Ottessa Moshfegh Revels in the Mystery of Self-Discovery in 'Death in Her Hands'
Otessa Moshfegh, author of 'My Year of Rest and Relaxation' and 'Eileen,' examines the courage it takes to look into the past in her metaphysical suspense novel, 'Death in Her Hands.'
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Kat Johnson: I'm Audible Editor Kat Johnson and today I'm speaking with the incomparable author Ottessa Moshfegh about her fifth book, Death in Her Hands. Ottessa, it fills me with excitement to talk to you. I've been a huge fan of yours since Eileen came out. Then more recently, your novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation was named one of Audible's best books of the year in 2018. I think it's fair to say no one writes quite like you and this new novel is no exception. Welcome.
Otessa Moshfegh: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
KJ: Thank you for being here. I promise I'm not being nosy and it's going to tie into our conversation, but can you tell us where you are calling from? Can you set the scene for us a little?
OM: I'm in Pasadena in a glen, which is full of trees and currently raining. I'm spending most of my time at home these days, big surprise. I live in this really kind of kooky house at the bottom of this shady glen where there are wild parrots and coyotes howling in the mountains, but it feels like a fortress in many ways. It was built by this guy named Herman Caller about 100 years ago and actually he built it all by hand and it took him 20 years. He used all these recycled materials. There's all these stones from churches that were destroyed by earthquakes and all these little details that he scavenged and rocks he found all over the Southwest. I feel like I'm in a different world down here and it also feels like I could be in a different time, so I feel good. If I didn't ever look at the internet, nothing would seem wrong.
KJ: That sounds like a very special environment. You have written a lot about isolation in your work, definitely in Death in Her Hands, as well as My Year of Rest and Relaxation. And then with this pandemic, we're all in this situation now that your characters have gravitated to by choice. Has this situation made you think about isolation differently, and how are you dealing with it?
OM: I think everyone's had to deal with isolation in a new way because most of us have never been forced to stay at home before. I mean, it's kind of like we're adults and yet certain privileges have been taken away as though we're children. Yeah, I thought differently about isolation and elective versus non-elective levels of fear or agoraphobia and what there is to be gained from being alone. As much as this has been a very confusing and frustrating experience and also, of course, very sad—sad in both the loss and illness that we see, but also sad in how unsure the future feels and how little faith one might have in that future being a bright one. That being said, I think having had this time to really turn inward—and for me as a writer, extra turning inward is way turning inward, because I have to do that daily to an extreme anyway—but I've had some revelations about myself and some decisions have been made about how I want to live differently. And that's been a blessing. I feel very lucky that there's a blessing in all of this, at least for me.
“What strikes me most about Vesta is how much courage it would take, for me anyway, to be at the end of my life, to know that I'm at the end of my life, and look back at it.”
KJ: What has it been like to release the book in the midst of all this? The release date was moved twice; I imagine that was a bit stressful. How has it been?
OM: You know, it hasn't been stressful at all, actually. I'm sure it's been very stressful for my publishers and booksellers to have to reorganize things. But for me, I feel very detached from the book. The book is the book at this point and I'm happy that people will be able to get it in their mailboxes if they want it, or on their Kindle or on Audible, that it could maybe keep them company if they got some extra time on their hands and have been reading, which is awesome. Maybe initially there was this confusing sense of relief and also horror that things had gotten so bad in the world that the book had to be delayed and that I, you know—[I was] picturing myself going on this book tour in a hazmat suit or something, which obviously didn't happen.
I'm happy that it's coming out. I mean, it seems weirdly apropos because it is so much about isolation, and not to be a bummer, but it's sort of a meditation on death, which I think a lot of us are thinking about. I'm happy, but time has been moving in such a weird way since the beginning of March anyway. It might as well be August or it might as well be next year already. I don't even know what day it is anymore.
KJ: That's 100 percent true. I was trying to remember. I was like, "I read the advance copy of it over the summer—?" I just couldn't even remember when I had imbibed this. Now I've been listening to it and reminding myself. But yes, we're totally experiencing time in a new way. And like you say, the novel feels very prescient. You're with this person in this very sort of scheduled isolation. Her focus is on, for example, the bagels she's eating. A lot of it reminds me of what we're going through now, but you actually wrote this four years ago, right?
OM: Yes. I wrote this book while I was waiting for Eileen to come out just after having finished my story collection. I was in the sort of limbic state and didn't know how to move forward yet because I knew that Eileen coming out would sort of push my life in a new direction because I'd have to go do all this publicity. I was also moving and all this stuff was going on. I had also started My Year of Rest and Relaxation and understood that I wouldn't get back to the book until after Eileen had come out because I wouldn't have the time to focus on it. I wanted a project that could be both this way of processing my anxiety, but also an outlet and something to love in the meantime. I kind of just let myself write.
