The acclaimed author reveals his all-time favorite movie, the book he considers to be most overrated, and more.
Just in time for the publication of his new book filled with pop-culture musings, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, EW caught up with acclaimed author and Slate Dear Prudence columnist Daniel Mallory Ortberg to discuss the books, movies, TV, and music that have shaped his life.
My favorite book as a child
Probably The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle. I loved the movie version too, with all those weird songs by America and the baffling, wonderfully affect-free performances by Mia Farrow and Jeff Bridges. It was just this absolutely perfect fairy tale, the first perfect one I’d ever read outside of the old classic collections, and I’m still so impressed by it.
A book, movie, or TV show I’ve read or watched over and over again
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller. A friend recommended it to me ages ago — it’s really the only book Miller ever wrote, aside from a bit of Leibowitz-related ephemera — and I revisit it often. It seems to hold a special place for people who were raised very religious and are now sort of “???” on the subject. At least it does for the two of us! The format reminds me of White’s The Once and Future King — I didn’t expect for my answers to be so heavily tilted towards [science fiction and fantasy], but here we are! — where it moves so deftly and expertly from whimsy and energy and detail into just absolute agony that by the end you feel like you’re 1,000 years old and you’ve been dying for 900 of them, but you don’t regret any of it.
My all-time favorite movie
Moonstruck. A nearly perfect script, an entirely perfect cast — every line is memorable and aching and funny and sweet, and it brings me pure pleasure to watch and rewatch.
A classic that I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read
I won’t do the whole song-and-dance about how you should never be embarrassed not to have read something because no one can read everything, because I don’t want to resist the format, and say it’s Middlemarch. Partly because I have tried to read it on more than one occasion — by rights I should be a George Eliot enthusiast — and partly because so many people I admire love it, and I want to be able to talk about it at length with them. I think part of what’s holding me back is the sheer size of the book. It’s uncomfortable to hold because it’s so big! I need a better book-holding system.
An illicit book that I had to read in secret as a kid
Flowers in The Attic, by V.C. Andrews. I found it at a garage sale the summer after sixth grade and thought, based on the cover, that it would be a fun mystery like the Sweet Valley High thriller editions. It was not! It was a huge best-seller back in the ’70s, but it’s a very oddly written saga about child imprisonment and incest — I think about halfway through I gave it to my parents and said, “I don’t think I should be reading this,” and tried to forget about it. Years later my college girlfriend had a copy on her shelf, and I had this incredible moment where I realized I hadn’t just hallucinated this terrifying book, that it was real, and we took turns reading it to each other at night before we went to sleep, and it was a very satisfying way to revisit something that had scared me so much as a child.
The TV show I think doesn’t get its due
Twin Peaks: The Return. Not that other people haven’t given it plenty of due, because they have, but because I always thought I was just too dumb to enjoy anything of David Lynch’s. But I found it so, so funny and so clarifying and powerful and moving, and I just loved it. I’ve never felt more warmth towards a television character than I have towards Dougie Jones. And I always used to think it was just weird for the sake of being weird, or off-putting, or keeping the viewer at a distance. But I was just stunned by how much I loved it! I want to watch it again soon.
A book that people might be surprised to learn that I loved
Oh gosh, I feel like I tend to like exactly the kind of books one would expect me to like. I had a real fondness for supernatural romance novels as a teenager, and I was really wild about L.J. Smith’s The Game trilogy, which I have a dim memory as being about a woman being semi-kidnapped by, like, an evil elf from Niflheim? Like from Norse mythology? And somehow he ended up killing one of her friends because she was a bit of a pack rat and he filled her house with giant evil bugs to, I guess, warn the readers against the dangers of buying too much makeup? It was a very strange book, and I loved it; I wanted nothing more than for a very beautiful, very evil man to try to murder me and all my friends because he thought I was hot.
