Ottessa Moshfegh: I Worry I Say Too Much In Interviews
On the Genius of Whoopi Goldberg, the Nihilism of Nirvana and More
Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation is out now.
Who do you most wish would read your book?
Whoopi Goldberg. If you read My Year of Rest and Relaxation, you will learn that the protagonist venerates Goldberg as the apotheosis of authenticity and absurdity in a world of pretension and farce. And so do I. I’ve been a fan of Goldberg since I saw her in The Color Purple on VHS when I was nine. Jumping Jack Flash and Burglar convinced me even more that she was a genius. Her particular talent to poke through every scene of fictional film as a real live human being, therefore undoing the illusion of cinema, was a powerful influence on me as an artist back before I even knew I was a writer. I’ve always been obsessed with the layers of performative reality obscuring reality in its true form. Goldberg is my hero because of this. I would love for her to read my book simply because it is a message of appreciation. I love her.
Which non-literary piece of culture—film, tv show, painting, song—could you not imagine your life without?
Saturday Night Live. The first time I stayed up to watch this show was in 1992, and it happened to be the episode in which Nirvana performed. I was eleven, sitting in front of the TV in the basement with my older sister. Here at last was the sound that had been spinning on repeat in my mind since my existential break at age five. My precise response to my sister after Nirvana played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was “That just proved that nothing matters.” I think what I meant was actually “That just proved that nothing exists.” So maybe this was the birth of my own nihilism. Furthermore, I discovered a show that was truly artful and experimental. The cast in the 1990s was incredible. The show was alive, experimental, and I think the intro with the scenes of New York implanted deep into my brain. I moved there six years later.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
The best writing advice I ever received was from my mother. She told me she liked books whose stories happened over the course of several days. My assumption was that she enjoyed the co-experience of reading alongside the novel’s characters over the few days it took to finish the book. It wasn’t particular advice about any writing project of mine, just a passing comment about her taste. Because my mother is brilliant, and has the greatest taste of anyone I know, I gleaned from this one statement about books a multitude of ideas and perspectives. To inhabit a character in real time became a goal in my fiction. I don’t know if all the credit should go to my mom, but why not?
What do you always want to talk about in interviews but never get to?
I wish I had an answer, but the truth is that I always come away from interviews thinking, “I said too much.” I have the incongruous ability to be uptight and boundary-less simultaneously. It takes a lot of self-censorship to get through an interview without revealing something I won’t later regret, or without expressing a harsh judgment that I had—because of my mood—but that I dispensed with as soon as I blurted it out. I have actually made a list of topics that I will no longer discuss. Oddly, “social media” just made it on there. I try to avoid it because I start to speak dictatorially about the subject, condemning everyone in the entire world for being an egomaniacal dork, and then I feel like an A-hole.
What was the first book you fell in love with?
It was a children’s book called Tell Me a Mitzi by Lore Segal and illustrated by Harriet Pincus. My mother used to read this to me every night before I went to sleep. It’s a story about a little girl who takes her baby brother out on adventures around the city while their parents are sleeping. I loved it because it was about the pleasures of radical independence and the discovery of the world. And because I so deeply loved my little brother. To this day, my mother still calls me “Mitzi.”