When I call Mallory Ortberg, co-founder of literary and pop culture website the Toast, she’s in the middle of walking her dog. This seems like a good sign, as I’m in the process of kicking mine out the door for her daily walk with her dog walker. It feels almost fortuitous, except it means that for the next ten minutes all we talk about are our dogs.
Ortberg has recently adopted a stately older gentleman dog, Murphy (‘He’s a total sack of garbage. I love him.’). I admit to wishing my puppy was old too, so I could get some rest. (‘What you really need to do is get a dog with the energy levels of a cat, right, I feel that’s what everyone is looking for – maybe a dog that wants to go on one walk a day, maybe play for ten minutes and then just wants to get some sleep,’ says Ortberg). Already we’re on the same page. Interviewing Ortberg ahead of her appearance at the All About Women festival in Sydney feels more like talking to an old friend than conducting business. This, of course, is simply part of Ortberg’s charm.
KYD: Have you been to Australia before?
Mallory Ortberg: No, never! I’ve never been to either Australia or New Zealand before, so I’m super jazzed.
I’m so excited about All About Women, mostly because my life plan is to marry Carrie Brownstein, and convince her that Sleater-Kinney need a bassist, and then learn the bass.
I like that plan. They need a bassist, and definitely not a bassist that already knows how to play the bass, and has to unlearn all the tactics that they’ve learned with another band. They need to start from scratch.
Exactly! So she’s going to be there, which is exciting, and Miranda July is my everything, so that’s awesome as well. Are there any events that you’re hoping to get to? Will you have time?
You know, I so far have not even checked the schedule, I’ve been so busy running around making sure I have my visa and passport ready, so I’m excited for everything but I’m not sure yet which ones I’m going to hit up. Which I am now realising is not a very good answer.
I really love your All About Women discussion topic, the Happy Feminist. What does ‘Happy Feminism’ mean to you?
It is the topic that was assigned to me when I agreed to do All About Women! I can’t take any credit for it, unfortunately. But the example I use when I talk about things like this is that there’s this character in Lord of the Rings, Tom Bombadil, who is sort of wonderful, and dresses like Father Christmas, and completely holds up the narrative–
I love Tom Bombadil.
Everyone’s super concerned about this horribly dangerous ring and all the terrible things that could happen, and he’s just mildly sinister but incredibly cheerful. He bellows around the forest screaming old songs, and he’s the king of the trees. He’s like, ‘Nice ring you got there, sounds like a real problem!’ and offers no assistance whatsoever. He’s a messy, chaotic figure, and I love that he’s included in the narrative as this guy who’s like, ‘Yup, sounds like a real bad problem, not my problem.’ Here’s this whimsical, bewildering character, who sometimes decides to be helpful and sometimes decides not to participate. Nobody knows what he’s all about. I find that really fun, and a fun character to channel every now and again in my own life. So yeah, that’s my answer?
When I think of ‘Happy Feminism’, I definitely think of all of your Toast pieces. I think for a lot of people, writing humour pieces about classic literature and feminism and art is a dream job! How long did it take you to get the Toast to the point where it could be your full-time job?
It’s kind of been my full-time job since day 1 – I quit my job to do it. Nicole [Cliffe, co-founder of the Toast] and I were talking on and off for about a year about the possibility of starting a site, and how cool that would be. She was already working at the Hairpin, so she had a similar job already, and I had just left my job in publishing and was writing freelance and cobbling different jobs together. It was probably July 2013 when we launched, and that’s when I started doing it full time. We were awful at doing the elevator pitch letting people know what we were going to be about. We were like: ‘It’s going to be good, I promise. Just read it!’ So it was my job right away, but I didn’t know if it would make enough money to pay me, so it was great that it did.
Is it a nine to five kind of thing – maybe not nine to five, but you know what I mean. Is it an all day, every day type operation?
It’s very much an all-encompassing job. We publish in east coast hours, and I live on the west coast, so it’s definitely more than nine to five. There are two big chunks of the day, punctuated by little rests in between. My first post of the day goes up at 10am east coast time, which is 7am my time, which means I usually like to have the first post of the day done the night before. Actually I like to have all of my posts for the day done the night before.
What happens is: I wake up, I do social for the site, go and check my emails for a few hours, work on other pieces I’m doing elsewhere or work on my book. Then I catch up on anything I haven’t done yet for the day, and take a few hours off in the afternoon, and by the evening I start writing my pieces for the next day. I usually work in the late morning, and then again in the evening.
