Every year Desperate Literature runs a prize for short fiction, aiming both to celebrate the best of new short fiction and to give winners the most visibility possible for their writing. We offer two residencies, cash prizes, agency meetings, publishing and manuscript assessment.
We sat down with four-time judge, Ottessa Moshfegh, to ask about her writing, her insights into our prize, and her most recent novel, Lapvona (released June 2022).
Interviewer – Terry Craven, prize coordinator
Photo Credit – Krystal Griffiths
“I like this prize especially because it’s so international. The voices aren’t coming from a limited cultural perspective…there’s a breadth of wider experiences by the writers. They’re conveying something, and I think conveying something with urgency.”
It’s nice to meet you. It’s been four years we’ve been working together.
So, I wanted to start off by asking about literary prize judging. You’ve now judged the BOMB prize and the Creation prize and I was wondering how that’s been. You must get something from the experience of judging…
Yeah, I remember entering contests and having no idea who was on the other end judging me. What do I get out of it? I get to see what people are putting out. I don’t teach, I’m never reading student work, so this is kind of the only time that I see brand new work from writers who haven’t published books or haven’t been in a major journal.
I was going to ask if that reconnects you to short fiction.
Yeah it does actually, I hadn’t really thought about that. I haven’t been writing short stories since my collection came out, which was in 2017. I really love short stories, so yes, basically.
Is there a quality of difference between the practice of writing short fiction and long form fiction for you?
I know before I start whether it’s a novel or a short story. My primary form is really the novel and screenplays, so I’ve been looking at the longer telling. In a lot of ways I feel like the writing matters way more in a short story, so my attention is more focused on the word by word, sentence by sentence, rather than zooming out and looking at it structurally or page by page.
In one of our previous interviews, Isha Karki, one of our 2021 runners-up, commented that she felt like short fiction lent an opportunity for stylistic experimentation. What are your thoughts on that?
Yes, in ways I feel like the short story is more immediately discoverable, like it’s more surprising in a lot of ways because things can shift in a sentence.
And did anything from judging the past few years stick with you?
I like this prize especially because it’s so international. The voices aren’t coming from a limited cultural perspective, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just there’s a breadth of wider experiences by the writers. They’re conveying something, and I think conveying something with urgency. That’s what has stood out. And you know the problem with urgency is: how do you control it? And so what I’m looking for in a lot of ways is: how is this being controlled and shaped? I think there there are some things that we can control and some things that we can’t control, but one thing that we can control is the craft. So I find it really scintillating to track the different styles and different ambitions in writing.
We’re now entering our fifth year of the prize and I think we really see the themes and preoccupations shift from year to year. Are there any thematic shifts you’ve seen in the prize stories?
The shift that I noticed in the past year was that it was a more global perspective. It wasn’t so much in an interior space; it was like a “living out in the world” space, and that I think is a really cool shift because we’ve all been so stuck in our own heads anyway.
Interesting. I’ve never thought about it like that. We also wanted to talk about the use of violence or depravity in your writing. This is something we see a lot in the short fiction prize. For instance, sometimes we read stories that act as if using violence itself is enough to carry a story, rather than it being woven in. Can you talk about the role of day-to-day violence in your stories?
I just think that almost everyone suffers from depravity at some point, and a crisis is a good dramatic element in a story. I’m interested in people, in their complications, and I think writing is a way to exert some kind of authority or control over the form that depravity takes, and I not only think it’s valuable to share imaginations of these depraved characters, though I never really use the word depraved—I’m not really sure if it’s resonating exactly—but I think it’s important that there’s a frank and honest space in writing where people can acknowledge their humanity in ways different from what is celebrated in mainstream culture. For example, something like trauma is mediated so carefully in Hollywood and online that it sometimes feels fake and I would be more interested in the experience of really understanding what something feels like rather than looking at its moral or social justice implications. Really getting down to the raw human experience is what’s valuable to me, and I think the only thing I’m really capable of doing anyway, so there it is.
“I’m a big proponent of being sloppy and imperfect and fast and getting it down and then going back in and figuring out what I was really trying to say and whether there is more to unpack there.”
You have previously mentioned that you want to occupy those grey areas. Is this something that you could talk about in terms of your forthcoming novel Lapvona, without giving too many spoilers away?
