The Nicole Cliffe and Mallory Ortberg Interview

I know someone's really talented or really onto something when I get angry when I see what they're doing. Is that a healthy reaction? Probably not. But it's usually something along the lines of "Why didn't I write that?" or "Why aren't I involved with this yet?" or "Why are these people so talented and prolific and I am not?" I am very mature. Anyway, that's how I felt when I first started reading The Toast, a new-ish blog (launched this past summer) that's mostly for and by ladies, but due to its content, tone and variety, I'd hesitate to call it a ladyblog. It was begun this summer by today's interviewees and their business partner, who came from publications like The Hairpin, Gawker, and the Atlantic and it is awesome and they pay their writers which, sadly, is rather amazing. You'll learn a lot more about it below but in the meantime if you'd like to follow its proprietors on Twitter, here is Nicole and here is Mallory.

How do you two describe The Toast to people who've never heard of it? What are some pieces you'd each consider to be representative of the Toast?
Mallory Ortberg:
Oh God, this was maybe my least favorite part of coming up with a website. I'm so grateful we got our (tiny amount of) funding from within our company, because if I had had to go around trying to explain what we wanted to do to a bunch of strangers, I would not have this job right now. "Just read it, it's going to be great" was my general go-to.  If I'm trying to explain what I do to someone in real life, and I need to gauge their Internet Subculture Awareness, I'll try to say something like "editorial" and "general interest" before asking if they've heard of Gawker. If they haven't, I give up and don't explain anything. If they have, I name a handful of other websites that get progressively closer to what we do until they haven't heard of one and I say "Well, it's kind of like that," and then I ask them what they do. 

Nicole Cliffe: I would say that The Toast is 100% the combination of the things that Mallory and I would most like to read about in a given week. By which I mean, jokes about books and strident feminist rants and really long explorations of fox sentience in Disney movies. What I usually say, though, is "it's...a sort of general-interest women's blog that is a little gonzo and caters to the whims of a very small, very GIF-focused demographic which also includes its editors." The second question is a lot easier! I would say that Mallory's Texts From series is the essence of the site. Kendra Wells' Girl Tips comic series. My piece on comment sections for articles about bikini waxing. Oh, and a piece that we'll be running in December by a queer poly triad who went to go look at a king-sized bed for themselves off Craigslist. Very, very Toast-y. 

Nicole lives in Utah and Mallory is in California. What are your organizational systems for keeping track of submissions, invoices, what's about to be published and whatnot?
Mallory:
Nicole does submissions! I was doing submissions for a while, but it was hard for me to keep up, since I'm also doing a lot of writing on a daily basis. I'll still get pitches from writers I know personally, though, and Nicole and I will not infrequently forward one another ideas and ask each other to weigh in. We have a Google Doc that's usually filled up about a month out that we share for scheduling. Nick--our business partner and Law Muffin--handles invoices and payments. It's pretty slapdash, but it works for us, so far. 

Nicole: Since taking over submissions, I've discovered I really enjoy it, especially when my Inbox Zero strength is at its peak: we get a billion wonderful submissions every day (hence being scheduled out a month, which makes me feel very relaxed and fuzzy) and by only reading each one ONCE and then responding immediately, I never get into the weeds. Sometimes I worry that people think I really hate their piece, because I write back very quickly now, for the most part, but I just don't want to waste their time when they could be finding a better home for it. We also try to provide a little more feedback on submissions we don't take, in terms of why it's not the best fit for us, which people are surprisingly appreciative of. I have a lot of people who listen carefully to two rejections and then write us something perfect, which we are thrilled to take. I find it shockingly fun and engaging to do, and really enjoy my author relationships.

Another org thing that works well for us has been dividing submissions and scheduling. I put the names and prices of pieces at the top of our Toast Schedule doc, and then Mallory builds out the next few weeks into timestamps, clearing them out as she goes. When pieces are sponsored by donations, that's also where I keep that information, so I see "Gal Science: Parasites, sponsored by Sarah Redmond," and remember to give Sarah a shout-out. Thanks again, Sarah!

What are some do's and dont's you guys learned from writing for and editing other sites that you applied to the Toast?
Mallory:
From Gawker I learned to write as much as I possibly can and not treat writing so preciously. That was really formative -- I spent about six months there as a weekend editor, and it was hard. Everyone there was so terrific, though, and really helpful when it came to helping me learn. I figured out how to write decent headlines there, how to find a story worth writing about, how to actually engage readers instead of being strange at them. I learned a lot from Max Read, who I just think is the greatest and the smartest dude. He gave me so much advice over gchat, and I was such a waste of his time, but he did it anyways

Nicole: Being edited by Carrie Frye at The Awl was an experience I wouldn't trade for anything in the world. I miss her every day. I don't think I've ever edited anything as well as Carrie edited me, though I try to emulate her kindness and generosity; when she was done with a piece, it was always completely your own, almost more than when you'd first handed it over, with just three tiny perfect tweaks. She's a witch, essentially. And then, of course, I spent a long time working with Edith Zimmerman at The Hairpin, who taught me that there is never any point asking someone else how long your piece should be, because pieces will find their own length, and also the importance of having a very trusted reader who WILL tell you to kill something that isn't right or isn't ready. And that's a tough thing to cultivate, someone who wants to you be the best writer possible, more than they want to make you happy.

