In December, Gagosian inaugurated Picture Books, their new book imprint, with Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story “My New Novel.” Imagined by the young writer Emma Cline, author of the 2016 novel The Girls, Picture Books pairs contemporary fiction writers with contemporary artists. Artists are given carte blanche to create work inspired by, or in response to, fiction.
Moshfegh, best known for her 2015 debut novel, Eileen, and her 2018 best-seller, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, tells her new story from the point of view of Jerome Littlefield, a total loser. And a novelist, sort of. Jerome tries to write his magnum opus but is paralyzed by his “damn intelligence.” Instead of writing, he smokes weed in his therapist’s Hollywood Hills office as he complains, drinks Cognac while posting on Craigslist, and pigs out on a frozen pasta dinner after masturbating to Asian porn.
Issy Wood, the 29-year-old painter behind perverse close-ups of Joan Rivers, Jane Fonda, teeth, leather coats, thigh-high boots, and clocks shaped like swans, painted a portrait to accompany “My New Novel.” Inspired by a two-sentence anecdote in Moshfegh’s story, Wood painted Jerome—weeping and surrounded by chipmunks. A poster of the work comes with the limited-edition hardcover of “My New Novel,” designed by Peter Mendelsund.
Over Zoom—interrupting her family brunch in Oregon—I spoke with Moshfegh about her latest fiction.
Jensen davis: When did you first start drafting the story?
Ottessa Moshfegh: It was probably when I was in the revision process for My Year of Rest and Relaxation. So that was, like, 2016. It’s been a while. In some ways, the story is a gross reflection of my most stupid anxieties as a novelist. I find it really funny now. But also, when I read it, I’m so relieved that I don’t relate to it.
J.D.: How did you end up choosing this story for Picture Books?
O.M.: I like that it was an L.A. story. And that it was a story about an artist, in some ways, and an art project. Also, I had been holding on to it waiting for the right realization of the project to come around. I could have published it in some magazine. But I don’t know, my instinct was just to hold on to it. So I kept it. And then, when Emma Cline reached out, it was the perfect occasion.
J.D.: How so?
O.M.: I think it’s a funny story, and I think it’s a funny contribution to something. It’s so much about ego and insecurity under the umbrella of the artist’s life and contemporary America. Publishing with the Gagosian had this kind of absurdity and also self-awareness that I thought was cool.
J.D.: When you realized someone would interpret your story visually, did your editing process change at all?
J.D.: A lot of your characters are described in intense physical detail. Like, in My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Eileen. And a few girls in this short story. But Jerome Littlefield has no physical description, except for that he’s half Jewish.
O.M.: I didn’t really want to be too specific about what he looks like because I think his neurotic narcissism is something that conjures an image for us all.
J.D.: When you were writing the story, did you have an idea in your head about what he looks like?
O.M.: I could kind of see his body as though I were him. Like, I could look down and see some of his gestures. But I was really just trying to be in his point of view. I could see what he was wearing. I could see his hands and stuff. But I didn’t look in the mirror.
J.D.: Were you involved in Issy Wood’s painting?
O.M.: I didn’t know what she was painting until I saw an image of it and met her over Zoom. I think that’s the best way to do it. I mean, it’s her painting. It’s not an illustration, and it’s not meant to be part of the story. That’s what’s cool about the Picture Books project: there’s two people making art. And their cross-purpose is for this book, not necessarily to serve the text or to serve the visual-art piece.
J.D.: Were you surprised by the part of the story that she decided to paint?
O.M.: Looking at her other recent paintings, it doesn’t surprise me. But I thought it was interesting that she chose to do a portrait because she filled in a face where I hadn’t imagined a face. If I was going to make art based on that story, I really don’t know. All I can think of is, like, the L.A. skyline. That’s pretty cliché. That’s why I’m not a painter.
“My New Novel,” by Ottessa Moshfegh, is out now
Jensen Davis is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL