The Unsettling Work of Ottessa Moshfegh

Author Ottessa Moshfegh explores the existential terrors that surround and inhabit the lives of women

“Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Ottessa Moshfegh has a specific talent for beginnings, and the opening paragraph of her third novel, Death in Her Hands (2020), is no different. Moshfegh is also very good at scrambling readers’ expectations, and those who have read her thrilling debut novel Eileen (2015) or the spectacular My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which propelled her to literary fame in 2018, know her knack for exploring the complicated psyches of isolated, disturbed women.

It’s fitting that, while the introduction of Death in Her Hands evokes a murder mystery, the novel soon unfolds into an eerie portrait of an older woman. The widow of a charismatic German scientist, 72-year-old Vesta lives in a cabin with her dog, Charlie. “I’m old, a stranger, an invader, unwelcome, paranoid from days on end of isolation in my cabin,” she describes herself. The perfect detective, in short. Enticed by a mysterious note discovered in the woods behind her home, Vesta sets out to find who killed young Magda. Told in the first person, Death in Her Hands is a novel of grief and old age, the unsettling tale of a woman desperate to finally be seen.

CLÉMENTINE GOLDSZAL Death in Her Hands is set in an undetermined region of the United States, mainly in a cabin that feels almost like its own character. How did you arrive at this isolated setting?

OTTESSA MOSHFEGH The cabin in the book is sort of inspired by a real place that is my mom’s retreat. It’s in the Northeast, in the middle of Maine. She found this abandoned Girl Scouts camp on a lake when I was 17. It’s located 15 minutes away from Bangor, where Stephen King lives. But that area of Maine in fiction and films influenced me even before my mom found her camp. It makes perfect sense that King would be from there: it’s not a horrific place at all, but it’s rich in a certain kind of dark imagination. There’s something in the woods out there that makes you feel there could be something dark lurking.

I always like characters who feel displaced or out of place Ottessa Moshfegh

CG If the place is inspired by your mother’s cabin, is the character of Vesta inspired by your mom?

OM It is very hard to say what I was inspired by at the time of writing, but Vesta doesn’t seem at all like my mom. On the other hand, having
some familiarity with women of that generation, who are maybe culturally related to my mom, who is Croatian, was an influence, for sure.

CG Death in Her Hands is also a novel about small-town life, about the isolation and claustrophobia that can come from living in a small town.

OM Yes. There is something about being an outsider in a smaller community that’s quite profound. If you go to a small town, people look at you. They know you’re not from here. You don’t look like you’re from the same stock. People don’t know you and therefore don’t trust you, so you become an observer – you study them.

CG Is there an analogy to being an immigrant?

OM I wasn’t trying to write about the “immigrant experience,” but I always like characters who feel displaced or out of place, and I really liked the idea of Magda being a runaway from another land, so she doesn’t have to follow the rules. My dad immigrated from Iran to the United States in 1980, and he once told me that there is a freedom in living in a place that you’re not from because you don’t really have to participate if you don’t want to. You can watch it without taking anything personally or feeling like it’s reflecting your identity. There is some benefit in not engaging.

CG You wrote Death in Her Hands a few years ago, between the release of Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation. What was your state of mind back then?

OM I was living in Northern California at the time, and I did not think of it as a book to publish. It was a very difficult period for me personally, and I needed a project to occupy myself. I’ve never thought of my work as a way to self-soothe, but there was something about Vesta, the simplicity of the premise and her matter-of-factness, her tangible reality, that made it a comfortable place to put my imagination. She’s at the end of her life and doesn’t really have anything to lose – except for her life and her dog.

There’s something in the woods out there that makes you feel there could be something dark lurking Ottessa Moshfeg

CG Was it an easy book to write?

OM Everything transpired coincidentally. I began not knowing what I was doing. It was, in a way, an exercise of faith in the creative process. I just wanted the composition to reveal itself to me. So, my process was really simple: write 1,000 words a day, don’t make a plan, never read what you wrote the previous day, and keep going until you reach the end. I sat down with no censorship, not trying to make it good, just writing down what was occurring to me naturally, line by line.

CG Do you write a lot of things that you don’t publish?

OM Not anymore because I’m so overwhelmed.

CG Why did you decide to publish it, in the end?

OM I drafted it in Northern California, and then I went to the cabin in Maine to edit. But I quickly got distracted by my next project, which turned out to be My Year of Rest and Relaxation. It took me over, and Death in Her Hands stayed patiently waiting. I rediscovered the manuscript when I came back from my promotional tour, and there was something really refreshing about it. The response to My Year of Rest and Relaxation had been so loud… I came home and found this quiet book, which I really loved again. There was something pure in it.

CG Vesta is very aware of how undesirable older women are in American society. Was it part of the project to comment on that?

OM It was mainly an opportunity to have a character who could review her entire life from a vantage point that suddenly allowed her the freedom to change. But it’s a good question because there is nothing less sexy in American culture than an old woman who isn’t a celebrity, who isn’t anyone important or rich or fancy or influential, whose life was not important.

CG Vesta’s dog Charlie is one of the main characters in the novel. What is it with dogs as characters?

OM I have four dogs myself. Dogs are an important element for me. I think they are part of our humanity. Leaving cats completely out of it, the dogs we keep as pets have evolved according to us: we rely on them, we have relied on them. We’ve had a deep relationship with domesticated dogs for thousands of years. They’ve been our protectors, our children. They’re not human beings, and yet we ascribe so much of our humanity onto them. My dogs are important to me in the way I think about love and relationships. A character who has a dog is very different from one that doesn’t.

This feature was originally published in Mastermind 11 – buy it here.

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