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.