Poured Over: Ottessa Moshfegh on Lapvona
“I wanted to write something that was going to take me away, literally and metaphorically, literally take me away from sitting with my feelings about the present moment and take me to another place and this time where you couldn’t travel at all. I barely left the neighborhood to play out some imagined incredible drama … I think escapism has its purpose, you know, and so does fiction in general, if we want to live in the biggest world possible, we need everybody’s imagination to be there in the ether so we can grab it and follow it and follow ourselves through this journey beyond what we know.”
Acclaimed author Ottessa Moshfegh (Eileen, My Year of Rest and Relaxation) joins us on the show to take us behind the scenes of Lapvona, her unexpected new novel set in a medieval village. Ottessa riffs on putting so much of what disgusts her in this new novel, writing in the third person, faith, the importance of creating a new topography, what’s next for her and much more with Poured Over’s host, Miwa Messer. And we end this episode with TBR Topoff book recommendations from Marc and his guest bookseller, Becky.
Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh
McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh
Poured Over is produced and hosted by Miwa Messer and mixed by Harry Liang. New episodes land Tuesdays and Thursdays (with occasional Saturdays) here and on your favorite podcast app.
Full transcript for this episode of Poured Over:
B&N: I’m Miwa Messer, I’m the producer and host of Poured Over and Ottessa Moshfegh is here to talk about Lapvona, her new novel, which is a little bit of a, I suppose I should describe it as a little bit of a departure because it is set in an unnamed country in an unnamed time that feels very sort of medieval. And it has some fantasy elements. So, can we talk about Lapvona? Can we talk about how this book started for you?
Ottessa Moshfegh: This book started years before I even knew that it was a novel set in a, you know, Middle Ages timeframe in a fiefdom, somewhere in Eastern Europe, maybe it was way even more vague than that. And the seed of the story was really the main character’s premise, Marek. This teenage adolescent slash teenage boy kills another boy who happens to be the son of the family that governs lap Vona. The place in which everyone in this book lives and as punishment slash retribution, Valium, the father of this dead boy takes Marek, the murderer, in as his own son. And that that exchange was the story premise that I had in my head for like two years before I started Lapvona. I was like, What is this I’m interested in the experience of this boy having to fill in for the boy being killed. And I’m interested in a family that would do that. It just kind of sat there in my mind, I thought maybe this is a story about the mob, like literally about Mafia to answer the question, why wouldn’t they just go to the police? Well, okay. You know, there are a lot of reasons that you could think of, but I was like, Okay, well, maybe there’s this family has something to hide. And then I was like, Well, I don’t think that the boy who kills the other boy is really a murderer, per se, that he went out with murderous intent. There was some kind of perfect accident, you know, so I had that question like, What, what are the circumstances of this killing, I had kind of forgotten about it. In the mix of COVID-19, our entire world shifting, my entire world shifting inside my house was like 2019, nothing. 2020 lockdown. Oh, crap, in order to survive this psychologically and spiritually, I needed a project to fill in the container of space that this pandemic had suddenly created for me, because, well, I had been working on some movies, everything kind of got delayed, switched around because of the pandemic, suddenly, you know, things weren’t, my life didn’t look the way it used to look. And I needed a creative project. And I also felt like, this is exactly what you do. When something like this happens. You respond creatively, so that this moment can exist in history. And so maybe I was thinking about history. Maybe I was also thinking about isolation in the way that you know, a community can be so isolated, and within an isolated universe, belief systems can get very strange.
B&N: Oh, yes. And they do in Lapvona. They really, really do. Can we talk about Marek for a second, though, because he really is. He’s got an awful lot of sanctimony. For someone we first meet as a 13 year old.
