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Books Novelist Ottessa Moshfegh makes a stink as her raw and physical new book ventures where few go

Writer Ottessa Moshfegh is interviewed by David Ebner while they get pedicures in Los Angeles.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Ottessa Moshfegh isn’t feeling her best. It’s a Monday in April and over the weekend the Booker Prize-nominated novelist had been waylaid by allergies. But she rallies from the flu-like wallop that lands each spring. Some respite is at hand: an afternoon pedicure in an art deco building on Wilshire Boulevard.

“Are you going to get them to paint your nails?” Moshfegh asks me as we arrive. “Do you wear sandals?”

I say I do not.

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“Then,” she offers, “it’s kind of your little secret.”

We settle in for some pampering. Drinks are offered.

“He’ll have a bottle of Champagne,” Moshfegh says, “and I’ll just have a glass of water.”

I go for less, a glass of mimosa, and we sit, feet in hot water and soles scrubbed, calves massaged, toenails clipped and polished. Moshfegh seems a little disappointed I don’t opt for a colour like the red she chooses and instead go conservative, a clear polish. She is a fan of little secrets – all the truths, weird, ugly and otherwise – inside all of us we rarely reveal.

Her writing is raw and physical. The 37-year-old American novelist tells stories of dark, flawed characters and chronicles their yearnings. She punctuates the work with a vivid presentation of her character’s bodies and their functioning. Her fiction, starting five years ago, has garnered ever greater attention and accolades. Moshfegh’s first novel, Eileen in 2015, was a finalist for the 2016 Booker Prize and won the 2016 PEN/Hemingway Award for a debut full-length book. Her short-story collection, Homesick for Another World, landed in early 2017 and was a finalist for the Story Prize, awarded to top collections of short fiction.

Moshfegh has gained prominent fans. Scott Rudin, the Hollywood producer behind movies such as Ladybird and The Grand Budapest Hotel, bought the film rights for Eileen. American humorist David Sedaris first championed Eileen on a tour in 2016 and on a stop in Vancouver this May, he praised and read from Homesick. “I can’t remember,” he told the audience, “the last time I laughed this hard, at a book.”

Moshfegh’s anticipated second novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, arrives on July 10. The story, as with all her work, is rooted in the realm of strange. Moshfegh’s unnamed protagonist is a 27-year-old woman in New York in 2000. The city glitters but, we know, is shadowed by the looming tower of 9/11. The privileged young woman seeks to cleanse herself of the pain of her past and her disgust with the present. The method is a year of hibernation, sleeping as much as she can, submarined by a galaxy of pharmaceuticals. The protagonist wants to be reborn, sever her past self from a possible future.

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“It was lunacy, this idea, that I could sleep myself into a new life,” the protagonist thinks, as her year reaches a final inflection. “Now, I was approaching the mouth of the cave. I smelled the smoke of a fire burning deep inside. Something had to be burned and sacrificed.”

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is spiked by Moshfegh’s off-kilter black humour. It is the ingredient she uses to leaven her stories. The protagonist, after her alcoholic mother dies by suicide, calls the letter her mom left behind “totally unoriginal.” And then there is Moshfegh’s constant current of the physical. “My mother’s bony clavicles,” the protagonist thinks at one point, and at another she imagines her mother’s body in the grave, withering, and wonders if her perfect blood red Christian Dior 999 lipstick had faded. “Either way,” the protagonist thinks, “she’d be a stiff husk, like the sloughed-off exoskeleton of a huge insect.”

It was jarring and, in a way, amazing. Grappling with what many people experience, yet stays hidden and unspoken, is a central pillar, and primary draw, of Moshfegh’s work.

Sitting in the salon, I ask where the drive to detail the raw and physical comes from. She considers the question for some moments.

“Physicality, especially in the culture that we live in, is shunned,” Moshfegh says. “Like we’re all supposed to pretend that we don’t have insides. That we’re not actually real, we’re just our appearance. And that’s always really confounded and depressed me, about society. It definitely feels important to my work. And I like that it has the power to elicit such a response from the reader.”

