In Daniel Mallory Ortberg's Version, The Little Mermaid Inhales Souls

Mar 17, 2018
Originally published on April 3, 2018 11:49 am

The Merry Spinster is one of the most anticipated books of the spring. Author Daniel Mallory Ortberg has recast classic tales, including "The Little Mermaid," The Velveteen Rabbit, "Beauty and the Beast," and even parts of the Old Testament, to make them resonate with new takes on romantic love, property rights, abusive relationships, gender roles and the stuffed animals we hold dear — and their unsparing lack of sentimentality. Ortberg is the co-creator of The Toast, an important website for feminist writing.

"I can accuse myself of only wanting to rewrite classic stories from a very young age, so that was — I think — already kind of a given," Ortberg says. "But I had also found, as I was rewriting fairy tales, I was having a lot of fun upsetting myself, and I thought, 'I bet other people have fun being upset sometimes, too.' And it turns out, we do."


Interview Highlights

On the bloody nature of Ortberg's re-writings

You know, the blood was already there. I think often of The Velveteen Rabbit, the original version. There's a character called the Skin Horse. That's just his name, and it's because he's made of skin. That's just as upsetting a visual as I think you can find in a children's story. So it didn't feel so much like I was adding blood so much as I was just moving the blood around.

On releasing a book in the midst of his transition from Mallory to Daniel

I gotta say, when you introduced me just a minute ago, I felt a little bit on the verge of tears. It was extremely powerful, but it's also felt like a real relief, 'cause one of the things I was really anxious about was I was not sure that I was gonna come out in time for the book tour. And one of the things that I was really anxious about was the thought of people saying, "Hey, lot of shifting gender roles in your book. What's going on there?" and having to say something like, "Ah, no reason. Just interesting, just love to think about thought experiments, nothing going on over here." So to not have to do that is a real relief.

On shifting gender roles in The Merry Spinster

Well, what's funny is, it is also interesting to me. Like that is truly something that I think I would have tackled, regardless of what I was going through in my personal life. But it was also very funny to become kind of consciously aware of what I was doing about half-way through writing the book. So some of it certainly just had to do with things that were on my mind a lot. And some of it also had to do with the fact that in fairy tales, like especially the Aarne–Thompson classification system, you can kind of predict what's going to happen based on the combination of someone's gender, their role within their family, and their relationship to, say like, animals or magic.

And I like very much that fairy stories often have a sense of morality that's really different from what we might consider moral, that's just as ordered and just as precise but has no relationship to what we think of, "If you do x, y will be the natural consequence." And I liked the idea of just adding gender into that process of just like, "OK, if we mix it up and rotate it, how does it look?"

On "The Daughter Cells," Ortberg's reworking of The Little Mermaid

That one was really — I think the narrator in that one is a little bit distant, like it's not clear whether or not this narrator thinks of themselves as belonging to the mermaid population or outside of it. And it is very, like as the story progresses, it becomes very clear just how different the way that the mermaid and her family view things, like a soul.

And it's not malicious, but it's completely disrespectful of something like physical autonomy or what we would consider a right to privacy. Like it's not — she doesn't wish the prince harm, but she knows what she wants from him, and she has justified it completely according to her own worldview, and the idea of what his worldview might be does not enter into it.

On being a transgender feminist writer

The great news is you can be a feminist and transition easily in a walk — not an issue. But yeah, it is — there are ways in which it felt painfully ironic, and there were ways in which it just felt like, "Well, there's nothing to be done about that." Just as the sun rose this morning, I am dealing with these feelings, and these impulses and this wish. And nothing about this isn't contiguous with the things I've loved and cared about before. Nothing about this is in any way a rejection of the kind of life that I've had before. I lived my life in a certain way for as long as it was possible.

Ultimately, I came to a point where I confronted and acknowledged something that I hadn't wanted to for a long time, and something new is happening now. But it's not as different as I thought it might've been, or it's not like, "Oh man, really shooting off in a different direction." I'll say it like that character said in that story ["Cast Your Bread Upon The Waters"]. Just like, you know, that character says, "My son Johnny was very beautiful, and I love him." Mallory Ortberg is beautiful, and I love her.

Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday and Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"The Merry Spinster" is one of the most anticipated books of the spring. Daniel Mallory Ortberg, co-creator of The Toast, an important website for feminist writing, has recast some classic tales, including "The Little Mermaid," "The Velveteen Rabbit," "Beauty And The Beast," even parts of the Old Testament to make them resonate with new takes on romantic love, property rights, abusive relationships, gender roles and the unsparing lack of sentimentality of the stuffed animals we hold dear. Daniel Mallory Ortberg joins us from the studios of Youth Radio in Oakland, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us.

DANIEL MALLORY ORTBERG: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Why did you want to rewrite some of these well-known stories?

ORTBERG: Oh, man. I can accuse myself of only wanting to rewrite classic stories from a very young age. So that was, I think, already kind of a given. But I had also found as I was rewriting fairy tales, I was having a lot of fun upsetting myself. And I thought, I bet other people have fun being upset sometimes, too. And it turns out, we do.

SIMON: Well, and you raise the question, too. If you're rewriting some of these old stories, you did not stint on the blood. Did you?

ORTBERG: The, you know - the blood was already there. I think often of "The Velveteen Rabbit," the original version - there's a character called the Skin Horse. That's just his name. And it's because he's made of skin. That's just as upsetting a visual as, I think, you can find in a children's story. So it didn't feel so much like I was adding blood, so much as I was just moving the blood around.