OM: He’s an odd one. And, you know, if I had to say like, Who do you relate to the most in this book, and this book has a lot of characters. I would say Marek is one of the ones that I felt like the closest to partially because I feel like I’m just stuck in adolescence in a lot of ways. One of Marek’s defining characteristics is the deformed way in which his body has grown. And I also have that deformity. And it was, you know, very confusing for me as a young teenager to ask myself like, why am I growing wrong? When I’m asking myself that question, I can see See that the ego would want to respond in some different ways? Well, either I’m terrible, you know, there’s something terribly wrong with me, or I’m special, I must have a special role in the universe, you know. And anyway, so I kind of projected that on to Marek and gave him a very different life than my life. I don’t think that sanctimonious. pneus is something that comes with age per se. You know, I think, like I’ve met some very sanctimonious five year olds. And Marek is, you know, very devout in certain ways. And similar to the delusion that Villiam, the Lord, suffers from Mark also has the ability to convince himself of certain truths. And he uses spiritual principles to do that. So I was like, interested in how young people are susceptible to their imaginations, as well, as you know, what stories they’re hearing from people in places of authority like his father.
B&N: And Marek’s father, Jude, is a deeply unpleasant guy. I think he does love his son, but doesn’t know what to do with him. Mark’s mother is we’re told dead. And they have a really rough life. Jude is the shepherd of this village. And they are facing a catastrophic drought, but also miss really terrible mismanagement, by villain who is just a really corrupt corrupt guys. So I feel like we’re sitting in territory that you’ve looked at before in earlier books, where we’re seeing, you know, decay, and difficulty. And this isolation, everyone is isolated in this world, even all of the people who share a villa hems fancy house, including Mark later on, they’re all isolated, they’re all operating in these tiny, tiny pieces of the world. So how are you as the writer navigating this? I mean, obviously, you have this fantastic idea, you start out, you’re working on it for two years. But where do you go from the idea? Is that the cast that showing up? Is it more of Mark first, and then these other characters coming in, we’ve also got Father Barnabas that we’ll get to at some point.
OM: I think it had a lot to do with just imagining the world that might be and finding these people who are very much individuals, letting them play out their own stories and response to what was happening in their very isolated world. I mean, I think the cool thing about writing fiction about contained communities is that it does lend itself very easily to the genres of like, fable, right? Or, you know, in the ways that we think about more like biblical stories, every single member of the family, in a community is an archetype in some way. And so it was sort of looking at the archetypes and just being like, well, what’s my version of that? You know, what’s the most interesting way to look at an archetype? archetypical person playing a role in a community, but getting so close that the cliche of them becomes twisted. And then I can actually see them as a real human, and maybe even sometimes more than human.
B&N: Which brings us to Ina, who is the former wet nurse for basically everyone in this community. But also, she’s got her own sort of story happening. And she feels like she started as exactly what you described as a kind of archetype and then became this sort of very grounded character. Can we talk about her creation and how you found her?
OM: Well, I felt like from the beginning, Ina was a very powerful source. I met her the same way. We meet her on a typical day in Marek’s life, where he goes to Ina’s house for some comfort, and I thought about, you know, this woman’s role as the wet nurse, a woman who’s a wet nurse, but whose milk has dried up, you know, What would her function still be like? Okay, so Marek, and she have a relationship of some sort. And I was just really interested in how a woman who has made a living off of the functions of her femininity, you could say, what would be the most unexpected person to play that role, and, okay, number one, she must have a really interesting way of looking at maternity. And I was like, Okay, what if she’s not a mother at all? What if she doesn’t even like motherhood, like as a concept? Her story became this sort of parable of how this woman develops almost supernatural powers. Based on her being rejected from society and having to live among the birds in the woods. She’s a woman of nature, but a woman who uses the wisdom of nature for her unselfish ends, you could say.
B&N: Did you know where Marek was going as you were writing? Or were there moments that surprised you in his development, because I wasn’t quite expecting him to take to Villiam so quickly, and suddenly, you start saying, Well, you know, all of the things that I thought were true in my life before this moment, are not in fact, true.
