Putting the Medicine in the Applesauce

Sloane Crosley and Zadie Smith

In Conversation

With her newest essay collection Look Alive Out There, Sloane Crosley 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. NPR raved: “She has that rare ability to treat scrapes with sardonic humor and inject serious subjects with levity and hijinks with real feeling—a sort of unlicensed nurse to our souls.” Here, Crosley joins Feel Free author Zadie Smith in conversation.

Zadie Smith: I want to talk about the title of Look Alive Out There and the titles of the other two collections (I Was Told There’d Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number). I think there’s something different—curious—about this title compared to the others. I wondered how you came to it. You tell me, and then I’ll give you my theory.

Sloane Crosley: They’re all meant to be tonal. First off, there’s a rule that I have for myself which determines what they’re not—they’re not the titles of any of the essays in any of the collections. Both with short fiction and essay, I feel like that puts so much weight on that one piece. But the first two collections do nod towards specific essays. I Was Told There’d be Cake isn’t, like I said, a title of any of the essays, but there is an essay about weddings—thus you can see the DNA coming through in the title. The same thing for How Did You Get This Number—in the last essay in that book I get a call from a woman who turns out to also be dating my boyfriend. With Look Alive Out There, the title more encompasses almost every single essay in terms of spirit, it embodies this sort of half-eye cocked/half-eye opened feeling that I hope permeates the essays. But there’s not a moment where I almost get hit by a car, which is too bad because then the title would make double sense. There’s just something a little less cynical, a little more hopeful in some of these essays.

Smith: That’s exactly what I felt.

Crosley: Oh good!

Smith: There was a new openness about experience. About just letting it come and feeling it and not having to codify it or explain it or make an argument of it. An openness that I really loved. And it’s quite unusual in personal essays, I think.

Crosley: Because they tend to be a little spiteful and cynical?

Smith: I was thinking about the American personal essay and this slight absence here. In England, we have columnists, often lady columnists, who write about their experiences and their lifestyle. The thing about those columns is that the kind of thought you’re always having is: “What does my life say about me?” That’s what those columns are always arguing. You have to make a case for yourself. And they’re always being backed into various corners. For instance, if you’re the single girl columnist, you start talking about single life as if it were not just your personal experience, but a theory, and then an argument, and then a kind of castle that cannot be touched by any other argument. In your essays, there is so much freedom to say experience is personal and therefore unquantifiable in the end. It’s your experience and you’ve had it personally and it doesn’t necessarily convey a message to the masses. It isn’t making a case for itself. It just is.

Crosley: Yeah, in the last essay—which you and I discussed outside of this forum—about the pressure for motherhood and fertility and freezing your eggs, I mentioned the sort of willful thing about how I refuse to read any articles about it, because I saw how this choice was so personal that I didn’t want anyone else’s input. I didn’t want to turn to The Consumer Reports of Literature to figure out whether or not I should do this.

Smith: Absolutely. In fact, in those kinds of columns, motherhood is the ultimate in lifestyle choice, supposedly. It’s only ever displayed as a lifestyle choice so it’s a certain kind of person—

Crosley: It’s a biological choice. It’s so strange.

Smith: It’s a certain kind of person who’s a mother, a certain kind of person who chooses not to be, and various defenses are built around these positions. But to a human actually existing in life, it never feels that way. It doesn’t feel like a series of choices by which people will judge. It feels like you’re in the slipstream of experience. And I thought your essays were so beautiful at conveying that. Even though we’ve gotten so used to—when you’re reading online—to expect that moment of argument or defense. It’s almost entirely absent here. It’s kind of a strange feeling, at first, because you’re waiting for this killer move that says, “My experience is right and you’re sorely mistaken.”

Crosley: I really want to accept this compliment so much, but I know that I do that in sort of minor bullet-pointed experiences within the essays. As hard as I am on myself in terms of self-deprecation, I know that I’ve got my zingers here and there but they’re usually with strangers so they’re not going to come back and bite me. I don’t think.

