Sloane Crosley is a calamity magnet. Or, at least, she appears in Look Alive Out There, her new book of essays.
Whether it’s moving into the perfect New York apartment only to be bombarded day and night by the antics of an entitled teen neighbor, hiking towards a volcano in Ecuador with two guides who speak as little English as she does Spanish (about a dozen words), or being forced to befriend pot-selling swingers when she runs out of food while on retreat, Crosley makes fucking up funny.
The 39-year-old author credits her sense of humor to being the youngest member of both her immediate and extended families. “They could all drink before me. They could all bond before me. I think an important thing to being a humorist -- or being any kind of writer, really -- is to be slightly on the outside. But not so outside that you’re living in a cabin in the woods. You have to interact with people. It’s being invited to the party but not so comfortable at the party. That’s how I’ve always been.”
She’s unsure whether she attracts the awkward situations that form the foundation of her essays. “That’s probably a question for everyone else in my life but me,” she says.
Perhaps that’s just where the meaty writing is. “There are plenty of times when I make it from point A to point B without incident. It happens every day. I will consistently take my wallet and keys with me when I leave the house. I will consistently not get lost in a foreign country. It happens all the time. But these are the sort of moments that stand out but also are relatable because it’s the sort of moments when we all feel a sense of weakness. Every essay hopefully has that combination of that humor and exasperation. We laugh because it’s true, and it’s happened to all of us. There should be a universality where people find themselves in the essay.”
But to make them worth writing and reading, the stories have to be a little unusual, whether that means the situation itself or her take on it. Crosley likes to put readers in her shoes and provoke them to wonder, “What would I do in that scenario?”
And when things go awry, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can be the doorway to greater truths or self-discovery. “You have to live in the world in order to understand how you view it,” she says. “You recognize yourself as a different sort of person when you’re doing your laundry versus when you’re befriending swingers in northern California.”
Crosley studied creative writing at Connecticut College, and landed her first byline in the Village Voice in 2004. She quickly established herself as a wry, incisive essayist, a genre that appealed to her because of its efficiency and efficacy in making a point. Her books -- essay collections I Was Told There’d Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number, as well as her novel The Clasp -- are critically acclaimed bestsellers. Crosley is arguably a literary celebrity, though when confronted with that label, she won’t confirm or deny it.
“If you can say ‘Heimlich,’ you don’t need it,” she replies, though she acknowledges she has been recognized and stopped on the street and in the subway in New York, where she lives. She’s quick to point out, however, that just as soon as one of those “wonderful ego-boosting” encounters happen, she’ll inevitably meet an artist or fellow author she admires who has no idea who she is.
The essays fans most often mention in her presence are the one about a toy pony collection she accrued and the one about getting her heart broken by a man who was still with his former girlfriend. “I probably should think more about embarrassment as I write these essays. I don’t. It would probably behoove me to do that,” she admits, though she’s never had a bad fan interaction. “It’s not like someone’s looking at me and yelling, ‘Play Free Bird!’”
Notoriety may not be all it’s cracked up to be anyway. An essay in Look Alive Out There explores the bizarre phenomenon of playing yourself on television (in Crosley’s case, it was on Gossip Girl). And every time she appears on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Ferguson comments on how Crosley is more attractive in person than her author photo. What might appear to be borderline misogyny to some Crosley brushes off as Ferguson’s unique form of charm.
“I think it’s pretty apparent through the screen that he and I get along like a house on fire. He’s just so smart and lovely. I feel like he’s one of those people that turns me into a little kid and all I want to do is play with him for hours. I think he feels similarly about me,” she says. Still, she acknowledges that author Philip Roth could “appear in a potato sack” onscreen and no one would feel the need to comment on it.
Crosley isn’t entirely a loose cannon, either. She won’t write about her family, and she feels protective of certain topics and time periods. “If I don’t have anything new to say there, about whatever that topic is, I generally won’t,” she says. For her, the mark of a successful essay isn’t that it’s the craziest or most cringe-inducing story; it’s that the story tells you something that you’ve always known but never articulated or never thought of before.
To wit, Look Alive Out There concludes with a touching essay about Crosley’s decision to harvest and freeze her eggs. “It’s not an essay about not wanting to have kids. It’s not an essay about being definitive. And it’s not an essay about the evil of ambivalence,” she says. Rather, it was her attempt to find her own place in the “Do I or don’t I?” discussion of motherhood.
In the last few lines, she writes something like a wish, a prediction, or a vision of her future. Has her opinion on a potential pregnancy shifted or solidified since she wrote it?
“I just checked my mail and I got a renewal notice from the cryobank where I have to pay to keep the things frozen. I’m looking at the piece of paper right now,” she says. After rambling for a sentence or two she decides: “No change. If you were a medical doctor asking for a medical checkup: no change. The same, I think.”
For now, she’s gearing up for a book tour which includes a stop at Magers & Quinn this Thursday, where she’ll be in conversation with none other than Man Booker prize-winning author Marlon James. “He’s one of those people who is a delightful force in this world,” says Crosley, who knows James, but here’s the punchline: “I have no recollection of meeting him.”
Crosley is also working on another novel and is doing some screenwriting, but don’t worry, readers: She just can’t quit the writing style that made her – yes, let’s call it like it is – famous. “There are always essays percolating in my mind,” she says.
IF YOU GO:
With Marlon James
Magers & Quinn
7 p.m. Thursday, April 12
- The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy on laughing at mortality, writing for kids, and what he learned from the Replacements
- It's spring somewhere, and this Prince bush is part of it
- With R-rated language, themes, and art, Mr. Steven's Snuggery is about ready to open
- Student protest leader Josh Groven, growing up on the right side of history