Mallory Ortberg has read more books than you have. She's the star of a feminist website with a literary twist, The Toast, which she runs with co-editor Nicole Cliffe and publisher Nicholas Pavich. The site is only a little over a year old -- but already draws over a million visitors a month.
Ortberg writes on topics such as what a terrible house guest Hans Christian Andersen was and the possible literary antecedents of "The Gilmore Girls." And at 28, she just published her first book, Texts From Jane Eyre, in which she imagines how over 50 classic literary figures would text -- from Medusa to Mrs. Bennet. Don Quixote loves caps lock and Lord Byron won't stop whining.
I spoke to Ortberg twice. The first time was on the phone over the summer. The second time was early on a Monday morning over Skype. She was in her house in the Bay Area, dressed in a white bathrobe and sipping tea. This interview draws from both of those conversations. We talked about the tawdriness of the Western canon, what it was like to be raised by pastors, and how the Internet changed her life.
What do literary characters reveal about themselves when they text?
Their secret awfulness. Hamlet is a distant character who represents questions about life and mortality but also a person who [would] yell at his mom to bring him sandwiches but not come into his room.
What was it like when you read these classics for the first time?
My history teacher could make us feel like he was imparting rare gossip to us when he was talking about Maria Theresa and the Habsburgs. I just loved that sense of -- the Western canon is here, and it's gossipy and tawdry and everyone is sort of goofy. It felt like a party. A weird party that a lot of dead people were at that I was also invited to.
That's kind of what your book is like.
It is -- it's a party with dead people who never existed. It's a party of dead people who were made up by other dead people.
What is the mission of the Toast?
Honestly, the Toast mission is whatever Nicole [Nicole Cliffe] and I think will be good. We go for convivial rather than professional sounding. Somebody that is interested in a topic and is talking about it at small, fun party. That's a terrible mission. That's not a
mission -- that's a description of a feeling. But that's what it is.
What do you see yourself doing in the future?
Anything where I get to write a lot of jokes and have a lot of creative control -- that's all I want. So if that's running a media empire -- okay a small misandrist media empire...
Do you ever think about expanding beyond a female audience?
The Toast's audience is about 30-35 percent male, which shocked me because I would say that we actively try to discourage men from reading our site. Apparently there's not insignificant number of dudes out there who think that what we are doing is okay.
Were you always a feminist?
Probably. My parents are both pastors. In the '80s and '90s in the mainstream Christian world, it was not really common for a woman -- especially a married woman and a mother to be a pastor. It was unusual for a woman to do the kind of work that she did and it was cool to see [my mom] have a lot of clarity about what she wanted to do and what she was good at and not being held back by stereotypes.
How did the Toast start?
It's just because three strangers on the Internet emailed each other a bunch. Nick [Nicholas Pavich] emailed me out of the blue and said, "I like your work. I think that if you ever wanted to start a website it would do well and I would like to help you do that."
How did you meet Nicole?
We knew each other from The Hairpin where she was the co-editor. I used to write for her. I just thought she was so funny and smart. And we would email back and forth. After a couple of months she said, "You need to come to Utah. I bought you a plane ticket." And we ran into each other's arms at the airport.
It was one of those rare things where the Internet brought together three people who never would have met otherwise in real life and they were perfect for each other. We're going to have a summit. The three of us have never been in the same room together.
This interview is condensed and edited.