Sloane Crosley is back, returning to the form that made her a household name in really quite a lot of households. With her newest essay collection Look Alive Out There, she brings us her trademark humor, wit, and charm. Yet there is also a new maturity to these essays: they are full of punch-packing observations and emotional insight, whether ruminating on fertility or on befriending swingers. In the words of Steve Martin: “Sloane Crosley does the impossible. She stays consistently funny and delivers a book that is alive and jumping.” Here, Crosley answers our most pressing questions—such as, “What is the matter with you?”
Work in Progress: It’s been ten years since you published your first collection of essays, I Was Told There’d Be Cake. Time flies! The essays in this new collection are richer and more varied than your past books, in both content and form. How have you changed as a writer, or have you?
Sloane Crosley: I’m still me, but I’d say I’m less concerned with squeezing in a prescribed number of zingers per page and more concerned with the net humor of any essay. I’m just more relaxed as a writer, hopefully with a more finely tuned sense of what deserves a lot of meditation and what can be achieved with a little. For example, “Right Aid,” a story about accidentally asking a checkout lady on a date, takes no more than a paragraph. Lydia Davis length if not Lydia Davis content! But “If You Take the Canoe Out,” an essay about retreating into the woods and befriending swingers, is really about the artistic balance between withdrawing from and participating in life. So it’s quite a bit longer. “A Dog Named Humphrey” details my brief stint on Gossip Girl, but it’s actually about identity. So it’s longer, too. And “The Doctor is a Woman” is the mother of all essays about egg freezing. It feels misleading to sum it up like that, but that’s my point. Essentially, you just have to give larger topics air—allow them to take their coats off and stay a while—or else they come off as flip. And you have to paint smaller moments quickly. Or else it reads like you’re filibustering to make an essay appear more layered than it is. Which is bad. Which I’m doing right now. See how I’m doing it? How are you still reading this? Wow, you’re patient. I’m getting a snack. Let me know if I missed anything.
WiP: Do you think the landscape for personal essays has changed?
Crosley: I do. If I were just starting out publishing essays, this would be a seriously confusing terrain to navigate, wandering around, wondering who put all these trapdoors everywhere. The drums of “every voice counts!” and “quit your whining, no one cares!” compete with each other. I don’t know how anyone under the age of thirty hears the sound of her own voice. Then there’s social media. I started writing essays for The Village Voice in 2004 and if people wanted to curse at me, they had to track down my personal email or write me a letter. It’s always been difficult, but in these days when the loudest, raunchiest or saddest voice in the room wins, it seems like a feat to make pure, impactful personal essays happen. But that leads to a second problem: treading too lightly. Let’s say you apologize and carefully parse every errant thought you have about a subject, teasing out every moment. If you succeed, you will bore people blind.
In these days when the loudest, raunchiest or saddest voice in the room wins, it seems like a feat to make pure, impactful personal essays happen.
But the pendulum of public opinion about personal writing has always swung back and forth. You should see the trash Virginia Woolf used to talk about personal essays. Ever since Montaigne, the vowel “I” is the alleged cancer that will be the ruin of us all! And yet, we soldier on. We also tend to revise our opinions. When Fran Lebowitz published Metropolitan Life, reviewers were dubious of her pun usage. They put her in the same breath as Erma Bomback. Not bad, but not accurate.
WiP: When you published your first book, essays were not a hot commodity. Now it seems like every celebrity has a book of personal essays.
Crosley: Oy. Sometimes I feel like the whole genre has become this goofy variety show that celebrities are drawn to because it allows them to admit they were not beautiful as children and for some reason this qualifies them to give life lessons. Clearly not all of them are like that. But in general, watching this trend takeover of my native genre has felt like watching a drunk friend dance on a piece of furniture. You think, well, that’s not really you and you’re probably gonna regret it in the morning, but at least you’re having a nice time!
WiP: At the end of the first essay in this collection, a cashier asks you, “What’s the matter with you?” This is also along the lines of the epigraph of your novel, The Clasp—a quote from Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace”: “What is the matter?” So tell us. What is the matter with you, Sloane Crosley? And why does it make for funny writing?
