Sloane Crosley is a writer synonymous with New York City's coterie of chic, cool, forever-funny authors. She’s penned three collections of essays and two novels (one of which she co-authored under the pen name Skye Chatham), and just so happens to be the books columnist at Vanity Fair while somehow finding time to write for Elle, GQ, Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, and several other publications. Back in April, our very own contributor Roxanne Fequiere did a live Q&A with Sloane on the occasion of the release of her latest essay collection, Look Alive Out There, and it was so much fun that we had them do it a second time for GAL. Read on for insight into her habits, process, and preferences, along with photographs of Sloane in her natural habitat (yes, her dress is amazing, and yes, we all wanted one, too).
Photography by Laurel Golio
Interview by Roxanne Fequiere
Girls at Library: Are you still touring?
Sloane Crosley: I’m pretty much done. Now I just have trips. I’m very excited to go to Chicago for the Printers Row Literary Festival, and then Jamaica, for something called the Calabash Literary Festival that I’m going to go to. Poor me.
GAL: Jamaica’s always a good idea.
SC: I’ve never been!
GAL: Well, enjoy. I mean it’s warm, food’s good...
SC: Food’s good, I’m going to be surrounded by lovely human beings who like to read. What could be bad? Speaking of which, hi!
SC: Books, they sure do exist. Come on.
GAL: How often do you read?
SC: It’s not every single day, but most days—at least a couple pages of whatever I’m reading. And sometimes if I’m only doing it as I’m falling asleep, it really is a couple pages, and then I pass out. But I would say probably somewhere between four and six times a week.
GAL: Where do you find the books you read? How do you go about acquiring new ones?
SC: So, I cheat. I’m the books point person at Vanity Fair, so I get a lot of books in advance, plus I used to work in publishing. Plus, I’m in that world enough to know what’s coming down the pike. After that, for me, it’s word of mouth, but I put a lot of stock in the mouths in question. It’s usually people who are book critics or authors or big readers I’m surrounded by, so when they say, you know, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you’ve never read this James Salter book,” or “Oh my gosh, the third Rachel Cusk,” or, “Actually, Karl Ove Knausgaard, is—you shouldn’t keep avoiding him. Like, this is legitimately good,” I tend to believe them.
And then if you have the other piece of it is really just if you are sort of a lifelong reader, you have a natural curiosity, you know where to go, it’s the same way when someone who’s super into music—how do they hear about new music? Sure, technically, there are moments where you could probably pinpoint the launch or the review where someone first heard of a book, but it all feels like this is kind of osmosis.
GAL: Do you have a favorite bookstore?
SC: Yes. Three Lives.
GAL: Do you have favorite bookstores in different cities?
SC: Ooh, I love this question! [laughs] Oh my gosh, okay. Let’s go. Books & Books in Miami. Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis is amazing. I love Skylight in LA. I really like the Harvard Book Store in Boston.
GAL: That’s a good one.
SC: Politics and Prose in DC is really good. Oh, you know what’s just magical in both the old space and the new space is Elliott Bay in Seattle. They used to be in Pioneer Square in what looked like an old ship, and then they moved to Capitol Hill, which is sort of the…I was gonna say the hipster neighborhood, but I think it’s the hipster neighborhood the way like Williamsburg or Tribeca is hipster, like, yes, long time no Kurt Cobain, you know? More baby carriages.
But they have this huge space there that’s kind of reminiscent of the new McNally Jackson in Williamsburg, like a giant warehouse, but it’s really warm, and they have their readings in this very cozy downstairs basement, which sounds dank, but it’s actually really wonderful. I’ve never had a bad event there, I love them. I mean, I used to work with booksellers, too. I could go on, but I’ll stop. Those are the ones off the top of my head.
GAL: What was the name of the first book that you fell in love with—that turned you into a lifelong reader?
SC: Oh, wow. It’s hard to pinpoint. I would say the first book that turned me into a lifetime, like, immersive reader—I loved The Secret Garden. Huge in my life. I love The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Through the Looking Glass, you know, it's amazing. But I would say the one that sort of showed me that first immersion that I felt was actually The Once and Future King, which is funny because I think it’s a real teen boy book.
GAL: So you were a bookish kid.
