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Daniel Mallory Ortberg talks The Toast, The Merry Spinster, and the joys of peanut butter

“The weight, the silent and invisible weight of the assumed yes from somebody who loves you, who you are close with: What does that do to your interior life?”

Mallory Ortberg, author of The Merry Spinster Henry Holt and Co.

When Daniel Mallory Ortberg created The Toast with Nicole Cliffe in 2013, few could have predicted its evolution into one of the weirdest and most beautiful places on the internet, a website that was just as likely to joke about characters from Victorian novels texting one another as it was to publish a deeply earnest essay on what it feels like to be the target of a racist comment at a dinner party. And its reach was as broad as its editorial purview: Margaret Atwood declared her love for The Toast, Hillary Clinton wrote the last piece in its regular publication schedule, and when it finally shuttered, beautiful weirdos across the internet went into widespread mourning.

Ortberg and Cliffe shut down The Toast in 2016, and its archives are currently offline (though they’re soon to make their way to the Library of Congress). Since then, Ortberg has become the voice of Slate’s Dear Prudence advice column while also writing The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, out now.

The Merry Spinster pulls from Ortberg’s creepiest recurring Toast column, “Children’s Stories Made Horrific,” which is just what it sounds like but simultaneously funnier and creepier than you’d expect: Fairy tales and beloved children’s classics become tales of emotional vampirism, with the Wind in the Willows characters teaming up to inflict a violent intervention on Mr. Toad, or the sister from “The Six Swans” devoting her life to making it up to her mother that she was born a girl. They’re eerie, glittering stories that hurt a little if you look at them too closely.

They’re also much darker than the stories in Ortberg’s previous book, Texts From Jane Eyre. Both of Ortberg’s books walk the line between horror and comedy, but where Texts From Jane Eyre leaned into the comedy, The Merry Spinster leans way over into horror. It seems to represent a new step forward from one of the sharpest and most distinctive voices writing today, one filled with new and philosophical questions.

I recently spoke with Ortberg over the phone about the ethics of fairy tales, the joys of peanut butter, and why The Merry Spinster is like a dark mirror to NBC’s existential ethics-centered comedy The Good Place.

Editorial note: When this interview was published, Ortberg was using the name Mallory. He’s since come out as trans and begun using the name Daniel, and this interview has been updated accordingly.

Constance Grady

When The Toast was still publishing, I always felt it was like a pure expression of my soul, even though obviously it was the product of a lot of hard work from you and many other really talented people. But I think a lot of people who loved The Toast truly felt that it was specifically just for them. What do you think it was about that website that made people react to it so strongly?

Daniel Ortberg

Well, I always felt the same way, so if nothing else, I can confirm the accuracy of your experience. I think Nicole and I are very specific people, and we also really line up with a particular demographic. A certain kind of young person who reads too many books about boarding school at a certain age is just going to end up having a similar series of twists of the personality, where if you reference or mention them in any way, you’ll get a cluster of people — many of whom were coming around and saying things like, “Oh, god, I thought I was the only one!” Almost no one is ever the only one. There’s almost always a thing for the thing that you’re thinking about, or a word for the thing that you’re thinking about.

Part of the mission statement of The Toast, when we were trying to describe The Toast — because neither of us has ever been any good at doing an elevator pitch or explaining what we’re trying to do — was, “It’s like a book that you see in a wooden cart, outside of a used science fiction and fantasy bookstore, with, like, a lady in flowing pearly robes, in front of three moons.”

Constance Grady

Oh, I love that.

Daniel Ortberg

Just something that I knew people would either get in the first second they saw that, or they’d be like, “Oh, that sounds weird, I’ll check it out.” Being as specific as we were led us to other specific people.

Constance Grady

And what was it like to go from writing for this very specific, quirky, idiosyncratic audience to doing Dear Prudence, which is a little bit of a broader platform?

Daniel Ortberg

Totally different, entirely different. One is more a group of people who consider ourselves very close and very kin in a lot of ways, and the other one is for a general audience, attempting to be useful and in some ways give direction on how to be people. It’s totally different styles of writing. They’re both really useful and good in different ways, but it’s definitely a big adjustment.

Constance Grady

I read that one of your first jobs was working in academic publishing, which was also my first job. I always found it super weird to work in this quasi-intellectual, quasi-book-adjacent sphere that’s also largely just administrative work on other people’s ideas. How did that tension play out for you when you were just starting out?

Daniel Ortberg

It’s been a while now. I was just a couple years out of college and mostly just looking for a job with health insurance, and received it, which was very exciting for me. For me, it was very clear that this was not a job that I wanted to do long term. It was very clear to me that my lack of enthusiasm was really manifesting itself in my work ethic, and there was a limited amount of time that I could continue working there without someone saying, “Hey, you no longer seem to be doing a lot of work and you should be fired.”

Constance Grady

Switching gears a little, was it more exciting to find out that Margaret Atwood read The Toast or that Lorde was reading The Merry Spinster?

Daniel Ortberg

They were both definitely bananas. I think it’s gotta be Lorde reading The Merry Spinster, because I’d have to share credit with Nicole [Cliffe] and Nicole [Chung] and other people with The Toast, but with The Merry Spinster I can just be like, “Yeah, that shit’s me, man.” I mean, obviously other people helped put the book together, but I get more credit this way.

Constance Grady

One of the things I loved about the book is that the characters in these stories are spending a lot of time thinking about who they belong to, whether they belong to themselves or to other people, and — in sort of in a dark inverse of the NBC show The Good Place, I guess — about what they owe to each other. What draws you to those sorts of questions?

