Ottessa Moshfegh | Can You Feel That? The Territory Is Deepening

Via The 25th Anniversary Issue, Under The Silver Moon!

Photographed by

Paige MacCready

Styled by

Jenny Nayoung Kim

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LORO PIANA jacket, shirt, pants, and shoes and INO rings.

"I think that an artist who’s happy and emotionally well-adjusted can create the best art of their life,” says Ottessa Moshfegh. The fiction writer is behind several popular books released over the last decade: McGlue, Homesick for Another World, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Death In Her Hands, and Lapvona. The adaptation of her PEN/Hemingway award-winning novel Eileen hits theaters this winter. “I think that the healthier we are,” she says, “the more powerful our imaginations are, the more we get to grow and learn in a direction of our own choosing.”

Moshfegh’s stories are eerie, rooted in themes of isolation. If her characters are not trying to escape their own world, they are instead neurotically self-aware, spiritually impaired, and somehow barred from the regularities of human expression and experience. She does not shy away from the grotesque or depressing, and her narrative is cut with absurdity and humor.

Not only has Moshfegh's literary record earned her accolade after award, but also a niche online presence in which young women identify themselves with the anti-heroes that she creates. The writer does not actually have any social media, aside from a Depop account where she sells vintage pieces, self-designed ‘unlikable female character’ t-shirts, and lockets that she advertises “come with a little blessing from me inside which you are free to toss.” Unlike the Internet’s projected idea of her, she says she’s, “essentially an optimistic person. I believe [in silver linings] wholeheartedly. It’s a comfort when things feel really dark to know that there is something, even in a tiny way, at some point in the future, you can find a positive out of any negative.”

Eileen debuted in 2015. Released in the midst of major cultural shift and upheaval, it perhaps arrived at the perfect moment. In the titular role of Eileen, Thomasin McKenzie plays a 24-year-old virgin who restocks her drunken father’s (Shea Whigham) chair-side gin supply when she returns home from her job as a secretary in an all-boys penitentiary called Moorehead. The story takes place in December of 1964, in a small coastal town of New England dubbed X-Ville. When Moorehead’s new psychologist, Rebecca (Anne Hathaway) arrives, she represents all that Eileen lacks: beauty, confidence, and wit. She will eventually lead Eileen into a deep plunge of a dark and solitary truth, one that Moshfegh describes as a “breaking open point of X-Ville.”

Moshfegh’s books have oft been cited when discussing the importance of the “unlikable female character’s” place in literature, and now, in film. She reflects, “I hope this film starts a lot of conversations. The book started a lot of conversations about unlikability and female characters and what it is to be a conscious self and unhappy. While I appreciate that it started so many conversations about that, I think that there are other levels to Eileen’s story that we can talk about, that I’ve delved into, and I’m hoping that the film broadens the conversations and takes us into deeper territory.”

LORO PIANA jacket, shirt, pants, and shoes and INO rings.

She continues,“The book came out almost ten years ago. With what we’ve learned and what we’ve gone through a decade... I think the way we are looking at gender and politics and youth and trauma and the justice system and psychology and mental health—all of these things have advanced so much. I’m just really excited to see people embrace the story in a new way.”

Adapted with her co-writer and husband, Luke Goebel (they penned 2022’s Causeway featuring Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry) and directed by William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth), “it just kind of clicked into place immediately. It was Luke, me, and our director, Will,” explains Moshfegh. “Just the three of us at the beginning with this dream that Eileen could be a project that we could all enjoy doing, and find a common vision for.”

The novel is a portal to the harshest edges of reality, perceived through a girl who hates herself and most of the things and people around her. Of translating this to screen, Moshfegh explains that in film, "it’s like the million-dollar question or the ten-million-dollar question. How much can an audience take versus how much does an audience need, to get them hooked and keep them hungry and keep them surprised and fascinated—but not so surprised that they want to leave the theater? In novels, I usually take the philosophy that if I just do my diligence and show up for the story and the characters and try to find the most meaningful way to convey a narrative, even if I go past a certain point and I turn off some readers, I’ve still been true to the book, and I’m not going to sacrifice the integrity of the book just to sell a couple more.”

One of Moshfegh’s proudest moments of the film involves Rita Polk, an especially morally convoluted character from her literary canon. She explains, “There’s a very dramatic scene portrayed by the genius, Marin Ireland, where she gives this really complex monologue. That monologue really ate at me, made me angry, horrified, scared, and it also made me feel compassionate about something I really wouldn’t want to feel compassionate about. I was scared that an adaptation of that scene in film would maybe not carry. That was something I was really proud to see in the film working so successfully.”

And for Eileen lovers who demand the adaption be as impressive as it’s novel, Moshfegh’s taste and trust are sewn into this film: “I could trust the screenplay because Luke and I were writing it together, I really trusted Will and our cinematographer, the costume designer, and our other producers. And when the cast came together, I mean, I had no anxiety about them. It felt like fate. I’m a very controlling person. I wouldn’t just hand my work over to anyone.”

Moshfegh shares that she has “been moving in [the film] direction for the last three or four years.” She’s adamant: “I’m definitely not abandoning the novel.” Of some stories she’s currently writing, one takes place in 90s England and another during the US Chinese Exclusion Act, while My Year of Rest and Relaxation, McGlue, and Death in Her Hands are in the adaption process—the latter with plans to be directed by David Lowery (The Green Knight). She continues, “I’m exploring screenwriting. Seeing how films work has just been fascinating and weird. It’s actually taught me a lot about storytelling.”

And for as long as Moshfegh is the one storytelling, we’re offered a flashlight into the cob-webbed corners of ourselves (that is if we’re willing to shine that light, if not, we are free to toss.) And like a blessing, Moshfegh leaves me with something figurative and something literal:

What’s the best part about being a writer?

Making something out of nothing.

And the worst?

Back pain.

LORO PIANA jacket, shirt, pants, and shoes and INO rings.

Photographed by Paige MacCready

Styled by Jenny Nayoung Kim

Written by Franchesca Baratta

Hair: Glenda Thompson

Makeup: Briahna McNeil

Producer: Bree Castillo

Photo Assistant: Erica Brown 

Location: Hotel Dena

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Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen,