An Interview with Mallory Ortberg, by Celia Johnson

Imagine your favorite character was handed a cell phone. Now she can text her crush, her best friend, her enemy… And so it goes in Texts From Jane Eyre, by Mallory Ortberg. Sherlock Holmes reaches out to Watson from a drug den. Scarlett O’Hara sends inappropriate sexts to Ashley. Some of the most famous and beloved interactions from classic literature are reimagined as sequences of texts in this hilarious collection. As Rachel Fershleiser observed, “This is the smartest, most highbrow, most sophisticated literary book that will ever make you pee yourself in public.” I spoke with Ortberg about the best and worst fictional texters, writers who make her laugh, and more. TextsFromJaneEyre

How did you come up with the concept for Texts from Jane Eyre?

I’ve talked about this in a few interviews, but it actually came from a piece Nicole Cliffe, my business partner, wrote over at the Awl a few years ago for part of her Classic Trash series. She’d written about Gone With The Wind, and one of the commenters mentioned that he’d grown up in the south and that things there were pretty much the same, only now everyone had cell phones. The idea of Scarlett O’Hara with a cell phone and able to get a hold of anyone she wanted at any hour of the day was so vivid and awful and hilarious to me; I wrote the first entry almost on the spot.

What was your creative process?

Oh man, this is always kind of a tough question for me to answer. I want to come up with something more thoughtful than “I had an idea and then I wrote jokes about it until it was done,” but…generally that’s how it worked.

What kind of research did you conduct for the book? Did you need to re-read any of your favorite classics, or pick up any literary gems you hadn’t yet had a chance to read?

I only chose books I’d read before, the ones I’d grown up reading and was really familiar withso I didn’t feel like I was scrounging through a bunch of new material trying to find jokes. I think I reread Medea and parts of the Odyssey, and I thumbed through Wuthering Heights again, but for the most part, these are all books I feel like I could recite from memory if I had to.

Of all the fictional characters in your book, who do you would be the most natural texter today?

Scarlett O’Hara. Absolutely. She’s a complete monster who adapts to every circumstance, and she loves making demands on other people’s time.

And who would be the most reluctant texter of the bunch?

Probably Captain Ahab. It takes something away from his seafaring dignity.

Are there any humorists, past or present, who have influenced your work? 

Oh man, absolutely. Robert Benchley and P.G. Wodehouse both loom large for me. Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry’s A Bit of Fry and Laurie. The Kids in the Hall. The old Dean Martin roasts. Maria Bamford. Everybody from The State and Reno 911 and Wet Hot American Summer. The guys who write The Framley Examiner. Stella Gibbons.

Compared to a decade ago, there are so many new spaces for writers to connect and be heard – Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, just to name a few. What are some of the advantages or disadvantages that you see in this shifting literary landscape?

That’s a good question! It’s difficult for me to answer, because I really grew up with the Internet and have almost never written for print, so this landscape feels really natural to me. I’ve certainly gotten to see a lot of different voices and writers through the Internet than I think I might have ten or fifteen years ago. I think it’s easier to get published and a bit harder to get paid.

Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice and author of two books, most recently Odd Type Writers. Mallory Ortberg is the cocreator of The Toast, a general-interest Web site geared toward women. She has written for Gawker, New York magazine, The Hairpin, and The Atlantic. She lives in the Bay Area.