Sloane Crosley is a young American writer who established her voice early and forcefully. Both of her collections of essays, I Was Told There’d Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number, were New York Times Bestsellers. In 2009, I Was Told There’d Be Cake was a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Her work has been featured in a long list of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The New York Observer, The Village Voice, Vice Magazine, Vogue, Esquire, and Playboy Magazine. She is also a frequent contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered” and was Editor of The Best American Travel Essays in 2011. Before quitting to write full time, she was a publicity director at Vintage Books.
What is Crosley’s style as an essayist? The Independent described it well: “Take David Sedaris, divide by Dorothy Parker, times by Mary Tyler Moore and add Kingsley Amis.”
You’re pretty funny. Were you a funny kid? Was humor always something you resorted to?
Thank you. “Resort” is an awfully strong word. Though I guess there is an element of ingratiation to humor. But no one “resorts” to science or “falls back” on engineering. How are we going to dismantle this bomb? Should we pun the red wire? Humor gets a bad rap for being too practical. It’s a crutch if you want it to be but most people I know who use it or specialize in it or whatever do so voluntarily. It’s never struck me as a backup plan.
I guess I was a funny kid. You’d have to ask my parents and teachers. All kids are funny. Recently, a friend’s daughter was curious about a conversation the adults were having about World War II. She said, “What are you guys talking about?” And my friend looked at her husband, unsure if now was the time to explain Hitler to a seven-year-old. But she did and the daughter, wanting to act smooth, waved her hand and said “Ohhhh, that Hitler.”
Were you a big reader? What did you read?
I treated reading like I treated everything I liked – selectively and obsessively. So I went through a gecko phase where I would more or less only wear clothing that had geckos on it for months. What a great time to be alive when one can cull together an entire wardrobe of gecko prints. Or Tom Petty. I think there was a month in there when I would only listen to Tom Petty. Book-wise, I loved The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, and The Once and Future King, so I read these books over and over and over. But I was all over the map. We had this book fair at camp and each camper was allotted two tickets for two books: I chose a book of Gary Larson cartoons and Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd. Who knows what I was thinking, but I read them both. I knew more of the words in the Gary Larson book.
Did you write at all when you were young?
Yes, I always wrote. Mostly short stories and sometimes bad poems I’d read to my mother. When I was ten, I read her one about heartbreak. It was the story of a human heart that gets left out in the rain and travels with the leaves and debris down the gutter and then gets caught in the grate, where it thinks it will be okay because it’s too big to slip through. But then a truck runs it over. She said it wasn’t my best work. She really said that.
Did you know you wanted to be a writer? Did you have a sense of what that would mean: to be a writer?
I had no idea what that meant or would mean. It never seemed like a hobby but it also never seemed like a job. What’s in between? A jobby. Well, that’s cute.
When I was young I wanted to be an archeologist. That was my career version of a Tom Petty obsession. All I wanted to do when my parents took me into the city was either go to The Museum of Natural History or go to the Egyptian exhibit at the MET. One birthday I got two separate hieroglyphic stamp kits so clearly this was a passion about which I was vocal. I went to college, majored in it, cleaned bones, all of that stuff. I still think of that as the road not taken but for the sake of this interview, I don’t mean archeology, though that happens to be the name of my specific road – I mean a vocation that requires a concrete skill and training. I did not go in that direction. Thus I have a lot of vivid fantasies about what I think of as valuable skill or trained skill. Writing is hard work but come on — it’s more tortured than hard. The challenges are coming from inside the house, so to speak. You don’t have to take a course on statistics and you don’t have to be like, “Oh hey, what’s up, how you like my paranthropus anamensis pelvis?”
Did you continue to write in college? Is that when you became more serious about writing?
It’s hard to be serious about humor writing. Am I serious now? Sometimes. I wrote fiction in college. Those were the classes I took. I was a short story fanatic. Lorrie Moore, Tobias Wolf, Carver. I read White Angel by Michael Cunningham and Lawns by Mona Simpson and cried for days. I read In The Gloaming by Alice Elliott Dark and cried some more. I read Cheever’s Christmas is A Sad Season For The Poor and stopped crying.
