A few years ago I was broke and working full-time at a café in the West Village, a sort of playground for rich white people. One day, an Australian trust funder left behind a copy of The Paris Review. I wiped down the table, grabbed the magazine, and read a story on my break. I was sitting on the decrepit wooden steps of a staircase that would collapse two days later. As I sat on the steps, oblivious to their rotten condition, one story in particular held my attention. The narrator's voice was singular: arrogant, broken, sad, and funny. "I relieved myself outdoors, watching the smoke puff out of the metal chimney like a choo-choo train," says Charles, a 30-year-old real-estate lawyer who has failed to live up to his own expectations. After I finished reading the piece, Ottessa Moshfegh's "A Dark and Winding Road," my brain was altered. Maybe it changed when Charles finds a dildo underneath a pile of blankets. He does what any human would do: picks it up and sniffs it. It was difficult to go back to making coffee and smiling at people mindlessly after that.
Moshfegh's short-story collection Homesick for Another World is one of 2017's most anticipated releases. Her stories are brutal, unflinching, and subversive, covering a wide range of territory: profound alienation, Chinese prostitutes, acne, alcoholic schoolteachers, delusions, and desire. Occasionally, her characters get what they want, and it turns out to be shit; it's revelatory. A couple of weeks ago, Moshfegh and I met at a cafe in Los Angeles to talk about politics, how to have confidence, and obsession. Before we met, I told her I wasn't feeling very well and she recommended listening to Gamelan Degung. It worked.
Patty Yumi Cottrell: How do you think you will — or will not — respond to the current political climate?
Ottessa Moshfegh: Unless I'm going to move to the woods, I'm going to be living and responding to my environment. And what's happening politically, culturally, and socially in my environment is always going to show up. So certainly I'm going to be writing about it, in terms of what it's teaching me or not teaching me. And the book that I'm writing now is a very political book. Some people will probably dismiss it as a female narrative. Politics have become institutionalized in a way; when we say "political," we mean conversations about Trump and the economy, for example. But everything is political. Including world events and the things that we read about in the New York Times bullshit. So the older I get and the more I'm awake to what's actually happening, the more it's going to be driving me in my work.
PC: Is that different from how you as a person will respond?
OM: I did not vote in this election and I had every right not to vote. It's a privilege that I didn't vote and I knew it was because I'm a registered voter in California. But I didn't want to vote. I didn't want to play in the game. Part of that is, I don't want to participate in the institutions that are ruining the world. I would rather be an outsider and an observer and objective so that my work can be bigger than the snapshot of the culture that I'm currently living in.
PC: What have you been obsessed with?
OM: I've been thinking about Philip Roth and Don DeLillo. I've been thinking about health stuff. I've been kind of obsessed with money this year, and as I'm finishing this next book, I'm thinking … Eileen came out in August 2015, the collection comes out in January 2017, and I'm finishing another novel. I'm exhausted. I can't keep writing a book every year. I mean, I probably can, but I know that it's going to fuck me up if I need to write a book every year in order to live a self-employed writer's life. So, I don't need a fabulous life, but I've been thinking a lot about what it means to feel financially free and also having made this decision to … I don't give a shit about getting married, I don't even like men — I've made this decision to be celibate the rest of my life. I don't care. I'm not having children, so I'm thinking about my life in a different way than the way I was brainwashed to, and money has become a very high priority because it is what is going to guarantee my freedom and independence in the material world. If I think too much about it, I become a slave to it.
Writing a book is like tripping on acid but really, really, really slowly. I would like to feel I could take my time. To not feel the pressure. I could also just move to the woods. And I think about doing that all the time.
PC: Could you talk about the last story in your collection? "A Better Place" felt really different, like a departure.
OM: Yeah, that's probably my favorite story in the collection, although I don't think it's going to be a crowd-pleaser. It's the most personal, and it's kind of a folk tale, and it basically describes what my experience of being alive on Earth has felt like up through my early 30s. Kind of until recently. It just doesn't make sense that I'm here. How did this happen to me? How did I get here? How do I go back to where I will feel good?
And when I wrote that story … I felt I never needed to write a story again. I had absolutely nailed the existential problem that I was trying to solve through writing these short stories. And the answer to my confusion is just that there is only fiction. The future is only fiction. The last scene of the book is an invitation … or whatever cruel or amazing fate might be revealed. In finishing the book that way, I was introducing myself to my next phase of my life. And then I started writing the novel I was telling you about.
I feel I'm in a very different place. I'm much more confident. The scope of my optimism and cynicism has widened. I've become way more cynical and way more hopeful and optimistic.
PC: How do you have confidence?
OM: I just have it.
PC: How did you develop that?
OM: I was born with a confidence about something very specific, and I've just focused all my confidence on that one thing. And I'm head over heels in love with this part of myself. Nobody can fuck with it. I've given it all this room, so it just lights up my entire life. That doesn't mean that I don't struggle sometimes. But I have no insecurities about my talent and worth as a person. When I was younger, I had been really brainwashed and thought that one of my priorities was being one of the most beautiful women in the world, one of the thinnest and most perfect, that that was the way I was going to feel empowered. I had to let go of that, and sometimes I get confused when I get caught in an Internet blackout. "Oh, no, wait, that's actually a cult I was in that was really misogynistic." It's very invasive, that cult is everywhere. I need a lot of reminders.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Patty Yumi Cottrell lives in Los Angeles.