Smith: There’s a new angle, too, in these interviews. I was really interested in the one where Sloane goes to talk to her first cousin? Second cousin?

Crosley: My mother’s cousin which makes him—I want to say it’s one of the “once removed” ones, but I don’t think so. I just love the phrase “once removed.” It’s so wonderful, but I don’t think it actually applies. He’s my mother’s cousin who worked in pornography.

Smith: He’s a porn actor in the seventies, which was kind of a good time to be in that business.

Crosley: Not now.

Smith: No, not now. And you go to interview him the way I think a lot of us deal with other people’s experiences—you go wanting it to be a lesson for you in some way. You’re constantly looking at others and thinking, can you show me the way to live my life? Can I use you as an example, as an error, something to define myself—

Crosley: Sure, unless I’m writing about fertility.

You can have as much wisdom as you like, but applying it to your life turns out to be a very, very slow process.

Smith: Right. But when you get there you find this human being who doesn’t give you any kind of conclusion. He does give you some advice. You have some interesting things to say about the nature of the advice. I’m going to quote you to you now. It’s something to do with—you can have as much wisdom as you like, but applying it to your life turns out to be a very, very slow process. And I identified with that so strongly.

Crosley: Well, because we know everything, don’t we? The nature of most aphorisms do not have curse words in them and they’re not that sophisticated—it’s inherent to the form—so you know pretty much all of the wisdom in the fourth grade, for instance: “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” And then it just takes a lifetime to realize what anyone is talking about—it’s really annoying that it takes so long.

Smith: Simple things like “be kind to others”—that takes at least forty years. It takes a real while for the simplest facts to sink in.

Crosley: For some people it takes, like, ten.

Smith: I’m really struck by, if you write these kinds of things—I write essays, too, and I’m quite often taken aback by the response of readers because an essay sounds wise and then you’re always aware of the huge gap between what you write and you yourself. I am always aware and ashamed of this gap between seeming to know things and making such a catastrophic mess, on a daily basis, of my own life. Do you ever feel that?

Crosley: All the time. I was just thinking of the start of Feel Free. In the introduction, you mentioned something about the fifteen-year psychodrama that’s been your writing career. But what sticks in my mind is you talking about how you feel so deeply underqualified to write these things and that never goes away. You just write—but then what’s the response when the gears start to stick? No more personal essays? No more first person? I do constantly feel that. You probably have this—where someone will pull out a line or a lesson and you’re happy that they’ve gotten something but the something was from work that was—for lack of a better word—B material. Some comment was the bridge between the funny quip and the astute insight that I thought I was making, but some readers are like, “Yeah, I don’t care, you’re not that clever, I threw that out.” They’re like a kid who just wants to play with the packaging. And you’re like, “Okay, great.” That all sounds really infantilizing towards readers; it’s not meant to. It’s just that it’s sometimes not the thing that I thought was so important that gets latched onto, and yet here is someone who gets something totally different out of it.

Smith: There’s such a difference of experience in writing and reading. Writing is done on all these different time scales with all this backdoor construction that the reader doesn’t see. When I’m reading your work I just read this very fluid and beautiful thing. But I know it isn’t constructed like that. I write and know how much—

Crosley: Do you skip around paragraphs when you write? You also bounce off the world a lot more than I do. Mine’s general observation. Yours is oh, say, Brexit.

Smith: We both write for organs. For magazines. The most important thing for me is establishing between me and the editor a situation where no deadline is agreed until I feel that I can’t say, “Yes, I’m going to write that essay.” Because I never know if I can. So, I’ll say yes in brackets. I’ll give it a few weeks and if something happens then let’s make a deal. But the idea of saying “Yes” just terrifies me and it’s too much for me.

Crosley: Does it depend on—not to take the soul out of it—but does it depend on something as pedestrian as word count? Because if I came to you right now and said this has to be 800 words, you could probably write 800 words on anything.

