Ottessa Moshfegh Allows Her Darkest Impulses to Drive Her
The author discusses her new novel, 'Lapvona.'
The central premise of Ottessa Moshfegh's new novel Lapvona came to her years before she actually started writing. The germ of the idea was the notion of a "replacement son," one child who is adopted by the parents of a dead child as a substitute. In the novel, set in a fictional medieval village, Marek, a poor sheep herder's son who relishes his own pain, is responsible for the death of Jacob, the son of the town's lord, Villiam. Villiam, deranged and self-obsessed, takes Marek in without a wink. One boy for the other. That is payment enough.
Since her debut novel Eileen was published in 2015, Moshfegh has become one of the must-read literary novelists of the 21st Century. If Sally Rooney is the millennial Austen, Moshfegh is for Brontë bitches with Gothic instincts and a high tolerance for vivid descriptions of bodily functions. Lapvona has been described as a swerve because of its fantastical elements and third-person structure. Whereas Moshfegh's work is usually either tied to present day or historical America, Lapvona takes place in a fully invented land. Her other novels are voiced by their protagonists; this one has an omniscient narrator shifting between the characters. But it's also pure uncut Moshfegh, gloriously disgusting and viscerally corporeal. In Lapvona, there is an old crone, Ina, whose breasts offer unlimited supplies of milk for all the local babes, including those, like Marek, who continue coming to her long after they've weaned. Villiam's life is filled with games of his own making, which involve the debasement of servants. Characters brutalize themselves and others.
This year will likely make Moshfegh even more of a household name. A movie adaptation of Eileen, which Moshfegh wrote alongside her husband Luke Goebel, stars Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie and is set to be released. She and Goebel also wrote the screenplay for an undated A24 film starring Jennifer Lawrence.
When I caught Moshfegh on Zoom, we discussed how she created the world of Lapvona, her fondness for excrement, as well as her forays into cinema.
Thrillist: What was the initial genesis of Lapvona?
Ottessa Moshfegh: The seed was planted a couple of years before I actually conceived of the book. And that seed was the premise of a replacement son. Marek, who is, in many ways, the essential character of the story, kills Jacob and is weirdly adopted by Jacob's dad. And that was just lingering and I really didn't know what it was for a really long time. And then when Lapvona came to me, I was like, "Oh, this is the story."
The idea of Lapvona, the place, or the project of Lapvona, the novel?
The book project of Lapvona, the novel. I hadn't expected to write a book. I was working on a bunch of other stuff and not even fiction. And then the pandemic hit and we were in lockdown and I knew that I needed a novel, so.
What was the process of creating the world of Lapvona?
It was really a process of discovering what the world was as per the needs of the narrative story. I didn't know I needed a reservoir until I was in the section dealing with the drought. I didn't know the exact function of the bandits until I had really gotten into the way that Villiam governs the fiefdom. So the world really built itself at every turn, discovering a new character, discovering their past, the history of the village and how it affected the culture, the religious belief system, the economy, everything. It all just happened bit by bit. And I took breaks to research bits that I didn't know intuitively yet how exactly that culture would've worked.
What was that research process like?
I ordered a lot of books. Couldn't go to a library, obviously. I did not read them cover to cover. I didn't want to get off base. I mean, if you start researching life in Europe, in the Middle Ages, you can spend years reading. And I wanted to follow the breadcrumbs of my narrative in that, let's say, if I was researching, one thing I needed to know was what kind of animals should I be including in my Lapvona world? So I got a book about Eastern European hunting. What big game was there? And what kind of birds were there?
There was some historical research about life in the Middle Ages that was really fascinating. But then there was this other stuff, nature, wildlife, medicinal herbs, and things about animals were really important. I had to do research about sheep and research about different kinds of wool and all those little details that just helped me understand the world, but also the characters and the work that they did.
What was it about the idea of a replacement son that you held onto for all those years?
I don't know why it appealed to me. I guess the thing that confounded me was that a parent would want to parent the killer of his child. And what kind of psychology would think that that was a good idea? And also, how does the role of the replacement son function in a family that is delusional enough to think that this might work? Marek's journey was really what I was primarily interested in. If you're responsible for someone's death, you must feel an enormous weight on your shoulders. That could actually motivate you to try to make good on whatever justifiable retribution the family wanted. An eye for an eye in the weirdest way. So how would he feel? And how would he cope? And how would he adapt to that new family system?
