A Conversation with Ottessa Moshfegh

I stepped off the plane at LAX. As I waited for my suitcase to roll up from the airport’s deepest bowels, observing a faintly funereal mist smelling vaguely sulphuric and subsuming all emerging valises, a cadaverous man with thin eyes, a sinister frown, and frightening olive livery — one who later identified himself as “Ottessa Moshfegh’s senior aide-de-camp” but never divulged his first name — grabbed me by the throat and tackled me onto the floor. I wondered if he believed me to be a benevolent and objective reporter covering a Trump rally.

“Are you the interviewer?” he rasped.

He had a peppermint breath that was somewhere between Altoids and ForeverMints and I could hear the crack of his jaw biting upon a pesky capsule that had stubbornly refused to dissolve in his mouth. The aide-de-camp drooled fine rivulets of spittle onto the 2005 Coachella T-shirt that I was wearing, one that I hadn’t remembered purchasing because someone had suggested at the time that I ingest mildly illicit narcotics.

“Uh, yes?”

The aide-de-camp then demanded that I produce my credit history, my blood type, my social security card, and my genetic lineage dating back six generations. Then he rolled me over and shoved a retina scanner into my eye.

“I’m sure you understand,” said the aide-de-camp. “Miss Moshfegh only talks with high-class people.”

“But I’ve done more than 550 interviews,” I replied.

High-class only.”

It was apparently easier for me to get a job with law enforcement than to go through with an interview that had been scheduled three months before.

I told the jostling gentleman that I had attended a state school because I didn’t have any money in my younger years. He snickered at me and then gave me a beef stick. Even though I hadn’t eaten anything on the plane and was feeling a bit peckish, I knew that this was a test and resisted biting into the tantalizing Slim Jim that might have fueled me for another fifteen minutes.

I had heard rumblings about Moshfegh’s eccentric vetting process for interviews, which she’d initiated ever since being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In the previous week, Moshfegh had humiliated a Guardian reporter named Paul Laity, demanding that he conduct his conversation shirtless while being flogged by a a bell hooks volume. As part of the deal, Laity had been asked by Moshfegh’s entourage to name his next child “Ottessa” in deference to the World’s Greatest Living Author. I have been unable to corroborate this detail, though a shellshocked Laity did croak “Run while you still can” near the close of our tense ten minute telephone conversation.

There had been no such bargains tendered towards me, perhaps because the prospect of me reproducing seemed less likely than Laity passing out cigars sometime in the next few years outside a hospital room, but the publicist informed me that under no circumstances should I ever paint Moshfegh’s novel, Eileen, in a negative light.

“Well, no novel is perfect,” I said.

“No,” said the publicist. “This one is.”

“Come on. Even the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ chapter has a few dull spots. And I love Ulysses.”

“I don’t think you understand how lucky you are to be here.”

Lucky? I had only accepted the gig because some editor had at long last taken pity on me. I was nevertheless grateful for the opportunity.

“This way,” said the aide-de-camp.

He proceeded to blindfold me and affixed my head with leather foam earphones that played the most terrifying glitch-pop I have ever heard. I felt my body being buffeted into the inside of a car. I felt someone taking my hand and fingerprinting me. Nearly an hour passed. All the Skrillex that had decimated my brain had nearly wiped me out. Then the earphones were removed.

“Good news,” said the aide-de-camp. “Miss Moshfegh has agreed to speak with you for fifteen minutes. She doesn’t mind being inconvenienced by the Booker or any press that will ensure her God-given talent is finally approved by the Literary Forces of the Universe. But only after you have written a note of loyalty to her undisputed genius in your own blood.”

Since I had a little spare blood kicking around in my veins, I figured no sweat. In hindsight, it may have been a tad foolish of me to agree to this after refusing the Slim Jim, which stared mockingly back in the stretch limo’s armrest, which was composed of rich Corinthian leather.

Finally, I was asked to recite passages from Eileen to prove my fidelity to Moshfegh.

“Cite the third sentence in the second paragraph on Page 26,” ordered the aide-de-camp.

“Uh…They were forbidden to do most things children ought to do – dance, sing, gesture, talk loud, listen to music, lie down unless they were given permission to?”

“Good. You’re remembering the right sentences. Does that resonate with you?”

“Can I plead the Fifth?”

“Mr. Champion, this is not a court of law.”

“Okay. Maybe we should call my therapist then?”

“No, Mr. Champion, that won’t be necessary. You have passed the test, despite your shaky pedigree, your deplorable education, your three-days stubble, and the undisputable fact that you are a very terrible person indeed.”

“Didn’t you read the character reference letters I submitted?”

But this question went unanswered as the spotless Tesla Model S arrived at the Moshfegh compound.

“Get out of the car, you journalistic cur!”

“Alright, already. Can I get my microphones at least?”

“No. If you can commit Miss Moshfegh’s prose to memory, you will remember every quote accurately and be sued if even a stray comma is discovered to be out of place.”

I was led into a sprawling two-floor home with a four bay garage just off the edge of Little Arabia, overwhelmed by the smell of overly groomed grape vines and a meticulously landscaped front garden with a large sign reading YOU WILL BE SHOT ON SIGHT IF YOU STEAL A BERRY. SEE CASTLE DOCTRINE.

Ms. Moshfegh, 35, was seated at a large refectory table in a spacious living room, cutting bits of sentences from old Dorothy Sayers paperbacks for her next project.

“I’ll tame you, you shoddy pulpy sentence! I deserve riches beyond the dreams of avarice! Instant success! No less!”

This was a typical creative act for Moshfegh, although it was a curious form of self-affirmation. But I have to hand it to her. Moshfegh had indeed pulled a fast one on a number of Booker Prize judges who were not, in fact, in the habit of familiarizing themselves with genre.

The aide-de-camp gently explained to me that the Moshfegh philosophy involved pretending that mysteries confronting troubling ideas about women had never been written, even as she ripped off entire sentences from novels that had, in fact, done just that decades before. And I am only reporting this tidbit here because it was one of the few details that had somehow not been earmarked by Moshfegh’s otherwise fastidious quote approval team.

“Miss Moshfegh?”

“Is my process making you uncomfortable?”

“No, but I wouldn’t mind an apple if you had one.”

“I’ve had eating issues since adolescence,” replied Miss Moshfegh. “There’s nothing in my work that I haven’t researched privately.”

“Even homicidal desire?”

“Man up and deal.”

I was feeling a bit faint, but it was hard to argue with someone who had been shortlisted for the Booker.

Moshfegh described herself to me as a person who has a long history as an unreported thief. If she isn’t absconding passages from Sayers novels, then she’s probably sneaking a package of pork loin roast underneath her overcoat.

“My family’s values seemed very different from the values of the world I was living in,” said Moshfegh. “They never acquiesced to my genius, but I’m heartened to see a bald loser like you see the light.”

At this point, Moshfegh asked me to kneel on the floor and pray to her. I told her I was an atheist. She said she was a novelist-god. I asked for a mat. When the interview was over, I had terrible scrapes on my knees.

Moshfegh described the humiliation of once having to wait longer than fifteen minutes for a cab when she lived in New York.

“It was a living hell. Didn’t they see my raised arm? There was a brief period in my thirties when every cab stopped for me in less than ten minutes. My hell is my life. My hell is my work. Now you see why I have a stretch limo always on call.”

She tracks the beginning of her writing career to checking out random books from the library while a student at Brown University, scanning the frontispiece, and then replacing this with a Photoshopped copy of the page listing her as author.

“The books were all so mediocre. I was better than all these authors even before I had written my first short story. If I could do this for every book, I would.”

Moshfegh says that she sustains a deep connection to her character, who she claims lives in a basement located just underneath her refectory table. When I asked if I could meet Eileen, she demurred.

“When I first discovered that the character I had created lived in my basement, I sent an email to my agent reading ‘Holy shit.'”

“Isn’t that a bit ineloquent for a writer of your apparent literary talent?”

“How dare you speak that way to a hip young writer’s writer!”

“Terry Southern called Henry Green a writer’s writer’s writer. Beat that!”

The aide-de-camp then tied a rope around me and threw me into the stretch limo. I passed out due to hunger and my shortage of blood. I woke up in some shady alley somewhere in East Hollywood. But the aide-de-camp had been nice enough to leave me the Slim Jim at my side, which I wolfed down with the force of a deprived animal. It gave me the fifteen minutes of energy to run to the nearest convenient store and sob to a clerk who didn’t understand what had just happened to me. But I did make it back to New York. Yes, I had lost blood, been manhandled, and had my privacy invaded. But I had also been in the presence of the World’s Greatest Living Author. I smiled on the plane ride home, knowing that the aide-de-camp was at least dimly aware of the Geneva Conventions.

