Mallory Ortberg, co-founder of the dearly departed feminist website The Toast, Slate’s “Dear Prudence,” and the author of “Children’s Stories Made Horrific” and “Texts from Jane Eyre,” turns beloved fairy tales on their heads in the new short story collection: “The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror.”
In “The Merry Spinster,” Ortberg remixes “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” and more well-known sources into stories both weirder and yet somehow more familiar. Beauty’s mother, for example, is a high-powered executive with investment woes, and as the Little Mermaid discovers upon becoming a girl, there are many disadvantages to being human, including “one-way joints [and] a sudden and profound sense of isolation.” Ortberg’s tales are all the more enchanting — and humorous, and haunting — for falling so close to home.
Certain themes reappear throughout the collection, including explorations of gender. In “The Thankless Child,” Cinderella is named Paul; in “The Frog’s Princess,” a beautiful daughter’s gender pronouns are he/him. This exploration is personal: half-way through the writing of “The Merry Spinster” Ortberg began attending gender therapy. Ortberg talked to me about transitioning while writing the book, how tough it is to define satire and the epic sadness of Hans Christian Andersen.
Orbertg’s book tour launches Saturday at Skylight Books in Los Angeles at 5 p.m. Our conversation has been edited.
You’ve been described as a satirist. Is there any oblique link between satire and fairy tale?
Probably? This is one of those moments when I’m really aware of my own limitations, because I think, “Do I know exactly what a satirist is?” If you were to ask me, “Can you clearly and simply lay out the differences between humor, parody and satire?” I would try to jump out a window just to get away, because I straight-up don’t know. Satire feels like a sending up of something, and that’s not the type of work I do most often. I don’t feel like this book is satirical in the sense of setting out to subvert or send up or critique any one particular idea. It felt more like an exploration of horror in a very specific context. Satire comes from a position of confidence as opposed to the way that writing this book felt, which was, “Oh, I’m anxious and afraid.”
In these “Tales of Everyday Horror,” your riffs on “The Velveteen Rabbit” and “The Wind in the Willows” in particular both got me good. There’s this terrible feeling of “with friends like these, who needs enemies?”
It’s that sense of “Can you trust your own instincts? Can you trust your own read of a situation? To what degree are you responsible for your own well-being and to what degree can you ask other people to safeguard you?” I wanted to explore what that looked like in the context of friends and family. A lot of the book asks: What does it mean to not recognize something that you’re very familiar with? What does it mean to be around something constantly and not know it? What would that make your daily life look like and in what ways would that make your own life essentially unbearable to you?
You began transitioning while writing this book. What is your preferred gender pronoun?
I haven’t yet rolled out the name and pronoun change, but it’s going to be a male name and male pronoun. In the meantime, either she or they. I feel like I’ve come out before making the full switch, so there’s this sense of “I’m out, but keep watching for the skies for updates!” I’m aware that everyone’s asking this question: What should we do in the meantime? And my answer has mostly been, “Great question! Not sure!”
How did the writing of the book and your transition intersect?
I feel like we’ve already talked about it in the sense of anxiety and fear and panic. One of the things that I was anxious about was that I wasn’t sure if I’d be out by the time the book was finished. Part of me was really stressed out about the idea of going on book tour and hearing, “Hey, there’s a lot of stuff going on with gender in your book: What’s that about?” and having to half answer, like, “Yes, isn’t gender interesting? Nothing personal going on here!” So it’s been a huge relief just to be able to talk about that as part of the context of the book.
In “The Frog’s Princess” you write that “beauty is never private,” an observation that has chilling ramifications in the story. What’s going on there?
There are so many different ways in which, especially for girls, other people will let you know when your childhood is done. It has to do with physical beauty; it has to do with looking queer, so many different things. People will say things like, “This person is really beautiful” as if that were a good and a fun thing to say to somebody else. You have ceded ownership of your own image and own body by looking a certain way, and that’s traumatizing a lot of the time.
Obviously, there are also a lot of privileges that come with beauty, but I was just thinking of a lot of the people that I’ve known in my life who have been told that they were beautiful in various ways, many of which were violent and painful and deeply damaging to one’s sense of independence. Having that done to you and then being told “this is good, this is a favor, you should be grateful for this” is painful in such a specific way. Sometimes other people will use the word beauty as way of saying, “I want to hurt you. I want to hurt you and I don’t want you to know that you’re being hurt so I’m going to call it beauty.”
Reading “The Merry Spinster” I thought often of Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber.” What were your literary influences?
Shirley Jackson is another obvious influence here. I read “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” for the first time when I was 16. I was in a bookstore and I stood there and read half of it. Then bought it and was just like, “Oh, I’m changed at a cellular level now.” I think also “The Pilgrim’s Progress” by John Bunyan. There’s so much in it that has to do with what I would call “religious horror,” which I probably should have gotten from Flannery O’Connor, but I’ve barely read Flannery O’Connor. I just know she’s what comes up when people talk about comedy and horror and religion.
Both of your parents are ministers. Did Bible stories play a subconscious role in your thoughts about the book?
Very much so, and my conscious thought too, frankly. I have that little bit in the end where I clarify what liturgical or theological sources influence each chapter. The liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Aquinas and the Desert Fathers all pop up throughout the book. That felt like a very natural and exciting to get to do.
Did you have a favorite fairy tale growing up?
The Andrew Lang Fairy Book collections’ “Snow-White and Rose-Red,” and anything by Hans Christian Andersen, who was just so distressing. That man was just sadder than anyone who ever lived. He invented Pixar 100 years early but his version of Pixar was just, “What if every object in your home was desperately sad and wanted a soul more than anything else in the world and wanted to go to heaven and was in love with the poker over by the fireplace but they could never touch because they can’t move, wouldn’t that be terrible?” And it’s just like, “Yes, Hans, it would be. These are very sad stories. I am very sad now.”
Your book is clearly for adults, but it’s also unequivocally a book of fairy tales. It’s satisfying to discover that at every age these archtypical stories matter.
I’m right there with you. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s this idea that as I’m writing this book I’ve also entered a second puberty, and there’s something hilarious about that. This is not what I expected in my 30s, and yet here I am. Which is not to say that there’s any sense of regression — it’s not that I’m returning to a lost adolescence — there’s a powerful sense of experiencing something I have done before in a very different way, and it’s familiar and it’s totally alien and it’s not like anything else I’ve experienced and it’s also a lot like any other change. It’s not like I thought, “Ah ha! Because I am transitioning I will do this book now!” but rather that you don’t always know when childhood has let you go, and you don’t always know when adulthood is coming for you and you don’t always know when one’s going to call your name.