Then one day this very preppy guy ran for a student council position of some kind and in his campus campaign he made a lot of Bill Clinton cigar and blue-dress references. A student group spontaneously formed and called themselves The Feminist Majority. They distributed a bunch of newsletters saying that because this preppy guy used this joke, he in no way represented them and should not be allowed to run for office. What can I say? There’s something a little Christopher Guest-y about a liberal arts education. So I wrote a letter to The Connecticut College Voice coming to the defense of the candidate because what he did was not anti-feminist but what they were doing was a smidge fascist. If anything, he shouldn’t be elected because Bill Clinton jokes aren’t funny and this was 1998.
I had never before and have never since been inspired to write a letter to the editor (blog comments are extremely strange to me, though I love reading them). But I felt the situation needed some correction and, more importantly, some levity. I have no idea why I also felt qualified to bring either. I can’t even remember if the guy got elected or not. But I got a column at the newspaper out of it and that’s when I began writing nonfiction. I wrote satire about campus manners and etiquette, things like that. Most of it pretty bad. I called the column “How to Dispose of Your Waste Responsibly,” after the recycling signs that were in all the college bathrooms. I guess I’ve always had a thing for long titles.
Have you kept those college columns? Do you think you had landed in your essay “voice” already at that point?
I don’t know about “landing a voice.” It’s just my voice. I do have the columns, or most of them, in yellowing-clipping form. I’m lucky in that I went to college on the fault line of the Internet. We had e-mail freshman year but it wasn’t our primary mode of communication, not really. It was much more so by the time I graduated in 2000. New century, new opportunities for your writing to be stored in the public sphere.
For so long we thought of the Internet as temporary. Blogs were a joke, information was a joke, friendships and online relationships were a joke. Ah, but the Internet is forever as it turns out. Quoth Joan Didion: It all counted.
So by sheer luck you can’t find my silly columns online. I don’t reread them, mostly because I’m afraid of bad writing, of what reading it will do to me, and that includes my own.
What was your first move after graduating from Connecticut College in 2000?
I tried to move to Prague, which is a whole other story, but in the end I went to New York and worked as an assistant at a boutique literary agency. I grew up outside of the city so I didn’t have a Joan “What Bridge Is That, Again?” Didion view of New York. Sorry, she’s on my mind lately. Anyway, New York felt like the easy choice. Of course, it’s the exact opposite of easy once you get here and you’re so poor and small and everyday’s a fight even when you don’t feel like you’re fighting. I lived on Columbus Avenue between 70th and 71st above an Italian restaurant I refused to go to because it never felt like going out. But apparently it’s pretty good. I didn’t have the same issue with the liquor store I also lived above.
Ah, yes I lived on the Upper West Side for several years. Everyone thought I was a granny for living there, but I liked it. Compared to downtown, it’s almost weirdly suburban. In spirit, I mean. Did you have a roommate when you lived there?
I had two roommates. One girl I hardly knew. She was a friend of an acquaintance from college. The second was one of my best friends from college. We’re still fairly inseparable. Though I guess not the traditional definition of inseparable since he lives in Los Angeles now.
I wanted to move downtown earlier but I then found a great apartment three blocks up from my first place and so that became my first place on my own. I had a rule when looking for studio apartments. I asked myself: if I were to make a pot of spaghetti sauce and the pot exploded, would the sauce get on my bed? If the answer was yes, I wouldn’t live there. But this place was great. It was the former living room of a classic brownstone and the ceilings were ridiculously high.
When you had money, what did you spend it on – indulgences? What did you eat? All that nitty gritty good stuff. Any good stories from life back then?