Smith: Recently in the past few years, at the advanced age of forty-two, I feel a bit more confident. But I am aware with writing that there’s no reason why you, Sloane Crosley, are going to sit down and write a good essay. Do you know what I mean?

Crosley: I always feel like the last one I wrote, like that’s it. We’re done here.

Smith: It’s completely different than playing the piano or being able to run a hundred meters. That’s the kind of skill that’s set in. You can definitely do that. You can definitely run a hundred meters in 9.5 seconds if you’re Usain Bolt. But essay writing, for me, is always—it could be okay or it could be a complete disaster. There’s never any sense of certainty. Which probably explains the high anxiety that writers have in this profession. There’s nothing guaranteed about it.

Crosley: Assignment-wise that’s clear, but that’s where the luxury of the book comes in. I chose these things on purpose because I knew, even if I couldn’t carry it off perfectly, I generally had the blueprint of where I was going, often down to the last line of an essay—or some concept of it.

Smith: But a lot of them have the shape of being thrown into experience like the epigraph by E. M. Cioran. He’s a kind of existentialist philosopher.

Crosley: I love him.

Smith: I don’t want to get too deep with you here, but—

Crosley: No keep going.

Smith: That’s what I thought about—

Crosley: He’s French. He was born that way.

Smith: I thought a lot of the essays had something a little existentialist in them. In that, you’re thrown into situations that you really don’t want or expect to be in. At one point you find yourself climbing a huge mountain with not the right gear in terrible temperatures.

Crosley: It’s an active volcano. I would like full credit for it.

Smith: Yes, I’m sorry, an active volcano. These are the kind of things I don’t do. That doesn’t happen to me ever. I’m never going to be found climbing an active volcano.

Crosley: Do you know who told me to do that? Nam Le—the writer, the Australian. Never listen to an Australian.

Smith: Australians are very active in that sense.

Crosley: I know! He said, “It’s a hike. You’ll be fine.”

Smith: A few of the essays are like that. The one in California where you find yourself with kind of wife-swapping hippies out in the woods. There’s a sense of being sort of out of your depth but willing to be out of your depth for a while. And willing to kind of follow your nose.

Crosley: I think that’s actually—you know when you were talking about this very natural disconnect—not like an intentional lie, but the natural chasm between whatever you did to get yourself dressed and here today and how you seem in an essay. I don’t think I’m that much fun in real life. Whatever tone in which I operate, it is not pure “I’m going to fling myself down this dark alley.” And it’s also not pure “I’m going to complain about everything.” It’s more like “I’m going to fling myself down this dark alley, and I’m going to complain about it the entire time.” Even though it’s of my own making. Is that a quantifiable tone? That’s what’s so weird about personal essays, too. You are not primarily known for them even though it’s just as strong a muscle for you, but I feel like, even for you, there’s that pressure to have one succinct word that sums it up. Or, God help us, a theme. I feel like I’ve weaseled out of this responsibility of theme because my first book was about disappointment which—come on, have you ever read a book that’s not about disappointment?

Smith: It’s also about expectation because when I was thinking about the titles, I Was Told There’d Be Cake is a title about expectation—about thinking something’s going to be a certain way and finding out that it isn’t. The second essay collection is also about being identified by others, but this one is slightly released from those preoccupations, I thought. It doesn’t matter so much what others think. You’re kind of more committed to the idea of being alive.

Crosley: I think it’s age.

Smith: Yeah, I think so, too. I feel that way.

Crosley: I think it might just be age. I want it so badly to be like a honed machine. It’s age as well as having the other two books behind me and feeling confident in that. I feel like hopefully there’s enough trust with the reader at this point that I vaguely know what I’m doing. I’m not saying they should trust me, but they do. So, I’m taking advantage of it.

Smith: I know you always say that your primary instinct is you want to entertain, and you’re right, that there’s no reason for anyone to read anyone so you might as well sing for your supper. You have to be there and present and entertaining for the reader. But do you have other more kind of secretive aims? When you imagine that young Sloane Crosley picking up this book, a young girl in New York—what is it you want to get across? Because I think there are surreptitious little lessons in this book.

