For the past two years people have been asking if Ottessa Moshfegh has magic powers to predict the future. Before we even knew what Covid-19 was, she wrote a novel about a woman who puts herself into voluntary isolation. When we all followed suit, the darkly funny My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which came out in 2018, had a revival. It has now been mentioned more than 24 million times on TikTok, with Moshfegh being hailed as the “laureate of lockdown” and Margot Robbie working on a film adaptation.
Moshfegh, now 41, was “shocked”. “I thought that book had flown the coop,” she says from her airy, white-walled bedroom in Pasadena, California. It’s 8am, she has just woken up and is still wearing her “sleeping sweater”, which is thin, dark gray cashmere. “I’m glad people found it and it was cathartic.” She takes a sip of coffee. “Thank God it is a bit funny because really it is a sad book — about a person who doesn’t want to face the world.”
My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s idiosyncratic combination of bleakness and humor is typical Moshfegh: its acerbic protagonist is addicted to cocktails of prescription drugs and she hates her only real friend. Eileen, her 2015 Booker prize-nominated novel, is about an anorexic prison secretary who lives with her alcoholic father and is repulsed by her own sexuality. It’s due to come out as a film soon — for which Moshfegh and her husband (and fellow writer), Luke Goebel, wrote the screenplay as well as co-producing — starring Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie.
“Thank God [My Year of Rest and Relaxation] is a bit funny because really it is a sad book — about a person who doesn’t want to face the world.”
Meanwhile her latest novel, Lapvona, published this month, is set in a fictional medieval village in eastern Europe. Life there is unremittingly grim: rape, murder and cannibalism are routine, food is scarce and the leader is greedy, believing his appetite is “a physical symptom of his greatness”. He uses religion to manipulate his subjects — for the 13-year-old main character, Marek, belief in God gives him hope, while other villagers escape reality by taking magic mushrooms.
Moshfegh expects it to be divisive. “I didn’t realize I had written such a gruesome book until I had to record the audiobook,” she says, sounding surprisingly chirpy about it. “I can imagine some people will start and not be able to continue. I have that response sometimes with violence in movies. Not that I think it should come with a trigger warning — we casually ingest so much horror in our daily lives.”
She wrote it during lockdown. “The thinking was, oh my God, we’re locked inside and everyone is dying. I needed a project. That’s how I understand life, through creating stuff. I wanted to clear the decks and get all the awful stuff out by writing it. I can’t moderate my intensity, so it comes out all at once. I write in fits — I do five minutes at a time and then I get overwhelmed, like I’m going to faint and have to get up and take a shower or do the dishes to clear the electricity out.”
Over the course of her life Moshfegh has experienced a lot of pain. She grew up in New England, the middle child of an Iranian father and a Croatian mother who are professional musicians and teachers. They fled the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978 and Moshfegh was always aware that they had been through suffering — and were from a very different culture from the one she was growing up in.
When she was nine she was diagnosed with severe scoliosis. She had to wear a brace until she was 12 and still lives with pain. Her parents gave Moshfegh, her older sister and younger brother music lessons and she was able to read music before books, going on to play the clarinet and piano.
But at 14, while attending a summer camp, she decided she preferred creative writing (now she likes rap, “the musical equivalent of getting laid”, although “I’m an old dork and not in touch with what’s fashionable”). Then in 2017 her life changed when her brother, Darius, died from an overdose at the age of 30. They used to sleep in the same bed as children and a picture of him hangs in her kitchen. She speaks about how after he died “our family really needed an addition of love”.
For her, that came with her dog, Walter. Lapvona is dedicated to him. “We have a dog family — my sister has his sister — and it felt very healing. He is a mix of every magical, beautiful thing on Earth.” She calls him in — whistling and shouting “Walty”, and a gray fluffy creature bounds into her arms.
Her husband also has a dog, Jewely. She met Goebel in 2016 just after an astrologer predicted she would fall in love. Right on cue he came to her home to interview her for the website Fanzine. She says she saw him and felt herself “surrender”. His interview ends with him saying, “Yup, and I love you.”
She softens as she speaks about him, saying their small house is “perfect for a couple who love each other very much”. They moved to Pasadena in October 2019 because Moshfegh found their house online and “had to have it, even though I’d only been to Pasadena once before on an errand. It wasn’t even a decision.” She seems to make a lot of her life decisions by acting on feelings like this.
“I can’t moderate my intensity, so it comes out all at once. I write in fits — I do five minutes at a time and then I get overwhelmed, like I’m going to faint.”
Moshfegh is aware that a lot of time she lives “up here, in my brain”, she says, tapping her head. That’s why she was so thrilled to make her catwalk debut earlier this year in Maryam Nassir Zadeh’s autumn/winter 2022 show at New York Fashion Week. “It was the most freaked out I’ve been in front of people,” she says.
“I almost froze. It was one of those brain-fart moments. I said I’d never do it again, but I would because it was exciting. I don’t want to die thinking I didn’t enjoy the physicality of life, ignoring my God’s gift,” she says, stretching her arm out theatrically and laughing self-deprecatingly.
She had a busy Fashion Week, also writing the show notes for Proenza Schouler, asking how we find beauty in chaos and use it to build the future. “It’s impossible not to make a collection and consider the human that is going to wear it,” she says. “It’s like how with writing I am always thinking about the mind of the reader.”
Despite being a TikTok sensation she doesn’t have any social media. “I’m an addict so I can’t get it. I just browse Net-a-Porter and watch videos of fashion shows for procrastination.” But she clearly doesn’t procrastinate that much. She’s finalizing a top secret project for Prada and is working away at adapting My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Moshfegh thinks Robbie would be “perfect” for the unnamed protagonist but it isn’t up to her. Her job is working out “how to tell a visual story because the protagonist doesn’t emote a lot”.
Then she remembers something. “We are going on holiday tomorrow, oh my God!” She and Goebel are off for a week in Puerto Escondido in Mexico and she hasn’t packed. “We can have some beach time, I can practice my horrible Spanish. I’m happy.”
Lapvona, by Ottessa Moshfegh, will be available beginning June 21
Susannah Butter is the acting deputy culture editor of The Sunday Times