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Moshfegh’s first novel, Eileen, was a finalist for the 2016 Booker Prize.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Moshfegh grew up in Boston, the second of three children, an older sister and younger brother. Her parents were classical musicians who met in Belgium. Her father, a violinist, was Iranian and his family fled the revolution. Her mother, who played the viola, was Croatian. As a child, Moshfegh spent hours playing classical piano. Writing seized her as a teenager.

Moshfegh earned an undergraduate degree at Barnard College in New York. After a few years in China, she was back in New York and came under the tutelage of the writer Jean Stein. In Moshfegh’s late 20s, she was slammed by cat scratch fever, a bacterial infection that left her bedridden for months. When she recovered, she attended Brown University’s graduate writing program, known for an experimental bent. A few years thereafter, she lived in Oakland, Calif., during which she was on the prestigious two-year Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. “You felt her vitality,” professor and writer Elizabeth Tallent says. “She writes about women in a way that’s got this black comic gusto, that usually is not going to get on the page.”

Moshfegh’s distinctive voice was there from the start. McGlue, her 2014 novella that won the Believer Book Award, is a full-body experience. It’s a mid-19th-century story, told in fractions and blurred memories, of an alcoholic sailor and accused murderer. Early on, the main character is detained and in detox. He pierces an orange offered him with his thumb. “The perfume rouses the hairs in my nose.” The scent evokes the bottle. “Scratching an itch deep in my brain.”

While Moshfegh piled up accolades, she wasn’t making money. With Eileen, she set out to write a more conventional story. She did, to a point. More so, Moshfegh brought weird to the mainstream. Eileen is the story of a lonely, young woman – sample description: “the terrain of my face was heavy with soft, rumbling acne scars” – working at a juvenile boys prison in mid-1960s New England. Eileen dreams of escape. It’s a winter’s tale, set at Christmas, of desire, alcoholism, abuse.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is likewise a weird story sold to a mainstream audience. In a half-fantastic tale of a young woman who, at a glance, has a charmed life, yet aims to obliterate herself to emerge anew, Moshfegh wants to rattle readers’ minds.

“I wanted people to wake up – that by the end of the book, you felt more alive,” Moshfegh says. “And an awareness, in general, of what is actually happening, in your life, and not just what is on your newsfeed or what people on television are telling you.”

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The pedicure concludes. Moshfegh’s toenails are a rich, dark red.

“Thank you so much,” she says to the pedicurist.

“Do you like them?” the woman asks.

“Yes,” Moshfegh says. “I feel like Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz.”

’I wanted people to wake up – that by the end of the book, you felt more alive,’ Moshfegh says of her new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Personal experience – alcoholism and eating disorders – courses through Moshfegh’s writing. She struggled with anorexia and bulimia for years when younger. She has likened it to being possessed by the devil and while she avoids talking about it, she has said there is nothing in her work she hasn’t thoroughly researched on her own.

Hard drinking is a recurrent theme. Moshfegh drank heavily from her late teens through her early 20s. She then became a devotee of AA. A few years ago, she went back to the bottle. “I took a year off of sobriety,” she says. “I drank a lot and had a really good time and realized that that was enough. So I’m back to being sober. I don’t regret it. It was a fun year.” Quitting, the second time, was as hard as the first. “But obviously the right thing to do. I’m an alcoholic. I’m an extremely addictive person.”

It all threads through Moshfegh’s work and into My Year of Rest and Relaxation. In one scene, the protagonist is at the childhood home of her best friend, who is a drinker and bulimic. The protagonist, in an adjacent room, listens to her friend throw up in the washroom: “a rhythmic, violent song.”

