When I speak with Sloane Crosley over the phone on the release date of her excellent new collection of essays Look Alive Out There, it’s abundantly clear we’re going to get along. That’s partly because we’re both the type of writers who don’t utter the words “Joan Didion” without prefacing them with “Queen,” but also because Crosley speaks in much of the same fashion that she writes: with kinetic intelligence and a charmingly self-deprecating sense of humor that both flow effortlessly. Crosley’s talent for oscillating from laugh-out-loud humor to stunning life realizations—sometimes in the space of a single page—will be on full display when she’s joined by newly minted Portlander Chuck Klosterman on Thursday, April 19 at Literary Arts for a chat about Look Alive Out There.
In Alive, Crosley riffs with equal aplomb on everything from Ecuadorian mountaineering to the time her website domain was held hostage, imbuing each with humor and relatable self-examination. Any experience is fair game, including her lifelong infatuation with the West Coast, which she examines here in a story about hanging out with swingers in Northern California. “I’ve definitely been tempted and love it there, the pull of the West is so strong,” says Crosley when I ask if she’s ever been tempted to relocate from NYC à la Queen Joan. “I’m in sort of a blissed-out daze when I’m there, it feels like a voluntary concussion—but, you know, a pleasant one.”
The essays in Alive range in length from a few paragraphs to much longer selections, like the epic “The Doctor Is a Woman.” Ostensibly about Crosley freezing her eggs, it also covers aging, feminism, sexism, and the healthcare industry. “I think I just know,” Crosley says when I ask how she picks her topics and lengths. “You sort of have a sense how much is going on in the essay and what its wingspan is in a sense, like with ‘Woman.’ There was a lot to cover: societal pressure, womanhood, other people’s perceptions of these topics; so I knew I was going to have to roll up my sleeves.”
Another of Crosley’s strengths lies in her uncanny ability to find a moving story in unexpected places, as exemplified in “Relative Stranger.” Under Crosley’s direction, what in lesser hands would be a humorous tale about her uncle’s former career in porn is instead a stirring “be here now” rumination on the devastating effects of making unhealthy choices in our romantic lives. Crosley’s success often lies in her ability to trust her instincts on the trail of a good story—whether it takes the form of the deceptively touching interview with her “stunt cock” uncle or confused interactions with strangers at Rite Aid, Crosley is able to mine literary gold from the seemingly mundane and arbitrary. “If you think of David Sedaris, Hugh [Sedaris’ longtime partner] is a common denominator in his essays. I don’t have a Hugh, so strangers are my Hugh,” Crosley tells me before adding with a laugh, “That didn’t sound too depressing, did it?”