Mallory Ortberg on the remixed fairy tales of her new book ĎThe Merry Spinsterí

March 19, 2018 

Call Cinderella Paul.

Mallory Ortberg, co-founder of the dearly departed feminist website The Toast, Slateís "Dear Prudence," and the author of "Childrenís 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. Beautyís 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." Ortbergís tales are all the more enchanting ó and humorous, and haunting ó 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 Frogís Princess," a beautiful daughterís 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.

Our conversation has been edited.

Q: Youíve been described as a satirist. Is there any oblique link between satire and fairy tale?

A: Probably? This is one of those moments when Iím 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 donít know. Satire feels like a sending up of something, and thatís not the type of work I do most often. I donít 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, Iím anxious and afraid."

Q: In these "Tales of Everyday Horror," your riffs on "The Velveteen Rabbit" and "The Wind in the Willows" in particular both got me good. Thereís this terrible feeling of "with friends like these, who needs enemies?"

A: Itís 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 youíre 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?

Q: You began transitioning while writing this book. What is your preferred gender pronoun?

A: I havenít yet rolled out the name and pronoun change, but itís going to be a male name and male pronoun. In the meantime, either she or they. I feel like Iíve come out before making the full switch, so thereís this sense of "Iím out, but keep watching for the skies for updates!" Iím aware that everyoneís asking this question: What should we do in the meantime? And my answer has mostly been, "Great question! Not sure!"

Q: How did the writing of the book and your transition intersect?

A: I feel like weíve 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 wasnít sure if Iíd 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, thereís a lot of stuff going on with gender in your book: Whatís that about?" and having to half answer, like, "Yes, isnít gender interesting? Nothing personal going on here!" So itís been a huge relief just to be able to talk about that as part of the context of the book.

Q: In "The Frogís Princess" you write that "beauty is never private," an observation that has chilling ramifications in the story. Whatís going on there?

A: 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 thatís 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 Iíve 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 oneís 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 donít want you to know that youíre being hurt so Iím going to call it beauty."

Q: Reading "The Merry Spinster" I thought often of Angela Carterís "The Bloody Chamber." What were your literary influences?

A: 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, Iím changed at a cellular level now." I think also "The Pilgrimís Progress" by John Bunyan. Thereís so much in it that has to do with what I would call "religious horror," which I probably should have gotten from Flannery OíConnor, but Iíve barely read Flannery OíConnor. I just know sheís what comes up when people talk about comedy and horror and religion.

Q: Both of your parents are ministers. Did Bible stories play a subconscious role in your thoughts about the book?

A: 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.

Q: Did you have a favorite fairy tale growing up?

A: The Andrew Lang Fairy Book collectionsí "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 canít move, wouldnít that be terrible?" And itís just like, "Yes, Hans, it would be. These are very sad stories. I am very sad now."

Q: Your book is clearly for adults, but itís also unequivocally a book of fairy tales. Itís satisfying to discover that at every age these archtypical stories matter.

A: Iím right there with you. Not to put too fine a point on it, but thereís this idea that as Iím writing this book Iíve also entered a second puberty, and thereís something hilarious about that. This is not what I expected in my 30s, and yet here I am. Which is not to say that thereís any sense of regression ó itís not that Iím returning to a lost adolescence ó thereís a powerful sense of experiencing something I have done before in a very different way, and itís familiar and itís totally alien and itís not like anything else Iíve experienced and itís also a lot like any other change. Itís not like I thought, "Ah ha! Because I am transitioning I will do this book now!" but rather that you donít always know when childhood has let you go, and you donít always know when adulthood is coming for you and you donít always know when oneís going to call your name.




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