Mallory Ortberg, co-founder of the not-just-for-ladies but awesome-for-ladies website The Toast, doesn't take literature too seriously—but she does know how to take serious literature and mine it for hilarity. Likewise, her new book, Texts From Jane Eyre: And Conversations With Your Other Favorite Literary Characters, doesn't discriminate. It pokes fun at—while simultaneously paying homage to—classics from the canon like Pride and Prejudice along with Gen X childhood favorites like Sweet Valley High.
Can you talk about the origin of this series, where they came from, how the texts stopped being just a one-off idea?
A lot of my creative energy is spent coming up with a concept that, once I get it, I feel like it writes itself. So I’ll spend a lot of time doing something that doesn’t seem like work—G-chatting with friends or just building on each other’s jokes or just thinking of goofy ideas. And then when I find it, I’ll kind of try to refine it in such a way that it feels like “I could look at this from a hundred different angles with a hundred different characters.” I’ll often use Twitter as like a first draft factory, but as soon as I saw Dirtbag Hamlet, and I went through a couple of different versions of how he was interacting with other characters, I was like “This is done! I don’t even have to do anything now! The concept is everything.”
Do you differentiate between the way that you think about writing about characters versus the way that you think about writing about real people, the authors?
I have a couple of characters in the book that are authors: William Blake, Emily Dickinson—they tend to be people who didn’t write a lot of fiction, and their public persona is very much well known as a sort of literary character in itself. When I think of Emily Dickinson, there’s not one particular poem of hers that jumps out, but I do have a very vivid image of an ill woman with giant eyes who wants to write about the sun exploding. Whereas with Shakespeare, I don’t think of this really specific guy, I think of Hamlet and I think of Macbeth and I think of Lear, and I think of what assholes they are, but how much I love them.
Do you think that’s specific to you, or do you think that that’s a universal idea that there are some creators who are so much bigger than anything they have ever made? Like Thoreau, for instance.
It’s funny. If you really go back and look at his work, he acknowledged that. He was never saying “I’m going to go live in the middle of nowhere and never interact with anyone else.” But there is a mythology that has sprung up around Thoreau the character more than Thoreau the actual human being. Over the years, it’s become: If you want to talk self-reliance, you talk Thoreau. This doesn’t acknowledge the fact that he had servants come by his cabin, he lived a couple of miles away from town, people visited, he sold pies.
Your book is really funny in a smart but childlike way. How much of this comes from your childhood imagination?
You can probably subtitle this “Mallory looks around her seventh grade bedroom and makes jokes on the titles she sees on the shelf.” I wanted to use some of the most widely read books, and those are also some of the most broadly sketched characters. Take Nancy Drew: She’s kind of a cipher. What are her character traits? She has a nice car, her mother is dead, she gets tied up a lot, and she has a boyfriend Ned, but still, in every other book she’s going on a date with other guys, which I guess has more to do with dating culture of the ’40s and ’50s, but makes it look like she’s just cheating on him constantly. I think this is really funny and I just kind of love the idea of a kind of crazy teen girl who loves solving mysteries and is always like, “hey Ned I’ll be right back, I just have to go sailing with these hot guys, they promised me they’d help me solve a mystery.”
There’s an affinity that a particular kind of girl who likes to read has for Jane Eyre, the Brontes, Austen, George Eliot. How much of that exists for you, especially for Jane Eyre?
I love Jane Eyre and I love the Bronte sisters. I actually didn’t read any of them until I was in college, so I don’t have quite the same connection with them that I think a lot of women do. But I also think this isn’t just a book for childless lady English majors who live with one and a half cats in a two bedroom apartment in one of six different cities. I mean, my dad likes this book and he’s not a childless lady, so I’m hopefully that some dads will read this.
But, certainly, there is a culture that I identified with. We are a weird little gang, and when we find each other there’s that moment of “Sister! Let us meet on the moors tonight!” It’s nice to find one another as adults and say “Oh, did you also have weird burial for your dogs based on the Lady of Shallot scene from Anne of Green Gables? Fantastic!” I repeatedly attempted throw myself out of the first story window of my house because I was so into the scene where Rebecca almost does an Ivanhoe.
A lot of female authors in earlier centuries were unmarried women …
This is something I want to write so much more about. I would always love for my next book to be a light comic novella called The Merry Spinster and to explore those themes of glorious female solitude. I think female solitude is a mental condition as well as a physical state. You can be married and a spinster. I think spinster is an identity every woman can claim, if she will. … I feel like a lot of women, or a lot of feminists, joke about taking to the sea or living alone in a cottage as this kind of fun freedom.
Do you ever want to play up those aspects of some of the people that you write about so that people can celebrate their strangeness? So that we can all just say “Emily Dickinson was a weirdo, but she was also awesome”?
All of these characters definitely get played up. I prefer to look for somebody who is already really outsized, so they only have to be exaggerated a little bit. This book is really over-the-top, but it’s also not super far from the characters themselves, and that’s why I liked writing it so much. I just look for characters who are already really ridiculous but treated very seriously, and I just kind of hold back the seriousness and roll around in the ridiculousness.
A lot of these people were geniuses, but must have been horrible to live with.
That’s what makes a lot of them memorable. Something that makes a really great literary character would often make a horrible roommate, or friend, or boyfriend. And that’s why they’re so fun to read about and it’s so great that they don’t exist.
This interview has been edited and condensed.