So you’re working on a book at the moment?
Yes! My first book (Texts from Jane Eyre) came out last year, and I just sold my second book to Holt and now I have to write it. That is the goal.
So is it a follow up or companion to Texts from Jane Eyre?
No, it’s going to be a collection of short stories. They’re going to be eerie and odd, sort of Shirley Jackson-esque. It will be not dissimilar to this series on the Toast I did called Children’s Stories Made Horrific, which is not to say that it will be any of those stories, but it’s going to be a little unsettling, a little odd. It’ll be literature this time as opposed to jokes about literature, so that’s definitely a big change for me.
Speaking of Toast series, do you have a favourite series or post that you’d recommend to someone who hasn’t come across the Toast before, as a sort of Toast 101 introduction? My personal favourite series is Hey Ladies – I read them all in one hit and almost died from laughing.
Oh my gosh. Michelle and Caroline [Markowitz and Moss, co-authors of the Hey Ladies series] are amazing. I would pick the ‘If X Was your Girlfriend or Boyfriend’ series. It’s been ongoing for a while and we’ve had a lot of great, different writers do fun things with that. If it were my own work, I’d say the Women in Western Art History pieces, because that sort of sums up what you might be able to expect [from the Toast].
And I will say this – I’m sure he’s not very well known in Australia, but there’s this guy Chris Kimball who founded a cooking magazine called Cook’s Illustrated, and he also hosts a show called America’s Test Kitchen. He’s a very odd person, very tall, he wears a bow tie. He lives in Vermont and he writes these really great letters from the editor in each issue of Cook’s Illustrated. They’re always like, ‘Who will ever forget the year that Old Henry plowed his field stark naked, or the year all the jam went missing?’ with these sinister undertones. A while back I started doing versions of his letter from the editor, and three or four times a year I get an email from someone who really loves his cooking, and sincerely wants to know, like, ‘Hi, you run a website that publishes his letters, how can I get a hold of him?’ I got one of them today. [The fake letters] are so clearly satire – the byline is my name, and the website is not his website, and they talk about people going missing, and coming back with different coloured eyes in the spring. It’s really wonderful that people think, wow, Chris Kimball took a really weird turn.
I was really sad to see the Butter go. Is that an idea that’s going to live again in some way some day?
I don’t think so.
Is that because it was mostly a vehicle to get Roxane Gay? Which, of course, because she’s amazing.
I mean, exactly. Everyone wants more Roxane in their lives, and that’s what made it so untenable. Because she’s got so many projects going on. She’s working on her next book, she’s working on an anthology, she’s got a fellowship with the New York Times… finally she knew she had to let something go. The Butter was a really cool project, but she’s heading to the moon. She’s going to continue doing so many amazing things. There will always be Roxane, but I don’t think there’s going to be another Butter.
One thing I love about the Toast is the community. As a queer lady book nerd, I feel like I’ve found my people, and it seems like I’m not alone in that sentiment. Was that something you deliberately fostered, or was it more of an organic ‘build it and they will come’ scenario?
We knew to a certain extent what kind of an audience we were looking for. Coming from the Hairpin, we knew there were people who were going to follow us. But it’s been so gratifying to see the amazing women, and sometimes men, who have become a part of the Toast’s community – if you look at an open thread on a weekly basis, it’s filled with these amazing people and it’s like, how did they hear about us? Who are these incredible weightlifters and archivists and librarians, the most fascinating people who study the most incredible things, and I have no idea how we found them and it’s so cool. So on some level yes, we found our people, but in another sense when they found us they created something amazing, and even bigger than what we were. Does that make sense?
It totally does. Every time I read the Toast comments I end up feeling as though you could write an article on basically anything and some amazing woman would pop up in the comments saying, ‘Oh, I’m an expert on this.’ It’s like, who are you?
I don’t know what we’ve done to deserve it, and I don’t mean that in terms of false modesty. I mean it more like: how did we get so lucky that all these bitchin’ women showed up and want to hang out?
Maybe the world is just too small. For instance, you wrote an amazing piece a while ago about a team of all-women scientists who did a cave exploration?
I remember that so vividly!
I thought it was the coolest thing in the world, so I immediately stalked all the women. One of them lives in Brisbane and we have all these mutual friends. She’s basically a celebrity to me after reading your piece and then googling everything about it.
