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23rd of October 2018


Ottessa Moshfegh interview: The joy of fiction with the year of hibernation

Moshfegh says her narrator's sardonic voice did not come to her fully formed but emerged out of her mission to sleep.

"I understood that my character had this project to sleep for a year and in order to make that possible there were aspects of her personality that needed to be created and then I started understanding her more and her voice became clearer to me. I think it just developed naturally as I started describing the habituation of this woman's life and her day-to-day malaise. She sort of showed me that there was a project brewing."

That project is sleeping for self preservation – the narrator quits her job as a receptionist at a trendy art gallery, lives off the money from her dead parents' estate, showers once a week and watches Whoopi Goldberg ("one reason to stay alive at least") videos purchased from a thrift store. There is no monumental event that triggers her detachment from society – and she did once do what "young women in New York like me were supposed to do" including colonics, facials, signing up to an overpriced gym and having sex. But sleep, she tell us, offers a way to escape the world and become a "whole new person".

"Sleep felt productive. Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart – this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then – that when I'd slept enough, I'd be okay. I'd be renewed, reborn," the narrator says. "My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over with regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation."

As she steps up her drug intake things she does not remember happen while she is blacked out – she orders lingerie, arranges spa treatments, invites strangers in chat-room conversations to tie her up – and she comes up with a scheme so she can continue her mission.

Is she a spoiled brat? Mad? Or is this a creative response to a corrupting world whose game she no longer wants to play? Are her actions any less sane than Reva, who is stuck on the hamster-wheel of life as an executive assistant for an insurance brokerage firm, a "slave to vanity and status"?

Many reviewers and readers have commented on the relevance of wanting to hibernate for a year in light of Donald Trump's election, but Trump was not even a nominee at the time Moshfegh started writing. It is 9/11 that lingers on the horizon, and provides a powerful and effective ending to the novel.

"I think she's a person full of contradictions. Like on the one hand I think that she is a coward. On the other hand I think she is totally eccentric and brave. I think she is very honest in her judgments and perceptions of others," Moshfegh says.

I think I am letting go of some of my sardonic wit to make more space for vulnerability.

"I don't think that she tries to pretend that she is anything that she is not but she is also so trapped in her own misery. Up until the end of the book she finds it very hard to admit to any real feeling and it is hard to trust someone that doesn't have a relationship with themselves beyond irritability and resentment and a desire to escape."

Moshfegh, who has suffered insomnia since she was a teenager but says she is far too excitable to take a year out to sleep, describes the book as a very different writing experience from the Man Booker-nominated Eileen (2015) and McGlue (2014) although they are similarly interested in confined spaces, a prison and ship respectively.

"The book really became my life... if we take on projects in order to teach ourselves how to do things, I think that this project was sort of showing me how to walk a narrow line and I think it also showed me that I don't want to do that anymore. I think this is my last book for a while about somebody who doesn't leave an apartment. That was hard to figure out," she says.

"I had to accept the character's mission of being so isolated and still figure out how to tell her story in a way that was captivating and dramatic. It wasn't a book that came to me all at once and I was like, 'I know how this whole thing it works', it was really a trial and error procedure and very interesting."

As with her narrator, Moshfegh has experienced her own sense of disillusionment with New York City. Born in Boston, she grew up seduced by the city, seeing it as home to all creativity and innovation. She moved there when she 17, but after nearly a decade the attraction started to wane.

Moshfegh experienced a growing disenchantment at what she calls a "sense of institutionalisation" in the way her generation living in New York thought about art, literature and music. The pressure to compete, the superficiality, the deluded notion that you were at the centre of the world when you lived in the city became apparent. On a more practical level, it was expensive. Going to the grocery store to buy fancy lettuce for a meal was a big deal. All of Moshfegh's energy was channelled – not into writing – but into trying to make enough money just to remain in New York.

The clincher came in 2007 when Moshfegh developed cat scratch fever after she was attacked by a street cat. The illness made it difficult to function – it attacked her central nervous system and there are months of her life she still can't remember. She was too sick to work – and to take care of herself – so moved.

"I think it was an experience that matured me and maybe in a sense I had been immature. I had and have a very keen sense that my time on this planet is limited and that can sometimes invoke great anxiety but it also is a great motivation to not waste my time and to make sure that my priorities are in order. A priority of being in New York is being cool and I am so not interested in being cool anymore because there is no one to impress. Everyone I ever wanted to impress has disappointed me so that game is over."

But Moshfegh never intended My Year of Rest and Relaxation to function as as a "hate letter" to New York. Instead, she says, "It is sort of a love letter to New York, but a goodbye to my delusion about it. When I go to New York, New York has changed a lot. New York does not seduce me in the way that it did."

The 37-year-old now lives in southern California with her partner, who is also a writer. If satire is a thread that binds My Year of Rest and Relaxation with Moshfegh's short-story collection, Homesick for Another World (2017), and two previous novels, she is now ready to bring out the scissors.

"This last novel may have been the apex of a certain sense of my humour and maybe I am not on that road anymore. I feel like I did it. I am interested in something else now," she says.

"What it is that is approaching I can't really say exactly, but it is a different approach to the reader, a different attitude towards the reader. I think I am letting go of some of my sardonic wit to make more space for vulnerability and sincerity. That is how I see myself growing up a bit."

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is published by Vintage at $35.

Melanie Kembrey the Spectrum Deputy Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald.

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