Ottessa Moshfegh, author most recently of the novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” would invite Edith Wharton, Ralph Ellison and Charles Bukowski to dinner: “I’d ... want to know what it’s like to be dead, and whether writing great books has earned them any merit in the afterlife.”
What books are on your nightstand?
“Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute,” edited by Ivy Anderson and Devon Angus; “Opium Culture: The Art & Ritual of the Chinese Tradition,” by Peter Lee; and “Less Than Zero,” by Bret Easton Ellis.
What’s the last great book you read?
“Coming Through Slaughter,” a short novel by Michael Ondaatje about the insane jazz genius Buddy Bolden. When you’re a writer, watching another writer do things with language you can’t possibly explain or parse out is totally jarring and fantastical. It reminds me of why I became a writer; I fell in love with the magic of storytelling. “How’d he do that?” I kept asking myself.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
I learned that I.B.M. began with technology used to count workers in factories. I also learned that in San Francisco’s original Chinatown, before the devastating earthquake of 1906, buildings were largely composed of pieces that had been imported from China itself.
What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?
I don’t usually recommend books to my family, but after my dad read and enjoyed my short story collection, “Homesick for Another World,” I recommended Amie Barrodale’s collection, “You Are Having a Good Time.” It’s one of my favorite books. Like Ondaatje, Barrodale makes me hold my head and ask, “How?”
What kinds of books bring you the most reading pleasure these days?
I’ve been reading for research about Victorian America, all while imagining the next historical novel I want to write. It’s fun to time travel, and the books I’ve been reading widen my perspective on what’s going on right now. My novel will be partially set in San Francisco, and reading about all the technological developments that took place at the dawn of the 20th century, I can’t help drawing parallels between now and then, as Silicon Valley is the hub for so much tech development. Victorian technology caused a major cultural shift and brought the middle class to the fore through media, manufacturing, capitalist marketing, entertainment. I really wonder what will happen next. The internet bubble is bigger than the planet now. Will it pop? Will people stop existing IRL? One day, you’ll buy a soul online with Bitcoin and live in SimCity, a virtual life. Maybe that’s already happened. Isn’t that what Elon Musk has argued — that we are living in a video game?
Any genres you avoid?
I can’t read self-help books. Please, everybody, stop sending them to me!
How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or several simultaneously? Morning or night?
I tend to read books for research over weeks during the day, and consume novels either in a single afternoon, or a few pages once a week for years. Sometimes reading is like medicine, other times it is a confrontation with God — I don’t do it much in public. I like to read physical books, mostly in bed with earplugs in.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
“Live at the Masque: Nightmare in Punk Alley,” a book of photographs and ephemera from Los Angeles in the ’70s, when punk was punk and the young people were so creative and full of energy. So refreshing to see images of nonconformists. The Masque was a basement club where bands like X, the Weirdos and the Bags all played. Kristine McKenna, who is a dear friend and recently wrote “Room to Dream” with David Lynch, wrote a stunning foreword.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Our house was always filled to the ceiling with books, and when I needed a new book to read, I’d wander through the rooms, feeling out what book called to me vibrationally. It was never about the title or the cover. Certain books just gave me a special feeling. Inevitably I’d end up with a stack of half a dozen novels, take them to bed, and play eeny, meeny, miny, mo. This is how I ended up reading Hermann Hesse and Gabriel García Márquez and Anaïs Nin and Hemingway at age 9 or 10. There was a lot of James Baldwin in the house, as well.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
“Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do,” the oral history by Studs Terkel from 1974. I’d suggest this because it’s very readable — it’s an oral history — and because it might give the president some insight into the everyday lives of Americans.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Edith Wharton, Ralph Ellison, and Charles Bukowski. I’d love to see how they got along. “What is your biggest regret?” I’d ask each of them, and “What book did you not get to write while you were alive and wish you had?” I’d also want to know what it’s like to be dead, and whether writing great books has earned them any merit in the afterlife.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I’ll never say! There should be a code among authors to never publicly pooh-pooh another writer’s work. (If they’re dead, the code changes, I think.) It’s also very tricky to speak about a book I have dismissed because it’s likely that I’ll pick it up again and find out I was dumb to put it down in the first place.
Who would you want to write your life story?
My fiancé, the writer Luke Goebel. He’s the person I want to know me best.
You’re being hired as a ghostwriter. Whose story do you most want to tell?
Probably my parents’. Their stories are so dynamic, and especially interesting to me; I’ve still never really heard the full deal.
What do you plan to read next?
I just ordered “Sacred Games,” a novel by Vikram Chandra. My Vedic astrologer told me our natal charts are very similar. I just read the first page, it’s a very exciting opening.
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