Ottessa Moshfegh’s newest novel, “Lapvona,” is both exactly what you would expect and not expect from the bestselling author and PEN/Hemingway Award-winning writer. Like past releases, it deals with a sense of suffering and the human psyche. Unlike previous novels, “Lapvona” follows an entire village of people, one set in medieval Europe, and is her first book written in the third person. Without giving too much away, “Lapvona” is a grotesque historical fiction read that involves incest, cannibalism, murder, medieval witchery, a deformed shepherd boy and a tongueless mother, and serves as an exploration of the effects people have on one other in a society, while trying to find one’s own place in the world. 

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

“Lapvona: A Novel”

Ottessa Moshfegh, Penguin Press, 320 pp., $27

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I’d love to know where the idea for “Lapvona” came from.

It really came out of lockdown. I had had an inkling of a premise which is the basic beginning of the storyline, of the character named Marek. I didn’t really know what the rest of the book was, and I didn’t know a time or a place or even a creative approach — until the pandemic started. I realized that I suddenly had this perfect container and this unfortunate container, at the same time, to have a totally distinct project, alongside the experience of the pandemic and watching it all through my windows and on the internet. 

I really loved writing the book. It saved me in a lot of ways because I could escape to this place called Lapvona every day. It was also a place where I thought I could creatively work out all of the really difficult things that were popping up in my life and in everyone else’s life. It was a time of horror and introspection and a reshuffling of values and priorities for a lot of people. It certainly was for me too. 

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“Lapvona” has major themes of good versus evil, heaven versus hell. Can you speak to the role the pandemic played in that aspect? It was, and still is, a time when everyone is so divided and seemingly on one side or the other, with no real middle ground. 

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Or it seems like the people taking the most extreme points of view are the loudest. The idea of good and evil is definitely a theme, and it’s a theme that preoccupies the characters. It would make sense that it would, given the way that the place is governed and the way that religious authority is exacted upon the people. But I was really interested in finding a way to talk about human behavior and the decisions that we make in a way that was, yeah, maybe easy to judge as good, bad, or maybe somewhere in between; that had more of a range of color than just black and white. I saw each character as having a really distinct point of view on their position in the world, their conception of the world, their belief system, their self-esteem and whether they felt they were living a life worthy of God’s praise. They were constantly evaluating their goodness. As the author, I was more interested in the strange ways that people, or the specific characters, express themselves within a belief system while maintaining a level of personal autonomy. 

It’s true that the people of Lapvona are educated or miseducated in strange ways. It’s a really isolated community; they don’t get a lot of visitors that are friendly. There isn’t a public forum in any sphere of that society that isn’t tainted with fear of religious and social judgment. So, I was kind of looking at the way that that shapes people’s personalities.

Illustration by Jenny Kwon

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You mentioned that writing this book was kind of an escape, a way to get away from everything happening in the world at the time, but “Lapvona” deals with a lot of dark subjects, and at times it can be cringey and hard to read. Did that affect your mental state at all?

Oh, it definitely affected my mental space for sure. And I think it was an expression of the mental space I was in. I mean, this was a time, and we’re still in the time, the pandemic isn’t over, where health, the function of bodies, the vulnerability of human bodies, the vulnerability to infection, the dangers of other people, all those sorts of things are really in the forefront of my consciousness. So when it came to writing characters — I always like to embody my characters and give them a sense of physicality; I don’t like shadowy, imaginary people that just feel like ideas of people — the functions of the body felt really important. And people were dying. 

Back in the Middle Ages, medicine was really different. They didn’t understand the way that contagions work. And all that stuff contributed to that really focused view on the function of the body and how we don’t have control. My mental state was one, definitely of fear, but also sort of a sick fascination. Unfortunately, learning about disease is one way we learn about health. So our lens was dark collectively, and mine was too. 

Speaking of how you write your characters, you wrote this book in the third person, the first novel you’ve written that way. Why did you choose to do this?

I wanted to write about a society, and I also wanted to write from a point of view that reflected the point of view that I was currently experiencing, having a more global perspective. Really shifting the focus away from a singular character and their neurotic suffering to a singular community with its suffering. And I wanted to tell a story with a big cast of characters, a lot of different voices in mind, because I wanted to explore how, in a society, people affect each other. Also, I wanted a challenge. Previously everything had been so close first-person; it functioned so much like a piece of theatrical writing, like it could be performed on a stage because the narratives were so voice-driven. They were telling stories in real-time, almost like a monologue. It felt like time to expand my use of craft as an author and see how that would shift the way that a story works.