I have no idea what I spent money on or what people spend money on in general. I guess there are major shifts once you have lots of money. You start going on vacations or buy a car. Then you buy a nice car. Maybe some art. Stuff like that. But the spectrum between being poor and being better-than-poor is connected for a very long time. So I used to eat out and buy clothing and pay my phone bill when I had money. I do the same thing now, maybe just slightly nicer versions and it feels like less of a painful dent when I do them. Sometimes I’ll buy magazines on the newsstand now. I never used to do that. I also used to spend the occasional cash on cigarettes and drugs and alcohol. Right now I will buy you a cup of coffee or an egg sandwich but I will forever bring the second-cheapest bottle of wine to a party.
And sure, plenty of life stories, but I wouldn’t know where to begin. Some of them are dumb, like when my roommate and I went to fake war with the man who sold mealy fruit on our corner and some of them are not dumb, like when my neighbor died in 9/11, giving me the only recurring dream I’ve ever had. For three weeks, I dreamt that I saw him in Central Park and started yelling at him, telling him that he had everyone worried sick. You know, I lived in the Upper West Side for almost a decade and it’s the decade it was – my 20s – everything happened to me up there.
What was this fake war you started with the fruit man? What is even a fake war?
A fake war? I’ve never thought about the definition before. I suppose it’s a war of manners and passive aggression. The fruit man persisted in selling really mealy fruit while touting its freshness and eventually my roommate began returning the fruit, which is a kind of insane thing to do. A mealy peach or apple is generally something you suck up, literally and metaphorically. I’m boring myself even talking about it. I think that’s the essence of a fake war.
The job you had: did you like it? Did you think you might want to be a literary agent?
No and never.
Wow, that bad huh?
I worked there for thirteen months. Not that anyone’s counting. As an assistant, I don’t think it matters in retrospect why you didn’t like something. It should inform your decisions about where you want to go, where you’d like to take your career in an ideal world. But I don’t think you’re necessarily supposed to be in love with your first job and it’s certainly not the universe’s job to make life lovable for you. Not to sound “up the hill in the snow both ways” about it but my opinions as a 22-year-old about my first job were very relevant to me at the time but not relevant to the experience I was judging.
So for me, my boss and I were a poor fit and all my internships had been in magazines. I interned in the marketing department of The New Yorker and the fashion department of Mirabella so the agency really was a different world. I had never seen a book contract and worked for such a small agency that I was the contracts department. It was just a confluence of not-so-great factors. If I had worked for a different agency, a larger one, and had different experiences under my belt, maybe I’d be singing a different tune…but probably not. By now I see the profession from more angles and I still don’t see it for me.
What jobs did you have after the agent job?
I worked as a publicity assistant at HarperCollins, specifically for Ecco and Perennial. Then I moved to Vintage Books, where I fell in love and stayed for almost a decade.
And, throughout all this, did you keep writing?
I did. I wrote book and music reviews. I wrote the “Upper West Side” section of the Black Book Magazine guidebooks. I wrote stories and essays for myself. I finished a novel. It was really a novella and an extension of my college thesis. Stuff like that.
When was the first time you published something – other than your college column, of course?
I don’t remember what came first. I wrote a couple of pieces about 80s fashion and Japanese pop bands for a now defunct zine and I wrote about about a ballet adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are for Westchester Family Magazine. I was eighteen. I also wrote book reviews for Black Book Magazine for a few years. My favorite one was Sam Lipsyte’s Homeland. But I’m not a great straight reviewer. I’m most comfortable being a critic when I can play and put the criticism in the context of entertainment.
Did you carve out designated swaths of time for yourself to write during the weeks? Did you have a routine? Where did you write – at home or somewhere else?
One thing that’s great about having a very fulltime career is that it doesn’t leave much room for writers block. You write when you can. A few times I got up early to write before work but those were inhumane acts of deadline desperation. Mostly I would write on weekends, on the occasional weekday evening and then take my vacations to either stay at home and write or write in a cabin somewhere.
Did you have a clear idea of a goal back then – a point that you wanted to reach with your writing?
I just wanted more room. I don’t know if it was ever different but since, say, 2000 wanting to be published and wanting to be a writer have felt like two separate things. At least in terms of an obtainable goal. Occasionally you can slip through the keyhole and finish your thought in an articulate way on the pages of a glossy magazine or within 800 words. Not that they’re entirely disconnected. Learning to write with economy is helpful even when it’s not necessary and vice versa. But I guess I knew I wanted to reach a point where I could shove more and more material through the keyhole.
