Award-winning author Ottessa Moshfegh spoke to a packed house on Tuesday night at Kelly Writers House, reading from her recent best-selling novel and giving advice to aspiring writers.
Moshfegh is a fiction writer whose novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” was a New York Times bestseller in 2018. At the event, Moshfegh read two excerpts from the novel, shared intimate stories about her work and writing process, and answered questions from the audience.
Moshfegh was invited and introduced by Religious Studies professor Justin McDaniel, who teaches the popular course, Existential Despair. In his introduction, McDaniel read an excerpt of her work and explained how he understands Moshfegh’s writing as intrinsically related with his study of religion.
“In the most fundamental way, what she’s teaching is an interpersonal struggle with existential despair,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel said after the event, he would be bringing Moshfegh to speak to the students in his Existential Despair course. Each Tuesday, the students meet for seven and a half hours and read a book cover-to-cover. This Tuesday night, the class read "My Year of Rest and Relaxation."
“They don’t know they’ll get the honor of meeting her at 10 p.m. after they finish reading her book,” McDaniel said to laughter from the audience.
At the event, Moshfegh summarized the novel as a story of an unhappy young woman on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who spent a year resting in hopes of forgetting her traumas. Moshfegh said although she relates to the lost feeling of her protagonist, she has always felt destined to be a writer.
“I knew my destiny, and even if I had tried to avoid it, I wouldn’t have been able to,” she said.
During the Q&A section of the talk, Moshfegh gave advice for aspiring writers, telling them not to impose themselves on their stories, because "it's just going to get embarrassing."
She also shared how part of her comfort with first-person narrative writing stems from challenges she had from a young age with oral comprehension. Once she learned to read and write, she developed a system where she would see the words in her head as people spoke to her.
“That just became the way I understood language, as a voice I’m hearing narrated,” she said.
Moshfegh’s prior novel “Eileen” was recognized with multiple accolades, including a PEN/Hemingway award and nominations for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her short stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Granta and won her a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Over 60 people, many of whom were not undergraduates, attended the event, which lasted more than an hour. The audience extended beyond the Writers House Arts Cafe and into the living room.
Tim Livingston, a Philadelphia resident, came to the event after seeing it on a local email chain earlier that day. He said that he loves Moshfegh’s work for her sharp humor and insight with intimate topics and found her even more funny in person.
Comparative literature Ph.D. candidate Nancy Roane said she enjoyed the way Moshfegh tied religious thought into her literature and is now interested in taking McDaniel’s course.
“It ended up being a lovely mix of things that are important to me,” she said.