MALLORY ORTBERG started writing text messages on behalf of literary characters for the Awl Network site the Hairpin in 2012. She now co-edits the Toast, a general-interest site primarily targeting women with a very particular sense of humor, where she writes about Dirtbag Hamlet (exactly what it sounds like) and ironic misandry. The Toast is a niche site, proudly. (Full disclosure: I've written for it.) Ortberg's compared it to The Lord of the Rings' Tom Bombadil: self-possessed, weird, and free. Ortberg's new book, Texts from Jane Eyre, could be described the same way. Here's what she told me about Texts, gifts from creepy mermaids, and the rich tapestry of life.
MERCURY: Could you tell me how you and co-editor Nicole Cliffe started The Toast?
MALLORY ORTBERG: Nicole Cliffe used to be co-editor of the Hairpin, and we got to be friends weirdly enough through the Hairpin commenting system, and we'd talk about how fun it would be to do something together. Independently of that, Nick Pavich, who is our publisher, had gotten in touch with me just to say, "If you've ever thought about starting your own website, let me know, I would love to give you money for it," which is very weird. That's a very weird way to start a business. But it worked out.
You started Texts From... on the Hairpin, when Edith Zimmerman was the editor. Was she an influence for you?
[Edith's writing] always felt like this brand-new, exciting gift from a really creepy mermaid, if a mermaid swam up to your house every day and left you a weird gift from the sea—that was a little bit cursed. Just finding a community of mostly women who were intelligent and curious and a good balance between kind and supportive, but also strong and willing to push boundaries, who wanted to talk about weird shit and be creepy and cool and odd and obsessive... that was a huge influence on me. I would get up early in the morning before work to read the comments—that was how strongly I felt about it.
I've heard it described as the best place on the internet for weird girls.
That sounds about right... unless there's a website where people mail each other clips of their own hair.
Which would be weird in a different way.
It would be more weird for sure.
Some reviewers seem befuddled by Texts from Jane Eyre.
Have you found yourself needing to explain why these characters are texting?
It is a little tricky, because this is the kind of book where if you just hear the concept... it could sound really gimmicky, like, "Okay, I get it, people in the past with cell phones, it's very comical because they didn't have electricity." And that's really not the joke. The joke is not, "It's hilarious when old-timey people use emoticons." It's really a lot of jokes based on the characters' behavior... I have not come across a lot of people who haven't gotten it... I'm sure there are people like that out there. Life's a rich tapestry.
"Life's a rich tapestry." That's something you say a lot on the Toast. Where'd it come from?
It's technically from an episode of The Simpsons. Marge is afraid of flying, and she sees a psychiatrist—she lists one reason she might be afraid of flying, she's like, "Yes, that's it, you've gotten it," and then [Marge] lists like eight more horrifically traumatic events that could also have something to do with it, but the psychiatrist is just so excited they found something that she just sort of hand-waves it and says, "Yes, yes, it's all a rich tapestry." It's sort of like a Yankee version of saying, "Bless your heart." I find it so applicable to many of life's moments.
Do you have a Dirtbag Hamlet book in your future?
Dirtbag Hamlet makes me laugh a lot, but I don't know that I would want to do another book with such a similar premise to this one. I say that like it would be so terrible to become the girl who makes jokes about Shakespeare, and that's much better than, like, the girl who dies in childbirth or the girl who dies of cholera. That's fine. That's a perfectly fine thing to be.