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Q&A with Ottessa Moshfegh and Bridget Lawless

Bridget:  Vesta’s exploration of Magda’s fate is a meandering but safe way of confronting the truth of her life with Walter – his infidelities, for example, and the way he decided they wouldn’t have children while making her feel it was ‘their’ decision. He was a man given to coercive control, gas-lighting and belittling. You’ve given these insights to Vesta in small, unsensational musings and little acts of rebellion – such as moving to a new and isolated place and dumping his ashes in the lake. Why did you want these realisations to be so quietly measured, rather than as bursts of rage?

Ottessa:  There’s certainly a place for violent bursts of rage, but I find them less interesting than the repressed extrusions of resentment, particularly in fiction. Vesta’s journey is one of quiet adventure through perception, realization, and action: if she had been a more volatile character, she would have left Walter far before his death. Also, the kind of toxicity in her marriage was not one of obvious abuse or control, but rather a cloying and subtle psychological manipulation. It is a delicate science, to dominate someone without them knowing, at least in this case. I wanted to explore the untangling of that domination through quietly measured transformation, rathan than a sudden rupture of awareness because–I hoped–it would produce a quiet horror in Vesta. It’s a tricky thing, and I liked that it was tricky.

Bridget:  Magda, becoming real in Vesta’s eyes, is a strong, self-determined woman who made some bad choices but is nonetheless the agent of her own destiny – until the supposed ‘murder’. She’s a woman Vesta comes to like and respect. Is this a retelling of the life she herself might have had? Not necessarily perfect, but real and her own?

Ottessa: In writing the novel, I did sense there was a mirroring of lives between Vesta and Magda. I don’t think it is a straight reflection of Vesta’s desire to have lived differently, but a kind of desperately creative imagining while she comes to the end of her life. She realizes she’s been bored and small the whole time, so she imagines Magda’s life as big. Magda’s adversities are dark; life has been violent against her in a way that can be seen and narrated with frank absolutes. Trauma is more easily processed, Vesta thinks, when it is actualized in ways that cannot be denied. I didn’t perceive Magda as a version of Vesta, but rather a kind of fantasy character, a vision of the life of a stranger in a strange place who is undone by her desire to be there.

Bridget:  As the story moves on, Vesta pays less attention to her physical self, as if shrinking, but grows in the world of her imagination. She describes herself as ‘just a little thing that I had to keep clean, like washing a single dish one uses constantly.’ This humility reminds me very much  of the way women speak of themselves after a lifetime of being diminished by a controlling partner. What would you say to a reader recognising herself in Vesta?

Otttessa:  I don’t know if I would say anything: people who have been so controlled have probably had enough of other people telling them what’s what. I would maybe just say “I hear you” and that I hope they find some acceptance in their situation if they are committed to it. Maybe they have found safety in being small and used. Who knows? The world is not a fair or balanced place; I’m not an idealist. In my opinion, people who need to control everything are usually the least courageous ones. They want to control everyone’s perception of them because they are empty inside, or what have you. If you end up in love with someone with that attribute, you wind up carrying the burdens of their fears and insecurities. How annoying. I would rather be free and alone than have to cater to someone else’s need to dominate. But not all people feel that way. And there shouldn’t be an expectation that a woman should risk everything if she doesn’t have the energy to start all over again.

Bridget:  The incident at the end with Charlie the dog upset some readers – not that you have to please readers of course – but it seemed quite suddenly brutal and out of the blue. Can you explain what you wanted to achieve with that passage?

Ottessa: In discovering the truth of her past, Vesta unintentionally abandoned her dog, whom she had previously suffocated with her own psychic needs, and unwittingly turned him against her. When Charlie attacks her, he is perhaps acting out the subconscious desire of his master to self-destruct. But she refuses to be taken down by violence: she has been investigating a murder the whole time. Why should she suddenly become a victim of it herself? No. I’m sorry she had to kill Charlie. I love dogs. They are my favorite people. I actually have a 2 year old pup who I named Walter, perhaps in an effort to undo my own resentment toward the character. My Walter is the sweetest, funniest, most gentle angel. Kisses and hugs all day long, mutual respect and reverence. We both wish each other the best at all times. If he ever attacked me, if I thought he wanted to kill me, I would lose it. The betrayal and heartbreak would probably arrest my logical mind and force me into a state of primitive response. I think that’s what happened to Vesta. Poor Charlie. It was a painful passage to write. Sometimes one writes into a hard place without realizing it, and once you’re there, you have to deal with it. I’m not sure what else Vesta could have done to save herself in that moment. Would readers be more pleased if Charlie had gnashed at her throat and killed her? Sad. I wanted Vesta to pursue her own death by running out into the darkness and letting the air and night take her. That felt far more appropriate, after all that she had come to know about herself during the course of the novel. She found death her own way.

Bridget:  We come to realise that Vesta’s world is sliding between reality and elaborate mind-wandering. She’s an unreliable narrator not only to the reader, but to herself. The ending is ambiguous – I found it redemptive, but other have found it like a defeat. What is your take – the official line – on how Vesta’s story concluded?

Ottessa:  I guess I answered this question in my previous answer. I think all death is a kind of defeat. It is literally a defeat of life. But in Vesta’s case, there is beauty and freedom while dying. There is a sense of dissolution into the divine nothingness, and yet it is enchanting. To me, it was very powerful in its peace and fortitude, while also being romantic and imaginative.

Bridget:  Who are your own writing heroes and heroines?

Ottessa: Joni Mitchell and Kurt Cobain, lyricists that have influenced me more profoundly than any novelist.