At 41, Ottessa Moshfegh has appeared on the Booker prize shortlist, for her debut novel Eileen, and the bestseller lists, con narrador desencantado que me recordó a la protagonista de Ottessa Moshfegh en, for which she is currently collaborating on a film adaptation. Her new novel, Lapvona, is set in the middle ages, and features a small community ruled over by a cruel feudal lord, Villiam. Carmen Maria Machado, 35, is the author of celebrated short story collection Her Body & Other Parties, which won the Shirley Jackson prize. Her memoir, In the Dream House, which described the abuse she suffered within a lesbian relationship, won the 2021 Rathbones Folio prize. This encounter was the first time the two US authors had met.
Carmen Maria Machado: I really love your work. When I was reading Lapvona, I was thinking there’s something so exciting to me about authors who are constantly shifting their mode. You never know what their next book is. I find that very exciting as a reader.
Ottessa Moshfegh: Previous to Lapvona, my novels were always in the first person. It never occurred to me that I was doing something so drastically different, because I’m the consistent through line and I’m still me wherever I go, damn it! But with Lapvona, I was really primed and ready to write something in the third person. Locked down during the pandemic, the more isolated I felt, the more I was thinking in a broader worldview perspective. I was thinking about community, society, the world at large, microcosms of the world, the past and how much has changed in human psychology and behaviour.
I don’t have a good reason why I set Lapvona in the late middle ages, but it felt appropriate. I can’t really say that I’ve read a novel set in that era – maybe it’s more of a film tradition or fairytale tradition. But there is a kind of Brothers Grimm, once-upon-a-time effect, where you’re being invited to a distant land in the past where anything can happen. And I wanted to play with that a little bit.
But I’m curious, with your work: you write personal nonfiction and fiction. How do you move between the two?
CMM: I wouldn’t actually say that I write personal nonfiction. I wrote a single book of nonfiction and I have no intention of writing another.
OM: Why not?
CMM: Oh, because it was terrible. I would much rather write fiction, como resulta. I’m actually writing poetry right now, quickly and impressionistically and in one sitting – I’ve got a lot of stuff going on right now, and it feels like I need these little places to put it.
But I was thinking about Lapvona: I do feel like writing historical fiction is a lot like writing fantasy. You can do research, but on some level, you’re just imagining yourself into a fantasy world. When you said fairytale, it feels correct, because for me there’s an intuitive logic in a fairytale, a sort of unfurling. There’s something deliciously ambivalent about Lapvona; at the end you’re like, bien, things are weird.
OM: Villiam, who’s the lord of Lapvona, definitely has some things in common with our former president, but was I really thinking about it as metaphor? I just wanted to escape into another world that was even more fucked up than the world I was living in, but also had some magic and some depths and weirdness that I thought could express something that I couldn’t otherwise.
CMM: Trump feels so singular. But he is also not singular: tyrants are a dime a dozen. The tragedy of Trump is that he rose as high in power as he did. And there were a lot of circumstances that led to that that I don’t even care to think about super hard, because it’s so stressful. Not to be a huge pessimist, but Trump being elected just confirmed something: we live in a sexist, racista, white supremacist bullshit society.
OM: Where are you in the country?
CMM: I’m physically in New York City right now. I live in Philadelphia. But I lived in the midwest for a long time. I’ve lived all over.
OM: I grew up in the northeast, and then I moved to southern California. And there’s this enormous country in between these two places. Culturally speaking, I feel like the centre is very mysterious to the people in, decir, New York City. There isn’t a lot of respect for the culture of the middle of the country in a lot of ways. I was interested in looking at the way community works in a place that isn’t connected to anything; the way a small town can work as a culture unto itself.
CMM: Even more generally than that – when you were a child, weren’t there tyrants? I feel like that’s just a genre of person, people who seek power for power’s sake and take it at all costs. Maybe that’s dramatic but it just doesn’t surprise me.
OM: Who were the tyrants when you were growing up?
CMM: Oh, Dios mío. How do I say this without getting myself in trouble? So there are people in my family who were tyrants; I remember there were girls I went to school with who weren’t just bullies, but used existing systems of power to bully.
OM: I’m interested in the family system as a place where people have their roles. And it’s very hard to shift out of a role without everything falling apart. So I was interested in the main character in Lapvona, the adolescent boy Marek, coming from one family system and being artificially inserted into a new one, and how he would adapt. His first father was very abusive, and codependent. When Marek starts to live with Villiam, there’s this kind of delusional relief. Now he’s in a place where he can be comforted and appreciated and he shifts and becomes less pitiable and more dangerous.
Pero honestamente, I’m not very thoughtful when I’m writing. I tend to get sucked into the storytelling of it all. And I don’t think about how things are being reflected from a bigger picture until I have conversations like this.