It wasn't an ambitious novel; I didn't plan this book. This character's voice came to me. The scenario came to me. Every day that I wrote, she revealed a little bit more of who she was and how her journey was both applauding of my book and applauding of her death. It became much more than what I thought from the first page. It became something that kind of took on a life of its own. I wrote it pretty quickly, probably two to three months for the first draft, and I didn't look back at it. I put it away and I didn't pick it up again, never thinking that this was something to publish. Well, actually that's not true. I edited it for about a month when I was up in Maine, living in a cabin in the woods, which was perfect. Then I didn't look at it again for years.
So much had changed in my life in those years that when I picked it up again, it was almost like I couldn't—I didn't recognize myself in the book. That was really interesting. I mean, so much of the creative process is letting yourself get really deep into it. It is just an extension of you that comes naturally. Then there's another part where you have to completely detach and look at your work objectively. This was a really shocking, but also moving and endearing experience of looking at something that I had made in the recent past, however a foreign past to me at that point because my life had changed so much. I mean, I could tell you, but it's not worth it. Seeing this book for the kind of particular weirdness that it contains and the specificity of this character's psyche. I just got really excited about it and I started working on it again. It was like discovering—I mean, it was almost archeological, finding this manuscript, which I literally found in a drawer. I hadn't even been thinking about it. Finding it again and coming back to it and working on it in a way that was sort of like a completion of self. "This is where I came from and this is where I am now." The revision process felt really satisfying.
KJ: I want to summarize the book a little for people who might not be familiar. We have this elderly widow named Vesta. She's living alone in the woods with her dog, Charlie. She finds a note saying there's been a murder, but the victim, whose name is Magda, is nowhere in sight. This sets up the whole novel and Vesta becomes this amateur detective and tries to solve the crime, but she's no Columbo. Her methods are, to me, quite funny, but I really admire the way that kind of drives the whole plot of the novel. It totally hinges on what's happening inside her head. She's actually making progress in her investigation, but it's not really based on any real clues. For me, one of the funniest parts of the novel is when she goes to the library and uses the website Ask Jeeves to try to get information on the crime. It's just such a specific and dated reference, and it works so perfectly. How did you decide on Ask Jeeves? How did you decide on this elderly character? I just have so many questions.
“We're given a split second on this planet and we better get to know who we are before we have to leave. I wanted that for Vesta. I desperately wanted that for her.”
OM: I don't really remember making the decision about Vesta. I mean, I think I remember her name coming to me, but it was really her voice, her narrative voice, that came to me first, like that opening line where she says every day she has been walking through the birch woods with her dog. More so, the note that she found came to me. It really started off with this mystery, and I couldn't decide whether it was hokey or menacing. That conflict and that conflation of what feels playful and also feels profound, is really what drove the story, because at every moment you feel like, "Oh, wait. Is this about to get totally ridiculous?" Then actually, no.
What this is dealing with is really deep and very human. Comedy was important and it felt like Vesta was kind of a funny character. She would do something like Ask Jeeves how to solve a murder mystery. I mean, she is a little bit cuckoo, but she's also coming to terms with a past that she hasn't really inspected herself. Her journey as this amateur detective into this maybe-murder of a girl named Magda in the woods is also an adventure into speculating on her own experience and sort of unearthing in a detective way the things in her life that had hurt her, like her murder in a way, how she had murdered herself and how her husband had murdered her spiritually, in terms of potential. How she had been limited, how she had been trained, how she had been controlled.
What strikes me most about Vesta is how much courage it would take, for me anyway, to be at the end of my life, to know that I'm at the end of my life, and look back at it. I mean, there's nothing you can do at that point. You only have your memories. That just really moved me about her. I wanted it to have some gravity, but I also wanted to lace my gravity with a little bit of absurdity because I think that's just true about this whole life-and-death thing, that it is a little bit absurd and ridiculous as much as it is incredibly beautiful and can be heartbreaking and real.
KJ: That absolutely comes through. And for me, it's kind of surreal too. It's hard to tell in the novel what's real and what's not, what's in her head, what's not. The more I thought about it, the more I felt like it was kind of beside the point to try to figure that out. You have her husband, Walter, who was so gaslighting and controlling and saying she has a weak heart and a soft mind. In some ways, for me, just taking Vesta's account of her experience at face value was an exercise in empathy. She's learning to see the world without this outside perspective that she's had for so long in her spouse. That idea is alienating and frightening, but it's also very liberating and empowering. Did you see it as certain things in the novel were real, or is it Vesta slowly kind of losing it?
