‘What if God turned into a swan and then f***ed somebody?’ – An interview with Mallory Ortberg

Mallory Ortberg is a founder of The Toast, and the kind of writer other writers lose their minds over. Superfan Hilary Beattie tracked her down during her visit for the New Zealand Festival.

Mallory Ortberg is a beacon of light in this cruel, dark world. As the lead writer for the Toast, which she runs with business partner Nicole Cliffe, she gets up in the morning and larks around the canon. Among other things, this means jumping through Western literature and cracking jokes at people being wangs, who have often largely avoided having their shitty and/or hilarious behaviour poked fun at. For me, her writing is a happy reminder that serious things are often ridiculous and that ridiculous things can make serious points – that levity is not the enemy. That I can enjoy men’s company and input, but cheerfully ignoring them is also an option. And that I’m nothing like Elizabeth Bennet, but neither is anyone else.

Her work, which appeared on Gawker and the Hairpin before the Toast launched in mid-2013, is a mixture of regular series and one-off musings. She might rewrite a poem, or play with the Bible, or just unpack the harsh truths. In one of her series, Texts From…, she translates conversations between history’s literary characters into the Whatsapp/iMessage/’up 2 2nite’ social tragicomedy in which we find ourselves with absolute perfect pitch. It became a book, Texts From Jane Eyre, which was published in 2014. More recently she’s become the voice of Dear Prudence, Slate’s advice column, and signed another book deal.

And now, a jolt into real(ish)-time: I’ve been put through to Mallory Ortberg at her hotel room in Wellington, where she’s staying ahead of a couple of appearances as part of the New Zealand Writers’ Festival. I’m realising that I own no dictaphone and that one cannot simply use one’s phone to record one’s phone calls. So I make a video on Photo Booth. Friends, foes, the indifferent: if you hate listening to recordings of your own voice, why not cure yourself of that happy insignificant fear by watching a video of yourself talking to Mallory Ortberg on the phone? Exactly.


HB: Hey so are you aware that the vast majority of questions people ask you in interviews are just them attempting to forge friendship? [reeeeal subtle, Hilary]

MO: That’s definitely better than all of the questions that are designed to make me look foolish or to trap me into saying something. That makes me feel happy and good about the world.

You really jump across centuries on the Toast. It seems like there’s a freedom in going unabashedly backwards rather than having to surf the news cycle/content wave. Also that’s not a New Zealand idiom, don’t ascribe that to us.

Yeah, I feel like in some ways I’m the opposite of an academic, right, especially if you’re working in the field of literature or art history where you choose a period that’s incredibly focussed, and within that period you choose a particular region, or art, or person, or even one particular book and you become the expert in that. And that’s really fascinating and I’m sure frustrating in a totally different way, having a totally specific focus and expertise.

I’m much more menial. I’m an enthusiastic but somewhat ill-informed liberal arts major and I haven’t been back to school in six or seven years, and so I am sort of leaping about the traditional Western canon. I feel like I’ve been talking about that a lot on this particular trip. I talk about a lot more than the dead male white European writers of the last five hundred years. That’s just where a lot of my jokes are focussed, because I think they’re the best to make fun of. But that’s not my only area of interest, or the only thing that I like to write about, it’s just where a lot of my clownin’ takes place. I grew up very familiar with those classic works, so that’s an area that I’m very comfortable chatting about.

Anything you’re not that comfortable chatting about?

Definitely areas that lie outside my field of expertise. I think if there was anything that you wanted to talk to me about that I just didn’t know about I’d probably have to say, I… actually have no idea who that person is. And I obviously don’t do a lot of writing about my personal life. I’m not a memoirist, I’m not a confessional essayist. It’s not that I’m not comfortable speaking about the broad elements of my biography, it’s just not the type of writing I generally choose to do. It’s not the type of writing that I’m best at. I think there are writers who do it so so well, but it’s just an area where the handful of times I’ve tried to do it it sounds very flat and dull. That’s why I sort of haven’t moved much in that direction. Hey, is it okay if I put this call on hold for a second?

[My neuroses: she is leaving you like you deserve]

I’ve gotta put the phone down. I’ve gotta put milk in my tea.

Do it.

I forgot these phones have cords because we’re talking like old-timey people.

I don’t want you to drink tea without milk.

Thank you. […] Okay. All is well now.

Awesome. While you were putting milk in your tea I got an email from my dad who’s trying to get a family thread going to name my parents’ new whippet puppy. Do you have any ideas for a good name for a really thin dog?

A whippet puppy?

Yeah. How terrifying is that?

That sounds amazing. Obviously like you have an immediate set of options, which is, you go for something that acknowledges the shape, the size, the space of a whippet, or you do the opposite and go for something like Chubsters or Stocky Boots.

My dad thinks that ‘Devo’ is too obvious, and we need to name it after a member of Devo if we go in that direction. But I don’t know. People aren’t that smart.

Yeah, I mean, when you first said Devo I thought you were saying Davo but you were just saying it weird. [To be honest, I don’t even know if she was saying Davo, she might have said something else but just said it weird. Damn this flattened tongue of ours!]

I wasn’t trying to power play you. That wasn’t my intention.

I really appreciate that.

Hey, no trouble.

The only thing I sort of object to with dog names is when people give them human names. Like when somebody calls their pet Michael. I find it weird. I don’t think they shouldn’t be allowed to do so, I would never advocate for arresting and imprisoning these people, but I’ve got my eye on them.

