Character Finds A Path Out Of Her Personal Prison In 'Eileen'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
May we begin by getting you to read the first paragraph of your first novel?
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH: Sure.
(Reading) 1964. I looked like a girl you'd expect to see on a city bus reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist. Note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. You'd half expected me to enjoy the stillness of closed rooms, take comfort in dull silence. But I deplored silence. I hated almost everything. I tried to control myself, and that only made me more awkward, unhappier and angrier. I was like Joan of Arc or Hamlet but born into the wrong life, the life of a nobody, a waif, invisible. There's no better way to say it. I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.
SIMON: "Eileen" is the title of the first novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, who has written acclaimed stories for The Paris Review and been acclaimed, in turn, as the next big thing in American literature. She received the esteemed Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. Ottessa Moshfegh joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco.
Thanks so much for being with us.
MOSHFEGH: Happy to be here.
SIMON: So Eileen, in her 20s during the early '60s, father's a drinker and ex-cop. She works as a secretary at a boys' prison in a suburb of Boston. A woman named Rebecca Saint John comes into her life and shakes it up. Rebecca is tall. She's fair. She went to Harvard. She - this is maybe perhaps facile - but all the things that Eileen seems not to be.
MOSHFEGH: That's true. You know, it was important for me in writing this novel to make it really clear appearances are deceiving. And Eileen, as a young woman growing up - the book takes place 50 years ago - the world is rigged against her. She doesn't come from a very wealthy family like Rebecca. She wasn't afforded the opportunity to have higher education. She was forced into this pretty terrible domestic role caring for her retired, very alcoholic father who's abusive. So of course in a situation like that, a young woman is going to feel unsteady.
SIMON: Deeply affecting scenes when parents come to visit their children in the boys' prison. And these little delinquents become little boys again with their mothers. You wrote a line of which I made note - everyone was broken, everybody suffered, each of those sad mothers wore some kind of scar.
SIMON: We're talking about a kid, for example, who burned down his family's house.
MOSHFEGH: Yeah, all sorts of kids end up behind bars. And you have to wonder how that happened, you know? Like, what kind of family did they come from? What rage or violence were they expressing that they couldn't in some other way?
SIMON: Back to Eileen and Rebecca Saint John. They're there working at a boys' prison, and they undertake - without giving anything away, I will simply refer to as - their own criminal act - out of outrage and a sense of justice or something else?
MOSHFEGH: Well, I definitely think there are more personal reasons than the sense of justice. For Eileen, I think, she sees herself in Mrs. Polk.
SIMON: Mrs. Polk is the mother of the...
MOSHFEGH: Mother of the boy in prison whose story sets off this criminal narrative (laughter).
SIMON: And Eileen holds Mrs. - in her mind, holds Mrs. Polk responsible?
MOSHFEGH: Yeah. I did want to invite the reader into thinking about relations between women and how women navigate living in a patriarchy that screws them up. In my own experience, I've found that it's very difficult to make peace with women. We tend to be competitive and feel angry. You know, I'm 34 right now, and I'm thinking about this kind of stuff a lot.
SIMON: I'm going to - you know, I tried to find out a little more about you from the usual sources - your publisher and Wikipedia
SIMON: And, you know, there's not much other than Ottessa Moshfegh is a fiction writer from Boston. Can you give us a little more?
MOSHFEGH: I'm a first - I was the first person in my family born in the United States. My mom is from Croatia, and my dad is from Iran. They met at music school in Belgium. I grew up as a pianist. I was really interested in piano and sort of discovered that I was a writer when I was about 13 and started writing. And it was my secret thing and my passion. I don't like talking too much about my personal life, but it all goes into my work (laughter).
SIMON: What were you writing when you were 13?
MOSHFEGH: I remember the first story I ever wrote. I can't remember what it was called, but the first lines went like this. I killed a man this morning. He was fat and ugly and deserved to die (laughter). There - it was so empowering to write something like that.
SIMON: And did anyone else read it?
MOSHFEGH: Yeah, I showed it to some people. I've always really enjoyed sharing my work with others. I find it really hard if I don't think the work will exist outside of my own apartment.
SIMON: Yeah. I made note of another phrase I want to ask you about. Eileen, at one point, muses to herself, idealism without consequences is the pathetic dream of every spoiled brat.
MOSHFEGH: Yeah, I'm proud of that line (laughter). Yeah, well, you know, Scott, like, I've been to three Ivy League institutions. I think a lot about privilege.
SIMON: Well, I think, as I recall, it's the one Ivy Leaguer she meets in her life sets off that thinking. Let's put it that way.
SIMON: But this sounds like something you've seen close up.
MOSHFEGH: Yeah. And I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing, you know? Those voices are important. But they can also be obnoxious to the people who are actually suffering, you know? It's easy to have solutions in theory, but, you know, try living the life of these people that you're trying to help for five minutes. You'll probably have a nervous breakdown.
SIMON: Ottessa Moshfegh, her new novel, her first and highly praised, is "Eileen." Thanks so much for being with us.
MOSHFEGH: Oh, it's been great. Thank you very much.
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