An Interview with sloane crosley
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Called an "incisive observer of human nature" by The New York Times Book Review, Sloane Crosley is the author of the bestsellers I Was Told There'd Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number. Her debut novel The Clasp, released in 2015, was optioned by Universal Pictures in 2016. Her third essay collection, Look Alive Out There, will be released in April 2018. Crosley is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, and regularly contributes to NPR, Elle, The New York Times, and GQ. She can be found on Twitter at @askanyone and on Facebook @sloanecrosley. Her website is sloanecrosley.com.
TMR: In an interview with The Bookseller you discuss likeable characters: "Relatability is so ... important to me. There are obviously likeable characters who you want to go on a road trip with and characters you love to hate but that inbetween zone of real people are harder." In your new collection Look Alive Out There, you place yourself in that zone. Why is relatability so valuable to you? What is the value of portraying real people and their actions, particularly when it comes to your own?
SC: I'll start by answering in an unromantic way: There are only X number of books that get published every year and even fewer that get published by great publishing houses. If you're lucky enough to find yourself in that club, I think you have an obligation to leave blood on the field. You have to make good on the promises of your genre at the very least. So if a novelist promises a "vivid" historical novel about 1920s Oklahoma, I want to feel the specificity of that. If a narrative nonfiction writer promises a viewpoint and new insight and laughs and dark thoughts laid bare, those better be in there. The value is in the reading experience.
in order to write well you have to find your truth and spill that.
For me, I get value as I'm writing these things; I get to articulate what I'm thinking. But I don't get much value after. I love when people read my books (I'm not concussed), but I don't think, "Oh goodie, now anyone who wants can know all the spots where I'm neurotic or vulnerable or twisted." I honestly just don't think about it. All I think about is producing the best piece of writing I can on a subject. But I should clarify—I don't mean that in order to write well, you have to spill your guts. That's a contemporary misconception. I mean that in order to write well you have to find your truth and spill that.
TMR: In an interview with New York Magazine, you discuss the influence of Guy de Maupassant's "classic but misunderstood" short story "The Necklace" on your novel, The Clasp. Why is "The Necklace" misunderstood?
SC: The piece of that story that I think is misunderstood is the blast of sympathy people have had, for generations, for the heroine. "Oh, poor her! She wasted her life for nothing!" That's the reaction. And it's intentional but it's also a piece of social satire. You're supposed to see your own superficiality and folly and fragility in the heroine, and the way people talk about it is sympathy, which prevents that. Not only do I think we are supposed to empathize—not sympathize—with her, but I think we are supposed to empathize with the husband, who is the silent hero of that story, partially because he has to deal with this frivolous ingrate of a partner. It's his sacrifices that stick with me, not hers.
We are so overstimulated and lost and we often sacrifice everything to go after the wrong thing without stopping and thinking what would bring us the most joy. Which sounds Oprah-y, but is actually very hard to do. It's hard to look at your love life or your professional life and think: Crap, I'm on the wrong path.
TMR: You've called yourself a short story fanatic. What was your first short story encounter that really shook you and showed you the value of literature?
SC: The first short story that really shook me was "Araby" by James Joyce. My little 14-year-old heart broke when I read that story.
TMR: You're a New York Times bestseller, you worked on a pilot for HBO, you've guest-starred as yourself on Gossip Girl. Was this a trajectory you ever hoped for? Do you ever feel cautious of your accomplishments?
SC: All the things you cite are wonderful, all appreciated everyday—none of it is a dream. None of it is planned. I have had wonderful moments of great luck that are public and moments of deep unluck that are private. Part of the caution of "A Dog Named Humphrey," the essay about my five seconds on Gossip Girl, is not to confuse the success you see in other people with who they are, with what their days are like.
TMR: In a Curbed feature, you said that you're sentimental about inanimate things. Can you tell us about one thing that means a lot to you for no real reason?
SC: There's a reason behind everything, even if it's small and not "my grandmother gave me this toaster oven on her deathbed." So this is tough. I suppose clothing that I've had for a long time means a lot to me just because it's old and it hasn't disintegrated. Or clothing that turns out to be unexpected. Ever buy a pair of yellow suede shoes at deep discount and think, "I may wear these twice but at least they fit," and then they turn out to be your favorite shoes and you wish a shoe fairy could have been there at the time to tell you to buy multiple pairs? But no matter the item, you would have been like, "Go home, fairy, you're drunk and this is a velvet beret." It just has to be this way.
TMR: In an interview with Broadly you mention a novella you wrote in your 20s, calling it "pretty bad." What made it bad?
SC: I really like to talk about my own bad writing! It's a hobby! What made it bad was not entirely its fault but mine, if that distinction makes sense. It was a perfectly okay novella but then after college I decided the grownup thing to do would be to expand it. But it was already done, already in the form it was meant to be in. So without realizing what I was doing, I just went back in and expanded it into this boring tangle. Just injected nonsense into it that didn't feel like nonsense at the time. And it was a cancer, it was everywhere. I couldn't just revert back.
The other thing that made it bad is that I wasn't as strong a writer as I needed to be. I started writing it when I was 19 and I was not one of those college kids that writes like Toni Morrison. That's a thing these days. More and more. "She hasn't gotten her period yet, which must be why she can capture menopause so well!"
TMR: Why is humor writing valuable to you?
SC: Comedy is tragedy plus time, right? I think humor writing is important because it offers the promise of time. It shows that you can still be hurt or mad or befuddled and you don't actually have to let go of it. That's where I think we go wrong when we try to comfort each other. We say, "This too shall pass." But a hurt person either doesn't want to see that or can't imagine it. It's like telling a person who can't walk that six months from now she'll be running a marathon. How nice but, well, stupid.
humor writing is important because it offers the promise of time.
Humor writing offers the possibility that it's okay not to forget and it's okay to be sad because eventually you will laugh about it. You will fold it into yourself in such beautiful and unexpected way that you just can't see right now. Eventually, you will have both. Not all humor, but some humor is the light at the end of the tunnel in that way.
TMR: You published I Was Told There'd Be Cake in 2008, when you were told that personal essays didn't sell. Now, it seems like we have no shortage of essay collections. Would you consider yourself a pioneer of our era's personal essay boom?
SC: Well, if you have to explain you're a pioneer, you probably aren't one. That should be the rule. I didn't invent the form. At all. But I know of what you speak. There was definitely a sense, in 2007 and 2008, that publishing personal essays was tantamount to publishing a book of poetry, unless your name was David Sedaris or Bill Bryson. Long time, no Fran. And years and years until Nora-feeling-bad-about-her-neck. Most people, both in and out of publishing, spoke to me as if the book was a kind of placeholder for a novel and it just didn't matter either way. Because it wouldn't sell. It was also a paperback original.
Then suddenly the name of my book was being referenced on the back flaps of books that weren't mine. And on marketing materials. And in reviews for books that weren't mine. And by celebrities writing essays. So yes, my personal experience tells me something did change after I Was Told There'd Be Cake. On my better days, I think it's direct, and I think it's because of the quality of the writing. On my normal days, I think it's vague and because I hit the right place at the right time with a pastry-based title.
TMR: YA author Jesse Andrews once said that when his debut novel came out, he had "the feeling of a parent sending their kid out in the world and knowing they can't protect the kid if someone wants to punch the kid in the face." Have you felt this way about your work?
SC: That's well-put. The loss of control is just part of the bargain. But if we really extend Jesse's analogy: If I raised a kid, I would hope I would raise that kid to know who he/she is. To own that. And maybe that will get the kid hugged and praised and maybe that will get the kid tripped on the playground because the kid is being a little asshole. But that's all okay so long as the center holds.
TMR: Finally: what can we look forward to seeing from you after Look Alive Out There is released?
LR: I'm working on a new novel. Who isn't? Am I right or am I right?