Crosley: Well spotted! When my first book came out, The New York Observer ran a profile of me on the cover of the arts section. Gawker picked it up with a post that read, “What’s Really Wrong with Sloane Crosley?” and I remember thinking: Good question. Let’s read on and find out, shall we? Alas, both the post and the piece were inconclusive.
I can tell you that the Maupassant epigraph comes from a character feeling sullen when she’s supposed to feel elated. And the use of a similar line in this book comes from me feeling I’m in the right while everyone around me thinks I’m being crazy. What’s “wrong” with me is that gap. It’s the constant sensation of feeling out of step with what I’m supposed to feel. Most writers live like this. Most people do. But for me, it’s what makes for funny writing. You have to go to the party to observe the party, which means some part of you wanted to go to the party. You can’t be a total misanthrope. For a humor writer, feeling that something is always a little wrong and being there to witness it is key.
WiP: You turned this book in to your editor on November 7, 2016, the day before the election, just under the wire of a different time. Were you tempted to address this Trump-ish world we’re now living in? How does the collection benefit from not doing that?
Crosley: I finished it on the 7th but turned it in on the 8th. This seems like splitting hairs, but it’s important to how I think of the book. 11/07 and 11/08 are before and after snapshots of America. The 8th was a wreck. The streets were a wreck. Babies were a wreck. Probably because all the adults were weeping in their faces. The 8th took on what I call “Kennedy GPS,” aka the compulsion to tell everyone where you were when an event happened. So when I turned in a book of humor essays that afternoon, I wrote a note to my editor that said, “Because I refuse to lose one day to him.” This drives at the heart of why comedy is relevant. It’s funny but it’s defiant, too. It’s defiant because it’s funny. These essays are meant to entertain but also to remind us that this is still our weird little world. Even the title itself—Look Alive Out There—takes on additional meaning post-Trump. Pay attention, people! There is so much else to tackle and enjoy and love and fear and be collectively irritated by. We are still ourselves. We are still people who question our identity and make horrible choices and accept creepy massages from old women who live alone in barns with their epileptic dogs. Just me? Fine, great.
This drives at the heart of why comedy is relevant. It’s funny but it’s defiant, too. It’s defiant because it’s funny.
WiP: There’s a lovely return to New York in these essays that will surely be welcome by fans of I Was Told There’d Be Cake. You make neighbors and real estate and cab etiquette come to life. How do you write about New York without it just being “Missives from The Bubble”?
Crosley: I start by not thinking of myself as a New York writer. I think of myself as a writer who represents a sensibility, not a city. And this may sound surprising, but I also tend to think New York is not so different from the rest of the country, certainly not from the rest of the country’s cities. There is an undeniable specificity to New York, but on a macro level, New York is what would happen if the power went out in Kansas City. People would come out of their homes, inconvenienced, figuring out how to get to the next moment, bonding, bothering each other, being unexpectedly forced to interact with exes, experiencing their lives in close proximity. If people want to take the “only in New York!” spirit from my writing, they can. But it can also alienate those who have no reason to feel alienated. I love this place to death. In my personal life, I often feel superior about it because it’s my home. But I’m not writing from that place. I just happen to have had this great view of it and this allows me to play tourist and native simultaneously.
WiP: This collection includes two longer interview pieces. In one “Wolf,” a nefarious stranger highjacks your domain name and email, culminating in your confronting him. In the other, “Relative Stranger,” you interview your uncle, a famous ‘70s porn star, and milk him for relationship advice. This is a form not seen in your previous writing. So what got into you?
Crosley: For years, I’ve interviewed musicians, comedians, artists, authors, rabbis, and girl scouts—but all for magazines. I wanted to attempt a genuine mix of letting other people speak for themselves while still telling their stories through my personal experience. But instead of making their stories entirely about me, I wanted us to have this symbiotic relationship where all boats rise within the structure of an essay. So both “Wolf” and “Relative Stranger” are a combination of reporting and personal rumination. It’s probably not a coincidence that both of these men once did or still do operate on the fringes of society. It would be easy to dismiss them both from the outside, especially in a world where few people, myself included, are burning with curiosity about the inner turmoil of older white men. But these guys surprised me. There’s also a progression in both essays that’s tonally similar. They were both a lot of fun to write.
