Breaking Big: Mallory Ortberg, author of 'Texts from Jane Eyre'
About five minutes into my chat with Mallory Ortberg—cofounder of feminist humor mecca The Toast, author of Texts from Jane Eyre, general Internet spirit animal—I realized that I’d accidentally forgotten to plug my voice recorder into my phone. Her response, delivered with good-natured, schadenfreud-ic glee: “Oh no, you have to do everything all over again! Sucks for you!”
She was joking, of course; “I make mistakes and forget stuff all the time, so you are allowed to be a human being,” she told me once the talk got back on track. For a moment, though, it sounded like Ortberg was channeling one of the characters she highlights in Texts From—a collection of imagined conversations between literary figures (some real authors, some fictional creations) that might more accurately be titled Assholes in Western Literature.
In Ortberg’s hands, the canon becomes a parade of selfish, petulant whiners (Hamlet, Lord Byron, Henry David Thoreau, Jake from The Sun Also Rises), moody, overbearing messes (Cathy and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre, Edgar Allan Poe), and all-around grade-A jerks (Scarlett O’Hara probably takes the crown)—the sort of people you’re delighted to read about but would never, ever want to meet in real life. It’s a skillful bit of literary sculpting that chips away at great works of fiction (and the Sweet Valley High series) until it reveals the secret core that unites them all: People are terrible. And it’s really, really fun to read about how terrible they are.
Read on to hear more about Texts From‘s journey from blog series to real live book, as well as what Ortberg’s reading now.
Take me through the process of actually getting this book published. The first official Texts From post went up in June 2012, and a few weeks later you mentioned that you had already gotten an agent.
Finding the agent was actually kind of the easy part for me. I think after I had published just a couple of the entries, I heard from Kate McKean, who is my agent now. The two of us just really got one another—which is fantastic, because for a long time, the book wasn’t selling. Like, she bought me lunch at one point when I was in New York City, and I was just like, “Man, I haven’t even made you any money. That’s very nice of you to buy me lunch.” [Laughs]
I finished the proposal in about two months. Writing it was not the hard part at all—it was finding a place that liked the idea. We had a lot of places that said, “What if you just did this about young adult books? What if you wrote a young adult book?” Which is fine—lots of people write great YA novels. But that wasn’t the book I was trying to write. And lots of places that were saying, like, “Well, does it have to be text messages? And does it have to be books?” I’m not going to like, die on a hill: “NO, it’s very important to my artistic integrity that these be text messages from characters in literary history!” But they didn’t want the book the way that it was, so we waited.
We waited for like, a year, and I just assumed, “The book is not going to happen.” And then I kind of resurrected the series on The Toast, and that’s when Kate let me know that [Henry] Holt was interested. It was so cool, because they were just really, really excited about the book as it was. There were things that we changed, but they thought the concept itself would sell, and was interesting. So that was really great. Overall, writing a book is really fun. You should do it, if you want to. I recommend it. It’s fun and easy!
Did the final manuscript change much between when you initially wrote the book and after that year passed?
Yeah. It changed a couple of times, because at first I was willing to try to change it. It became clear in those drafts that my heart wasn’t in it, and I wasn’t doing as good of a job. But from beginning to end, I would say it changed maybe… 30 percent? That’s a totally made up number.
There were a few that I went back and did more of. Like, Daisy Miller ended up being a four-parter, which is really funny because I don’t think of Daisy Miller as being one of the biggest names in the canon. But something about that book really cracks me up. Everyone is such a dick to Daisy Miller! And she literally dies from having a friend who’s Italian. That’s what kills her, is she befriends an Italian man and goes outside. And she dies! That’s hilarious to me.
What were the other formats you played around with?
Oh, God. I don’t even remember. It was the same thing, but it wasn’t text messages—it was notes, or letters, or like, telegrams. That kind of stuff. And that felt really clunky. The thing about this is, obviously, it sounds really gimmicky. And it is really gimmicky. But the heart of the joke is not, “What if people had phones, but in the past?!”
“I think it’d sound a little something like this.”
Exactly. The concept is just getting to the essence of these characters and what makes them memorable, and also terrible. It’s all very rooted in how all these characters actually behaved. It’s not just jokes about emojis.
That doesn’t even really play into it at all.
No. I mean, the text stuff’s the vehicle, but it could pretty easily just be deleted scenes from literary history. The joke is always about the character, never about how funny it would be to see someone in a petticoat holding a phone.
