Gothic Pop: Mallory Ortberg on the Radio

Slate's "Dear Prudence" columnist has thoughts on NPR names.

Mallory Ortberg is writing her second book, and unlike her her first, Texts from Jane Eyre, it’s going to be fiction.

“It’s in the vein of Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor, so kinda-creepy is the gist,” she says.

Southern California Gothic, perhaps?

“I don’t know how much of it is going to be set in California, but let’s definitely use that word,” she says. “Oversell it. Make it a big deal.”

“It’s going to be like Gargoyles,” she adds. “The TV show, not the architectural flourish.”

The highly literate Ortberg was, with Nicole Cliffe, the brains behind the feminist humor site The Toast, which ended its three-year run of parodying the Western canon earlier this summer with its sunnier-than-average comments section intact. Apart from her current book project, Ortberg is also the sagacious bestower of advice for Slate‘s “Dear Prudence” column, and she’ll be in San Francisco next month as the special guest on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, a live radio show hosted by Linda Holmes with panelists Stephen Thompson and Glen Weldon. It’s a first for Ortberg, who’s done podcasts and live performances, but never in this medium.

“I think I can say with reasonable confidence that I’ve never done a live radio show,” she says. “There’s going to be a topic that we’ll all kind of discuss, and a quiz administered by Linda Holmes. And advice, which is probably a concession to me and my current job.”

The producers have asked people to submit questions in advance. “And then we’re going to tell people how to live their lives,” she adds. “And I know Linda wanted to get in Halloween candy, so at some point I’m going to have to pretend to care about Halloween candy.”

Ortberg confesses to not having particularly strong feelings about the subject, which may be advantageous.

“It can be really fun to take up a wild position and then argue it recreationally,” she says.

That is undoubtedly true, but it’s also rather contrary to the spirit of an advice column, which makes for a nice break from the doling out of perspicacious insight into readers’ problems. It’s been nearly a year for Ortberg in her new position, and she cops to an occasional out-of-body feeling with respect to the role.

“Sometimes, I’ll go to read ‘Dear Prudence’ and remember that I already answered these questions ’cause that’s my job now,” she says. “I think of it as this fun thing that I get to read that’s now been taken away from me, and I suffer every day.”

As such columns go, hers fields a relatively high number of queries, something she takes as a personal challenge of sorts, setting a number for herself and trying to top it. An internal team at Slate screens the questions, many of which come from live chat, and Ortberg’s greatest source of trouble is the occasional lack of crucial detail.

“I had this one letter recently where this person said she didn’t like her brother bringing his casual girlfriends around to events,” she says. “At one point, there was this big fight at a grandparents’ vow renewal ceremony, and she said a glass got thrown. Wait, was it a girlfriend who threw glass at the family, or did one of you throw a glass at her? This is very, very important information to have, and I don’t have it!”

Many people, being petty and in need of serious self-improvement themselves, would probably jump at the chance to publish letters written by absolute jerks so as to give themselves repeated opportunities for self-righteous grandstanding. While she agrees that “there’s a certain satisfaction to saying, ‘Hey man, you’re being the worst,’ ” Ortberg doesn’t really like going that route.

“I don’t love getting letters from someone who is very clearly the jerk in the scenario, only because I feel like it’s going to take a lot more than some stranger saying, ‘Hey, reread your letter, you’re probably at fault here,’ to get them to reconsider their actions,” she says. “There’s always a part of getting to tell somebody, ‘Hey, you need to examine your own house, buddy,’ but it’s always a little sad. Like, what are the odds that they’re actually going to listen to me?”

Ortberg misses The Toast — and really, who wouldn’t miss writing things like “Things I Would Do If a Moth Ever Touched Me for Even a Second”? — but states categorically that she’s glad not to be doing that right now.

“Not because it wasn’t delightful,” she says, “but because I’ve had a couple times a week when I can go outside and actually work on my book, which was not going to happen if I was continuing to do ‘Dear Prudence’ and The Toast both at the same time.”

The reduced workload has given her time for media consumption high and low. “The good news is that I watch a lot of television,” she adds. “I try to make that a priority in my life.”

Ortberg is an avid Twitter user, she just finished reading a book about The Kids in the Hall called This Is a Book About the Kids in the Hall, and she’s currently reading both Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Mary Shelley’s Mathilda, the latter of which Ortberg describes as a “very intense novel about pretty twisted dynamics and incest.”

Prior to her marriage to the doomed poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley’s maiden name was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, which, had she been born two centuries later, would have made a splendid NPR name. I ask if Ortberg has a favorite: Audie Cornish, maybe? Kai Ryssdal? Adolfo Guzman-Lopez?

“They all have such beautiful names,” Ortberg says. “Any one of them I would be lucky to have. They all sound like people who could have gone on a quest or written a slim novel in the 1970s that was later rediscovered and championed.”

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