OM: I did see that certain things were real, but honestly, I couldn't really solve the mystery—the mystery of Magda—and I didn't feel a need to. I felt like it was more in the attempt to solve the mystery that we discover something bigger, which is, like you said, Vesta's reckoning with her life. If you had to ask me what is the most important aspect of life, I might say, "Discovery." That was true when I wrote the book and I feel like it's still true. And when I read it, it is in order to discover something, whether it's about me or not about me. I wanted this book to be a kind of discovery of self for the narrator in looking back at her life and recognizing where she had been delusional.
Through confronting those experiences of having been manipulated, whether by herself or by her spouse or by society, she could start to recognize who she actually was and embrace her own reality before saying goodbye. That just seemed really important. The idea that we have... God. We're given a split second on this planet and we better get to know who we are before we have to leave. I wanted that for Vesta. I desperately wanted that for her. I think a part of my personal curiosity about Vesta was, as a woman from another generation, I certainly couldn't imagine having a relationship with a guy like Walter.
OM: I also see that the equivalent is still true everywhere I look where, I mean, maybe it's not always so gendered, but people control each other. We are weird. It's very rare to meet someone who's really out for the common good. We're very self-seeking and selfish creatures. It's part of why we have advanced and survived. Power is necessarily in relationship to whatever it is you are having power over. Or else power is totally irrelevant, whether it's power over yourself or power over another person.
I was thinking about power dynamics in relationships and also thinking about, "Well, what would my life have been like if I had totally squandered my passion and talent? And I ended up alone, obsessed with my dog?" That makes me, I almost want to cry thinking about that possibility. How many people haven't lived their dream, and then sit at the end of it all and just ask themselves "What happened to me? How did I get here? I was once young and full of potential and now it's over. What happened?" To me that is heartbreaking, but it's also inspiring. It makes me feel like I want to go. I want to get it. I want to do it. I want to experience more and grow and connect and change and be a part of things, which is the opposite of isolating in the woods, in the cabin, in a way.
Then again, there's also the part of me that just wants to isolate in a cabin and commune with my personal god and commune with myself and seek honesty and realness in the present moment. I mean, there's no right way to live I guess is what I'm saying, but Vesta's story makes me want to live better.
KJ: That kind of answers—I mean, I feel like in your books in particular, you do often write about these characters who are lost and alienated. Then I always think you as a novelist have this strong, forceful style. There's a line in the book where Vesta says, "I felt that my mind was just a soft cloud of air around me taking in whatever flew in, spinning it around, and then delivering it back into the ether." To me that's so fascinating, but it's the opposite of how I imagine your mind works. Maybe part of it is this idea that you're—I don't know. It's about fear, but that you're writing about these characters that are not you, or that are not the way you approach life in some way.
OM: Right. None of my characters are me.
KJ: I would say no.
OM: They aren't, but I know them so well for a reason.
KJ: I have to ask, have you heard the audiobook?
KJ: You haven't, OK. It's great. I was curious to know if it sounded like how you imagined Vesta, but you haven't heard it yet. Did you have anything to do with the casting or the choice of narrator in this?
OM: A little bit. I think we listened to a couple of female actors and sort of narrowed it down together.
KJ: I think she does a really great job. Are you reading anything you really love that you could share with us?
OM: I'm actually reading a book that I had been meaning to read for like 20 years called Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher. She wrote it when she was 23 and it's a memoir of her life and her... basically her addiction story. She's a virtuoso basically, a virtuoso writer at 23. I can't believe that she could both face her life in this way and also some of her writing is just completely beautiful. I'm enjoying that. It's definitely something that resonates with me as someone who's struggled with similar issues in my youth, and also really interesting to read a book that was published in the '90s when eating disorders and mental illness were handled very differently than they are right now. I'm appreciating the advancements that we have made in certain ways. The next book I want to read is the new Anne Tyler. What is it called? Redhead by the Side of the Road I think.
KJ: I would love to hear what you're working on now and if you can share any details on your upcoming projects.
OM: I'm working on a couple of film scripts, but fiction-wise, I started a new project at the beginning of the quarantine or whatever you want to call it. I would call it a medieval saga. It takes place in a fictional town in the late middle ages. It's kind of a story of a village hitting a sort of bottom. It's very much a project examining society. I needed a project to get me through this weird turning point in human history that we're all living through right now. It's very, very disgusting and also kind of like a disgusting soap opera. I'm just working on a first draft of that project and enjoying it a lot.
KJ: That sounds great. You're working on some film scripts, you said?
OM: Yeah. I got involved in film couple of years ago and have mostly been writing adaptations, of my work and a couple of other people's work.
KJ: Oh, I can't wait. That's awesome. Well, thank you so, so much for talking to me today.
OM: It was so nice to speak with you too. Thank you so much.