OM: Well, I mean, a lot happens to Marek and he adapts. I mean, that’s one one thing. If you accidentally killed someone, and then you had to go fill their role in the family that they came from, you’re either gonna go crazy, commit suicide or adapt. Right? He’s a survivor in a lot of ways. And he’s also, you know, was raised by a very abusive man, who he was afraid of, and who I think he really attached to deeply as his only family. And I was thinking about the way that people process or I wasn’t actively thinking about it, just this is my tendency to, to create characters based on their past experiences and the way that their psychology and personality is built out of that. Like, okay, if you’ve been a codependent traumatized child, and then suddenly you’re plucked from your home and put into another home, you’re going to probably figure out what you need to think in order to survive and be protected in that new family. Aligning with the person in charge would be the natural thing to ingratiate yourself, and then to start relating. So that that person protects you and sees you as an extension of him. I mean, you wouldn’t destroy part of yourself. Marek becomes Villiam’s real son to the point where, you know, Villiam was like, he’s just, he’s more my son and my son was. And that’s not by accident.
B&N: I keep coming back to Marek. Because I had moments with him as a character where he really got on a nerve, let’s put it that way. And yet, I still really wanted to know what happened to this kid and how things were going to shake out. And there were times where he would do something or say something that absolutely makes sense for the character. But you know, as I just said to you, I mean, I was still a little surprised that he took to Villiam as quickly as he did. And everything you said, makes absolutely perfect sense, especially in the context of the book, which makes me think about the fact that readers always bring their own experience to anything, any novel, any poem, any piece of narrative nonfiction, that they’re reading that, that we always bring sort of our own interpretations of the world in. And, you know, one of the things that sort of frustrated me reading the coverage of your earlier books, Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Death in Her Hands, and I saw it less with the story collection, Homesick for Another World, is that critics had a really hard time with the characters you create, and especially Eileen, especially the unnamed narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, who you’ve even said you gave her very specific physiques sort of in response to what critics had been saying about Eileen. And, you know, I’ve been selling books for a really long time, and part of me is like, well, if you were a man, no one would ever raise any of this. Did any of that inform what you were doing in Lapvona. Or were you just telling a story that you really wanted to read?
OM: The lockdown was so jarring, and made me feel so drawn in toward my own heart. That what other people were doing out in the world or what past criticism had been just seemed like a memory of a dream I once had. And I wanted to write something that was going to take me away, literally and metaphorically, literally take me away from sitting with my feelings about the present moment and take me to another place and this time where you couldn’t travel at all, I barely left the neighborhood to play out some imagined incredible drama. You know, I mean, I think escapism has its purpose, you know, and so does fiction in general, if we want to live in the biggest world possible, we need everybody’s imagination to be there in the ether so we can grab it and follow it and follow ourselves through this journey beyond what we know. And so that’s what I wanted. I wanted to journey into the beyond the discussions about like all these disgusting characters, blah, blah, blah. I get it, because I’m probably a pretty disgusting person. Like to that, like average reader, I’m interested in disgust. And so my imagination veers toward the disgusting. I find disgust everywhere it is, it is one of my primary emotions. Just like how I said earlier, I’ve been stuck in adolescence. I have been stuck in that emotion for a really long time. You know, it’s my go to Oh, someone does something to offend me. I’m disgusted. Oh, I witnessed something that I perceive as dishonest. That’s disgusting. You know, like, gross. Oh, oversentimentality. You. I’m not that sophisticated of a feeler for a lot of different reasons. And so I’m investigating that within myself here. And I am doing it. Yes. Because I’m a writer. And you know, an artist who, like an artist does instigates themselves in order to break open something deeper, but also trying to communicate something like I’m trying, we’re all just trying to relate and find our place in this weird universe. So I’m just going to be who I am. And I get it if that is unappealing, you know. I don’t feel badly about that. But I will say this, I feel that Lapvona was the place where I put my disgust down. Writing this book was a physical experience. I mean, I literally had, there’s so many moments where I would be activated in a physical way, whatever my adrenaline might feel like, you know, weird, and have to walk away. And whoa, you know, other times, I would feel like really excited and Oh, this feels really good. You know, it was a very integrated process into my life writing this book became my whole life. Or like a, you know, from when I started to when I sent it off, I wanted to, I mean, if there’s something that the pandemic taught me, in a very self centered way, I say, like, one thing I came away with is that, like, my life can end at any moment. Everyone’s can, and maybe, you know, I like, there’s a lesson here and that, like, I can move on, like, I can grow past what I already know myself to be. And I have so many things I need to grow about. And so I thought, like, okay, there’s something about the body and how grotesque it is, and how vulnerable I feel on the face of it. And I’m just like, I’m just going to put it all in here, in an attempt to say goodbye. And there, there are other things that I know I still want to say goodbye to. Like this project that I’m making notes for now is really about isn’t about some sort of related to discuss, but you know, sort of that like the next level past it, because I want to make room for new shit in my life and in my imagination.