I guess the preoccupation was faith and delusion and the fine line between those two things. I certainly feel like it is about finding the where one begins and one ends, it’s sort of the quest for one’s truth or true self. I was really into the project of writing a novel in the third person for the first time, because even in my short stories I’m often occupying the mind of my protagonist, so that was a new experience. It was really, really fun to have a chance to be switching points of view and imagining each character’s movement, like the world getting wider and wider.
Did you find it just fun, or did you find it kind of challenging to do that, having to do this setting aside of characters, occupying different mental spaces?
It was actually a relief. It was like everything else that, all of my other novels have been so condensed and in a pressure chamber of a single consciousness that I always had to be the character, but with Lapvona I felt just so immediately liberated, that I could choose where to roam and who to look at and who to look inside of. It was a total pleasure in that way.
Can you tell us about the process of getting an unlikeable character to be a character we want to keep reading about?
I don’t really think of it consciously because I’m not really all that aware of how unlikeable these people are. To me everyone is unlikeable—I mean, it’s possible to dislike anyone. but I like my characters, I do, so I’m just trying to follow them to the most interesting point in their lives where they overcome their own bullshit, because that’s what I want to do.
Part of the purpose of having a chat is to give a bit of a window into the things you’re interested in and the things you, as a writer, suggest. When you get stuck writing, you’ve said it’s about keeping practice and not getting distracted by your own ego. Is there any other working advice that you have?
I wrote an essay last week and I got stuck on every other word. Something that I have found to be true for me, at least for now, is that as much as it’s not about me and my own ego and my ability. Yes, there’s a lot of practising one does, and you have to always be super attentive to the way everybody is using language, the way they’re talking, the way they write, and to presume that the universe is teaching you in every moment. Being unsure and making mistakes is all part of the process, too. I’m also a big believer in waiting, because you can say, “Okay, I’m going to write this thing,” and you can sit there and stare at an empty screen or page for seven days and have no idea, and then in the last ten minutes, you could write something amazing.
Yeah, I find with lots of things the wanting it can stop it from happening, some of the time. Do you sometimes just sit and let a piece be in front of you?
I do, because often whatever I’m writing shows up in my life. This is the magic of art, right, that we make a pact with the writing gods or whatever to say, I’m writing a story about this and I’m exploring xyz, and maybe not exactly the xyz is going to pop up in your life, but x-sub-1, you know? Something grabs your attention and you think, “I was just writing about this and now it’s happening to me?” And that’s when you know you’re doing the right thing by sitting back and being sloppy. I’m a big proponent of being sloppy and imperfect and fast and getting it down and then going back in and figuring out what I was really trying to say and whether there is more to unpack there.
Right, do the work, get the work out, and then see what the work was trying to tell you.
I was just thinking about this in terms of research. I read the conversation you had with the artist Issy Wood and you were talking about researching online. I’m sure this is something that people are going to ask you about, to do with Lapvona, given that it’s set in a medieval village. How important is the research process to you?
Yeah I think it’s important to the extent that it needs to be. I mean I bought probably forty books to read for research for Lapvona and read maybe two of them. Halfway. I always think, “Oh, I need to be an absolute expert in everything for me to conjure a convincing world.” For me personally it never works out that way. I need the historical truth or records or analysis near me so I can, like, rub it on my body or whatever. But I’m not a historical novelist and I’m not trying to pretend that this is historically accurate. It’s actually a little bit fantastical, so how could it be? But I love, love the process of researching, following breadcrumbs, discovering things, and conflating things for the purposes of the story. Looking at art from the period or place is really cool, too. But I’m a bad researcher; I rely more on my psychic intuition than any kind of scholarship.
What are you working on now?
I have a lot of movie projects in different stages of development and I’m not in the writing part of any of them at the moment. I was working on an essay and making notes for a fiction project. That’s very, very early on.
Did I read something about there being a ghost involved?
Oh, that is a longer project that I am not currently writing, but yes. There’s a book in the works that actually requires a lot of research. It takes place in China, in Shanghai, and in San Francisco, just at the beginning of the 20th century.
Well, thank you for chatting with us and for judging this year’s prize, I’m sure everybody’s eager to have their work read by you.
Can’t wait to read it.
Ottessa Moshfegh is a fiction writer from New England. Eileen, her first novel, was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Booker Prize, and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Death in Her Hands, her second and third novels, were New York Times bestsellers. She is also the author of the short story collection Homesick for Another World and a novella, McGlue. She lives in southern California.