That's a big editing difference between Carrie and Edith, actually, which I try to find a balance for myself: Edith would tell me "yep, this works," or "no, this doesn't," but would very rarely attempt to change anything on a piece she decided worked. Logan Sachon of The Billfold and I have talked about this, too, the limitations of editing. Sometimes I'll get a piece, and I'll have this impulse to do three rounds of rewrites, but I'm learning over time that you will almost never magically transform something, because when you ask for three rounds of rewrites (and we just don't pay people enough to haul them through that process), you're trying to write the piece yourself. If it works on first read, take it, and if it doesn't, let it go. "I want this to be longer" is my most common edit, which is in direct violation of my earlier rule. We're a work in progress.

Who is Nicholas Pavich and how did he get involved with the Toast?
Mallory:
Nick! Nick is the greatest. He is a lawyer from Chicago and we used to comment on some of the same sites and he really liked my writing. About a year ago he mentioned that if I ever wanted to quit my job and start a website, he'd like to help fund it. At the time, it sounded ludicrous, but about six months later I took him up on it. Which, what a ridiculous business plan! Comment a bunch on the Internet, wait for one of your commenter friends to offer you money, then quit your job and go into business together without ever having met in real life. But he's so terrific. He is our third heat. He knows what to do to help make the site money and how to behave in a legally responsible way (there's probably a more real term for that) and he believed in what Nicole and I wanted to do implicitly, and without question, from the start. And I don't just mean "believed in us" like the way you do in an Avril Lavigne song, I mean believed in us with money.

Nicole: He is our beloved Grey Worm. He's like having a vicious rescue Doberman, in that he's completely obsequious to his owners (Mallory and I) and literally never interferes with our creative choices, but if someone messes with us he goes homicidal on them. We call it "Law Daddy," and we invoke it sparingly. Nick is the best thing that could ever have happened to us, honestly. We trust him implicitly. We also didn't realize that he literally quit his job to run the site with us until, um, last week? That's love, man. That's love. 

Tell me about the first time you two met irl (that means "in real life," Dad).
Mallory:
Oh God, it was so perfect. We'd been Internet friends at that point for what, six months? We kept talking about how fun it would be if I came out to visit, and then Nicole bought me a ticket because she makes things happen, and I got on a plane, which I hate doing, and I saw her at the airport surrounded by a bunch of Mormon elders and we just ran to each other, and we knew. We knew the way you know about a good melon. 

Nicole: I will never forget it. Mallory is not joking about the into-each-other's-arms airport moment. That visit was definitely our cinematic falling-in-love montage. I feel bad for my husband, who, thank God, loves Mallory and finds her wildly funny, because Mallory and I become the most cartoonish versions of ourselves when we're together. That first weekend, we watched "Rebecca" for the thousandth time, and then spoke to each other as Joan Fontaine for the next 48hrs. "Oh, Mexim, I'm so heppy, so terribly heppy. Do you hate me, Mexim? I feel as though it would be better for you if I killed myself. Shall I?" After Mallory leaves, Steve is generally "we are going to watch a lot of ultimate fighting for the next week."

How and why did you start the DUI series?
Mallory:
Do you know, I'm not sure I remember. I know I had been really fascinated by Natasha Vargas-Cooper's piece a few years ago, and wished it was longer, and I was just so excited at the prospect of having a website I could run a series of my own on, that I just put out a call on Twitter, and the responses fascinated me. It's really interesting to me how, on the one hand, almost everyone at least pays lip service to "drunk driving is bad and it kills people," but there are also huge swaths of the country where a lot of people who would never consider themselves drunk drivers do it all the time -- there's that Reno 911 clip, you know, where she talks about driving with her hands at 10 and 2, A/C blasting, checking her review mirror, because she's a "very careful" drunk driver, and there's definitely a culture where that's pretty normal. I've heard almost that exact sentiment expressed dozens of times in my life, especially when I was living in LA. (Not that LA is this awful city full of drunk drivers; I love LA, I really do.) You go to the bars, you go to a party on the outskirts of town, and then eventually you drive home, because that's what everyone does. Or at least it feels like everyone. It's one of the most commonly committed crimes, and I think it's one of the crimes most commonly committed by people who would never think of themselves as criminals. You hear things like MADD slogans or "drunk driving kills" and you never think to compare it to "what I did Saturday night when I didn't count how many drinks I had, just assumed that I was fine because I felt fine."

