Sloane Crosley Explains How Bad Writing Is Like Bad Vodka

We talked to the best-selling author of "I Was Told There'd Be Cake" about "girl books," the fucked-up confessional essay market, and her long-awaited debut novel, "The Clasp."

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Oct 7 2015, 6:35pm

Photo by Caitlin Mitchell courtesy of FSG

For awhile, people were fascinated with Sloane Crosley, in a very gossipy, New York media kind of way. It started, probably, when a 2007 Observer profile declared her "the most popular publicist in New York," which happened just before her first essay collection, I Was Told There'd Be Cake, made the New York Times bestseller list during its second week of publication. Working for years as a literary publicist for Vintage and Anchor (Joan Didion was one of her clients), Crosley earned a reputation for being likable, shiny-haired, and often seen at parties—all this put together had bloggers skeptical, or vaguely pitying her for earning a worrying amount of young male writers' admiration. Indeed, when I recommended Crosley to a guy friend asking me for female essayists he could study—we were in college—he replied something to the effect of, "Oh, yeah! She's so pretty."

Nevertheless, her work quickly outshone her long layers; Cake is, like Crosley, funny and sharp, and people recognized it. Her 2010 follow-up—also an essay collection, called How Did You Get This Number—was similarly praised. At that point, her much-discussed future as the female David Sedaris was so assured that her decision to quit her full-time publicity job to focus on writing made headlines, as did her bold declaration—in a New York Times "What I Wore" diary—that she was working on a novel. More than four-and-a-half years, a lot of journalism, and a 2012 guest appearance on Gossip Girl later, that novel, The Clasp, is out. We caught up with Crosley to talk about the process of writing it, and about other things (sexism, the Salem witch trials) as well.

Courtesy of FSG

BROADLY: You sort of rose to prominence as an essayist, but I remember you announced you were writing a novel a few years ago. Why? I would be scared to do that, in case I ended up... not writing it.
Sloane Crosley: I went the route of public fear. And the Times interviewed me when I quit my job, and they asked me, "What should the bio be?" And I was like, "Say I quit my job, and I'm the author of these two things, and that I'm currently at work on a novel." Because I'm like, if it's in the New York Times, I sort of have to do it. I wanted to do it anyway, but when you turn freelance you suddenly need to create your own motivation—it's not coming from the outside anymore.

So you wanted to write a novel before you started writing one?
Yeah. I think it's scary to just blanketly want to write a novel. I also kind of want to play an instrument, but I'm not just going to pick one—I think you have to have a passion for the flute. I majored in English and creative writing in college and wrote a novella when I was in my very early 20s, which was pretty bad. It was about a couple whose relationship falls apart, and they live in an apartment above a store in a tiny town, and there's basically three characters in it. There are certain people who can pull this off, and I don't think I have the gene. I think the element of fun has to be there for the writer. Then, I just started publishing non-fiction, and I loved it.

[Writing a novel is] a lot of work. I don't want to like sort of eschew all that [non-fiction] stuff, or slough off all that effort, but this is something I actually feel pretty comfortable doing. People talk about "the switch" [from nonfiction to fiction], and it's hard as hell, and I have no idea if I pulled it off, but I didn't feel, "I don't have a right to be doing this."

People confuse heartfelt emotion with some sort of antiquated notion of whininess.

What was your process? Were you writing into it, or were you structuring? Did you plot it?
A little bit of both. At first I started writing into it, and I got about 40 pages, maybe, before I thought, The inmates are running the asylum. Someone needs to fix it. And that someone, unfortunately, was me. You have to hold on to the idea that you know where you're going, and hold on to the idea that it will be edited. Choose your moments of indulgence wisely. I think there's a bit in the novel that probably doesn't need to be there, but come hell or high water there was no way I was letting it go. It's when one of the characters, a girl, has this one-night stand with another character, and she sort of freaks out and decides she doesn't want to hook up with him, and she basically unwittingly tortures him the entire night by keeping him up with this riddle. It's just yes-or-no questions for a couple of pages. But you do have to let go of the two-page description of the oak tree. Just say there was a tree.