Crosley: Yeah, I think you’re right. The reason that I say the entertaining thing is—I’ve said it a lot to you and in public—I think I’m actually operating in the negative, meaning I’m gently responding to how other writers behave. Because I see people who are all verbal pyrotechnics or it’s sort of sentence structure masturbation and indulgence. And so I feel like—I remember hearing Jim Crace talk to some writers (and this will be an answer to your question I promise) but he said, “Never forget that as a writer you’re a volunteer. No one needs you,” which is deeply cynical in some ways about the arts in general. You could say that about painting, about anything, but in other ways it’s a sort of checks and balances system for what good writing should accomplish. And I believe it should entertain. There is a hierarchy to life—let’s say you’re trapped on a desert island with a chef and an architect, and you—and you’re the writer—you get eaten. You’re expendable. You are Crace’s volunteer. You’ve also been not exercising very much, you’re very fatty.

There is a hierarchy to life—let’s say you’re trapped on a desert island with a chef and an architect, and you—and you’re the writer—you get eaten. You’re expendable.

But the point is—it’s the reason I always say that, it’s like this drum I always beat—“Be entertaining, you’re only here for this one shot.” It’s a big deal to ask someone to read a book, frankly. Especially if they’re a medium reader. If they read eight books a year. But the actual proactive answer to your question is that, it’s something that I want to do. And something I think I’ve sort of stolen almost from short stories. Some of my favorite short stories are these wonderful, darkly comedic short stories that pull you in and you think you’ve found your other old man in the Muppets—it’s this “Stuck in the Middle with You” vibe—and then just when you’re really comfortable they just crush you, but in a specifically entertaining and uproarious way. And that is my other goal, to put the medicine in applesauce. Where the writing is very funny, but then you’re not expecting to well up or be sad, and then there you are. That is my goal.

Smith: I thought in quite a few essays there were these very elaborate constructions and then at the center of them something very simple and beautiful that has become hard to say. Like in the essay—there’s an essay where you say right in the middle about loneliness that of course it’s good to live alone—and this has become the dogma that we have to say because we’re not allowed to say that life can sometimes be lonely alone. You heavily defend this and you describe all different possibilities and then you say, “But you can have too many rooms of your own.” It’s really incredibly moving, but it struck me that the whole essay has to be constructed very delicately to be allowed to say something that is true. And that’s become true of a lot of statements we have in our culture. Even saying something like “I want children” or “I feel alone” or “Work doesn’t satisfy me.” Things that should be simple to say honestly have become so defended by camps of arguments and people trying to make their case one way or another. Sometimes it feels hard to say the simplest things without being subject to ridicule or argument. Or can you believe what Sloane Crosley just said—as if everyone is a politician or representative of themselves selling this thing called “my version of life.”

Crosley: I think it might be—unfortunately everything you’re saying is true, but also, it might hearken back to that concept of applying advice—where it might not sink in if I said it right away. If that was what I led with, this very empowering lesson—that it’s self-empowering to live alone, but that it’s possible to have too many rooms of one’s own—then you would sort of nod and put it on a calendar and keep walking. And I feel like there’s a way that, if you embed it in a hard-won thing, then maybe I can do the work for you. And I think that’s true also of Nora Ephron and David Sedaris. I think about some of their essays where the last line is something that’s so simple but you kind of weirdly have to work for it. So, it could just be that it goes in one ear and out the other and we’re overstimulated. It could also be because people are on the attack constantly.

Smith: Ephron is an interesting case because she was so subtle in her essays. I never knew her in life but I have lots of friends who knew her and apparently she was an advice addict, right? She loved giving advice. If she heard of even a slight problem in someone’s life, she’d come around have a milkshake. This is what you do. Divorce him. Do this. Apparently sometimes it’s quite a lot, quite abrasive to be suddenly told what to do for the next three years of your life. She was like a life whiz. But it’s true when you’re writing you’re not present in the place. You have to throw your voice into somebody’s life, into their room—and you’re a guest. You have to come delicately—

Crosley: Right, take off your shoes.