How to Spot Lines That Reveal Bad Storytelling, Part One

This is the first in a series of occasional posts in which I will identify dialogue that reveals bad storytelling. I’m writing this because I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the many rookie mistakes that I continue to observe from storytellers who should know better, whereby the artifices of an otherwise convincing narrative are swiftly exposed because the writer hasn’t thought out character motivation or has missed out on opportunities to create a memorable work of art.

“That’s interesting!” Imagine that you just watched your best friend turn into a werewolf or that the spouse of your best friend revealed that he was in love with you. Would you say “That’s interesting!” or would you respond with something a bit less general and more heartfelt? A writer should never have to telegraph to the audience that an action is interesting. If an action is interesting to a character (and thus interesting to an audience), then a character will react to it in a way in which we know that it’s interesting. For example, here is an exchange from Preston Sturges’s wonderful film The Lady Eve:

Gerald: What I can’t understand is how he finished fifth!
Jean: There were only five horses in the race. What do you expect when you bet on a goat called After You?

If Jean had reacted to Gerald’s observation with “That’s interesting,” then we would have missed this great opportunity to see a con artist who observes all the specifics of a situation and who has no illusions about the way the world works. And when Jean falls in love with Hopsie, this transformation attracts our interest.

Even the person who questions another character doesn’t have to say “That’s interesting!” during the exchange. From The Big Lebowski:

The Big Lebowski: Are you employed, sir?
The Dude: Employed?
The Big Lebowski: You don’t go out looking for a job dressed like that? On a weekday?
The Dude: Is this a… what day is this?
The Big Lebowski: Well, I do work sir, so if you don’t mind…
The Dude: I do mind, the Dude minds. This will not stand, ya know, this aggression will not stand, man.

We see how The Big Lebowski is appalled, but genuinely interested, with the way in which The Dude can spend his unemployed life not doing much. The Dude, in turn, responds with his philosophy, which is parroted from George Bush’s 1990 speech on Kuwait. And the result is a deservedly famous, very funny, and referential exchange.

Indeed, it’s no surprise that “That’s so interesting! Tell me more!” has turned into an Internet meme, often introduced sarcastically into forum threads, that is largely identified with the late great Gene Wilder playing Willy Wonka. Although that line did not appear in the movie, it nevertheless reveals how audiences are aware that saying “That’s interesting!” may represent the heights of condescension or artificiality.

So instead of having a character say “That’s interesting,” why not delve into her philosophy? Why would she feel that the situation is interesting? Moreover, when a character states her philosophy, it can be wonderfully revealing. In Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, for example, the title character says that she “helps young girls out,” not that she performs illegal abortions. And it is this simple reframing that not only allows Vera to be tremendously fascinating and complex, but permits the audience to empathize with her persecution.

“I hope I’m not interrupting.”: Very often, a writer will have a character intrude upon two other characters who are talking and deliver this very common line. It will never occur to the writer that there could be a more interesting dynamic if the interrupting character is either clueless about the intrusion or has willfully interrupted. Indeed, interruption is often better conveyed through subtext rather than an explicit pronouncement.

One of my favorite interruption moments comes from John Cassevetes’s extraordinary film Faces. There’s an incredible scene in which Richard (John Marley) and Freddie (Fred Draper) are competing for the attentions of Jeannie (played by Gena Rowlands), with the three all dancing around a living room. Jeannie increasingly drifts towards Richard. Freddie attempts to get Jeannie’s attention, but is rebuffed. He is very much a third wheel. And this fascinating scene unfolds with all of the characters singing “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.” This creates an incredible tension which sets up some emotionally revealing moments that follow. If Freddie had explicitly remarked, “I hope I’m not interrupting you two dancing,” it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

“Start from the beginning. Tell us what happened.” Bad storytelling often involves characters calling attention to the fact that they are asking for story details within a story. But that’s usually not the way storytelling works when you hang out with people. In real life, people hear a modest detail, maybe about something wild that the storyteller did the previous night. And that detail may beget another detail. The person listening to the story may try to persuade the storyteller to spill the whole tale, especially if the other person has said something curious or unusual. If you’re going to tell a story within a story, then it needs to be motivated by human curiosity or the story needs to reveal the character, such as Quint’s famous Indianapolis speech from Jaws. “Start from the beginning. Tell us what happened” is what a programmer with Asperger syndrome is likely to say. “Come on, man! You’ve gotta spill!” or “Wait! You swam in the water with a knife in your mouth?” Isn’t that more like it? Dialogue must sustain the illusion that it is natural. And if the audience senses that storytelling is being shoehorned into a story to advance plot details that the writer didn’t have the chops to convey through action, then it will start to catch on that a script is, well, more of a programmed script (especially if the dialogue is solely Q&A, the telltale sign of bad storytelling) rather than something that should be revealing the human condition. Nobody wants to be mansplained when watching a TV show or listening to an audio drama.