Did you argue with your editor about it?
No. The only time I had that fight with him was in one of the essays. I had a line about how one of the world's great mysteries is that there's never any overhead lighting in hotel rooms. [My editor] thought it was kind of dragging down the story, and I wrote some email like, "That is the funniest thing I've ever written! What are you talking about?" And he forwarded me an email that I had written three months prior that was like "That is the funniest thing I've ever written."

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But you think you're funny, right? You like your work—you're not tortured?
Sometimes. There are pieces I think are terrible. But the trick is the balance, right? You just have to have a good percentage of stuff that you feel confident is good. There's stuff in the book that's not as good as other stuff in the book. I mean I think that's a shocking, scandalous thing for someone to say about their book, but it's true. It's true of all books. They're all like little hammocks, right? Where you've got the trees that are solid and this sort of weird, gobbledygook mess.

Often I ask myself, what's the point of books? There's a good part, then there's a bunch of nothing, and then there's a good part.
There are moments when you're so happy and you're so high about whatever you wrote, and there are moments where you lose sight of what it is you're even doing. I knew I was sort of depressed about writing if I would pick up a book off my shelf—like, I don't know, Lolita—and be like, "This is stupid." When the entire concept of delving into this world that's not your own just seemed ludicrous. I would imagine actors feel the same way at some point.

Do you feel like The Clasp is your proudest moment as a writer so far?
Yeah. It really is. The only other moment is there's an essay—the last essay at the end of the second collection—that's very personal. It's probably the most personal thing I've ever written about, and it's probably the only time I'll write extensively about relationships and men. Maybe partially because of the conception of women [writers] [as preoccupied with love] and the topics that it's hard to write about without shooting yourself in the foot. It's called, "Off the Back of a Truck." It's about stealing furniture and somebody being a mistress unknowingly for someone.

Do you have a stance on the current debate about personal essays?
I only know the headlines; I tend not to read the articles. I know that there are pieces that are probably about whether or not it's okay [to write a personal essay]—let me guess what they're about, this'll be a fun game. The headlines will be like, "Do Women Get More Flack Than Men for Oversharing?" They're probably about whether pure confession makes literature, and they probably have a bunch of quotes from people who say that they were just trying to discover themselves through their work. I don't actually know. Is the debate whether personal essays should exist?

I think you're like giving a lot of credit to people on the internet. I don't think people are allowed to use "it's not literary" as a criticism anymore. But anyway, the personal essay tiff right now: Slate published a feature about how the current trend in hyper-confessional personal essays is not adding anything to culture and instead is all about mining your hardship or your experiences for low-paid content.
This idea of [having to] confess—it reminds me of the Salem witch trials, or a specific type of torture in the Salem witch trials. They would weigh an alleged witch down with rocks. If she floated, then she was a witch, and they would kill her. If she sank, then she was innocent, but she'd be dead. You're almost encouraging these [personal essay writers] to be witches. You're like, "Oh, come, demonstrate [your struggle]." But then if it works, if it's personal enough, people will attack you for it. And for the grand total of what? $300 to $3000?

I think that it's possible that some stuff is not as big as other stuff. I'm not excluding myself from this.

$3000? I don't think anyone—
What I'm saying is I do understand that a little bit. I get more and more requests from different women's magazines that will be like, "Will you write about your most embarrassing moment?" And I'm thinking, I'm not going to sell my soul for that. Or, frankly, I'll turn it into some larger point and save it for a book. Have you ever had really, really amazing vodka?

In Poland.
Exactly. In it, you can taste what Smirnoff is going for. Sometimes I feel the same way about short stories and stuff. You see people who have imitated, say, Lorrie Moore, and then you read Lorrie Moore—you can see [imitators] are latching onto the wrong parts. A good personal essay will be about something larger than your personal world, told through the vehicle of your personal world. But [the personal world] is the shiny part, so I think people are latching onto that and then not understanding why, perhaps, a story about your most embarrassing moment [isn't going to be as good as] a story [that illustrates] how people of a certain generation don't volunteer enough.

But who the fuck cares? When I published I Was Told There'd Be Cake [in 2008], I was told personal essays didn't sell. I was paid no money for it; it's a paperback original. The last set of personal essays by a woman specifically, really, had been by Meghan Daum, and that was about six years prior.