As I was reading it, I was kind of hoping that a text conversation with Ghost might sneak through.
Ghost! I miss him! Is that weird? I miss him, even though I invented him. I feel a lot of tenderness toward him. I don’t write a lot of stuff that is sad, or that is tender and affectionate, so that has a very special place in my heart. Usually my writing is very over the top and bombastic, and very like, “I’m amazing! Look at me!” I wish you could describe the voice I’m doing in print, but you can’t. Aw. Little buddy.
Do you feel like you’re kind of done with texts for now?
You know, I don’t know. There’s a couple of series I do now, like the Dirtbag series and the captioning western art history series, that are in a lot of ways just basically outlets for the same part of me. So I don’t know. Certainly not for a little while. I put most of the things I wanted to in the book, so I don’t have a lot of things that I’m burning with desire to write text messages about. But yeah, it may come back. You never know.
You generate so much stuff for The Toast on a day-to-day basis. Are you ever worried about running out of ideas?
Oh, totally. Like, this afternoon, today, right before I did Dirtbag Mrs. Whatsit, I was literally just sitting at my table going, “Oh yeah. This is it. I think that’s the last idea I’ve ever had. I’m done now.” But then I had an idea, so I was saved. Weirdly, often the more I write, the more ideas I have.
I talked to Kate Beaton a few years ago—I feel like you guys are kind of on similar wavelengths.
Oh, she is a f—ing genius. She’s fantastic.
If you collaborated on something, I think the internet would explode.
I think I would explode. She’s so amazing, she’s so funny. I think she works so hard—I don’t think she needs anybody to collaborate with, although obviously I would be thrilled to do that. But she, yeah. I love the way that she looks at things. I love the way that she draws. And I also really respect her work ethic. She just works like it’s her job, which is great.
I was also wondering what you’re reading right now.
Okay! Yes, definitely I can do that. I am reading, for the first time in my life, Barbara Pym. I cannot believe I went this far without ever reading her. She was one of those novelists who wrote a lot in the ’40s and ’50s and kind of fell out of favor in the ’60s, but has always had various champions, including Philip Larkin. But she writes these geat comic spinster novels—they’re all about the little indignities and awkward moments and uncomfortable situations in life. So I’m reading Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, and its like finding a jewel on every page. And I just finished Caucasia by Danzy Senna, which was really really great. I’m trying to get the rest of her books right now. What else am I reading? I’m literally standing up, looking over all of my books. I’m rereading Colette right now. I love Colette.
How many books do you usually read at a time?
It depends. Sometimes it’s anywhere from two to three. I try not to read too many all at once, beause then for some reason I just fall apart and I don’t read any of them. [Right now] I’m also reading a book my sister lent me called Salvation on Sand Mountain, by Dennis Covington. It’s about a journalist who embedded himself with different snake-handling churches in the South. It’s by an author who is himself religious, so it’s not coming quite from a place of “look at these silly, strange people.” I love reading religious authors. Especially in the sort of circle I move in, people tend to be more secular, and I love reading books by just really smart people of religious faith. It’s always a really cool perspective.
Also, this is totally unrelated, but—I was listening to that Reading Lives podcast that you did, and you mentioned the Clue books, the ones based on the board game. Those beginner chapter books.
I was also obsessed with those.
No, you were not!
No, you were not!! Ahh! I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.
I would never try to solve the mysteries. I was just reading it for the story.
Oh, yeah! I would just read it straight through. I was the same way. Oh my God!
I just wanted to know how Mr. Boddy was going to die every time.
Every time! There was one where he was showing them a movie in his home theater, and they all wanted popcorn different ways: “Mrs. White has popcorn with salt but no butter. Miss Scarlet has popcorn with no salt and no butter,” of-f—king-course. And based on what kind of popcorn, you were supposed to know who murdered him. Which is just bonkers.
Maybe we should get back on track—is there anything else you’d like to say about the book?
Yeah. I mean, it’s really, really fun. I have no idea what it would be like to read this book if you’re not super familiar with the books, because I am familiar with these books.
So you don’t think it serves the same purpose as, say, Sparknotes?
Oh no, totally. This is the kind of book we should hand off to teachers who are like, “I don’t have time to teach all these books this year.” [Laughs] If you haven’t read most of the books on the list, it’s not going to keep you from enjoying it—but the more you have read them, the more you will enjoy it. I think it’s pretty fun on its own merits. And I think that reading pretty fun books is a good idea. I mean, people should always do what they want, is my feeling.