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."
"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.
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.
conversation has been edited.
Youíve been described as a satirist. Is there any
oblique link between satire and fairy tale?
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."
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?"
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?
You began transitioning while writing this book. What is
your preferred gender pronoun?
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
How did the writing of the book and your transition
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.
In "The Frogís Princess" you write that
"beauty is never private," an observation that
has chilling ramifications in the story. Whatís going
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.
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."
Reading "The Merry Spinster" I thought often
of Angela Carterís "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, 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.
Both of your parents are ministers. Did Bible stories
play a subconscious role in your thoughts about the
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 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
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
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.