'Eileen' author pivots to short stories

Ottessa Moshfegh on how Stegner Fellowship shaped her career

With her first novel, "Eileen," Stanford University's 2013-15 Wallace Stegner Fellow, Ottessa Moshfegh, hit the literary jackpot.

Her noirish 2015 novel of domestic desperation in 1960s Massachusetts won the PEN/Hemingway award for debut fiction and was short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Perhaps most significantly, it was a finalist for the prestigious Man Booker prize in 2016.

The Man Booker award ultimately went to Paul Beatty for his novel, "The Sellout," but the build-up to the awards ceremony raised awareness of Moshfegh's talent.

Now, her highly anticipated short-story collection, "Homesick for Another World," has been released by Penguin Press this month with much critical acclaim, putting the spotlight on her as an accomplished writer of short stories.

Reached by phone, Moshfegh, 35, talked about her new book, how her fellowship has impacted her career and expressed great appreciation for her time with the creative writing faculty at Stanford.

"[The Stegner fellowship really helped with my faith, in that I can want to do something and realize it and not bum around. I had to submit work every couple of months, so I had to pick up the pace and not waste any time. And I realized that I work great that way," said Moshfegh, who under the guidance of such writers as Elizabeth Tallent and Tobias Wolff, Moshfegh, used her fellowship as an opportunity to work on "Eileen" and the stories in "Homesick for Another World."

Although she visited the Stanford campus for weekly meetings with faculty members and students, Moshfegh spent her years as a fellow residing in Oakland, not in Palo Alto.

"They give you a stipend that's barely enough to live on in the Bay Area," she said. "Actually, it isn't enough, but I got lucky with an apartment and it all worked out.

That was a year and a half ago, and Moshfegh said she has been writing just as intensely since.

The child of professional musicians from Croatia and Iran, Moshfegh grew up in the Boston suburb of Newton, Massachusetts.

"I was a really ambitious, smart young girl, often extremely bored at school," she said. "I kind of hated everybody and couldn't wait to get out of there. And when I was 17, I moved to New York and thought that was going to solve all the existential problems. And of course it did not."

Moshfegh attended Barnard College, then taught at a private university in China, opened a "punk bar," moved back to Brooklyn, earned a Master's degree in fine arts from Brown and moved to Los Angeles "totally broke." She published her first short story in 2001, and subsequent works have appeared in the Paris Review, Granta and the New Yorker. She is also the author of a novellla, "McGlue," a historical novel about a brain-damaged, alcoholic sailor.

After becoming a Stegner Fellow, Moshfegh begin work on "Eileen," which catapulted her into the literary spotlight.

Moshfegh said she wrote the first draft of "Eileen" very quickly, then put it through an estimated 20 revisions.

She said, "I was feeling a lot of pressure financially and needed to write a novel I felt would land me a contract with a major publisher. So I wanted it to have some sort of mass appeal."

The story of a disturbed young woman who spends her days working in a boys' prison and taking care of her alcoholic father at night, "Eileen" had enough mass appeal to be optioned for a film adaptation.

With the book, Moshfegh said, she wanted to "screw around with people's expectations of what a novel is. I used a traditional novel structure and inserted my own weirdness into it. I feel like I taught myself how to write a full-length novel."

In her latest book, "Homesick for Another World," Moshfegh offers glimpses of characters wrestling with their own inadequacies while seeking some kind of emotional fulfillment through disturbing, enigmatic, tender and hilarious turns in the book's 14 selections. In the short story "The Beach Boy," a suddenly widowed dermatologist becomes obsessed with the notion that his wife may have had a fling during their recent vacation. A retiree takes a group of developmentally disabled men for a birthday meal at Hooters, in "No Place for Good People." A high school English teacher returns each summer to her home in a run-down town in "Slumming."

Many of Moshfegh's characters seem deluded, unable to face the truth about themselves and their circumstances.

"They are people who are in a moment in their lives grappling with something they've been deeply wrong about their identities," she said. "I think each character is coming up against the dissolution of a delusion or a decision to persist in the delusion of who they are. I like exploring that, because I feel that's so much what life's about. 'Is this real?' 'Am I who I think I am?' 'Who else can I be?'"

Many of the stories end ambiguously. "I don't believe in resolution, in the way we're brainwashed to believe in living happily ever after," Moshfegh said. "I also like leaving things a little bit mysterious. It's fun."

With her casts of outsiders and fringe dwellers, Moshfegh is often compared to Flannery O'Connor, author of "Wise Blood" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge." She doesn't find the comparison particularly apt.

"I think I'm more of a Don DeLillo than I am a Flannery O'Connor," she said.


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Short story writers wanted!

The 32nd Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult (15-17) and Teen (12-14) categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 6. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category.

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