As Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, Lapvona, goes out into the world, Narrative has a few burning questions for the author.
1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?
My favorite character in life is probably my mother. She is just endlessly fascinating, full of stories, and a little wily. My favorite character in fiction is probably Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego. He’s just so deplorable and lovable; he makes me laugh.
2. A line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?
I like this quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt’s book You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” (I’ve never read the book, but my cousin had this line at the end of her emails for years.) When I don’t know what to do, I sometimes ask myself, “What do I think I can’t do?” and then I try to do it.
3. The story, book, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time? What did it teach you?
There’s a Rumi poem that pushed me into a deep psychotic depression when I was seventeen. I can’t find it; I’ve looked for it, and it has disappeared. It was—like a lot of Rumi poems—about the spirit, where it comes from, where it goes. I wish I could read it now for the first time at age forty because I don’t think it would terrify me like it did twenty-three years ago. At least I hope it wouldn’t. Maybe it was a dream. I was kinda nuts at seventeen . . .
4. What’s a writing day for you?
A writing day for me means I have at least eight hours of uninterrupted time at home. I will probably spend four of those at my computer, three of those actually writing, and the rest of the time I’ll be getting up and doing random things to keep me from feeling like I’m going to explode. I get a lot of laundry done, talk to my dogs, barge in on my husband in his office with some pointless question. I write best when I’m doing it in a blind spot. Hard to explain. Days when I’m editing look different. I can keep my head down for fourteen hours when I’m revising a draft. I will avoid bathing, eating, etc.
5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?
Waiting. Life. If I’m stumped in a project, I set it aside. I try not to think about it. I will occupy myself with as many things as I can to get my mind to break away from the stuck place. Revisiting the work in its stuckness can be fruitful sometimes, but I find that when my mind is preoccupied, things come to me. I usually find the answer when I’m not looking for it.
6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?
The, I, it, she, he, don’t, actually, just, apparently, said, went, about. Those are pretty basic when I’m writing. In life, the words that stand out are dogs, house, go, food, work, okay, hello, yes, no, and awesome. Apparently awesome is an annoying word, and I actually just don’t care.
7. What’s your current obsession?
Keeping lists. I have been writing down everything I need/want/should do each day and crossing them off as I do them. It’s such an obsession that if I need to do something like bring in the mail, I will write it down before I go do it, then come back in and cross it off.
8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?
Someone very close to me criticized me for being secretive lately. I was like, “How do you know I’m secretive?” Which was a very silly response. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with having secrets, but if my closest friends/family can tell that I am being withholding, not sharing, stewing in something instead of letting it out, that’s something I want to look at.
9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
I wish I knew at age twelve that I could trust that there were people who loved and cared about me. And I wish that I still had my age-twelve devotion to listening to music. That’s something that’s fallen away in adulthood, because I need so much silence to work/think.
10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.
Love is a psychic force between two beings. If you try to pick it apart, its essential meaning will dissolve. Love acts on you and through you. Love is also a practice. Being creative is an act of love between you and the world.
Finally, is there a passage from Lapvona that you’d like to share with our readers?
It was odd, Ina thought, that the birds hadn’t alerted her of Grigor’s arrival, but she herself felt drawn to look through the trees and saw the old man stepping over the new shoots of tansy. She recognized Grigor. She had nursed him many, many years ago, and remembered the little dimple in his bottom lip. He carried with him a small wreath of canniba that he had saved along with his seeds during the drought and rains. It was only on a hunch that Grigor thought Ina might be pleased by the herb; he didn’t know she suffered from headaches, only that she was very old. Grigor knocked on the door. She opened it. She saw Grigor’s dimple and blushed and smiled.
“Come in,” she said. “I guess you heard about my fertility treatment?”
“No, no. I have come to confess something.”
Ina stepped back from the doorway to let him enter. Looking around her room, he saw the dried herbs and flowers, a pot steaming on the hearth. The air smelled of frankincense, pine, orange, and fire. Ina sat on her bed and rubbed the place beside her. Grigor did not sit down, but handed her the wreath of canniba.
“I have brought you this gift. It is good for us elderly. It staves off forgetting.”
“I take it to remember where I’ve put things,” he said. “And it helps me sleep.”
“I don’t need sleep,” Ina said. “But I like to smoke it for my headaches.”