Ottessa Moshfegh is known to many as the writer who best describes what it’s like “being alive when being alive feels terrible,” according to The New Yorker—and with a cast of characters including hyper-alcoholic divorcees, catatonic orphan party girls, and the clients of a what she calls a “disreputable talent agency,” it isn’t hard to see why. But there is another quality that suffuses Moshfegh’s writing too, and that’s yearning. Her misanthropes feel so terrible precisely because a sense of belonging, meaning, and home perpetually eludes them.
In Moshfegh’s new novel, Lapvona (out June 21 from Penguin Press), that singular melding of nihilism and desire is on full display. Lapvona’s setting is its fictional titular village, in which a medieval shepherd boy, scheming priest, mystical midwife, and depraved governor pursue their separate peaces in conditions conducive to anything but.
One balmy afternoon in Pasadena, I sat down with Moshfegh a world away from such ruin to talk about what turned her on to conniving Dark Age villagers—and her fascination with any situation where the offbeat and the earnest collide.
Vogue: How did you choose the setting of Lapvona for the book?
Ottessa Moshfegh: I started the book during lockdown, and so I was thinking about humanity in the more global sense, along with the sense of our being so near to our own history. The pandemic made me think: Yeah, we’re in an age now, but we’ve always been in an age. And 1,500 years ago is not that long ago in the big picture. People still had thoughts. They still had longing and hunger, ambition and confusion and loss.
How did the village itself sharpen into view?
I’m always looking for the best house to live in while writing a book, and Lapvona sort of sketched itself in my mind. It was definitely influenced by being stuck in this house.
Your house is so unique.
Well, a lot of it is built out of recycled materials, some of which came from a church. That bell is a mission bell, I think from Santa Barbara. It took the guy who built this house for himself 20 years. It was his life’s work, and I appreciate that so much. The house is totally imperfect. That’s another thing I like about it—there are things that are just wrong about the design and really inconvenient. It’s like a person. So with the book, it was wanting to be close to the earth and feeling like Lapvona was a place I could get close to the earth with.
So many of your books show people behaving in absurd, aberrant, or seemingly deluded ways—and this, to me, is why your characters always feel so human. What is that link for you between delusion and humanity?
My characters do tend to be interested in self-delusion, and I think that’s because so much of our reality is delusional. Even with shared delusions. Take gender roles, for example. These things are things that just exist in our minds. There’s no God here on earth actually enforcing them. It’s the way we live that enforces them.
How does that manifest in unequal societies where people like Villiam [the evil governor in Lapvona] hold the most power?
With Villiam, I wanted to explore what it’s like when the delusional person is in charge. We’ve experienced that a bit recently, and we saw what happened and what is happening. I never intend to be political, but you can’t help but be influenced by what’s going on.
How do you walk that tightrope when you have political ideas percolating but you’re writing a character-driven story?
I keep it really personal and try to get as close to my heart as I can. If I set out to write something political, I think I would fail. But I think that any writer is aware of her own use of symbolism.