There was personal trauma around the writing of the new novel, too. As Moshfegh finished, Stein, a mentor and close friend, died by suicide. Then, last fall, her brother – who suffered through addiction, overdoses and time in jail – died. That week, Moshfegh wrote a fable titled A Humble Home, taking a cue from photographs of Gianni Versace’s gilded Miami mansion. It appeared in Vice’s Garage Magazine in the winter. At the end of the story, the dead look down from a palace in the sky “at the stupid people on Earth and spit and curse them and rest their heads on God’s soft and vengeful shoulders.”

By midafternoon, between the pedicure and lunch, Moshfegh is driving her white BMW 328 – she feels strained, hungry, still weakened by illness. She hesitates on what she’s shared. She has at times been unusually frank in past interviews. “I always say too much and then I regret it,” she says to me.

It is on the page where Moshfegh is fearless. Three years ago, in a short online essay for The Masters Review, an American literary magazine, she provided advice to aspiring writers. The piece was titled How To Shit. Of her own work, she thinks about “what kind of stink do I want to make in the world?”

The advice: “Go where you are least comfortable.”

Moshfegh has gained prominent fans, such as Hollywood producer Scott Rudin and American humorist David Sedaris.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

We are at Kismet on Hollywood Boulevard, near Moshfegh’s East Hollywood apartment. The Middle Eastern restaurant opened last year, a warm room of beiges and whites. We order the Turkish-ish breakfast, an array of small plates.

Among the themes in My Year of Rest and Relaxation is the nature of art, beauty and meaning, and Moshfegh skewers the worst pretensions and vacancies of modern art. In one episode, on the millennium New Year’s Eve, the protagonist is heading to a party in Brooklyn, where a video artist would broadcast live births from a village hospital in Bolivia. The question of art is also entwined through the novel’s climax and conclusion. When Moshfegh was at Barnard College, at the same time the novel is set, she took a sculpture class and remembers visiting galleries in Chelsea.

“It was an adulterating experience,” she says. “It didn’t seem like art, in the way I thought: art was a really sacred and precious and hard-earned thing. I grew up in a classical music world where the arduous genius of that kind of music seems like the standard of how to measure value in art.”

Last November, Moshfegh did a 20-question interview with The Times Literary Supplement. Camus or Sartre? “Neither” was her answer. Jacques Derrida or Judith Butler? “No idea,” she responded. “I avoid the intellectuals.” The last question put forth contemporary artists: Tracey Emin or Jeff Koons? “Britney Spears,” Moshfegh countered.

At Kismet, Moshfegh smiles. “I actually really like Britney Spears.”

I tell her I hadn’t taken her 20 questions answer as mocking or sarcastic.

“She’s an interesting character,” Moshfegh says. “If anyone ever wants to make her biopic, I would write that in a minute; I would love to.”

“She was punched around by the press,” I say.

“Despite having been turned into a commodity,” Moshfegh says, “she has retained the essence of who she is. She was one of the pioneers of surviving internet celebrity.”

For Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation marks a conclusion. “It’s taught me I’m done having anything to prove,” she says. “It’s sort of the end of my youth.” She recently completed a screenplay of McGlue, for Vice Media and she’s researching a new novel, set in the early 20th century, Victorian San Francisco.

“It’s an elaborate novel,” Moshfegh says. “It has more of a plot. I don’t want to say it’s more serious but it’s more” – she pauses to think a while – “it’s more old school. I think right now, we’re at a place where novels are reading like really long short stories. I’m sick of that. I’m going back to the ornate novel.”

Later, as lunch nears its end, Moshfegh asks about my wife, who I had mentioned, like her, had been recently wracked by flu-like springtime allergies. But as Moshfegh asks, a coughing fit hits her. She excuses herself and I ask for the bill.

“Sorry, David, I’m falling apart now,” she says when she returns. “I’m not at my best.”

I say sorry is unnecessary and joke she hasn’t done it on purpose.

“It’s really wiping me out,” Moshfegh says. “For two days, I couldn’t think of words. So foggy. And also hard to focus, my eyes. That kind of thing. It’s been pretty intense.”

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