I’m so sorry if you’ve never read The Toast. Truly, I am. The online publication co-founded by Mallory Ortberg (who has recently announced their transition to “Daniel”) occupied a delicious and unspoiled sliver of feminist internet space — where jokes about Shirley Jackson and Rebecca lived alongside fantasies about healthy romantic relationships with celebrities like Kristin Stewart, John Cho, and Stanley Tucci (you know your dad would love whenever you brought your boyfriend Stanley Tucci over). The site is no longer active, but fortunately for all of us, Ortberg still is.
In The Merry Spinster, a collection of stories based on classic fairy tales, Ortberg dances between stories of love and malice with a tone equal parts playful and sadistic. This version of The Velveteen Rabbit is a twisted progression of greed; their Wind in the Willows is unspeakably unsettling. If you’ve ever laughed in a horror movie because your body isn’t sure how to appropriately react, you’ll be familiar with the impulses you’ll feel while reading The Merry Spinster. As in their first book, Texts From Jane Eyre, Ortberg cuts down to the center of beloved cultural narratives to reveal a bloody, beating heart that was there all along.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Were there any specific tropes in fairy tales or children’s stories that you were particularly interested in subverting?
MALLORY ORTBERG: I don’t know that I had a special interest in subverting anything. I think sometimes there’s this sort of idea that older stories or fairy tales are from a “bad” past and we are smart and good now, and the work to do in retelling one is to correct the mistakes of the past and include new, enlightened ideas of whatever we think is important at this time, and that’s not something that I felt was necessary for any of these stories. I did not feel like any of them were mistaken about the human condition and I didn’t have an interest in fixing anything, but I did feel like something like The Velveteen Rabbit is concerned with ideas of ownership, of possession, of claiming, of becoming something other than what you were and whether or not you can do that at the expense of other people. Just bringing my own preoccupations and anxieties into the rewriting of the story, I don’t feel like I did anything differently, in that anything I teased out of that story wasn’t already present, it was just more.
The fairy tale books I read growing up were not sanitized, so it didn’t feel like, “Here I am, coming in with my bloody hands to mess around with the safe stories of your youth!” so much as these were stories already deeply committed to exploring the idea of unsafety, and I was continuing the work that had already begun with those earlier writers.
I feel like at least The Wind in the Willows is pretty innocent, right?
Dude! Have you reread that recently? That s–t is so distressing! His compulsion around driving feels terrifying and alcoholic. The way they talk about how he drives and the emotional state he falls into when he drives feels delirious, black-out drunk, horrifying, dangerous, manic, deeply upsetting. His friends are deeply concerned. His home is overrun at one point by armed creatures that wish him ill — they all speak to each other in this overly courteous tone in this way that makes you feel like they’re all bourgeois plotting to kill each other. It is a distressing book that obviously has lots of lyrical descriptions of rivers, but I never mistook that for civility or safety as a child and rereading it I don’t see that now. That book f—ed me up as a kid. Do you remember that ride, [Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride], from Disneyland? It ends in hell, Dana!
Oh, I remember. You get hit by a train, die, and go to hell.
The room gets slightly warmer! They blast red lights and gust hot air at you. I mean, Disney got it right on that one. People want to say, “Ah, Disney has sucked all of the gore and grime and creepiness out of these stories,” but not out of Wind in the Willows they didn’t!
Have you been to Universal Studios recently? They have a Mummy ride, and the storyline is that the mummy is trying to steal your soul. And then at the end of the ride, he does! The lights flash black, then bright white, and then the ride is over! No one saves you. The mummy wins in the narrative of that ride!
That is bold. I gotta tell you, there aren’t a lot of movies that are willing to do that, so credit to the Universal Studios ride engineers for being willing to take a narrative risk.
So back to The Merry Spinster, you use the term “daughters” in unexpected ways throughout the book, as a gender- and sexually neutral word.
I think especially in [The Little Mermaid adaptation] “The Daughter Cells,” I was doing the most world-building because I was trying to allude to a culture that had a lot of theories and superstitions built around things like radial symmetry and had to deal with asexual reproduction and division. Fairy tales will so often have the role of the daughter as you carry on your father’s identity, you carry on your father’s legacy, but only as a carrier — you don’t display any of the characteristics, you simply carry it on. The idea was if you were to uncouple that from our world’s understanding of the sexist implications we’ve given to that, if you just made it a task, what would that world look like? And what would be the ways people would think about property and inheritance and legacy? That really interested me — not so much envisioning a better world in terms of gender roles, but simply a different one, and seeing what would seem more alien and more familiar as a result, and how would we feel about the daughter in question? That was something that was a lot of fun to get to write. That was a story that more than anything is deeply concerned whether or not private property is a good idea and there’s a lot to work with there.
It’s almost like the designation of being a daughter doesn’t really matter in these worlds.
Or rather, it does matter, but it matters in a way that we don’t immediately relate to, and so you’re sort of set off guard from the beginning. Like, oh, okay, I had an idea of what this person’s function was, and now I am not so sure, and I don’t know if the things we take for granted with regards to a person’s gender if this world also takes for granted. I’m not sure what to expect for this character, and I’m not sure whether I should be afraid for them, or afraid of them. I’m not sure if they’re going to be funny, if they’re going to be listened to, if they’re going to be safe. I’m trying to capture a sense of something off-kilter, that this world is very familiar in some ways and not in others, and going into detail about all of the assumptions that we bring to a word like “daughter.”
A lot of your writing is about history, and with a really academic focus. Were you a Classics major?
No, I was an English Lit major. So all of my enthusiasm for things like Ancient Greek stories is totally a layman’s enthusiasm. I don’t read Greek, I don’t read Latin, and I’ve always had a real chip on my shoulder about that, as if I couldn’t just learn — no, I’d rather feel resentful of Keats, who I’m also pretty sure didn’t read Greek because that’s why he wrote [On First Looking Into] Chapman’s Homer because he couldn’t read the original Greek. So I even picked the wrong guy to be jealous of.