What is it like to be a uniquely charming everywoman? Ariel Ramchandani meets the best-selling essayist ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Sloane Crosley is five minutes late. I peer through the crowds of French-speaking tourists at Chelsea Market, waiting for her familiar book-jacket face to appear. After reading her humorous essays, it is easy to imagine what might be holding her up: perhaps she got sidelined by a ridiculous cab ride, or she was locked out of her apartment, or she was busy investigating a mysterious turd on her apartment floor. Maybe when she arrives something funny will happen: a case of mistaken identity, or an exploding cappuccino-machine. Sloane Crosley is the kind of person that things happen to. Or maybe she just has a rare way of describing the ordinary mishaps of life.
Crosley’s readers feel as though they know her. She's like your funny friend or cool older cousin, inhabiting the same world but with a much quicker wit and a penchant for exasperated sarcasm. Her essays are filled with the kind of well-noticed and well-metaphored truisms that make that little voice in your head say "Yes! True!”
She arrives with a smile and an easy look: jeans, boots, a wrap-around sweater, the sleek sheets of shiny hair she joked about in the New York Observer. Crosley is immediately chatty and we exchange some ice-breaking New Yorkese: the slog of early-morning exercise; how many minutes to budget for a walk when you live downtown; the strange prevalence of those French tourists.
And then, the big question: why do readers connect with her so strongly? “It’s a little bit strange, it’s flattering. It’s a compliment that they can access whatever I've written or find themselves in it.” But cultivating such familiarity is not without drawbacks. “What's weird is that they seem to want a lot from me. I'm like, here’s all the information I can give you.”
Yet in person Crosley feels like an extension of her print self: self-effacing, personable and uniquely endearing. In conversation she uses words like milquetoast and trepidatious. She interrupts herself to observe the similarity of our glasses, and then to reveal a piece of plastic that has fallen into her coffee cup—then she stops herself to say, "okay...focusing". She quit her job as a book publicist at Vintage this past winter to write full-time, but she speaks generously about authors she once represented, and defensively about those whom she feels are underestimated, such as Sarah Vowell (excoriated in a recent review in the New York Times) and Plum Sykes, who is often dismissed as a chick-lit lightweight. “Girl knows how to tell a story,” Crosley says appreciatively.
Crosley’s lucky start came from an inauspicious day. She was moving from one apartment to another, and somehow managed to lock herself out of both. She e-mailed her friends a play-by-play of the experience, plotting her steady descent into sweaty madness. One of these friends was Ed Park of the Village Voice, who saw a column in such musings of urban haplessness. This column begat a book of essays, “I Was Told There Would be Cake”, published by Riverhead Books in 2008. The book was a runaway success—a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Thurber literary prize. The audio edition (read by Crosley herself) was selected as one of the best audio books of the year by Library Journal, and one of Amazon’s best books of 2008. By the time she published her second book of essays, “How Did You Get this Number”, in June 2010—now out in paperback—she had sold 150,000 copies of her first. She has been churning out essays for the New York Times, the Independent, W and Esquire. She is now working on a novel, which she calls "zygote-y". Talks of a TV deal are in the works.
The young, single, female writer based in New York seems an indelible part of Crosley’s on-page personality. Though her take is more Liz Lemon from "30 Rock" than Carrie Bradshaw. Writing about her second book, "How Did You Get This Number", Salon's Rebecca Traister highlights Crosley as part of a new generation of young female writers who capture "what it feels like to be a young, professional, economically and sexually independent woman, unencumbered by children or excessive domestic responsibility.” These women, Traister observes, are busily earning, playing, worrying and, yes, trailblazing their way through their 20s and 30s.
But Crosley is wary of this pigeon-hole. “I don’t feel like I’m writing for ladies," she says. The “young female writer” label does seem to come with caveats and awkward expectations. Crosley is particularly struck by those who pass up her work because they presume it’s “chick-lit”. “I don’t mind if my voice irks them,” she says. But anyone who assumes her gender will make it extra “navel-gazey” is “like a little kid who just decided they don’t like cauliflower without trying it."
As a genre, memoirs run the risk of feeling too much like therapy sessions. Writers often seem to wallow, leaving readers feeling a bit used. But Crosley skilfully sidesteps the “why are you telling me this” territory. Her essays are personal, but she manages to convey an appealing personality without revealing too much about herself. Only once has she written about romance and heartache—in the titular essay of her second collection. It combines two hurtful break-ups, and she says it was a “mindfuck”. Convinced to write it because the book did not have enough pages, she recalls wanting to "get in and get out as fast as possible and never write this crap again." As it turns out, it is very good. Smart and well structured, with interlocking bits, funny bits, some furniture-theft and a real emotional centre:
If you have to ask someone to change, to tell you they love you, to bring wine to dinner, to call you when they land, you can’t afford to be with them. It’s not worth the price, even though, just like the Tiffany catalogue, no one tells you what the price is. You set it yourself, and if you’re lucky it’s reasonable. You have a sense of when you’re about to go bankrupt. Your own sense of self-worth takes the wheel and says, Enough of this shit. Stop making excuses. No one’s that busy at work. No one’s allergic to whipped cream. There are too cell phones in Sweden. But most people don’t get lucky. They get human. They get crushes. This means you irrationally mortgage what little logic you own to pay for this one thing. This relationship is an impulse buy, and you’ll figure out if it’s worth it later.
Part of Crosley’s charm is the way she seems both guileless and knowing. She has managed to retain the mania, exasperation and wonder of youth, yet she has the judgment to deploy it on the page.
For a moment, Crosley expresses some guilt over the fact that she writes about herself instead of, say, Kurdistan. But then she interrupts herself: “There’s this great Dorothy Parker quote–‘Why write? The money, dear.’” And then she interrupts herself again, “Here’s different quote, not one of the aphoristic ones: 'You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think.'"
She soon mumbled something about a salad and an umbrella purchase at Anthropologie, and skipped off through the market. I was left craving a bit more time with her—a feeling evidently many other people have, and one that will surely inspire the purchase of her next book.
"How Did You Get This Number" is out in paperback
Ariel Ramchandani is a writer based in New York. Picture Credit: Skye Parrott