Daniel Ortberg

I mean, thank you, I will take that. [But] this is the part of interviews where I always feel like I should start apologizing, because I have never felt like I am a great judge of what themes are present in my work, or how I work through the things that I work through. Which is not to say that like, “Ah, I am merely the conduit of the Muse!” I show up, I write words, I have no idea what I do, and then I go back. I don’t spend a lot of conscious time thinking about, “How would I explain what I did in this book?”

It’s sort of like how I never really learned the rules of grammar. So whenever anybody is like, “Oh, you know the difference between a subject and an object,” I’m just like, “I straight-up do not.” I can write a correct sentence, but if you were like, “Find the subject here!” I’d be like, “Nope, I can’t do it.” I don’t know what a gerund is; I always forget what the subjunctive is.

Absolutely, yeah, themes of belonging show up in this book. How do the ideas of responsibility versus belonging play up against each other? If you belong to someone, can they make you responsible for them? And what if you don’t want to be responsible for them? And what if they tell you that you’ve promised or committed to doing something that you haven’t actually said you would? How do you stop a conversation in the middle and say no to something that someone else has already assumed you’re saying yes to?

The weight, the silent and invisible weight of the assumed yes from somebody who loves you, who you are close with: What does that do to your interior life? What does that do to your sense of self, what does that do to your sense of safety, your relationship? That was important to me to explore in the book. And it’s luckily horrifying, so.

Constance Grady

Extremely horrifying. Another element I really loved is how the stories casually and without much fanfare detach familial roles from gender roles, so prospective spouses don’t know if they’ll be wives or husbands, and the king’s daughter in the “Frog Prince” story is a boy. It’s presented as just, “This is how this world works.” What does the reader get out of that approach?

Daniel Ortberg

That felt important to me to do, that felt easy for me to do, that felt fun for me to get to do, that felt reasonable for me to get to do. Any time you read a fairy tale, it’s very clear that somebody’s gender really influences the role they play in the story, whether they’re a daughter or a son. It’s not just the gender but the relationship with their family, whether they’re an eldest son or a daughter, and those things really serve as a signpost for how the development of that character is going to happen.

It just felt like an obvious next step: What would it look like if there were a world where there were still abuses of power, there was still violence and the threat of sexual violence and repression, that did not have the exact same gender roles and values as we do? So it’s not like this world is either better or worse than ours; it’s simply that power is ordered in different constellations.

Constance Grady

That is so interesting, and I’m going to switch gears to something much less meaningful and intellectual: As someone with strong opinions on the nuances of peanut butter snacking, what would you say is the best thing to eat with peanut butter?

Daniel Ortberg

Girl. Straight up, I literally just had several tablespoons of peanut butter for breakfast before you called. It is really weird that I am developing this persona as just, like, the Peanut Butter Person.

I’ve gotta say, for me, I just eat it with a spoon. That’s just the easiest way for me to be like, okay, I’ve had something close enough to a meal now.

I do eat! I eat real meals. I sit down, and I eat off a plate. Every once in a while, it’s just time for peanut butter. I’m just going for speed and efficiency, and I just eat it off the spoon.

Constance Grady

Is there a correct kind of peanut butter?

Daniel Ortberg

Oh, there is 100 percent a correct kind of peanut butter. I was deeply devastated yesterday because I accidentally grabbed the wrong kind. I have really strong feelings about this. Nicole has, like, eight varieties of peanut butter, and I fight with her about how every one of them is wrong.

The one correct brand of peanut butter is as follows: it’s Maranatha, and it’s not the bullshit two-ingredient kind that you have to stir that’s just peanuts and salt. If I wanted to eat just peanuts and salt, I would get a bag of peanuts, okay? I want peanut butter that tastes like peanut butter. It’s the Maranatha five-ingredient kind, which includes peanuts, some sort of oil, cane sugar, salt, and one other random thing. And it is creamy, and it is delicious, and it does not taste too much like candy, nor does it taste like a bitter, gray, unhappy peanut paste with an inch and a half of straight kitchen oil on top.

Constance Grady

That is a very impressive endorsement, and I hope they see this and send you many cases.

Daniel Ortberg

Thank you so much for letting me talk about peanut butter for this long time.

Constance Grady

I’m very glad to!

Daniel Ortberg

I used to love Jif when I was a kid, but now when I eat it, I’m like, “Aw, man, it tastes way too much like candy!” I’d rather eat a Butterfinger. If I’m going to enjoy peanut butter, I don’t want it to feel too much like punishment health food, but Jif doesn’t do it for me anymore.

Constance Grady

Yeah, if it’s too sweet, it should have a chocolate element to it, because otherwise it’s a waste.

Daniel Ortberg

Absolutely.

Constance Grady

Finally, I wanted to ask you your own interview question: What is something you wish interviewers would ask you but have not yet?

Daniel Ortberg

Oh, my gosh! This is a terrible question to be asked myself. I’m not sure that there is a question that I want to be asked.

That’s not true. There is a question that I know I want to be asked, but I also don’t want to be asked it. It’s funny because so much of what I’ve been working through this past year is the shift between how much do I want to disclose, how much do I want to be known. I want somebody to recognize something that’s going on with me and to ask about it, and yet I don’t want that at all, I don’t want people to notice what’s going on with me. I don’t want to talk about the things that are most seriously on my mind. [Shortly after this interview was conducted, Ortberg came out publicly as trans. —Ed.]

Frankly, I think the peanut butter question is the question I hope everybody asks me. Because then I get to feel like, “Oh, almost had it. Someone almost caught it. But then we didn’t.” And then I get to feel misunderstood and eat peanut butter. This is a very rambling answer to your question!

I wish every interviewer would say, “I understand every deep and dark corner of your heart, I understand you implicitly, is there any guidance you wish from me now that I know you inside and out?” And then I could say, “Yes, please, tell me the path upon which I should go.” And then they would tell me, and I would know how to live my life forever.