The song that always makes me feel better
“Pacific Coast Highway,” Hole. I just adore Courtney Love’s voice, and as a dirtbag child of Southern California, it feels like a real origin story for me.
A book I consider to be grossly overrated
I was genuinely surprised by how much I hated The Mists of Avalon when I finally read it in my 20s. I thought I’d love it; I’d heard great things about it; a classic of fantasy literature, great cover with that cool lady on a horse carrying a giant sword. But I really loathed it, and threw it across the room more than once. Although I can scarcely remember now what my objections were! I have a dim sense that I found the plot slow and the language hokey, but I can’t conjure up many details.
The last book that made me laugh out loud, and the last one that made me cry
Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book made me laugh often; especially the chapter about the unwelcome houseguest. Ditto Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, which I recently reread for the first time in 10 years.
My literary crush
Everybody! I fall a little bit in love with everybody when I read.
The last TV series I binged
Eastenders, the long-running British soap opera. I started watching it with my wife, Grace, on Christmas Day this last year, and I’ve kept up with it pretty faithfully ever since. I wrote recently about how its relationship to plot feels weirdly soothing:
The beauty of Eastenders is that there is absolutely so much plot crammed into every single episode, four days a week, that it has the spiritual effect of no plot at all, leaving me utterly at peace and free to immerse myself in their daily lives. Linda’s drinking problem is up again, but Dot’s off to Ireland after Martin admitted to stealing the money that Sonia actually stole for him, and Bex knows which means she’s started drinking, but Leo’s fading into the background after a few middle-of-the-pack episodes about his stalking, and Daniel and Jean are finally letting themselves be happy while they’re dying and also possibly scamming the Mitchells’ funeral home, and the Phil-Sharon-Keanu-Ben-Callum quinquevirate is rattling along steady as it has pretty much since Christmas. The inexhaustible machine of plot generation means that content becomes, like dick on Twitter, “abundant and low value.” More will be along in just a minute. Everything that is done can be undone, even death. Reversals of fortune can be un-reversed, or double-reversed again. Betrayals can become sites of connection and understanding. Uneasy friendships can move along an unending graph, becoming more and more uneasy without every actually rupturing. What is lost can always be recovered. Infinity never recedes; one person’s choice never cancels out other possibilities. No doors are ever closed; transition is only ever a scene change away.
The book I would use to squash a bug
Well, The Mists of Avalon is very heavy! But I don’t have a copy anymore, so I suppose I should choose something that I’d be likely to have close to hand, and that cleans easily. (I’m going to continue to accept the format here and not take a stance on whether or not we should squish bugs.)
The last album I listened to
[Sunday] in the Park with George, the ’84 cast recording. I have been very slowly coming around to Stephen Sondheim; I never got into any of his shows when I was a kid who was dimly attached to musical theater, but both my wife and my best friend are huge Sondheim fans, so it’s been a long time coming. It’s been just wonderful to finally start to appreciate his work, because I used to feel totally shut out from it.
The first album I bought with my own money
My best friend Nicole and I went in together on the Ace of Base cassette for The Sign. We kept it at her house and pored over the liner notes together and argued about whether “All That She Wants” was about a woman who wanted another “baby” like a new guy every night or whether she was trying to get pregnant and just hopped from man to man until she got an actual baby.
The fictional character I’d want on my side in a zombie apocalypse
No one; I want to die the minute a zombie apocalypse starts. Make me the very first zombie, the person who dies before all the zombies start rising and who never even knows there was a zombie outbreak in the first place.
The fictional place I’ve dreamed of moving to
Sweet Valley — I just know one day I’ll find it.
What I’m reading right now
The Corner That Held Them, the new NYRB edition by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Jo Livingstone’s review put me onto it and I don’t want it to ever end — it’s a historical novel that follows the cloistered community at the convent of Oby for a roughly 150-year period, and it’s like sticking your face into a river and watching the fish and forgetting you have to breathe. It reads like something cooked up in a lab to please me specifically.