WiP: Your essays are laugh-out-loud funny and then surprisingly poignant and sad. How would you categorize your own style? Who are some of your favorite essayists/what are some of your favorite essays (and why)?
Crosley: David Rakoff is a favorite. I miss him constantly. I am also partial to humor icons like Dorothy Parker, David Sedaris, and Nora Ephron. Ian Frazier’s shorter pieces slay me. The Brits can turn a phrase, from A.A. Gill to Geoff Dyer. Joan Didion is the queen. Lorrie Moore’s short fiction has a lot to teach any humorist.
As for my own specific style? Hmmm . . . I can tell you what I’m aiming for. You know in Ghostbusters, when Bill Murray pulls the tablecloth and all the plates fall off but he declares, victoriously: “And the flowers are still standing!” That’s the feeling I want to achieve with every essay I write. I want them to be energetic even when they are dark. I want them to make people laugh and feel a sense of suspense. I want them to start in one place and land in an unexpectedly connected place. The essay “Cinema of The Confined” is a good example because it’s about health but also about the movies. I want each essay to stick the landing so there’s always something in that last paragraph telling you that you were in good hands the whole time. The flowers are still standing.
I want each essay to stick the landing so there’s always something in that last paragraph telling you that you were in good hands the whole time.
WiP: The order of the essays is interesting. There are shorter essays peppered between longer ones. Please talk about the rhyme and reason behind this.
Crosley: I have been referring to the shorter essays as “palate cleansers.” But they are more like opening acts. So the first essay, “Wheels Up,” is a three-page essay about wishing I had stolen a cab from a woman in a wheelchair (I’m fine), and it sets the tone for the whole book. It says, “Hello, get to know your host.” Later, you have “You Someday Lucky,” which is about my hippie coworkers and opens up into “If You Take the Canoe Out,” which is set in Northern California. “Immediate Family,” a short essay about a neighbor’s death, precedes a long essay on a strange illness. A short essay about childhood and romance precedes a longer essay about relationships and baby stuff. You get the idea. And, as it was in How Did You Get This Number, that final essay is a real blood-on-the-field essay for me.
WiP: It’s hard to play favorites but if you had to pick, say, four of these essays to create a kind of calling card for the message of this book, which ones would they be?
Crosley: Ah, it’s like asking me to play favorites with my children. Though, let’s be real: if I had sixteen children, I’d have favorites. I think a good calling card would be “Brace Yourself,” (about friendship and France) “Outside Voices,” (about my hellion spoiled teenage neighbors) “Our Hour Is Up,” (about a childhood crush that comes back to haunt me) and “The Doctor is a Woman,” which I’ve mentioned. That’s the tapas version of this book. You get New York, you get travel, you get friendships, you get the past and the future, and, one hopes, you get to be amused.
WiP: In all of your essay collections, the title of the book is never the title of one of the essays. Why is that?
Crosley: Because my readers are smart. And I don’t want to point them in the direction of a specific essay and say, “this is the mascot.” It’s too much pressure on them, me, on that one essay, all while doing a disservice to the others. Instead, all of my titles have established a unifying tone. I Was Told There’d Be Cake was this sense of disappointment. How Did You Get This Number was this sense of incredulity. And Look Alive Out There is actually the most upbeat of the three. It’s tough love. I imagine crossing the street with a friend who is in her own world and saying, “Hey, look alive out there.” I imagine her snapping back into the moment and smiling.
Sloane Crosley is the author of the novel, The Clasp, and two New York Times bestselling books of personal essays, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, a finalist for The Thurber Prize for American Humor, and How Did You Get This Number. A contributing editor and books columnist for Vanity Fair, she lives in Manhattan.