Smith: Right. And find some way around. I have a question about writing books versus writing essays because you do both. When I’m writing memoir-like pieces it seems to me (and I’m not saying I’m a liar) but it seems to me the process between memoir and fiction—I don’t really see a difference. I understand that the subjects in the personal essay are real—it’s your real parents, it’s your real boyfriend, it’s your real dog—but the construction of such a piece: dialogue, moving in and out of rooms—to me seems entirely fictional.

Crosley: Oh, yeah.

Smith: But I don’t think readers are always aware of that. I once interviewed Karl Ove Knausgaard on a stage just like this, and I said to him talking to him writer to writer, “Of course, you know, you don’t remember what you said to your father in 1986. You don’t remember what you said to your wife yesterday. Nor do I remember what my husband said to me.” And the whole audience gasped as if I was accusing him of some incredible—

Crosley: You’re not all Capote.

Smith: Right. But he said of course I don’t remember. Who could remember a conversation they had yesterday in detail? Everything is reconstructed by your memory, by your desire to construct something a certain way. I don’t mean the fictionalization, but the fact that it is a construction.

Crosley: That’s what is scary. Because there is such a knee-jerk response to fictionalization because of what people are being told. So, it’s a response that I think people have a right to, to know that when they’re being sold something, the package should match the truth of the work. But then from J. T. Leroy to James Frey, people now have their eyes out for something that’s potentially fictional at the core, which is different than fictional construction. Because the same thing happens with fiction, but in the reverse. The second I’m inspired by a real-life person and I change their name, that person becomes someone else, someone fictional, and the second I fabricate someone, they become like someone I really know. There’s this sort of relationship between granular fiction and nonfiction that is so tied up that doesn’t get enough cred.

Smith: It’s very complicated.

Crosley: Well, if I give you a book and it’s a memoir, a great compliment to give it is to say “This is unbelievable.” And if I give you a novel you’d say, “It’s just so realistic.” We’re completely messed up about it. You’re either the kind of writer that describes every detail of someone turning a doorknob or you just say they’re suddenly in the room, and that doesn’t really change stylistically. But that also leads to some confusion and I don’t think it leads to confusion with you because of the nature of your writing.

Smith: I think for readers it’s confusing. I remember years ago being on tour with Dave Eggers—he’d just written A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. We were reading back-to-back. And when he was reading these long sections of dialogue between he and his brother when they were fifteen and twelve or whatever—all these jokes going back and forth—and from the audience questions I’d realized that the audience thought that these conversations were in some sense real.

Crosley: They are real. But they’re not transcriptions.

Smith: They’re not transcriptions. And so I’m very aware of that when I’m writing a memoir piece that you’re overlaying—just like a photograph does your real memories—with this linguistic construction. Particularly when I write about my parents. I wonder if you have that feeling—it’s almost a feeling of guilt that after a while the things you remember are these verbal constructions you have made.

Crosley: Oh, yeah. I’ve basically destroyed one city by building one. Yes.

Smith: The one thing I’m sure anyone—writer or not—knows is that when you go back to a Thanksgiving dinner or whatever and try to reconstruct your childhood with people who participated in it, nobody agrees about any fact. Even really basic facts like when you went to a holiday on a certain year and what happened then. That is multiplied when you write, though. It’s been put in aspect. And so for all of those people involved, it’s an insult to various degrees because it’s not how they remember it. It never is.

Crosley: No, it’s never how they remember it. The saving grace with the essays, at least, is that they’re hit-and-runs, right? So, it’s not this concentrated, extensive betrayal but it’s more of a shift. And so you can only do so much damage because you’re choosing variances. The weird thing is when—either with my family or friends—when it affects their conception of events where maybe there is a little bit of kicking and screaming, “I didn’t say this, I didn’t say that.” And then the same thing that happens to me writing it, it happens to them reading it, where they become a little piece of this character. And then I think that’s the danger people sense. Unless you’re saying that’s a terrible person, even if you’re saying something kind—it’s a little bit like, “He took my photograph; he stole my soul.”