B&N: Is that why you stepped into the third person to tell Lapvona? I mean, the bulk of your work has all been first person.
OM: Like I wanted to step out of being just one person in a book. I mean, not that you really are at anytime that you have a first person narrative. You’re the writer. You’re figuring out that protagonist, and you’re figuring out everybody else in the book, but I wanted to step backwards in to a space of a broader perspective, and I wanted that new experience.
B&N: You mentioned earlier that Marek is possibly one of the characters that’s most closely related to you. Who else do you feel most close to in this list of characters.
OM: Grigor, the old man whose journey in the book is really about enlightenment. He’s really the only one in the community willing to look at the truth, and, and have feelings about it, instead of just stuffing it back down or trying to take advantage of it. He is the seeker and actually the scenes in which Grieger meets with Ina. Like there’s one scene and I don’t think this is a giving away too much. But there’s one scene where Gregor goes to confront ina about something. And she ends up like inviting him in, and they smoke weed together. And this conversation, that was probably the most fun I’ve had writing dialogue. And it’s not that big of a scene, it was really it’s really just like the subtlety of openness that happens when two people are, you know, sharing an experience, like getting high together. And there’s something that happens in those conversations where like, you are forced to sit back and consider the bigger picture. Yeah, that little exchange was like, I felt like plucked out of something like totally contemporary. And there were a lot of moments in the book that felt like, Okay, this is I know that I’m writing about the medieval period. But the consciousnesses of my characters felt very much of this time. And I really liked that. That’s something that I also found myself doing and MC Glue my very first book, which is set in 1850. And I guess part of it is this idea that like when we look back through history, and we think about everything that that person, you know, 100 years ago didn’t know, my first instinct is to be like, Oh, well, they must have been more pure and less thoughtful. Okay, that’s insane. Right? Like, that’s totally crazy. People have been complicated, and intelligent and inquisitive. And delusional since the dawn of time. That’s why we’re so creative. So I was like, Well, I’m just gonna think about these people as though they could live next door to me. And so they did.
B&N: And it totally works. It totally works. I could not stop. Actually the first time I read the book, I sat, I did it in one go, because I didn’t want to leave this world that you’d created. I didn’t want to create this landscape, even though there were moments where I was profoundly uncomfortable. But I just sort of handed myself over to you and said, Okay, tell me a story. Let’s see where we go. Is there anything you miss? Now that you’ve left now that the book is finished? I mean, is there anything you miss from this world? Anyone you miss?
