Interview with Ottessa Moshfegh, the 2016 PEN/Hemingway Award Winner

Wayne Catan
In this new series of articles exclusive to The Hemingway Review Blog, Hemingway scholars will interview PEN/Hemingway Award winners to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the award.  
The first piece in this series features blog contributor Wayne Catan interviewing 2016 winner Ottessa Moshfegh.   
Q:  Your mother was born in Croatia; you’re your father was born in Iran. Do you believe your heritage has influenced your work?  If yes, how? 
A:  I have been to Croatia a dozen times.  I have never been to Iran. I was born in Newton, MA and I have lived my whole life in the United States, so by being an American I feel that I have the authority and experience growing up here to write about American culture well enough to satirize it.  The prejudice I experienced personally and through my family was disillusioning. (If you talk with an accent in this country, people can be very suspicious of you.) That experience gave me an insight into some aspects of our culture in general, and into the human psyche.
Q:  When did you realize you would become a writer? 
A:  I discovered that I was a writer when I was in the seventh grade, at age 12. It was an exciting revelation and I have been totally obsessed with writing ever since then.  
Q:  When did you begin writing for the Paris Review, and how did you break into the distinguished literary publication? 
A:  Well, I never wrote for the Paris Review. I was writing short stories and made an effort to get some published four years ago. I had a friend who forwarded my stories on to the editor at the Paris Review, Lorin Stein, who accepted and published them. It was really huge for me to get published with that broad of a readership. That put me on the literary map, so to speak. The two stories were “Bettering Myself” and “Disgust.”  
Q:  What was your experience like at Barnard and Brown? Did your experiences at those places influence your work?  If yes, how?
A:  I would say the biggest gift from my time at Barnard was a friend that I made who is a total genius fiction writer—Amie Barrodale. She just published her first book of short stories called You Are Having a Good Time. She is, I think, one of the best living writers in America. The big thing about Brown is that it was the first time in my life that I was getting the support I needed to live as a writer without having to work a day job. At Brown, I studied with Brian Evenson and Robert Coover who were incredibly supportive and also rather hands off, so I could really just explore and try new things and go in and talk about it with these very interesting people. Brown is a more experimental writing program and I found out that I really appreciated the open-mindedness of the program. I was also a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and having the support and time to work was really the biggest gift there as well.  
Q: Your novella McGlue won the Fence Modern Prize in Prose and the Believer Book Award.  What is it about and did you know it would be so successful?  
A:  McGlue was my first long piece of writing. It was inspired by a tiny article in a periodical from New England in the mid-19th Century, about this man, McGlue, who had been acquitted of killing another man in the port of Zanzibar. He was acquitted because he was found to be out of his mind as he was a very ill alcoholic and was in a blackout at the time of the murder. He also suffered a head trauma when he jumped off of a moving train before getting to Zanzibar. It is a first-person narrative of someone whose brain is functioning at an abnormal level. It is also a story of his incarceration in the hold of the ship and then in a jail in Salem, MA, where he was from. In the course of the book, the reader learns about his past, including the reason why he committed murder.
I wasn’t thinking McGlue would be successful per se. I didn’t write it with publication in mind. It sat in a drawer for three years, and then I sent it to Fence, who ended up publishing it. I was surprised but totally delighted. 
Q:  What was your inspiration for Eileen? Was there a certain experience or book that inspired the dark tone of the novel? 
The main inspiration was the experience of being female in a patriarchy, and what happens internally to the mind of a person when the world is conspiring against them in every way. The story is set in New England, where I am from, so I know that world pretty well. It’s also a story about a small town, the institutionalization of children, and child criminals.  
Q:  Do you remember where you were when you received the call about winning the PEN/Hemingway Award for Eileen
A:  Yes. I happened to be in Montreal where I was writing at the time. I had no idea about the award, and I did not even know that I was up for it. An administrator from the PEN/Hemingway Award committee called me to inform me about the honor.   
Q:  Has winning the Pen/Hemingway Award changed your writing life?
A:  Not really.  When I write, I don’t think about awards, and I don’t think I’d be a very good writer if I worried what people will think or how much praise I’ll receive when the thing is published. I’m grateful for the award because I appreciate the freedom to write full-time. Financial stability is a godsend, knock on wood.
Q:  What is your favorite Hemingway book, and has it inspired your writing? 
A:  A Moveable Feast.  I read it on a trip to France when I was in high school.  My favorite passage was Hemingway’s description of going to museums hungry and viewing the art with heightened senses, almost like a psychedelic experience. 
Wayne Catan 09/14/2016

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