Ottessa Moshfegh has a solid reputation as a short story writer, so her first novel, "Eileen" (Penguin Press, Aug.), is sure to draw some attention. She has discussed her love of short story writing in interviews, but the process of writing a novel held some surprises for her. This was a different experience from writing her award-winning novella, McGlue. "I learned so much. I learned to have faith, that there is a larger thing taking shape than I'm aware of. I learned how challenging I can be [to the reader]." She believes it's important to challenge the expectations of readers used to the traditions of novel writing.Eileen is a gritty story about a young woman, inspired by a true story in the documentary film Lost for Life, about juveniles serving life sentences in prison. Moshfegh says, "That story stuck with me. I wanted to expose the inner workings of the inner mind of an abused person." She set the book in 1964 because, she says, "I wanted the element of a very conservative society right in your face." Eileen lives with her dysfunctional father, "has no friends, no real relationships." She has a serious eating disorder, and is inherently self-destructive with small acts of rebellion—shoplifting, stalking a co-worker at the prison where she works. Some readers may be charmed, while others may find this character unsympathetic. "She is no different from 90% of women walking down the street," Moshfegh says, taking aim at the current culture's treatment of women when she says, "How can we be well-balanced when we have anorexic 13-year-olds in ads selling us lingerie?"
Moshfegh says Eileen is both the heroine and the villain of what she calls a "feminist thriller." "My intention was to write an exciting book. The issues involved were taking up space in my mind and they needed to come out." The book deals with a grim reality, yet offers a look into forgiveness, justice, desire, friendship, and—as told from the point of the view of a 70-year-old Eileen—hope. The ending, Moshfegh promises, will be unexpected.
Moshfegh is on a roll, working on two more novels, with a collection of short stories just about ready for publication. "Once I finished Eileen, I wanted to write more novels," she says. "I don't see myself stopping any time soon."
Today, Moshfegh's editor, Scott Moyers, will be talking about the novel at the BEA Buzz Panel, 4:15–5:30 p.m. (Room 1E12/1E13/1E14). Tomorrow she and the other Buzz authors will be on the Downtown Stage, 10–10:45 a.m.
This article appeared in the May 27, 2015 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.