OM: I kind of miss Lisbeth one of the servants and Villiam’s Manor. I really grew to love her quiet rage. She was such a delicate character. I mean, in most contemporary terms, she’s an angry anorectic you know, like, she finds power in self denial. And that sets her above everyone else, even while she’s a servant. You know, like she’s looking for the dignity anywhere she can get it. You know, I really felt for her loss. She was in love with the boy who gets killed the boy for whom she was the servant, and had this really intimate relationship and then here comes Marek, the murder of her true love, and she has to dote on him and predict his every whim and need maybe because she was in that position. I I felt tender toward her like had a lot of compassion. Like oh, that must really hurt. The way that she says goodbye to the book. In the story is so it’s so sad for me. Thinking about that get kind of gives me chills still. So like, yeah, she stuck with me.
B&N: Did your character surprise you at all? Or did you sort of know how things were going to play out? I mean, Villiam is very much who he is. But he did have a couple of moments where I was like, huh, this is interesting. I mean, the idea that he’s got this new son in Marek, and he’s like, Oh, no, no, well, it’s fine. He’s gained a little weight, he looks a little portly, he looks wealthy, he looks like he has power, he looks more to me like my own son than my actual son.
OM: They know what surprised me about him is the way that he attempted to change. After he remarried, you know, it’s almost as though his delusions about everything on Earth, sort of came back toward him. And he tried to convince himself that he was something better than he was. And he feels like he can’t keep it together. But those little moments of trying sort of surprised me. I think the character that surprised me the most was Ina, to be honest. I mean, she really could pull anything out of a hat. I mean, she’s, she’s a sorcerer, basically. And incredibly resourceful, which is so fun to write a resourceful character because like, you know, when I was doing this first draft, I didn’t realize that I was planning all these scenes for Ina to pick up. Yeah, she was kind of the character who in the writing process was like, Oh, I know exactly what to do that thing in chapter one that’s going to become this now. And you also have been thinking about that, okay, I need that. And so she was kind of the God of the book, in a lot of ways.
B&N: Faith has a lot of different levels for a lot of different characters. And you know, there’s Father Barnabas, who is the town priest, but he’s essentially sort of whatever Villiam wants him to be, because he knows where the power is. And he knows where he fits into this, but what does faith look like for you, when you’re writing?
OM: Commitment to the project. It looks like acceptance of whatever is on the page that day, knowing that even if it ends up getting deleted, it’s part of the process, it looks like completion to be honest, I can’t I cannot finish something that I don’t believe, is destined to exist. Like, I think most of my spiritual beliefs are really tied in to the experience of creating stories, you know, spinning something out of nothing, taking an idea, you know, something that occurs to me one day, and understanding that it’s important that I should pay attention to it. And then dedicating all this time, believing that there was a reason that I had that bit of inspiration that it came from an important place, and that I need to honor it. Like the book is the thing that’s important, though, like the way that I feel about it really isn’t. It’s just what happens when you have to do publicity, as you end up talking about yourself.
B&N: Okay, I get that. But you are still the person who’s creating this world, you’re letting these characters do what they need to do, you’re making changes. I mean, you are the God of this world. So you can’t really take yourself out of the equation, can you? I mean, I understand that it’s not always fun to have to do the promotion part. But you really can’t take yourself out of the novel completely, right?
OM: Oh, when I’m writing it, I’m not thinking about myself at all. I’m thinking about these characters and what I don’t yet know. I mean, that’s basically all I’m doing, is I’m trying to forget myself so that I can know something beyond myself. And I’m not like writing about my feelings. I mean, I think that’s a really easy thing to get wrong. When we read fiction, especially books like Eileen in my year of rest and relaxation, which are written from the first person narrative by a woman about a woman. And like, I’m like, of course, I’m every single one of my characters. I can’t, you know, if you’re writing the words somewhere, there. That’s you.
B&N: Let’s talk about the landscape for a second because the landscape here even though let Vona obviously is the place that you have invented? It feels very real on the page. And you had to just sit down and build this community in this world. Where do you start? I mean, New England obviously has a place in earlier books. New York has a place in earlier books. Certainly there’s that story Malibu which I hope people have read them. But can we talk about constructing a community and a village?
