The My Year of Rest and Relaxation author on making movies (she has three adaptions in the works), creativity, and her new novel, Lapvona. Plus: an exclusive look at the novel's trailer.
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The journey to Ottessa Moshfegh's house, located a ways down a winding no-outlet road on the rural outskirts of Pasadena, feels less like a ride than an odyssey, a gauntlet of elusive cell service and leery Uber drivers. But the home she shares there with her husband, writer Luke Goebel, and four friendly dogs, is worth the flickering Wi-Fi: a woodsy, dappled compound dotted with stone paths and mystery nooks. (She mentions in passing that it was purchased on the verge of the pandemic from David Lynch's real-estate agent, which seems right.)

Even though smoggy Los Angeles lies just a few miles west, there's an out-of-timeness to this little Narnia corner of land that recalls her latest novel, Lapvona (June 21), a gothic fairy tale tinged with strange visions and magic realism. But it wouldn't be Moshfegh, too, if the novel weren't threaded through with violence and viscera: rape, famine, cannibalism, at least one successful infanticide.

A day before her 41st birthday, the author of the novels Death in Her Hands, Eileen, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation — whom The New Yorker's Jia Tolentino once called "easily the most interesting contemporary American writer on the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible " — sat down with EW over tea in her garden to discuss the trailer for Lapvona (debuted exclusively above), her enduring fascination with the human body, and the weird Hollywood shuffle of having three major film adaptions currently in production.

Let's talk about the trailer first, which was directed by the filmmaker Matthew Lessner (Darling Darling). It definitely has sort of a Lawnmower Man thing happening, but it's also very evocative of the novel in this great, counterintuitive way. Was it just born out of your friendship?

We'd been wanting to collaborate on something for a really long time, and then a couple months ago, he was in the States and he came and stayed with me for a couple of days. Any time I spend time with Matthew, it takes about three minutes to get into a deep conversation and then it lasts for 12 hours.

While he was here I gave him a galley of Lapvona, and when my publisher was like, "What are you thinking about the trailer?" I immediately thought of him, because he has such a peculiar point of view, in that it's very specific and his aesthetic is really different. I felt like he intuitively understood the themes in the book and the way that it was speaking to a contemporary world through a story of the past. What he did with the trailer is definitely his take on that, but it felt so right. I mean, I kind of just let him do his thing.

Lapvona is a such a good name for a place that doesn't exist, but might have. Do you have an easy time with titles?

It never feels hard. Sometimes it's as though I can hear it before I know what it is. So I think for a while it was Lapvonia and I was like, "Oh no, that 'I' has got to go." [Laughs] I mean, I love naming characters, I love naming places, because you have to make up words sometimes in a fun way.

Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh
Credit: Jake Belcher; RANDOM HOUSE UK

The book's setting, too, could be medieval, it might be European. Did you always want it to be nebulous, the where and the when?

I wanted it to feel like fiction, or feel like a world that maybe isn't exactly real, because I think it gives the reader permission to consider some things that a purely historical novel wouldn't allow, like the character of Ina [a sort of witch doctor/wet nurse/mystic] and all of the more fantastical elements of the story. It's a permission slip to be more creative.

At times the books reads like a fairy tale or a fable, but those usually come with lessons or at least some kind of moral imperative. There's a point in the book where you almost admonish the reader directly for that, like, "You're not going to get that. It's not going to be fair and it might not make sense." I mean, you have cannibalism and plagues, dead lambs and prodigal babies…. It does sometimes feel like something from the Bible, minus all the judgment.

Yeah, I know what you're saying. I don't like literature that moralizes anything. I mean, I think it's the most boring way to direct a reader's experience. I like books that tell stories that I can experience and have different feelings about, and change my mind about it and it can stick with me and I can live with that story and reflect back on it in different ways, instead of it being one message.

I'm not sure if it was intentional, but it also feels very of the moment to have a character like Villiam, this aristocratic overlord who lives in almost obscene luxury and takes from his "subjects" at whim, withholding water and food and what have you, when we're all so much feeling the presence of the Elon Musks of the world right now.

It is not an accident. He definitely is a new, old archetype. I mean, I started this book in lockdown, when Trump was the decider of everyone's fate in all of these ways, which was insane. So I was thinking about, "Who gets to be in that position? What does wealth have to do with it? What does delusion have to do with it? Who benefits and who's suffers?" All that kind of stuff.

You always explore bodies so vividly, its wants and needs and mucuses and things. It feels like you're one of few writers in contemporary fiction really dealing with the physical truths of being human in a very tangible, visceral way.

I guess what I can say is, I'm someone who is sort of trapped between my mind and my body. My body has always felt like a complicated thing and so has my mind, but I don't feel like the two are really integrated. A part of the work of my life is figuring out what it means to be human in that way. So experiencing feelings as viscerally as one might, watching something like a horror movie or I don't know, tragedy, or being so entertained and laughing hysterically that your heart is racing. All of those body feelings to me are really special and cool.

So it's definitely part of how I see art-making, is that it should speak to us in more than just an intellectual or a psychological or an emotional way, but in a physical way too, because we are physical beings. I found that writing about physicality added a lot of depth and helped me understand my characters more, because in order to write about them in that physical way, I would have to embody them — imagine them and how they took care of themselves, how they moved and how they slept at night and their posture and their habits. We're the only ones who have relationships like we do with our bodies.

Then there's the straight-up curiosity and fascination with stuff that's gross, and for me it's the reason we slow down when we pass a car wreck on the highway. I want to see that other people are human too, and there's something thrilling about getting that close, because it's like, "I shouldn't be doing this." And that's fun.

