supposed to be about?
OM The story of that weekend is quite easy to summarize: big mistake.
LS Now that you're finished with McGlue, do you hear the influence of other writers on his way of talking?
OM Actually, no, I do not hear the influence of other writers on McGlue's way of talking. What writers do you hear? As I've told you, I'm a terrible reader.
LS It's not that McGlue sounds like anybody else, in particular. I guess the approach reminds me of Gordon Lish, at one or two removes. Take a sentence like: “Straw from the mattress sticks up and riles me, all poke and scratchy.” The reader is made to pay attention to the word choice—to the artifice, to the writing as writing—in a way that rarely happens in your stories. In your stories, we don't notice the individual words because they follow, as it were, naturally from our sense of the character and situation, and from cadences that read to us as normal speech. But you've said that it's different for you, writing novels.
OM You've pointed out something that's changed in my writing since McGlue. I used to be more of a painter with words and certainly internalized Gordon Lish's consecution/swerve methodology. I liked that kind of palpable use of language, the “artifice” you describe. I grew up reading secondhand issues of Lish's Quarterly and weaseled my way into his tutelage, briefly and disastrously, when I was seventeen. These days I feel that his writing-philosophy tends to birth narcissistic, solipsistic, exclusionary prose. I love it, but there's no vulnerability. So McGlue represents the last days of that old approach to writing and a surrender to what would follow. After I finished McGlue, I discovered that more traditional prose forms were not limitations, as I'd previously thought. Plot and clarity were not the enemy. Mediocrity was. I began to write honestly from my own experiences for the first time, and fell in love with the short story form, its elegance, power, divine beauty, all over again. A reference point for this form, in my mind, is “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant. It was the first short story I ever read, sixth grade, Mason-Rice Elementary, Mr. Roberts. It was devastating. That's not to say that McGlue isn't personal or dear to me. It is. But if I were to write it today, it would be a very different book. Actually, “Bettering Myself” is, in some sense, a McGlue story.
The other day, an editor commented on the manuscript of my first full-length novel, Eileen, that it had failed to live up to the expectations set by my short stories. I see her point, but I simply can't write a novel the way I write a short story. It's impossible. They're two different art forms. They require a completely different attitude and meter. My novels aim to entertain and provoke and engross. My short stories don't have aims. Because of their brevity, I can allow them to bubble up organically, one cell splits into two, the story emerges. I have little to do with it. A novel requires way more forethought. And honestly, a good short story can break my heart in a way a novel just can't. Novels require so much human tinkering. The author's fingerprints are all over the place. When I read a short story, a good one, the author disappears for me. Short stories are spiritual in that sense. As though out of thin air, they appear. Woosh. Myths. Gorgeous. They resonate for me in the heart. Novels, in the head. Also, I have problems with my eyesight and can only read twenty or thirty pages at a sitting. Perhaps all these opinions stem from that one shameful handicap! Anyway, I've begun a new novel this summer, something more personal and, in tone, more similar to my short stories. We'll see how that goes.
I realize that I'm contradicting myself all over the place. Shrug.
LS You contain multitudes. This last answer of yours is very interesting to me. You mention “consecution/swerve methodology”—how would you describe that, to a layman? Could you give an example from McGlue?
OM The method was explained to me over a martini in the man's kitchen at nine in the morning when I was a teenager, so take this with a grain of salt. As I understood, the writer must perpetually refer back to her previous sentence, pulling out the elements that carry the most heat and, in her next sentence, deepen them through consecution, or complicate and enrich them by swerving away. I think it's a brilliant pedagogical tool and helps writers with undeveloped instincts who would otherwise write stories as long lists of sentences with zero causality—poetic nonsense heading to an ineffectual end. When consecution and swerve are employed on the superficial level, there's a lot of repetition of words and loops of language and imagery. In the bigger picture, themes and objects revolve and build on their relationships with the other themes and objects in the story. Everything coheres.
As for McGlue, he's an addict, and his thinking as such is circular, repetitive, mostly to do with alcohol, a lot of consecuting. He perpetually returns to memories of drinking and how he might get alcohol while being confined in the ship and, later, in his jail cell. The pain of being denied alcohol forces him to question the reason for his incarceration, namely Johnson's murder. So that swerves his thinking away from the drink and into the subtler emotional life beneath his alcoholism. The pain from that awareness makes him want to drink. Thus his awareness builds gradually, around and around, until the memory of the murder has finally reached the forefront of his consciousness, which is the end of the book. I can't find a good example of consecution and swerve on the sentence level. Or rather, I don't want to go there.
LS What would it mean for writing to have “no vulnerability”? To be solipsistic or exclusionary? What are the symptoms of vulnerability in prose?
OM You're not letting me get away with anything, I see.
A primary symptom of vulnerability is subtlety created by a disruption in the dream of the fiction. What might look at first like the writer's error can carry a great deal of meaning, like when you think you see the voice speak out of character. A stutter, a moment of skewed perspective, something that rings wrong, makes the reader pause, wonder, feel, engage, and so on. When a narrator acts as a kind of ruler of his own fictional reality, stomping around from paragraph to paragraph, expertly addressing the story without any self-awareness, or too much self-awareness for that matter, it gets solipsistic. There's nothing to be discovered there. It's all surface. That sort of writing is exclusionary because it sets the reader at a far distance from the narrator. There's no room for feelings or having instincts about the emotional underbody of the story. It's all just information and style. Look at me writing so well! It's like talking to a complete asshole who's trying to sell you a photo he took of himself in a tuxedo. Don't ask me for an example of this kind of writing. This is all theoretical. I'm just chewing the cud here.
LS Why would plot or clarity be the enemy?
OM In the past, I thought plot was trite, something for mystery novels and TV shows. And I thought clarity was tacky. People shouldn't demand clarity from me. They should just ride my language-wave. It's a very pompous attitude. I also thought it was tacky to have a computer in a story, or give the name brand of something. Proper nouns were tasteless. Now I think the opposite. The novel I'm writing now is all about Whoopi Goldberg and Ambien.
LS You say novels can “entertain and provoke and engross,” but it also sounds as if they don't engross you, really, as a reader. And yet I know they have. Can we look at that contradiction? Is there a kind of novel you have in mind, in each case?
OM When I read a novel, I want my sense of self to disappear. Take Bukowski's Women for example. I don't feel that he's trying to impress me, and I feel I can adopt Chinaski's psychology, digest it, and still be surprised and excited by it. The questions it raises for me, at least the last time I read it, aren't questions about craft or authorship. I'm not wondering how Bukowski wrote the book. As soon as I start wondering about that, the book is dead. Then again, I haven't read Bukowski in a couple years and Chinaski's attitudes might disgust me in the wrong way now. On a plane last week I opened up Tropic of Cancer, read ten pages, and left it in the seatback pocket, dismissing the book as narcissistic mumbling penis-breath nonsense. I'm quick-tempered and pretty ADD with reading. Right now I'm reading Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights. It isn't exactly “engrossing,” but each passage I read gives me a little brain damage and makes me feel naive and inspires me to engage in life and writing in new ways.
Lorin Stein is editor of The Paris Review.