There’s just a higher chance that you’ll be yelling [mum voice] ‘Michael, Michael’ and someone appears and is like “What, lady?!”

[Does not laugh] Yes.

So you’ve been doing Dear Prudence for a while. Can you take advice? Your own or other people’s?

No one’s great initially at taking advice. Part of the human condition is finding a motive to suit our decisions. So almost anyone, once they decide to do something, will find a way to retell the story of what’s going on in their minds such that they’re making the most rational, the most reasonable, the most acceptable possible decision. And that’s really hard to see in yourself. So to a certain extent I don’t think any human is great at taking advice.

Some people are more easily led than others, but that’s not quite the same thing as being able to take advice. So with that caveat, when I do ask someone for advice it’s usually someone I trust pretty well, and it’s always with the understanding that I may or may not do what you advise me to do, but I will take it seriously under consideration. There have been been a handful of times in the last year or two when I’ve taken advice from someone that’s been against my initial thoughts. And I’m glad that I did it, because my initial thoughts were not in my own best interest, and I let cooler heads prevail. I appreciated doing what someone else advised me to do rather than what I had convinced myself was the best choice. I can’t remember anything really specific, so I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got.

No, that’s great. On a side note – actually not a side note, I can do what I want [mutual nervous laughter] the other day you rewrote a poem, Leda and the Swan, that I studied one time, a long time ago, and I just wanted to say thank you. That is how I often feel when I read your stuff, like, oh, thank you.

Yeats! He’s so great. It’s a wonderful poem.

Do you get struck by something that you think might be a good idea and then start working on it straight away, or do you kind of have a rolling queue?

I do have a rolling queue. Usually the ones that do the best or that I like the most are the ones where there’s a very short period of time between having the idea and doing it. That usually means I’m very excited about it. One of the things that I love is how in Western Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, there was this really specific idea of a classical education, like in the UK if you were an educated man you went to one of a handful of schools, one of a handful of colleges, you studied most of the same texts, you read the same amount of Greek and Latin – there was this real continuity, there was a common culture in a certain way. And I think it’s hilarious that they took it so seriously, like, the story of Leda and the Swan is that somebody wondered a couple of thousand years ago, “what if God turned into a swan and then fucked somebody? I guess that’s one of the big questions of our era.”

I think it can be very easy to valorise those guys, or think of them as very serious, like, they all spend a lot of time painting and writing and thinking like “hey so remember how the Greeks have that story about how God turned into a swan and then had sex with a lady? Like, what do you think the mechanics of that were?” It’s the sort of question that a very ridiculously high freshman might come up with. And it’s something that a lot of very famous and important people have spent considerable energy figuring out. Some of them were like “was it consensual? Did she enjoy it? Did she know it was God, or did she just think it was a swan?” That’s amazing to me.

That’s mildly terrifying.

It sure is something.

Can I ask you about Hillary Clinton? Do you think people’s perceptions of her are a result of sexist presumptions?

Whyyyy are you asking me about this?

You don’t have to answer.

Yeah, let’s skip that one. I’ve been getting asked a lot about my political views while I’m in Australia and New Zealand, as an American. There’s a very good reason that I never talk about specific political candidates in my own writing and that’s just because I’m not very smart in that area. I don’t know a lot.

I probably couldn’t have rejoined with anything other than two-week-old misquoted Economist coverage. I’m pretty relieved.

It’s a totally legitimate question, I just feel like it’s a topic that’s been covered by so many different people that there’s not much I can add. I always bristle when I’m asked something with the implication that, because you’re a woman you must care about this. And sometimes it’s a totally legitimate thing to say. I just bristle anyway. I don’t always have a very good reason for bristling.

To be honest I’ve just been trying to avoid falling back into saying hey so don’t you just love New Zealand, because people here get really into asking that. Too into it. We need to try and be cool.

No! I do, I love it here. I just hiked up to a monastery in Wellington this morning. Well, hike is a strong word. And it was delightful. I got a little bit lost and I wandered through some outdoor staircases and I had a blast. But can I tell you one thing I’m a little bit irritated with at New Zealand so far?

Yes. Will I be able to fix it in like three days?

Maybe. So, all I’ve wanted this whole trip is to see the Southern Cross. Because the only time I’ve been south of the Equator before was in Ecuador, which has all the same constellations. And the whole time I’ve been on this trip I’ve been super jazzed, like, give me some more stars to look at, I’m sick of looking at the usual ones. If I ever see Orion again I’m going to kick something. And then here it’s been too cloudy or too many lights on for me to see any stars. I just want one night with no clouds so I can see some new constellations. It doesn’t have to be the Southern Cross. I’m not picky.

Hold out for the Southern Cross. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be satisfying, but then it is very satisfying. Are you surrounding yourself with the right people?

I guess that’s a great question. Who are the right people?

The hotel might let a celestial employee accompany you up to the roof?

I already tried to drum up some support on Twitter for taking a road trip to the Southern Star Abbey. It’s a monastery a few hours’ drive from here. In Kopua, Takapau. I’m sorry, I said that horribly wrong. I super love monasteries, as you may know, and I really want to go and check it out but I don’t think I have time.

I didn’t think this would end with me offering you my commiserations, but there they are. Go well.

Thank you!

Mallory Ortberg appeared at the New Zealand Writer’s Festival on Thursday March 10. So you probably missed her!

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