SIMON: Let me get something high up here. You are transitioning from Mallory Ortberg to Daniel Mallory Ortberg.

ORTBERG: That's right.

SIMON: How are you doing?

ORTBERG: You know, I got to say, when you introduced me just a minute ago, I felt a little bit on the verge of tears. It was extremely powerful. But it also felt like a real relief because one of the things I was really anxious about was I was not sure that I was going to come out in time for the book tour. And one of the things that I was really anxious about was the thought of people saying, hey, a lot of shifting gender roles in your book. What's going on there? And having to say something like, oh, no reason - just interesting, just love to think about thought experiments. Nothing going on over here. So to not have to do that is a real relief.

SIMON: Well, let me ask a question then. A lot of shifting gender roles going on in your book here? (Laughter).

ORTBERG: Well, what's funny is it is also interesting to me. Like, that is truly something that I think I would have tackled regardless of what I was going through in my personal life. But it was also very funny to become kind of consciously aware of what I was doing about halfway through, writing the book. So some of it certainly just had to do with things that were on my mind a lot. And some of it also had to do with the fact that in fairy tales, like especially the Aarne–Thompson classification system, you know, you can kind of predict what's going to happen based on the combination of someone's gender, their role within their family and their relationship to, say, like, animals or magic. And I like very much that fairy stories often have a sense of morality that's really different from what we might consider moral that's just as ordered and just as precise but has no relationship to what we think of. If you do X, Y will be the natural consequence.

SIMON: Yeah.

ORTBERG: And I liked the idea of just adding gender into that process of just like, OK, if we, like, mix it up and rotate it, how does it look?

SIMON: The book opens with a story called The Daughter Cells, your reworking of "The Little Mermaid," narrated by, I guess, the mermaid. And by the end of the story, I felt ugly as a human being.

ORTBERG: Oh, man. Thank you.

SIMON: (Laughter).

ORTBERG: Yeah, that one was really - yeah, I think the narrator in that one is a little bit, like, distant. Like, it's not clear whether or not this narrator thinks of themselves as belonging to the mermaid population or outside of it. And it is very - like, as the story progresses, it becomes very clear just how different the way that the mermaid and, like, her family view things like a soul. And it's not malicious.

SIMON: Yeah.

ORTBERG: But it's completely disrespectful of something like physical autonomy or, you know, what we would consider a right to privacy. Like, it's not - she doesn't wish the prince harm. But she knows what she wants from him. And she has justified it completely according to her own worldview. And the idea of what his worldview might be does not enter into it.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, and without giving anything away, she - the mermaid believes that if you take somebody's life, you inhale their soul. And, you know, they - I guess they just keep - what? - chugging along?

ORTBERG: Yeah, which is very much - now that I think about it - like just like, you know, you see them - like John Carpenter's "The Thing" - right? - where the alien does not actively necessarily will anyone harm the way that we might understand it...

SIMON: Yeah.

ORTBERG: ...But is perfectly comfortable absorbing, you know, and taking over their bodies and does not see that as a problem.

SIMON: I want to ask you about the rabbit, which is drawn from the...

ORTBERG: OK.

SIMON: ...From "The Velveteen Rabbit." The rabbit is not sentimental about the little boy at first. It says that he's telling secrets from his stupid and inane boy's heart. But the rabbit still winds up falling in love with the little boy, doesn't he?

ORTBERG: You know, he's not unlike "The Little Mermaid" in that sense but more driven, as you say. I think he has a greater capacity for love born of obsession and jealousy. And so he has to work harder to remind himself how stupid he thinks the boy is even as the one thing he wants more than anything in the world is the quality of realness that the boy exemplifies.

SIMON: Yeah. But he does. I mean, he loves being held by the little boy. He loves being worshipped, in a sense, by the little boy.

ORTBERG: Yeah. That one puts me in mind, I think, too, of the story "Cast Your Bread Upon The Waters," which just - it involves a parent talking about their child in such a way where they're constantly reminding themselves of, no, he did something wrong. And I'm going to do this about it. And then only after things sort of come to a head are they able to acknowledge that they love their child. And it feels similar. In some ways, those two characters do remind me of one another and this idea of, I have to say all these things in order to keep myself from saying, I love him.

SIMON: Let me just ask one more question.

ORTBERG: Uh-huh.

SIMON: What do we make of a feminist writer transitioning into a man?

ORTBERG: Oh. Well, you know, the great news is you can be a feminist in transition, you know, easily in a walk - not an issue. But, yeah, yeah. It is - there are ways in which it felt painfully ironic. And there were ways in which it just felt like, well, there's nothing to be done about that. Just as the sun rose this morning, I am dealing with these feelings and these impulses and this wish. And nothing about this isn't contiguous with the things I've loved and cared about before. Nothing about this is, in any way, a rejection of the kind of life that I've had before. I lived my life in a certain way for as long as it was possible.

Ultimately, I came to a point where I confronted and acknowledged something that I hadn't wanted to for a long time. And something new is happening now. But it's not as different as I thought it might've been, or it's not like, oh, man - really shooting off in a different direction. I'll say it like that character said in that story of just like, you know, that character says, my son Johnny was very beautiful, and I love him. Mallory Ortberg is beautiful. And I love her.

SIMON: Daniel Mallory Ortberg - his new collection of stories - "The Merry Spinster: Tales Of Everyday Horror." He also dispenses advice professionally as Slate's Dear Prudence. Thanks so much for being with us. Good luck.

ORTBERG: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.