Against Online Community

The word “community,” which comes from the Latin communitatem, suggests a place whereby many souls of differing opinions and temperaments come together for discourse and bonhomie. In its public form, usually in the form of churches or bars or groups united by common interests that assemble in halls, communities can indeed be pretty wonderful and welcoming, with members working to make sure that disputes are swiftly resolved, that disagreements are cleared up, and that people take the necessary time to get to know each other so that they can become better attuned with each other’s quirks and eccentricities. But in its online version, “community,” which is little more than a groupthink dive where people of identical mindsets largely agree with each other, is a marvelous lie in which the slightest disagreement is often enough to paint a person with a differing opinion as something akin to a toxic and irredeemable sex offender, if not a sinister monster who should be taken out with a sniper rifle at a cocktail party, saddling the outlier with an ineffable stigma that she cannot shake.

Perhaps the heightened sensitivity to words and sentiments expressed digitally, often with relentless speed, has much to do with their inaccurately assessed force. For if we are not careful with our app settings, the buzzing push notifications from our phones turn any expression, even an innocuous one, into an alarm rather than a relatively amicable exchange of opposing views. This atmospheric dilemma, in addition to killing off vital dialogues we need to have about very serious problems, causes the recipient of the message to, in turn, transmute the disagreement into a greatly magnified monster, a contretemps in which the shameful warm blanket of toxic gossip greatly outweighs the initial thoughtfulness of the exchange. The push notification becomes a trigger. Enter trigger warnings. The original expression, even if it is proffered benignly and with a level head, becomes a violation of the community’s “safe space,” willfully misperceived because the first responders, pressured by the rewards of quick quips that are liked and favorited in the heat of the moment, are often reacting from a place of emotion rather than thought.

The responses are frequently laced with umbrage. The umbrage is heightened. The responses to the responses become increasingly magnified. Enter outrage and public shaming. People are blocked or ostracized, depending upon whether the message has “offended” a community member of prominent standing. And a benign colloquy turns what might have been a civil debate into a vulgar cartoon, whereby the “offender”‘s motives and intentions are placed under a strange microscope.

In most cases, there is never any attempt to take up the “offense” directly with the “offender.” And even if there is, the “offender,” by way of having “offended,” is greeted with steadfast suspicion (“Is there anything I can Google about this son of a bitch?” thinks the easily agitated responder before firing off another fusillade), which causes some “offenders” to become offenders without the quote marks: bona-fide trolls who capitulate their intelligence for the sake of “winning” the argument. And the original intellectual kernels that might have forged a meaningful essay or persuaded some party to change her mind become bar brawls expressed in 140 character sentiments. Calm people may wish to intercede and tone down the dialogue through reason, but the sheer amount of time and energy is usually never worth it. Because those who are hopped up on the fumes of outrage are determined to duke it out and become increasingly incoherent, even if they are possessed of high intelligence and would not speak this way if the other party was standing before them in a face-to-face, real life setting. Alleged “community managers” on websites, who are subject to high stress and frequent burnout and far too much content to manage, have either become too jaded by all the nastiness to nip any problem quickly in the bud or simply do not give a fuck. And who can blame them?

All this is a roundabout way of saying that it is nigh impossible for me to have any faith in online exchanges anymore, much less “community.” While I have adopted a pragmatic stance that might be interpreted as cynicism, there is nevertheless an optimistic part of me that wonders whether online communities might be fixed or redeemed if they remember that real world communities don’t have nearly this degree or frequency of bad blood. For now, I stand firmly against online communities. I believe online communities to be baleful wastelands of hatred and negativity. And I’m going to frequent them a lot less. Because I’m learning far more and having far more fun talking with people in person and on the phone.

The next time you get upset at someone for a few words she expresses online, you may want to ask yourself why you’re spending so much of your precious time condemning someone you’ve never bothered to meet and escalating the melee rather than marveling at what you might learn from another soul. If you can endure your uncle’s drunken FOX News monologue during Thanksgiving, surely you can find the strength and the wherewithal to take a step back and reach out to the people you’ve decided are unforgivable curs because they didn’t like your favorite band or they said something you mildly disagreed with or they actually exposed their feelings with the hope that others might understand them.