But that’s the answer for essays and reviews and journalism. A goal the larger sense? God, do I have to have one? I just wanted to write as well as possible as often as possible. That last sentence would not be an example of either. But it is, simply, what I want and have always wanted.
Did you cold pitch magazines at first? Tell me about the journey from now-defunct zines to the pages of the New York Times.
I did and still do. I am not under contract with any specific magazine. I have been a contributing editor at random places. I have certain magazines I write for more than others. I do get approached to write pieces now. These editors know their magazines better than I do so usually they are great ideas I couldn’t have pitched. If I feel like I’m the wrong writer for the piece, I always say “no.” Assigning-wise, it goes both ways whereas before it only went one way.
As for your other question, I was writing constantly for The Village Voice but then they shut their essay section. I moved to The New York Observer but then they changed to a broadsheet format and shut the “New York Diary” section. Then I really started writing regularly for “The City” section, which doesn’t exist anymore either. I’m making this sound pretty dismal, aren’t I? I was the inaugural writer for the “townies” series in the op-ed section so that was pretty cool.
A collection of essays is not typically an easy sell. Tell me about the making of your first book.
No, it’s not. I was certainly warned to keep my expectations very low. The first book has one piece that’s adapted from Salon and two from The Village Voice. I don’t think there are any from the Times or The Observer. The rest were “from scratch.” So most of them. Same with the second book. All written for the book.
I Was Told There’d Be Cake became a bestseller. That whole carousel must have been somewhat surreal. Tell me about it!
Must it have been? I honestly don’t remember much of it. My day job at the time and that book are very much tied up in my mind. I was on book tour in Seattle and didn’t have a blackberry or a laptop and so I went to check my e-mail at an Internet Café, which even labeled itself as such. When in Seattle, right? And the publishing houses get their New York Times lists early and so I opened my Random House account and was scrolling for whatever book I was working on – I believe I was looking for the paperback reprint I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron – and there was my book (also hers, naturally). It didn’t even register at first. Just because it’s my name and my book title and I was fairly used to seeing them both. But then I screamed and a girl behind the counter bought me a muffin and I went outside and started making phone calls. It was pretty great. Then, after that? I was just working hard, promoting it and being at the office at the same time. It was wonderful but I was spread so thin, I was translucent. All I really remember about 2008 was that I was busy.
I love that scene, you screaming in the Internet Cafe… Life as a writer must have changed for you at that point. Being able to label yourself a Bestseller gives you different clout, I am sure. Did you feel you had more freedom and choice in your writing after that?
I can respect the idea of seeking out fulcrum moments in life, both because it’s clean and because it’s cinematic. You know, the moment you realize you’re in love with your best friend or the moment you discover the virus in a lab or win an Oscar and think: this is it. But during this interview I’ve been trying to convey the idea that it rarely works like that. Or it didn’t and doesn’t for me…but I’m going to venture to guess it doesn’t work like that for any writer. The more unwieldy and bloated the achievement, the more this is true. Being on a list is great but it doesn’t shift your whole life. Maybe if you’re number one for six months it does.
The words “clout” and “writer” go together less than they do with other achievements and achievers. Not to be excessively basic about it but how long’s a movie script? 100 pages? 115? And what’s the word count? Can you read a book faster than you can listen to an album or look at a painting or watch a dance performance? Obviously not. So what I’m suggesting is that maybe if I had a hit song on the radio, I’d think “That’s it, this is the milestone, I know exactly what my audience is digesting and how and now I’m adding three lemon wedges to my rider. Fuck it, make ‘em limes.” I have never once felt like I had more or less choice in my writing now because of my past success. That probably made me a badass unpublished author and now makes me a wimpy published author.
What are you working on now?
A novel, more essays and a couple of reported pieces.
When you were younger, what was your idea of success? Has it changed – what is your idea of success today?
