Sloane Crosley is only 31 but she is working on a hell of a resume. Not only did she author 2008's super-successful creative non-fiction essay collection I Was Told There'd Be Cake, but she is on the panel for The Moth and a frequent contributor to NPR's All Things Considered, as well as countless magazines and newspapers. Crosley is perhaps best known as "New York's most popular publicist," which does not surprise me in the slightest because I spoke with Crosley for the first time this Monday and she was fucking delightful. We talked about her new book of essays How Did You Get This Number, which she will be promoting at the downtown Powell's next Monday at 7:30 pm.
You majored in creative writing, right? Back in 2000?
2000! Isn't that weird? When we graduated it was like a big deal that we were The First Graduating Class of the New Century and it just seemed so flying car-esque and now it seems old. Like, people who are total grown-ups who have real lives and are amazingly successful graduated in, like, '05. It's weird. But yeah, I majored in English with a concentration in creative writing. I was going to major in archeology but I just couldn't push English away.
Anthropology and archeology. I went on digs and did the whole thing. I actually almost double-majored in it but then I had to take statistics to complete the major so I kind of bowed out.
What was it about those subjects that attracted you?
I think I wanted to do it ever since I was little. When I was really little and people were going around saying they wanted to be astronauts or ballerinas or firemen I think I most wanted to be the head curator of the Met. That's what I was going around saying, precocious little brat that I was. I love museums. Maybe it does have a relationship to what I currently do. I love other people's stories, experiences; I love art, history... specifically bones and dead things.
I guess working on the panel for The Moth you're sort of curating in a different way.
Exactly. Now instead of collecting bones I collect books.
Was being a writer a goal for you or were you attracted to the world of publishing in general?
I don't really know if being a writer was a goal. I think I've always been a huge, huge reader. I was a reader before I was a writer. I don't know if there was a moment where I said, [affecting a pompous voice] “I'm going to be a writer!” “...But what I really want to do is direct!” Because I still have my day job and have the good fortune to be surrounded by so many people who are wildly famous and successful I don't actually feel comfortable calling myself a writer. I still feel very much like that person who gets two article published in The Village Voice and prances around calling themselves a writer. It feels like kind of a fraud.
You still feel like a dilettante?
Yeah, totally. Of course I do. And I'm not alone in that feeling. Someone once said in an interview that on your third book you're a writer. The first one's a fluke, the second one everyone's watching to see if they'll let you continue on and the third one, if it comes out solid, OK, that's it for life. Good job.
Did you feel that pressure with How Did You Get This Number?
Certainly not while I was writing it. The pressure of the sophomore effort can be sort of paralyzing but I was fortunate enough that my first book did well enough that I can experiment and go deeper, be a little funkier in this one and hope there's an audience for it. But once the writing's done you can focus on all the superficial crap like... the reception. [laughs]
What did you find yourself more comfortable doing with Number that you wouldn't have done in your first book?
That's a good question.
I think the humor is a bit darker. The essays are much longer because I think there's something apologetic about writing a short essay where you just don't want to overstay your welcome in terms of an idea. But then you think, “Hey actually, no, people are listening. Let me take a little bit longer with these and really tell a story.” And the other thing is to not be funny. To have parts where you're not constantly “Dance, monkey, dance” with your smashing cymbals and actually get to something a little larger. Trust your audience is interesting and deep and smart enough to actually want that. All of that was sort of unconscious. The only thing I think I sat down and thought about was how to make situations that are ostensibly objectively unfunny funny.
Like hitting a baby bear with your car.
Very good example. [laughs] That mash-up, it's the whole chocolate-covered pretzel thing. It's good.
They're longer essays but you let yourself get carried away with tangents. You don't seem to be scared to let yourself fully focus on something before coming back to the original story. Was that a choice or is that just the way you think?
That's just the way I think. I'm generally, I think, self-deprecating about most things but I will say one good thing about me: when I'm talking with friends and we go off on a tangent I'm usually the one to bring us back and remember what it was we were talking about. I can go off on long threads and still be sort of tethered to my main point. It's a little risky to do that, I think the reader has to trust you and if they don't then it's going to be annoying. [laughs] But if they trust that there's a light at the end of the rainbow and it's a funny light then you're in good shape.
What do you want people to take away from the new book?
I think I wanted people to take away that sour-sweet mix. It's hard to write personal essays, especially in the blogging age, without being accused of being self-centered and navel-gazey, but in fact it's a very old, old style of writing—not like epistolary old, but pretty old. And in fact I think it's had kind of a resurgence and there can be something very beautiful and very classic about it, while still being very funny and modern. And I hope — I guess I'll know when the reviews come out — I hope I've hit that note.
How do the stories form? Do you just sit down with a seed and see what comes out or do you take a lot of time mapping? How do you work?
A lot of times I'll have the end in my brain first, which is weird because I think a lot of people have trouble with endings and are great at beginnings but I'm the reverse. What's funny is that it's very rarely the story of what happened [that I think of] first. It's usually a larger topic that I'm thinking of or how I'm feeling in general. Then if you have a matching, perfect tale that goes with it then that's great. I think that's what separates it from cocktail party fodder is that you are actually trying to get to something a tad more universal than just an entertaining story for five minutes. I mean, the goal is still ultimately to entertain, it's not to reveal the secret of life or your most inner thoughts. I think some younger writers forget that no one needs you; you're a volunteer. You owe the people reading your work something.
I keep seeing in profiles of you people saying, “She's actually very nice.” Is that, like, a dirty word in creative non-fiction now?
It's not a dirty word, but it's a non-word. I take it as a compliment, because I think being caustic and cruel is the easiest way to be funny and sometimes I take those routes. It's the same reason why they tell up-and-coming stand-up comedians “Don't go for the crotch.” It's the easiest way to get a laugh. Ha-ha, penis, ha-ha! Similarly, I think blanketly making fun of someone is an easy way to get a laugh. So when people call me nice within the context of the writing I do take it as a compliment, because a lot of the stuff isn't 100% nice. It's not necessarily a very kind book all the time, but-
You go for the crotch sometimes.
Yeah, of course I do! But you gotta moderate it a little bit. It's like being judicious with your cursing. Then it will be funnier and more effective. Everything in moderation. It's how the country should eat and laugh.
Oh man. Well, it's been delightful to talk to you.
You too! I'm excited to come out to Portland. Apparently I'm supposed to go to Voodoo Donuts...?