You mentioned looking into religion. For Marek, faith is suffering. How did you see that functioning in his journey?
One thing that I explored in the novel through every character was how faith functions and then how they live according to a paradigm of belief that is not always consistent throughout the community. I mean, it seems like the characters build up belief systems according to their life story and according to what the authority figures in their lives have told them as a way to justify and make sense of the suffering that has happened.
So Marek is a really devout person. And I think a large part of that is that he relies on his faith to keep him afloat. It actually is the basis of his ego. He believes that his mother died in childbirth and is told by the man he believes is his father that that was a sacrifice, and that he will one day, if he's good enough, go to heaven and be reunited with his mother. So he holds onto that and builds a belief system based on that. And who's to say that he's wrong? Except he finds out that things are not always as they seem.
The idea of ritualistic suffering comes up a lot in your work, whether it's Eileen in Eileen taking laxatives, or the protagonist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation drugging herself to sleep. You see that again with Marek. Why do you keep coming back to that in these characters who impose suffering on themselves?
It's a way of having a spiritual experience in the body. I mean, extreme pain and extreme ecstasy to me are—OK, I shouldn't say to me—but I understand that they function as a way to access something outside of the body. In cases of extreme pain, we can have outer-body experiences. I once was really interested in Saint Therese, who was all about ecstasy and self-deprivation and finding God through the suffering of the body. And so that felt like it was really part of the tradition in accessing the realm outside of the mundane human realm through the ecstasy of pain.
You've dealt with protagonists that people love to label "unlikeable." It's easy to sympathize with Marek at the outset of the novel, which turns as he adapts to Villiam's lifestyle. By the end, you're left with a disturbing final image. How did you think about that arc?
What I found interesting about Marek was that he is both innocent and extremely guilty. And his faith seems to be justification, like for many of the characters, for actions that put him in a situation of power. He situates himself in a powerful position based on his spiritual beliefs. I was interested especially in Marek because he's an adolescent, and adolescence is a time when we're figuring out how the world works and also becoming conscious of the ways in which we can manipulate people to get what we want. Not that we didn't do that as younger children, but there's something about adolescence and coming into consciousness where we start, I think, being more self-aware and having more agency about how to game the system. We act in our self-interest in more ways. And we haven't been grown enough to understand that the consequences for self-centered manipulation can really lead to the malformation of a self.
So I have compassion for Marek for so many different reasons. And you can look at his life and say, "Well, no wonder he ended up doing what he did and being who he is and making the final decision." Or we can look at him like, "Oh, this is a total sociopath." And I just wanted to hold both of those things. One thing I didn't want to do was write a book about a victim who acts like a victim. "And oh, poor Marek. And look at him going through all this." I mean, if anything, people don't respond to trauma only by sitting in the corner and crying their eyes out. They learn how to adapt and to live with the post-traumatic damage.
How did Ina, an outcast who nurses all the children in Lapvona with her unlimited supply of milk for generations, come to you?
I call her Ina [pronounced Eena] in my head. I did the audio book recording. And so I was like, "OK, before I go in there, I need to figure out exactly how to pronounce everybody's name." I was talking to my husband, Luke, and I was like, "Should it be Eye-na or Ee-na?" And I was like, "Eye-na? Eye-na is so much like vagina." Maybe that's too on the nose. So I just went with Ee-na. First of all, her genesis story felt like such a parable. And I was also just thinking back to the stories that I grew up with, like Snow White. This idea of this incredible creature, this beautiful, pristine woman, young woman, virgin, who's friends with the flowers and stuff like that. And I was like, "Well, that's one aspect."
Then I was thinking about what might happen to a woman who's just totally, totally betrayed by her community and by humanity, really, in the way that Ina experienced as a child. Totally abandoned. Is about to be sent to the nunnery, basically to be a slave. She's not choosing to be a woman of faith. She basically survives by understanding nature and attuning herself to nature in all of the ways in which it is wise and tricky and complex. And she becomes extremely resourceful, to the point where she begins to see her own body as a resource, which sounds really twisted, but is actually completely in line with the way that we look at labor, period, and the way that people use their bodies to make money. She just started taking on a life of her own, and she was sort of calling her own shots at a certain point in the writing, because she was bigger. She was just a larger-than-life figure, who could spontaneously have extra—what do you call it? Supernatural powers.