Smith: It’s not about nice or nasty. I think it’s intolerable to be conveyed in that way at all. I think writers know it from interviews and that kind of thing. You read this version of yourself or a profile—

Crosley: Have you ever read an interview with you where you were like, “They nailed me”?

Smith: No, I haven’t. But I felt the pain of being portrayed. It is horrifying. Knausgaard’s family is literally suing him. Same happened with Eminem all those years ago—where your actual relatives sue you directly.

Crosley: That thing that they have in common.

Memory is this construction that you basically render yourself. And the kind of stories you tell yourself about your past enable you to go forward in various ways.

Smith: When I’m reading essays like this, it reminds me of something that I don’t want to be reminded in life: that memory is this construction that you basically render yourself. And the kind of stories you tell yourself about your past enable you to go forward in various ways, you know?

Crosley: It’s even happening in the most current example where I’ve wrestled with this thought of how much is this warping my own memory. As a child you think your favorite stuffed animal is six feet tall and you find it in the attic and it turns out to be a beanie baby. That’s very extreme. But basically I had this happen, sort of, in real time with one of the essays in this book. There’s two interviewee essays. One you mentioned, the porn star one. And the other one is I interview a guy who swiped my domain name.

Smith: Hideous man. British, isn’t he? Shame on our nation.

Crosley: I ended up kind of liking him in a weird way—not like in a “Let’s run off in the sunset together—”

Smith: With my identity that you stole.

Crosley: He extorted me for a bunch of money so that was super fun. So, I went to London to talk to him and it’s the most real-time essay in here. I don’t normally take notes, but I really was sort of writing as this was happening. I recognized how extraordinarily odd it was. And so the drama of it is hopefully very present and energetic, and I ran it past him and—with my mother’s cousin, who is a very sweet man, I went through line by line, and said anything that upsets you, we’ll change. But this guy, I just said, “Do you want me to change your name? Yes or no.” He said no, so okay.

Smith: Wow.

Crosley: This is what we’re dealing with. I sent it to him, he said no. Then he wrote back, “Bit dramatic, don’t you think?” It was such a horse-blindingly traumatic experience while it was happening that it was kind of amazing to see someone else’s perspective on his profession.

Smith: Are you aware of your writing being cathartic for you? There’s an old-fashioned question for you.

Crosley: People generally don’t ask me that. I think because they sort of assume it is.

Smith: Right.

Crosley: I think a couple of times—I mean, there’s the Joan Didion bit of—she writes in order to find out what she thinks. You do that.

Smith: Yeah, I think so.

Crosley: I don’t do that as much. I guess I would say it’s touch-and-go. There are some stories that I’ve told myself or other people for years and it’s a matter of adding an extra layer so there’s meaning to it and it’s not just “Here’s a wacky thing that happened to me,” like the last essay in this book. But also, I have an essay about an inner ear disease and I compare it to travel writing and how, even as I was sick, I was fascinated by the fact that nobody else would be fascinated by this. It’s so strange I’ve gone to this separate country but unlike travel writing where everyone is like, “Bring me back something,” nobody wants anything from Duane Reade.

Smith: No one wants illness. No one wants to hear it.

Crosley: That was sort of to find out—how do I feel about being in this new territory?

Smith: The last essay is the most intimate and I guess the one that surprised me the most because, though your essays are personal, they also hold a certain distance. It’s not the same as the kind of personal writing we’re used to online where the more you reveal, the more personal it is.

Crosley: Where they give you fifty dollars for it.

Smith: Right. It’s never been that kind of writing for you—a bit like Sedaris too, who seems to reveal a lot, but actually it’s all at a comic distance.

Crosley: Him especially.