CMM: I’d say 70% a 75% of what I do is unknown to me. It’s happening beyond the scope of my own research or my own conscious thoughts. There’s something happening on a subconscious level, which I’ve been honing and training my whole life to do, creating a relationship with that sense of whatever you want to call it, the subconscious, or the creative self. You’re generating that relationship constantly. And then you call upon it, and it brings things to you. It’s kind of amazing. It feels insane to describe it out loud.
OM: I relate so much to what you just said about the process, and so much of it being subconscious. My parents were both classical musicians, and I have to say there were a lot of tyrants in the classical music world where I grew up, a lot of tyrants who became teachers. That’s my personal relationship with monsters with power, and with power in multifaceted ways. When your teacher is a monster, but is a great teacher, it’s very confusing. If it’s your destiny to learn something, you may have to sacrifice a lot to learn it.
I guess in my creative life I’ve always had a relationship with myself in those terms; I relate very much to the characters in the book who are whipping themselves to feel God. Because there’s something in my spiritual paradigm that’s like the story, the book, the art, whatever it is that I’m supposed to be making – it’s trapped in me. But I didn’t put it there. And the reason it doesn’t exist yet is that I haven’t done the work. So I have to work it out of me. I don’t even have a decision to make. And so there’s a bit of that tyrannical teacher in me, sabes, diligently practising every day to get it as right as I can.
I’m so bad at communicating in so many ways, but for some reason, writing fiction feels like the most honest way for me to connect with other humans. And so I’m going to do this as much as I can. Because I feel like I’m so weird and lonely, that’s become my profession.
CMM: I can relate. I did write a nonfiction book, though one that was very engaged with genre and storytelling. But I also find fiction is the way, and I think actually we’re in the middle of a really interesting moment of – God forbid! – discourse about what fiction should be and what is appropriate to turn into fiction.
Can we write about other people’s stories? There are these recurring waves of controversies in the past couple of years about what it means to put somebody into a book, or to adapt a real-life event or person into fiction – which, to be clear, is how we’ve written fiction for literally all of human history. It’s not just readers, but I’ve seen writers say this too, that it might not be appropriate to put a real-life event or person that isn’t you into a novel, which I think is bananas.
There is something about that conversation that I find horrifying. What is the purpose of fiction if not that; this act of borrowing, this act of translation, is literally our job. We have no other job. That is the thing that we do. And we’re serving ourselves in many ways, but we’re serving a truth with an asterisk next to it, which is a larger sort of sense of reality.
OM: I guess I would just say that I’m interested in writing. I don’t know how else to put it. There’s an entire universe around thinking about the construction of something that the reader doesn’t need to be concerned with, because it’s already been done. The big word right now is content: I’m doing this for content, I’m filling in the content. I don’t think in those terms. I think of how a story is structured, how it moves, the tonality of it. Cuando yo escribo, it’s not bouncing off the consciousness of the collective literary community.
CMM: I felt that with memoir too. I was writing a memoir about queer domestic violence; it’s a really intense thing. And I had thoughts about how my community would respond to this book. But ultimately, I had to create the book that I needed to create. I think of writing, and the creation of fiction especially, as a fundamentally amoral process, whether it’s 99% taken from life or it’s some different percentage or balance. Those things are all morally neutral.
Fiction does provide a little bit of a protective sheath. Before I wrote the memoir, there was a bunch of short stories in my first book and elsewhere that were about abusive lesbian relationships or being in thrall to a particular woman. With the memoir I didn’t have that level of remove, I had to be right in it. And it did make writing it very difficult because I was just struggling psychologically to get to the other side of it.
OM: I do write personal essays, and I enjoy those. I recently wrote an essay about the film Stand By Me, and it turned into an essay that was all about my brother, quien murió, and my childhood with him – I had discovered that movie and was afraid to show it to my little brother, because it fascinated me how much it disturbed me, and I wanted to protect him from death, básicamente. And then talking about that, and reflecting on it after his death, sabes, I’m writing from a different place.
People seem occasionally very upset by how I talk about food and weight. And I’m surprised that nobody has caught on to the fact that I have suffered from an eating disorder. And I’m expressing that, which has consumed me to the point of making me extremely ill. I couldn’t not write about it. It pervaded everything. And so it showed up in my books. And you know, that’s one thing that I don’t write nonfiction about because I’ve already spent so much time dealing with it. I don’t want to give it any more power.
One thing that I have noticed about the new attention to My Year of Rest and Relaxation is that it seems to have this one fan group of, me gusta, people that call themselves sad girls. And that concerns me, just as someone who was a younger woman with depression. When my older sister read it, ella dijo, this should come with a warning label on it. Maybe it should. Because guys, this is a satire, this is not real. And we live in an age where everything is so distorted that I don’t want anyone overdosing on Ambien because they read my book.