Yeah, I remember that so vividly. None of them were even experts in their field, they were just enthusiastic amateurs, and we heard from some of them, and they wanted to talk about the work they were doing.
You also recently did a piece about Star Wars. For some reason I just wasn’t expecting to see it on the Toast that day, and all of the comments were so involved, and I’m a Star Wars geek so I was in my element.
We don’t really do a ton of ‘in the moment’ movie reviews, so I get why you weren’t expecting to see it, but I grew up with the expanded universe novels so I just had to write something about it.
It was exciting. I’m totally someone who thinks that Rey is 100% Luke’s daughter, and I was getting all up in the comments, like, has everyone not already figured this out? Or are we ignoring it? It was a good time.
I’m so glad you enjoyed yourself! I feel resentful that they would even expect us… because of COURSE it seems so obvious that she’s either Han or Leia’s daughter – which wouldn’t make a ton of sense because they didn’t acknowledge it – or she’s Luke’s daughter. And I was so irritated that I was being forced to speculate. Like, fuck you, I don’t want to know.
No, see, I’m a speculator. If you don’t give me something to speculate about, I’m going to be angry.
I was like ‘I know what you’re trying to do and it’s working and I hate you!’
So, a random, vaguely literary question, totally just concerned with the fact that your name is Mallory: what, if any, are your feelings regarding Mallory Pike from The Baby-Sitters Club?
Oh my gosh. I have some feelings.
Yes! Tell me!
So I grew up with red hair and glasses and my name was Mallory. So of course everyone’s like, ‘You’re Mallory Pike, you’re Mallory Pike.’ Nobody wants to be Mallory! She was 11 and her only character trait was that she had a lot of siblings. She had nothing, you know what I mean? Kristy had softball, Mary Anne had a boyfriend, Dawn was the Californian, Jessi was a ballerina, Stacey was from New York, and Mallory’s whole thing was like (nerd voice) ‘Wait for me guys! I’ve got glasses and too many siblings!’ Ugh.
But then, later in the series they did this thing where she was actually a misunderstood writer who went to boarding school to get away from her siblings and to think a lot about literature, and it was amazing to me because I had not given Mallory Pike any time, and suddenly I realised I was Mallory! And here I was thinking I was some Kristy/Dawn hybrid. In reality, I was Mallory all along.
Well, clearly whenever this was, it was after I’d aged out of the books. So I’m going to go ahead and say that this is all non-canonical and doesn’t count.
Look it up! And by the time it happened I was also way too old for it, but I just kept going. And it got real! Mary Anne and Dawn’s house burnt down.
I remember that they had Dawn move away, and they revamped this series called – I want to say, the California Diaries? And they were so intense. The worst thing that ever happened in the Baby-Sitters Club was like, oh, is this house haunted? No it’s not! And then all of a sudden in California Diaries it’s like, oh, I have an eating disorder, and I’m cutting myself and I’m going to try drugs! I was not prepared. I read the first couple of books and decided I wasn’t ready.
Oh, me too. I was not emotionally mature enough for that at that point in my life.
Right, it was way too much of a jump! You remember Sweet Valley High?
And then there was Sweet Valley Senior Year where they all graduated and there was an earthquake and then they were all at a different school. That was a pretty okay jump. It went from high school, where they would sometimes mention drugs, then they had a gay character, and it just got a bit more adult. But the California Diaries were intense. Zero to 60. Coming from a series where it was like, ‘What if some 13-year-olds wanted to go into business?’
They were just simple girls from Connecticut!
Do you remember the book Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews?
I found that book in the summer between sixth and seventh grade, at a garage sale. It wasn’t this thing where people were passing it around saying, ‘You gotta check out this dirty book.’ I found it at a garage sale and was all, ‘This looks like a cool mystery!’ I read maybe 160 pages and then I went into my parents’ room and said, ‘I don’t think I should be reading this,’ and I gave it to them and then tried to black it out from my memory for the rest of my life.
Yep, yep. Way too much incest.
I was not ready. I was NOT ready. I didn’t know siblings did that to each other… it was new information to me.
What do you like on your toast? Butter and jam.
Who is your favourite Australian? Miss Fisher.
Currently reading? God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi by Julien Green
Hilary or Bernie? Pass.
Favourite Brontë sister? You know that famous painting of them, where Branwell originally painted himself in with them, then scratched it out with this big yellow thing? So, the yellow beam. ENERGY LIGHT BEAM BRONTË!
Mallory Ortberg is appearing at All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday 6 March.