Smith: Yeah, him especially. You don’t really know him that well. It’s only when his sister died and he wrote a different kind of essay that you realized what a gap there was between being a funny guy and saying something intimately to the person that’s listening. The last essay in the book is about freezing eggs. What made you want to write it? Were you scared to write it and were you glad you’d written it?

Crosley: It took me a while to write. Just timeline-wise, like over a year had passed between my experience with egg freezing, my decision to do it, and the sort of very weird things that happen as a result. Over a year had passed before I even started writing about it. I think part of it was—I knew that this giant thing happened. I knew something fell into my lap. And yet I was sort of under-prepared to deal with it because it’s like you said—it just permeates the air in parties and conversations and articles and I thought, “What do I have to possibly add to this?” And then it’s the same thing where you think, “I’m not an expert in anything, why would anyone read this?” And that self-doubt never goes away. And I think I was just thinking, you know, people keep publishing books on Lincoln and readers still read them. The glut doesn’t seem to stop anyone writing about Lincoln’s haberdashery. So, I’m like, okay—why can I not write about this? And then, I thought, well the reason why is because I have been avoiding it so much. And so I thought I would—pardon the pun—write the mother of all egg freezing essays, you know. And so that was my goal.

Smith: It becomes an essay about that avoidance and what that avoidance means.

Crosley: Yes. And that’s the thing, to tackle it if you feel nervous, which is such a sort of cheesy like, “Don’t worry, face your demons.” But kind of.

Smith: I was thinking about your book as an example as if it were like different petri dishes of human experiences. Some of them are brand new, like the image that ends the entire book is you looking at these eggs. Something which was practically impossible, you know, fifty years ago. It’s a new kind of experience to look at something outside of your body and consider that it might at some point become humans—one human or many humans. I was really struck by this brave new world. And the delicate way in which you described it where these little eggs weren’t being argued over in a front-page article in The New Republic or whatever—those awful articles that make women in New York tear out their hair. It was just a moment, an experience. I’m looking at these eggs. What does it mean to look at them? What do I feel? And all the other voices—the kind of theorists and arguments and camps are kind of held at bay for you to have this actual feeling. I think that’s very important for readers.

Crosley: Well because you’re by yourself with the book eventually. It would be really weird if you were reading every other word with a whole Greek chorus of people.

Smith: That’s a moral in the book. That it’s your life. You’re in your life. It’s not a newspaper article. It’s not an argument online. You’re really living it. Your cousin says something to you about that.

Crosley: He says, “This is your real life. It’s the choices you make.” It’s that Didionesque concept of “it all counted,” all the choices you make count. But from a porn star. And that’s not to say you shouldn’t make impulsive choices, or you shouldn’t be reckless. But just know that—it’s not a reckoning coming, but there is a tally—because of the nature of time and space. It’s just the one life. With the eggs, that last paragraph of the last essay in the book is really meant to pull at the heartstrings. Because while it is private, as I’ve said—thinking about it in such a concentrated fashion as I am now, with you—I think it’s also a little cinematic. Only in the sense that you’re used to these movies where there’s all this drama and then the woman gives birth to the baby and all the noise of the movie quiets or maybe there’s a soft focus or a zoom. So those lines are meant to imitate that sensation, except it’s not a baby, it’s a piece of paper. But it’s meant to sort of imitate the promise of that movie moment, but the baby is the book and nothing else matters but your experience with it, dear reader. It’s a baton pass to be like, okay, we’ve factored in everything and we’ve come to the end. I’ve said everything I can. I’ve entertained you as much as I possibly can and now here’s my attempt to go out and to say, “Take it away folks.”

This conversation took place at Symphony Space in New York, NY.

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.

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW and Swing Time, as well as a novella, The Embassy of Cambodia, and a collection of essays, Changing My Mind. She is also the editor of The Book of Other People. Zadie was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002, and was listed as one of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists in 2003 and again in 2013. White Teeth won multiple literary awards including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian First Book Award. On Beauty was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction, and NW was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Zadie Smith is currently a tenured professor of fiction at New York University and a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.