OM: The geographic landscape, the topography actually was really important. And I think that’s something that I, I tried to think about. I tried to look at lap fauna first, from a bird’s eye view, because in, I guess, an agrarian society. In the late Middle Ages, there was a man or on a hill, and then there were farms on on the lower land. And, you know, that got me thinking, where’s water come from? Oh, how would you get from one place to another? So I started thinking about the map, where are people buried? Was there a town square? You know, things like that? I did some research to help me answer those questions. But a lot of the time, it was just instinctual and what I needed for the story to make sense, you know, like, okay, so this person’s house would be next to this person in his cabin in the woods would be this far away. And, you know, Jude’s pasture would be at the foot of the mountain, on which the manor would sit, you know, the, the story opens with the report of an invasion by bandits. And that is a helpful way to enter a place is to imagine it being invaded, because that’s kind of what you’re doing as the writer, you’re going in and being like, what’s in here, show me all the stuff. We’re just so and so live? Let’s go over there, you know, like, ah, yeah, I invaded along with the bandits. And found what I wanted for the story.
B&N: Are you a linear writer? Or do you sort of work as you need to and then put everything together?
OM: I am so linear, it’s annoying. I can’t believe that some people work this way. Like, this is how hardwired my brain is that like, I could not imagine writing something out of order. Like I just couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t know what it was. You know, sometimes I’ll have an inkling of some of the language for the ending. That happens to me, actually, in every novel, like, okay, there’s these, these words in this order, we’re just going to put them down there. But those feel more like premonitions than writing. Which isn’t to say that I don’t plan. I plan so much. I do so many outlines. And I’m constantly revising the outline as I write, you know, you, you write a couple paragraphs, and you discover something and like, oh, okay, so when such and such happens later, that’s why, you know, now this is coming together for me, or, Oh, I’ve completely misunderstood this, this one turn. Or, you know, don’t forget that this character has to have this epiphany, you know, things like that. But I love linearity. And I’m also very, very literal person. My husband is not. And we often misunderstand each other, which is funny. Yeah, I take everything really literally.
B&N: Are you still writing stories? Are you really sticking to novels at this point?
OM: I have written a couple. Put, they just feel like outliers to the bigger picture. I recently realized that I started a new collection. But I’ve been working on the same the same story. I’m like, maybe 30%. Through I don’t even know what the story is. It takes place in like the early, maybe in the early 70s in Los Angeles since about an actor. And when I got into it a little bit more, I was like, oh, figuring out the story is going to be me figuring out how to write this next short story collection. So it’s really hard. Short Stories feel like miraculous to me. Yeah, I miss it.
B&N: The arch of the stories in Homesick for Another World is best described as perfect. Just the way the stakes, keep going up. And then I just I really appreciate that collection very much. So I’m delighted to know you’re working on a new one. Because I love stories. And I’m always amazed when people are like, well, I don’t have time for stories. And I’m like, you read stuff on your phone. Like, you can read a story standing in line. You’re waiting to get through, you know the checkpoint at the airport, you can read a story and I just I wish more people would dip in and out like that. So is the story collection the next thing you’re working on or is there something else?
OM: I think I’m gonna be working On this short story collection for like 10 years, I’m not fully I mean, when, because Lapvona is coming out or, you know, just come out, it’s really hard to focus in the way that you need to when you’re writing a new book. I have a couple of projects and one of them is sort of a comedy. And I think that is going to be the next one.
B&N: Wait sort of a comedy. This sounds really excellent.
OM: Yeah, I mean, I think I haven’t really figured out the book but when I hear the tone of it in my mind, comedy is the only word I can really use to describe it.
B&N: Okay, that sounds really cool. Ottessa Moshfegh, thank you so much for joining us on Poured Over. Lapvona is out now. Homesick for Another World is the story collection that you may not have read yet and I really, really think you should. Thanks so much.
OM: Thanks for having me.