I had this fantasy of walking down the street and passing someone reading my book on a bench and having that person not realize I was walking by. That’s where it ended, I didn’t assume that they’d be engrossed in the book or even that this would be a common occurrence for me. But I’ve been lucky in that I’ve seen that a couple of times and it’s just the coolest thing.
The larger dream, and one I couldn’t have foreseen wanting as much as I want it now, is that I would keep producing ideas and like them for a sustained period of time. I used to work with Dave Eggers and he said the trick to success was this: “finish things.” If you can keep doing that the rest of your life, you’re golden.
You maintained a career in publishing parallel to writing, which of course gave you good stability. Are you still working a “day job” or are you full-time writing now? If so, how is that change? Has it led you to find new routines?
No, I quit two years ago. I loved my job and it was tough to quit but I had to. It took some adjusting but it’s very rewarding. You have to make your own schedule. Not sure I’m going to say too much of value on this point. Everyone has different habits. It’s like diet – some people can have extra ice-cream and some people can’t. Everyone’s different.
You don’t need to tell me something that is helpful to anyone else. I just want to know what you do. Do you have weird musts in order to write? Do you write at home or at an office or at a café? Is the actual act of writing painful or difficult for you or is it pleasurable?
No cafés because I can’t concentrate and it’s distracting, though so is everything. I mean: no jackhammers and burlesque dancers because they’re distracting as well. I can edit in public. I just can’t write in public. I don’t have anything I need to be drinking or eating, though I need to do both those things about 12 hours a day in general. I never write in bed. I live in a railroad apartment and I write at home for the most part. Sometimes in an office but mostly at home or if I can get out of town. I have a built-in desk in the living room, the last stop on the railroad blueprint. It came with the apartment. Unfortunately it’s in the room I’d like to make my bedroom and my bed is in a tiny room. So if I move my bed, it’ll be a reversion to studio life just with this odd tiny room of no use in the middle of the railroad tracks. As you can tell, I am far more concerned with the location of my bed than my desk. My inclination is to cater to laziness over industry.
As for the act of writing? It changes every time. Mostly it’s not easy, though when it’s great, well…that’s why I woke up this morning. I would actually be interested to meet a writer who says otherwise. There are some who are infamous for finding pithy ways to jab at the difficulty of the process – Fran Lebowitz and David Rakoff come to mind. I won’t say it better.
You’ve done some teaching – how was that?
Difficult and great. I taught just the one master class in Columbia’s MFA program so I’m not qualified to answer this question at length. I will say that it was one of the more pronounced times during which I felt the corporate world’s influence on me. Over the course of a life, one’s intelligence gets batted around like a pinball. You’re rewarded for knowing certain kinds of things above others. It took some adjusting, popping back into academia, for me to remember the perspective these students have about writing. For me, I had to re-learn how to speak that language without being influenced by what I’ve done either as a writer myself or as someone who worked in publishing and media. I had to wind my brain back to when Mona Simpson made me cry, catch up, go from there, and learn from these twelve amazing people. After that, we were able to have real conversations about tone and voice and the essay format. Before that, they looked like aliens to me.
What is your advice to your writers just starting out like you once did?
Try to pay attention to what you’re telling yourself as soon as humanly possible.
Is there anything you would tell your twenty-something self that you think it would have benefited you to know at the time?
Leave your air-conditioning units in. It’s not worth the effort to move them in the winter, it’s really not.
Do you have some crazy dream or idea in the back of your mind that you haven’t yet given a try – professional or personal?
I wouldn’t mind singing. I recorded my own audio books and that’s as close as I’ve ever come to the glamorous life of a recording artist. I was recovering from bronchitis during the first one so I sound pretty raspy for a girl telling stories about the time someone took a shit on her floor. Along with that, I also wouldn’t mind playing the guitar. But I gather it’s not too late to learn.
Now that you have left your publicist career aside, are you ever scared about the future? I mentioned stability – of course being a writer is not very stable, it certainly comes with a great deal of risk.
Thank you for reminding me. I almost forgot to send in my health insurance check this month.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Skye Parrott.