I got arrested for driving under the influence when I was 22, before I got sober, and it was pretty amazing, in retrospect, the kind of mental gymnastics I used to explain why what I was doing was normally and not really drunk driving. Even though, of course, it very much was. I'm not at all anti-drinking, the point of this series isn't "if you ever have a drink you will crash your car and die," I just think it's really interesting and it's part of my life story now. Most of the pieces we've received for the series have been so thoughtful and honest, but not in a way that feels off-putting or too too, if that makes sense. We'll wrap it up in the next few weeks, though; it's not a series that can go on forever. 

Aside from the Hairpin, what are some of the publications you were proudest to write for?
Mallory:
The Atlantic was really fun; Jim Hamblin is a really funny writer and a great editor to work with. The Awl, definitely. I remember the first time I got a byline there and how excited I was. I almost wrote something for Buzzfeed, but it didn't work out, so that particular height has yet to be summitted. 

Nicole: I'm crazy about The Morning News, and was thrilled to be published by them. Rosecrans Baldwin wrote the funniest thing I've ever read (his Paris memoir is also incredible).

Mallory, I am always amazed and envious by the amount of humor pieces you churn out. How many do you write per day, have backlogged, and where do you get your ideas so that I may go steal some for myself?
Thank you! I text myself ideas all the time, which is a really stupid way of writing things down, but I have this really old Droid phone and I don't know how to take notes on it. On average I would say I have 5-6 concepts or titles planned out in advance at the beginning of any given week. I'll write one or two pieces and have them ready to go the day before they run, and then the rest I'll write as the day progresses. I probably write two a day, on average. Today I wrote four. I almost never write fewer than two, although they're not always humor pieces. The world is so full of ideas, though. It's just an idea factory, the world. Also, Twitter pretty much acts as my first-draft folder. God, but I love Twitter. 

Nicole, what's your philosophy, as a mom and as an editor, about how much parenting stuff you run on the site?
Ugh, parenting stuff. No, I don't mean that!  I'm just really stubborn about parenting stuff, because I feel like people have been having children for the entire run of the species, there cannot possibly be that much that we're going to have lightbulb moments about in 2013.  I have a few parenting-related sites I read and enjoy, and I've run a handful of my own things when I really think I have something helpful to say (my breastfeeding experience, how I think we set people up for failure with this idea that mother love is a transformative alchemy, etc.), but I reject almost all parenting pieces I get. What I'd love to see more of are pieces that talk critically about class issues in parenting (this is why I enjoyed Jessica Valenti's book), instead of just devolving into this upper-middle-class circle jerk about how you are perceived by your peers. If you are reading Consumer Digest reports to decide if Chicco or Britax carseats are superior, your child is almost certainly going to be fine and go to college and get a job. If you are trying to pump while waitressing at a diner and your husband is on disability, I want to hear about how you manage that, and what could be done to help you.

I don't want to devalue the importance of parenting and the conversations around it, because anything done mostly by women gets short shrift.  I think my objection is to the school of parenting discussion which seeks to create fault lines between women or make them feel inadequate for their choices.

Mallory, what's your interviewing (and interview research) process?
Oh, I cannot tell you how bad I am at interviewing. I get wretchedly nervous. I put off doing research. I ask stupid, generic questions. I don't do many interviews for the site, and I hope to do even fewer as time goes on. It is just not a skill I have. Jia Tolentino over at the Hairpin is an unbelievably gifted interviewer. I am not. I got yelled at once, when I was trying to interview someone, for not asking questions quickly enough (not for this site; in a past editorial life) and it's scarred me forever. This is the first interview I have enjoyed. From now on I will only be interviewed. 

Nicole, who would you cast in the major motion picture version of The Secret History?
I want it to be cast like the planned prequel to Wet Hot American Summer, so everyone is really old, but playing college-aged kids. I actually think my writer friend Leslie Jamison would be perfect as Camilla, because I always populate the book in my mind with people from my college literary society, which was all Gauloise smoke and cutting remarks. Oh, and Donald Sutherland as a professor, obviously.

Both of you, what's the last thing you cooked that you were quite proud of?
Mallory:
I made a steak for lunch today. It was very good. 

Nicole: I bought this deep fryer (they are so cheap and safe), and now I do homemade sweet potato fries a few times a week.  You just take a sweet potato, cut it into fry-like pieces, soak them in water for a few hours, dry them well, fry for seven minutes at 325, dry them, then 3 more minutes at 375.

How does it feel to be the 368 and 369th people interviewed for Zulkey.com?
Mallory:
Just swell. That sounds exhausting. I'm getting sweaty just thinking about asking intelligent-sounding questions to that many people. 

Nicole: Self-indulgent.