By Nazanine Nouri
Ottessa Moshfegh is an award-winning American author and novelist of Iranian descent who has published four books to great critical acclaim since 2014. Her latest — “Death in Her Hands,” described as a mix of horror, suspense and pitch-black comedy — is due to be published in the U.S. on June 23.
Moshfegh’s breakthrough novel, “Eileen,” won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2016 and was a finalist for the prestigious Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award. She has been called “superabundantly talented” by The New York Times, and “unlike any other author (male, female Iranian, American, etc.)” by the Los Angeles Times.
Ottessa was born in Boston in 1981 to a Croatian mother and an Iranian father. Her father, Farhoud, was born in Arak, Iran, the son of a self-made millionaire of Jewish descent who had started out as a kid selling fabric in the Jewish ghetto. He left Iran at 19 to study the violin in Munich, then spent several years in Taiwan playing in a chamber orchestra before moving to Belgium to study at the Royal Conservatory.
That’s where he met and married Dubravka, his fellow pupil from Zaghreb, Croatia. The couple first moved to Tehran for a short time before emigrating to the United States after the Islamic Revolution. They settled in Newton, Massachusetts, playing in orchestras, teaching at the New England Conservatory, and raising three children: Sarvenaz, Ottessa, and Darius.
Ottessa learned to read music before she could read words, and started playing the piano at four, continuing until her teens. “Studying music and playing music, I think, was the foundation for the way that I look at writing,” she told The New Yorker in a 2018 interview. “Writing, to me, is more musical than I think it is literary a lot of the time – the way that a voice can sound and the way that it leads the reader in a sort of virtual reality, a journey through its own consciousness.”
At 14, having missed the application deadline for a summer music program at Interlochen in Michigan, Ottessa was signed up by her mother for a creative writing course there instead. That’s where she met her first mentor, Peter Markus, a poetry teacher in Detroit public schools.
“She was a student who didn’t need a teacher,” Markus told The New Yorker. From then on, she would give up music, channeling the discipline and intensity it required into her writing. For the next three years, she would mail her writing to Markus every day, and he would return them with his notes.
Ottessa suffered from severe scoliosis from the age of nine and had to wear a brace for 23 hours a day for three years; she felt imprisoned, like so many of the characters she would imagine in her writing years later. She also struggled with depression and eating disorders until her 30s. “I have been somebody who felt pretty helpless about my own eating disorder,” she told The Atlantic in 2017. “Nobody came to my rescue, and it was really depressing…I spent a lot of years in an anorexic and bulimic blackout. I don’t remember what my life was because I was so possessed by this devil.”
“Writing saved my life,” she added. “It really did. Fiction provided ulterior universes that I could escape into and manipulate. It gave me a semblance of control. Then, there is the great satisfaction of getting something right. Materializing an idea. It’s not unlike music, that feeling: the way that, when you hear a piece of music, your whole body responds. There’s a chemical reaction. Hormones released. It resonates in you, and you feel moved. When I’ve written something that I know is correct it resonates in me powerfully. I feel blessed.”
After graduating from Barnard College (Columbia University) in 2002, Ottessa moved to Wuhan, China — which years later would become the epicenter of the global Coronavirus outbreak — with her boyfriend at the time, a musician. They found jobs teaching English at a private university and started a punk bar.
Breaking up with her boyfriend two years later, she returned to New York and got a job working for Overlook Press, and then became an assistant to Jean Stein, the oral historian, heiress and former editor of The Paris Review, who hosted literary salons in her penthouse. They became close friends, and Stein encouraged her writing. But Ottessa would come down with cat-scratch fever and would be too sick to continue working for Stein.
She left the city and moved in with her mother and went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts from Brown University. Graduating at the age of 30, she obtained a two-year writing fellowship to Stanford University.
Ottessa remained close to Stein until her death in 2017. It was Stein who would send the unpublished manuscript of “McGlue,” her MFA project and debut novella, to Bill Clegg, who would go on to become her literary agent. Published in 2014, the book was selected by a blind jury for the first-ever Fence Modern Prize in Prose.
Moshfegh published three books after that: “Eileen” (2015); a collection of short stories in “Homesick for Another World” (2017); and “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” (2018).
Moshfegh’s source material is her own imagination. The characters in her work exist on the margins of society: murderers, substance abusers, deadbeats, perverts. Yet, “as unreliable as Moshfegh’s narrators are,” wrote The New York Times last month, “as unstable, insecure and full of hate, they are also hellbent on pulling themselves out of their wretchedness, on saving themselves. What makes Moshfegh’s characters most human is that they don’t give up.”
In 2016, Ottessa found love when she least expected it. (A Vedic astrologer she had consulted years before had told her that love would come knocking on her door.) A novelist and University of California at Riverside lecturer named Luke Goebel wrote her asking for an interview. She agreed. The interview lasted 27 days, and marked the beginning of their life together, culminating in marriage two years later. A copy of his first draft of the article that was published in The New Yorker in 2018 and framed in Ottessa’s living room begins as follows:
“These are the reasons I am now in love with Ottessa Moshfegh: She is arguably the most rapidly expanding powerful voice in American letters and when she speaks of what she believes in, has spent her life working to perfect, a righteous transgressive sensitive force speaks through her which is divinity in rebellion.”
In 2017, months after Jean Stein, her mentor, committed suicide by jumping from her 15th floor apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, her younger brother, Darius, died from a drug overdose. They were very close, even though he had had a very different life, having suffered from drug addiction and suffered arrest and incarceration. “Being battered around by loss changed the way I think about time,” she told the New York Times in the interview last month.
Ottessa shares a genuine and profound sense of alienation with the characters in her books. “I felt like I was living in hell for most of my childhood and adolescence and 20s,” she told The Guardian in 2016. “The shape the hell took is precisely what my work is about.”
In a faux letter to Donald Trump published in Popula.com in July 2018, she wrote: “Since I was five, all of life has been like a farce, an absurd performance of a reality based on meaningless drivel, or a devastating experience of trauma and fatigue, deep with meaning, which has led me into such self-seriousness that I often wonder if I am completely insane. Can you relate at all?”
“And also, do you feel you’ve been chosen by God for a special task to accomplish here on earth,” she added. “I do. I believe in fate. I think we give too much credit to the will and human intelligence. We arrive in this realm with a destiny we can’t control. Sometimes we can convince ourselves that we have chosen our fate. When we are unconvinced, we take psych meds or seek therapists. We think we have Lyme disease. We get paranoid. Life ain’t easy sometimes, people say. But when desire and destiny coincide, that is nice. And that is why I feel lucky to be who I am: I do what I want, and the universe seems to be conspiring to get me to keep doing it.”