Are you the type of writer who feels like when you finish a piece you walk away, or would you revise endlessly if you could?

Even if I wanted to, I wouldn't. There's a point where I'm like, "Okay, clean break." Have you seen people blow glass and they're turning it and it's like, Oh my God, you have to get the timing right and the temperature and you have to move it really carefully. But then when it's done, they go crack and then someone else rushes off and puts it in a thing? That's what it feels like.

You forge it.

I forge it and I work on it and when other people are like, "I see it this way," I'm like, "Oh, I hadn't seen that before." I love my editor, he's brilliant and has such a light touch in the most sophisticated and respectful way. My agent too is a really good editor and reader, but once something is done, it's done. I don't go back in.

I did the audio book recording for Lapvona, which I'd never done before. I really wanted to, because this was the first book I had written in the third person, where it made sense that my voice would be the narrator and people wouldn't conflate me with the characters and whatever. It was so fun and my God, what was I just talking about? Oh, editing when it's done. I found so many things that I would've changed, but I also just accepted it: "No, there was a reason it was like that, and I might feel differently about it now, but that doesn't count."

Your third novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation [which EW named the best book of 2018] was the kind of critical and commercial success you obviously can't predict. But your work is not all as accessible as Rest, and I wonder if you've felt like you needed to push back against the idea of what people thought you were, or who you should be, after that.

I don't think I care enough to summon the energy, to push back against what other people think. It was more just like, "I'm moving on to the next thing and this is what I'm interested in and this is how I'm growing as a writer." I'm not going to sit in one place and write a sequel. I mean, that's not a bad idea, but no, it is what it is.

I feel pretty neutral about how much I'm identified with that book, I'm like "Great! it means people have read it." That's wonderful, that I got to share this and it now lives in the world and is doing other stuff. I mean, I barely think about it. I'm not on social media, I don't even know. Occasionally I'll see how much it's selling and then immediately forget that it exists. That's it.

Are you still involved in the Rest and Relaxation film adaption with Margot Robbie? And is it still Yorgos Lanthimos [The Lobster, The Favourite] directing?

I am involved. I'm writing it.

And there's also still a movie coming for McGlue? It's a pretty wild book to adapt.

Well, that's been a very long process. But yeah, VICE Films asked me to do an adaptation of the novella five years ago, and I had no idea how to write a script. So learning how to adapt that book into a movie, that is a movie onto itself. You do not need to have read the book to understand the movie, and it really emphasizes the power dynamic between men, alongside frustrating sexualities.

The movie is more of a love story than the book, and it's been the thing that I probably worked on the longest. I'm really, really excited about where the script is now. We have a director attached, Andrew Haigh [45 Years]. He's actually one of the coolest people I've ever met, so all my fingers and toes are crossed on that.

So you've got both these projects going at the same time?

Well, I have a bunch of movies. Eileen is really the one that I would most like to talk about, because today we're locking the edit, and it's amazing. Luke, who just you met, my sleepy husband, we co-wrote the adaptation and Will Oldroyd directed it. He's also British — I like British directors, I guess — and his last movie was called Lady Macbeth, with Florence Pugh.

We shot it during Omicron in New Jersey and Thomasin McKenzie [Last Night in Soho] plays Eileen, she's amazing. It's like she was born to play that role, she's just so exciting to watch. And Anne Hathaway plays Rebecca, the sort of femme fatale character. I mean, we're watching it again today and the first cut of it, I was like, "This is so much better than my book." So the movie is really satisfying, I'm excited about that. We don't actually have a distributor yet, so we're probably going to put it in festival circuit.

And what point is Rest and Relaxation at in the process?

The book was optioned by LuckyChap, which is Margot Robbie's production company, and Atlas. They hired me to adapt it, and it's a slow burn of a project and that's all I can really say. It's just been a really hard book to adapt, because so much of it is happening in the interior of the protagonist's mind, and she sleeps a lot.

You've gone from no filmmaking experience at all to having three pretty big movies in production. Have other random encounters or opportunities come your way from that?

Well, I'm just finishing up a piece for GQ, it's a profile of Brad Pitt. That experience and doing all these secondary interviews, getting to talk to people like Flea and Quentin Tarantino, I was just like, "This is a perk." I mean, it's work, but selfishly I was like, "This is really exciting for me personally, as an artist, to talk to these people I admire and whose work I have been listening to and watching for this long." That was great.

How do you prioritize your creative process, when you're doing so much? Do you tend to get visited by ideas where you feel compelled, like "Okay, I have to write this"? Because if it's a novel and not a short story, you know you're going to have to put the time in.

Yes. Sometimes I don't have the time and then that just waits. And while it's waiting, it seems like my life starts gearing toward an experience that feels educational. The things that pop up and the things that are keeping me from going into writing that novel are teaching me how to write the novel.

So I try to justify putting things off in that way. Like, "Okay, there's a reason the universe isn't giving me the space and time for this now and it's because I'm not ready and I need to learn all the shit before I can start or continue." I have a couple projects like that. I mean, I think that's another thing about just starting in the film world, is that I had no idea how much talking it required.

The meetings!

How many meetings, and how much writing is really solo activity. I mean, sometimes it is. I really like collaborating with my husband on scripts, because we spend all our time together anyway. It just puts a structure [on it] and gives us something to chew on all the time. And also, I think we get to know each other better as we work together on stuff. But anyway, other than that, I'm just sitting alone in my room with my dogs.

Well, it doesn't sound like you really got a chance to be bored in the pandemic.

I wasn't bored. I have too much anxiety to be bored.

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