You can't use labels as a shield. I think that there is a place for really great girl books.

She got shit as well.
Well, the higher the display case, the more people want to throw piles of shit at it. I think criticism [of her] came from [the work] being nuanced, and not it being confessional. She has an essay in the book about the sort of deeper meaning and associations of wall-to-wall carpeting versus area rugs. The kind of criticism she got for that does seem a touch misogynistic to me, because if you look at what Ian Frazier does—you'll get a detailed essay about him hanging a shower curtain—nobody seems upset. Maybe because they find it funnier. Maybe because [Daum's] is more heartfelt, in a way, and people confuse that heartfelt emotion with some sort of antiquated notion of whininess. They want women and writers to smile with a martini at the end of the day and make self-deprecating jokes. And I feel that pressure—everyone feels that pressure. But you should feel the pressure as a human being—that's what's weird about it. You should feel pressure not to walk around like a cock of the walk. I don't understand why that's a woman thing.

Were you worried—or do you still worry—about accidentally repurposing life experiences that you've already written about, since you write so much non-fiction?
Oh, no. I wanted [The Clasp] very much removed from the essays. [The characters] became their own people. And they all work in industries that I either have only tangentially or have never worked in. They have their own stories. I'm not knocking people who write roman à clefs—sometimes it works really well. I feel like Sheila Heti is a great example. But that's not what this book is.

And you weren't worried about even transposing, say, emotional experience?
They all came from my brain. It's very strange when authors talk about [how their characters] have completely taken over and they're living in your house, and who are these strange people? They all come from my brain, so at a certain point, they're all going to have a reaction that I find plausible, but they're never—they're not me.

A good personal essay will be about something larger than your personal world, told through the vehicle of your personal world.

Are you working on another book?
I'm working on essays. I could publish it right now, but there a couple essays missing from the next one. I like to have set pieces, and they're not there yet. There will be hopefully another novel. I think I would write it differently this time. I was surprised by some things that came naturally, but then were hard to stick to. The book is told two-thirds from the point-of-view of men—two very different men—and I was surprised by that. I wanted to get away from doing the essays, but did I have to get a sex change? I don't know. And then, I was also surprised that it was in the third person.

[Here we go on a digression about Purity, the new Jonathan Franzen novel, which is somewhat tangential. I say I like the cover.]
It was tough figuring out the cover for this. I sort of threw myself into the lions' den by having part of my book be about the jewelry world and calling it The Clasp and expecting [the cover] not to have an accessory or something girly. I just had to have enough faith that once people start reading it, they'll figure out that it's not a "girl book." It's not a "boy book," either; it's a human book, God damn it. It's for dogs. Cats.

Do you think there's a place for "girl books"? Do you think they should keep existing?
Yeah!

People get really mad about the "romance" genre—
People need to get over themselves.

There's this idea that if these romance novels were written by men, they would just be considered "novels."
That's not true. That's really not true, and it's dangerous. You don't want to hide behind labels. We were talking about what's "me" in the book—in a way everything and nothing. There are very few lines where I think, Oh, I could skin graft this into an essay, or Oh, that's something I would say. No, there are very few, but [this is] one of them. I have this woman at a party in LA in a backyard in Silverlake—she's very beautiful. The other characters tell her how beautiful she is, and they say the reason that they're doing it is [because] they think women should support each other. You know, "It's important to support women in Hollywood." [The beautiful character], who we thought to be kind of ditzy throughout the entire scene, turns out to be quite articulate on this issue; she says that it's unfair that there's a current of feminism that requires that [we] support all women no matter what. That anyone who attacks me or what I do is a misogynist. And I [do] think that is really self-defeating.

I think that it's possible that some stuff is not as big as other stuff. I'm not excluding myself from this. I'm just saying that you can't use labels as a shield. I think that there is a place for really great girl books. I have read some of them. I like Plum Sykes—quick, good. It doesn't mean that you are not smart enough to get it or that you're not playing with the big boys. There's a weird line to walk, but I think you want to see more women everywhere. There's a huge gender disparity, there is.