On Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, Florida State University (FSU) students lined up at the HCB to see author Ottessa Moshfegh. New York Times bestselling author, Moshfegh came to FSU, presented by Club Downunder, where she spoke about her writing background, creative process when formulating a storyline and how she cultivates her unique characters. Moshfegh discussed how she began writing fiction at just 13 years old. Moshfegh attended Barnard College for her BA, then went to grad school to get her MFA at Brown University in 2011.
Prior to writing her first novel Eileen, Moshfegh had published a novella, McGlue. Moshfegh decided that she had to write a novel because that is what the world of publishing deems marketable. At first, she struggled to find inspiration and felt lost on which direction to take the novel, which ended up being called Eileen, and won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Moshfegh told the story of a meaningful encounter that sparked her decision for the setting the novel takes place and who the main character is. She recounted the interaction with a filmmaker who had just finished a long day of interviewing a subject for his newest documentary project on juvenile prisoners serving life without parole. Moshfegh felt moved by his story and fascinated by the world of juvenile detention centers, but she knew she couldn’t take this man’s story. Instead, she wrote Eileen about a 20-year-old woman who works as a secretary at a juvenile detention center in New England.
According to The New Yorker profile article on Moshfegh, all of the characters in her novels, novella and collection of short stories are untraditional characters living on the margins of society. Her novella McGlue focuses on an alcoholic sailor who ends up killing his friend at sea. Elieen is centered on a young woman exploring her sexuality and abusing laxatives. My Year of Rest and Relaxation follows the story of an unnamed protagonist who attempts to sleep for an entire year with the help of prescription medication in order to escape her life. On Wednesday, Moshfegh gave some insight into her reasoning for writing about uncomfortable characters. Moshfegh talked about how she is fascinated with the feeling of disgust and wants to bring characters to life that wouldn’t usually gain the spotlight as the main characters.
Moshfegh also discussed the brutality of the publishing industry on Wednesday. When she was pitching her book Eileen to publishers, many of them enjoyed the story but wanted to change it into a happier, more lighthearted storyline with a satisfying, uplifting end. But that isn’t what Moshfegh had in mind. Most of Moshfegh’s stories don’t have a clear resolution or fairytale ending, because she wants her characters’ stories to be authentic and natural, rather than forced. Eventually, a publisher who read Eileen understood the message of the novel and appreciated Moshfegh’s creative thinking behind it.
Moshfegh’s 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation quickly gained a cult following after being published. The book is trending all over TikTok and other social media sites, as readers have become immersed in the fascinating life of the novel’s protagonist, a young, conventionally pretty, wealthy, recently orphaned, Columbia University grad living in Manhattan. According to The Cut profile article on Moshfegh, she wanted to show people a character who seemingly has everything yet wants to hide from the world. Critics of Eileen fixated on how the character Eileen was “gross,” and Moshfegh wanted to show them a story of someone who was physically beautiful but felt disgusted on the inside. During the presentation, Moshfegh shared her complex thought process when writing the hit novel. Moshfegh said once she wrote the first half of the book, she was set on finishing the story, but she struggled with what direction to take the second half of the book. But once she realized the ending she wanted for the protagonist, the rest of the story just flowed.
Towards the end of her presentation, Moshfegh took questions from students in the audience, many of which involved her writing methods, mentality when writing her novels/novella/short stories and the meanings behind her stories.
At the end of the presentation, hundreds of students lined up for Ottessa Moshfegh to sign copies of their favorite book of hers and posters promoting the event. She signed all of the copies of My Year of Rest and Relaxation with “sweet dreams.”