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Meet the author: Ottessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel Eileen, published by Penguin Press, was one of the literary events of 2015.  Garlanded with critical acclaim, it won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was named a book of the year by The Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.  But as many critics noted, Ottessa Moshfegh is particularly held in awe for her short stories.

Homesick for Another World, on sale now from Penguin Press, is the rare case where an author’s short story collection is, if anything, more anticipated than her novel. And for good reason. There’s something eerily unsettling about Ottessa’s stories, something almost dangerous, while also being delightful, and even laugh-out-loud funny.  Her characters are all unsteady on their feet in one way or another; they all yearn for connection and betterment, though each in very different ways, but they are often homesick for another worldtripped up by their own baser impulses and existential insecurities. Homesick for Another World is a master class in the varieties of self-deception across the gamut of individuals representing the human condition. In this interview, Ottessa takes us inside her world:  How would you describe your writing regimen and routines? Obsessive and neurotic and captivating. I wake up, I work, I dilly dally, work, take out the trash, work, pace around, eat, work, shower, work, read, work, go for a walk, call people, work, eat, work, sleep. Toward the end of writing a book, I often sleep with my computer under my pillow… What differentiates your approach to conceiving a novel as compared with your short stories? The motivation to write a short story often comes from an abstract, mysterious noise in my head, and I can take my time concentrating on that sound and experimenting with what words, voice, characters, and narrative movements are being described by the music in my mind. Writing a novel is that, plus a million pounds of pressure at my back, loaded with questions about how my life is being reflected in this writing process, and what I want to learn and say to the world. So, novels are more prolonged and intense journeys, although they can start out as playfully as a story. ottessa quote1Where do inspirations for your characters and storylines come from?   They come from my life experiences, overheard conversations, dreams, the imagination, the ether… It what ways has Penguin Press impacted your writing career? Penguin Press has been a miracle in my life – this team has been so incredibly supportive, positive, and – I think – gutsy.  I tell everyone how blessed I feel to have a publisher that understands my work and sees its value today and the potential for the future. Explore Moshfegh’s books below:

Congratulations to Ottessa Moshfegh on winning the Pen/Hemingway award!

Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Eileen, has won the 2016 PEN/Hemingway award for debut fiction! Her novel is a dark and gripping story of a young woman in a dismal 1960s New England town. When a mysterious stranger enters Eileen’s world, her life begins spinning into chaos. moshfegh The PEN/Hemingway Award is given for a novel or book of short stories by an American author who has not previously published a full-length book of fiction. The award ceremony will take place April 10th, 2016 at the JFK library. Listen to our interview with Moshfegh here.
Scott Moyers photo

Scott Moyers, VP Publisher of the Penguin Press and editor of Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. Ottessa Moshfegh’s fiction is like a new species of wild animal. First there’s that stunned delight: I’ve never met this species before! Whoa, it feels kind of dangerous. Then there’s the inevitable effort to categorize it, to place it within a larger taxonomy. It’s been delightful to watch some of our smartest, most fearless writers come to grips with what makes Ottessa Moshfegh’s work so special, so hard to shake. Take Jeffrey Eugenides: “Moshfegh is a writer of significant control and range…. What distinguishes her writing is that unnamable quality that makes a new writer’s voice, against all odds and the deadening surround of lyrical postures, sound unique.” Or Rivka Galchen: “A scion of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Raymond Carver at once, Moshfegh transforms a poison into an intoxicant.” Those stories I read in the Paris Review stuck with me for keeps: these are very different psyches each to each, and the voices are utterly distinct, but each is an exploration of a mind that’s unsteady on its feet in a most arresting way, a triumph of unreliability, you could say – unreliable on just about every level imaginable. The world is a lot weirder than is commonly understood; Ottessa as an artist has a purchase on that weirdness and brings us into contact with it, in a way that is wildly electric. But those are the stories; like many I was very eager to see what this writer would do with a longer form. McGlue, her bravura novella, gave a tantalizing hint, but nothing quite prepared me for the narrative tricksiness, the storytelling cunning, of Eileen. My God, can this writer play the long game. I want to quote, if you’ll forgive me, from the starred Kirkus review, because it makes the point better, I think, than I can: “A woman recalls her mysterious escape from home in this taut, controlled noir about broken families and their proximity to violence…. The narrative masterfully taunts…. The release, when it comes, registers a genuine shock. And Moshfegh has such a fine command of language and her character that you can miss just how inside out Eileen’s life becomes in the course of the novel, the way the “loud, rabid inner circuitry of my mind” overtakes her. Is she inhumane or self-empowered? Deeply unreliable or justifiably jaded? Moshfegh keeps all options on the table…. A shadowy and superbly told story of how inner turmoil morphs into outer chaos.” Set in the 7 days leading up to Christmas in 1964 in a small town outside Boston, Eileen is the story of how a deeply unhappy young woman imprisoned by her circumstances finds a most unexpected accomplice who busts her out of her confinement, though arguably, as Bob Dylan sang, she uses a little too much force… While stylistically this reminds me of nothing so much as Shirley Jackson of The Birdcage and Vladimir Nabokov of King, Queen, Knave, in another sense this reminds me of the wonderful Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, in that there’s a political valence to this novel all the more powerful for being so beautifully sublimated in a powerful suspense novel. It’s a hell of a thing for a young woman to feel as unattractive as Eileen Dunlop is made to feel by the world around her; the wound is real. And so, though she makes choices you or I might perhaps not make – though perhaps you would! – I think few will say that in the end they’re not rooting for her to go all the way. Read more about Eileen here.