I wanted to talk about Villiam's depravity, specifically the grape sequence wherein he forces a servant, Lispeth, to catch a grape Marek has rubbed in his butthole in her mouth. By the time the grape goes in the butthole, I was just losing my mind. Was it fun exploring this full-on depravity of Villiam and coming up with the ways to show that?
Well, I had to create a character that the reader would believe. Would feel so powerful that he could take in Marek as his own son and justify that. I mean, he's so allergic to the truth outside of the truth that he likes and lives in, really, a world of make believe, according to his own pleasures. So when faced with something actually horrible, like the death of Jacob, he reverts to the core of who he is, which is he's a patron of the arts. So everything that happens is part of a performance for him, because he's also the center of the world. I needed a character who could buy into the lie that it was a good idea and totally fine that Marek killed Jacob and now Marek is his son. A person like that has just an unquenchable thirst to be entertained, always needing things to go further, to be more entertaining the next time.
This is how we get to the most disgusting porn on the internet, people becoming bored and insatiable and needing more to trigger the visceral response that they need in order to feel satisfied. So I was like, "Well, how far is he going to go with this grape situation?" Naturally, it led to that conclusion.
Disgusting things have become a hallmark of your work. What do you like about writing about bodily functions?
I think partially I like it because it's kind of a secret. There's definitely something about writing about people's private relationships and bodily functions that feels like you're getting so close, you're not supposed to be there. If you're going to the bathroom with a character, you only go to the bathroom with your closest, dearest people, so there's an intimacy there. And when I can use that intimacy to explore something that a character wouldn't want you to see otherwise, then I'm really privy to some deep psychological shit. It just feels like I'm getting more into the inside of a character. Another part of it is the Villiam in me. There's a limitation sometimes to how seriously I can take a person knowing that left alone in a room, they'll be farting and picking their nose or whatever. It's a way of humanizing personalities that posture so much.
The Villiam in me is like, I've been a junkie for nasty stuff for a long time. It's not actually that useful anymore to me in my personal life, because, I mean, I'm not a disgusting—I don't eat sandwiches and talk about beheadings. But I do have what is an interest in the grotesque. I don't know how healthy that is, for me personally, because the more I write about it, the more I need to feed it. And there were a lot of times in my life where I'm falling asleep to Forensic Files. And it's just like, "This is my life?" I don't know. I also wanted to write about the grotesque, because it's somehow a way to self soothe.
You worked on the film adaptation for Eileen. But in a novel you have sort of a different parameter of what you can show than on screen. How did you think about that when approaching the screenplay for Eileen?
I co-wrote the screenplay with my partner. And it was good to have another mind, someone who is seeing Eileen objectively, who didn't write the novel, but is invested in telling Eileen's story. It was sort of a balancing act, because there are a couple of things that are pretty, I wouldn't call them graphic, but they're pretty telling about Eileen's relationship with her body, her sexuality, all that kind of stuff. And if you keep bombarding the viewer with that... You only have what, like an hour and a half, two hours to tell this story? The cool thing about film is an image, a single image can make such an impression. So it was really about focusing on how to tell the story of Eileen being this complex, strange person in a place that had no room for that kind of weirdness, meeting this woman, Rebecca, and experiencing this strange liberation.
So we focused on telling that story. But Eileen was Eileen. That is who she is. It didn't feel like whitewashing. It felt like if you're telling a visual story, you can't just constantly be grossing people out.
Did working in screenwriting change your approach to novel writing at all?
There was a lot of cinematic influence in Lapvona. One film that I found myself remembering a lot in the writing was Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring. And I'm sure that had some influence on early decisions I made about the place and time for the story. When you're writing for film, you think so much about timing and action and image that I wanted to bring some of that, in the sense of theatrical drama, to the book. I think my sensibility about timing and story have developed in a little bit of a different way because I've been thinking so much about film.