Talking Shit About Hemingway and Thoreau With The Toast Founder and ‘Texts From Jane Eyre’ Author Mallory Ortberg


To appropriately describe the power of Texts From Jane Eyre and Other Conversations With Your Favorite Literary Characters, the debut book by Mallory Ortberg — the funniest writer on the Internet and the co-creator of the wonderful website The Toast — it seems best to list the places where I laughed while reading it: on the subway, laughing hard enough that the L train glared at me; in bed with a wicked case of insomnia (my chortling woke up my husband); at the Flavorwire office, where we all fought over who got to read the book first.

The beautiful thing about Texts From Jane Eyre, based on Ortberg’s original column for The Hairpin, is that it offers exactly what it says on the cover: the Western canon is parodied and spoofed through the silly modern invention of texting. Ortberg’s comedy is shot through with love and deep literary knowledge, highlighting the silly and outrageous subtext bubbling under classics from Lord Byron to Nancy Drew. It’s hilarious, wickedly smart work that also serves as a fantastic reading list. It was a pleasure to talk with Ortberg at the Flavorwire offices during her recent visit New York.

When did you realize that you were good at writing jokes like the ones in Texts?

I really love doing really stupid jokes. I remember in the sixth grade when my dad showed me Monty Python and the Holy Grail with my best friend and I drove everyone crazy by reciting every scene verbatim. So, I’ve always loved bits. But definitely, in the last three to four years is when I really started feeling like, man, making jokes about literary characters for a short amount of time is what I was put on this earth to do. So glad I found a very specific calling early in life.

I was reading your book at the same time as Megan Amran’s Science… For Her! And both books felt like an extension of the kind of manic female voice that Edith Zimmerman was using at The Hairpin when she was the editor.

Totally, and I think Caity Weaver [at Gawker] or Patricia Lockwood [poet, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals] probably fall under the same umbrella, but they’re all pretty distinct. I wouldn’t say that any of us are clones of each other at all, but there’s definitely that wonderful, unhinged, zany sense of, “I want to be weird and funny and you’re gonna love it.”

Let’s talk for a minute about the Transcendentalists, like Henry David Thoreau and his Concord crew. What was up with those guys?

Somebody could write a long, thoughtful essay about how Thoreau was misunderstood, how the purpose of Walden was never “I’m going to live a life of complete solitude,” and so he shouldn’t necessarily get crap for having people come visit him and bring him marmalade. But I don’t want to write a long essay about that; I want to write jokes about how he steals pies from his neighbors and he talks to his friends late at night in Boston asking them to bring him stuff.

And his parents were pencil factory owners.

He didn’t even make his own cabin, and he literally was just like, “Can I use your cabin for two years, and then get really famous and let me not pay you or anything?” It’s such a dirtbag move, like, “Hey man, can I use your lake house for a while and write my book there?” I mean, it’s fine, but it’s very silly, and people need to treat it with the silliness that it merits. He was like, “I’m not paying taxes, whatever.” I think he owes the world a few apologies.

Did you read every book in preparation for Texts?

Kind of! I had already read all of them. I went to the kind of college that really does say, “Here is the Western canon, read it.” Which is definitely not the only thing you want to do with your English major, you definitely want to reach beyond that, but it was pretty traditional in that sense. So I read the Western canon and have a lot of thoughts about it, apparently.

It was just stuff that I felt really familiar with. I grew up in a house where there was a lot of reading. My parents were both pastors, so there was a lot of Little Women, and European and white North American classics. I love, love, love and have read a lot of other stuff, but the Western canon felt kind of like something I knew intimately. And it was full of so much silliness that it was often — like, I love the Western canon — but it’s sort of silly and it’s full of assholes. Generally people either say either, “Let’s not talk about this because we talk about it too much,” or, “Let’s talk about it very seriously and take it very seriously and Hemingway was very serious and he’s very important.” But these people are goofballs.

The Sun Also Rises is insane.

I cannot tell you how full of joy I am that his granddaughter [Mariel Hemingway] is now like a Zen lifestyle blogger. I don’t know if she blogs [ed. note: her personal blog is titled: “Living a Holistic Life”], but she writes very meditative books with, “Fill your house with lightness, and drink green juices, and stretch,” and he would’ve just gone nuts. He would be miserable. I wish that all of those guys had grandkids who all they did was do yoga and scented themselves and avoided bread. It just would’ve driven them crazy. Like, I wish so much that F. Scott Fitzgerald had like a gay grandson who just taught deep breathing.

There’s a distant relative of his who is a twee musician [Blake Hazard].

Good! May they all have twee descendants. Or simply centered, balanced people who treat the people in their lives well, as sort of like a counterbalance to, “Well I’m going to shoot every animal in Kenya and then die.” Well, where did he die? He shot himself in Florida or something? Who cares? He shot himself.

Do you feel a profound power, running The Toast and being your own boss?

Yes, I do. I really like it. It’s really cool because [Toast co-founder] Nicole [Cliffe] is my favorite person in the world, so I love working with her, and I always want to please her. I love what we get to do. I have a really high sense of motivation, as opposed to just like, “Oh, I feel like writing jokes today.” Being your own boss is really, really fun. I think it’s great. If you want to do it, you should give it a try.

It seems like you just emerged on the Internet fully formed as a comic writer. Where did that come from?

Well, I started writing on the Internet in 2011, and I was doing recaps of The Vampire Diaries for free for a website that I don’t even remember the name. After that I was working in publishing and writing a ton on the side, and I started writing for The Hairpin and then started writing stuff for The Atlantic and Gawker and The Gloss and a couple other places. It certainly wasn’t overnight. I spent a couple years trying to find out what my voice was. Turns out it was just the one that comes out of me when I talk. I was able to spend a lot of time doing it and quit my job and emerged like Venus from the sea, fully dressed in a bathrobe.

Do you get exhausted? You write so many jokes all day long, and you’re really good at it. How do you have that energy?

I conserve all my energy by moving very little. I go into like a physical hibernation. I didn’t know that this is what I loved to do until I started doing it. I think a lot of people have a talent for writing a novel. It turns out I’m just really at my best and happiest when I have to come up with a lot of jokes throughout the day. And write 400 words about them. I don’t know what I did before Twitter. I love Twitter, and it was made for me. I had no idea that it existed and then as soon as it came along I was like, “Oh, thank god, I’ve needed this all along and where have you been?”

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Probably still running The Toast. Honestly, this is the type of job I would want to do until I die. I hope that in five years The Toast has more money than anyone in the world, and I have at least one item of clothing that’s made of gold. Cause my dream is, remember the episode of The Simpsons where Homer ends up winning the lottery and he turns into a man that is ten feet tall and is made of gold and is covered in rupees? That’s the goal. That’s the dream.