SC: Yeah, I was a bookish kid. We would just tear through piles of books that my mother would take out from the library, and I loved the myths and fairy tales and reading about the things that were of my interests. I was definitely very into anything involving a unicorn or a mermaid, but more in that fantasy way. I wasn’t really into “fairy tales,” but I had an alternate world fantasy bent when I was a kid.
GAL: Did you have any fictional avatars when you were a kid?
SC: A few. Shoutout to Jo March, right?
GAL: Yes! Yes.
SC: Jo March, Harriet the Spy, I loved. I mean, also Holden Caulfield. As you get older, any sort of quirky kid that feels slightly removed from the center of things—which is, honestly, most narrators of adult and children’s fiction—appealed to me. How many novels have you ever read that are narrated by the popular girl? Not many. So almost the whole enterprise is meant for us.
GAL: I always thought Nancy Drew was odd in that way, because Nancy was perfect.
SC: Yeah, she’s totally functional and fine. Sweet Valley High was sort of odd in that way, but there was something about it where, because you have the sister relationship and I had a sister, I very much enjoyed it. I could appreciate that. There was something for me to latch onto. The gorgeous popular blonde-ness was definitely not where I was finding myself in those books.
GAL: Yeah. Nancy Drew had her foils too, but she also had her two best friends, who were kind of stumbling through life, and those were the ones that I identified with.
SC: Loved Nancy Drew. Never read the Hardy Boys. I am of The Baby-Sitters Club generation, so I read all of those books, and R.L. Stine, but then I also read Robin Cook and Agatha Christie and things like that pretty early. It’s funny, because I don’t really see it that much in how I write now, but it is my introduction. When I’m telling you all these things about mermaids and sci-fi and mysteries, you’re not really seeing the DNA of that in what I produce now, but it is what started me on this road.
GAL: Let’s talk about the DNA of the stuff that you read early on and how it leads—or doesn’t lead—to your work. What would you say is the power of story and narrative?
SC: Oh wow, that’s a big one. I think I write in order to both capture and understand the world, and there are very few things that have both those in and out channels coming, right? Like, if you watch TV, I don’t know if you’re doing it to understand the world. I think you’re doing it because it captures a certain part of the world. With literature and reading, it’s both framing your understanding of it, as well as showing you things that are familiar, but you just haven’t articulated yet. And that’s just this rare possibility that can only happen there.
You can also control it in a way that is so tailored to a reader. That’s sort of a very basic thing that we don’t think about with reading—that you can stop, and appreciate it, and laugh, or stop and be sad, and take a moment, or just immerse yourself when you need to, which is so different from, say, stand-up comedy, which is someone else’s pace. Or movies, someone else’s pace. Books are a little bit more like a perfume in that way, where they smell slightly different on everybody else.
In terms of the way I write now, and the style that I have now, it’s probably very influenced by a lot of American short story writers from the ‘80s, specifically: Cheever, Alice Elliott Dark, Katherine Anne Porter, Tobias Wolff, Lorrie Moore, Michael Cunningham. These people are all from a specific time, roughly, and they were sort of my opening into other kinds of work, so if something is now positioned as “like Lorrie Moore,” or having “Cheever-y undertones,” or “Carver-y undertones,” I will often gravitate, still, to that. And there’s something about the humor and the brevity that I ended up translating more to non-fiction than fiction, but they’re about the same length, so the essays that I write are short stories in a way. They’re just true. They also have a point that’s a little more pronounced than some the quiet, sort of violin pull that ends short stories. Mine have more of a sort of entertaining bang to them.
GAL: Did you feel that fiction was something that was always pulling you as you were doing your first two books of essays? Was there something in the back of your head when you were like, “I have this in me, I really want to try my hand at fiction?”
SC: Oh, yeah. I concentrated, I believe they call it, in creative writing when I was an English major in college, and I wrote a little novella for my senior thesis, and I always read fiction. The only essays or narrative non-fiction I had read was a little Joan Didion and a splash of Dorothy Parker. Really, I was weaned on fiction, so the novel felt very much like a return to this thing that I’d always wanted to do, less of a “let me try my hand at this” since it’s not like I hadn’t written fiction. I’m also working on a novel now. I think I’m at the point in my career where I’m not quite ambidextrous, but I’m aiming for it.
GAL: Do you prefer non-fiction to fiction or vice versa when you’re choosing books to read casually?
SC: I tend to work a little bit against the grain. That immersion that you feel as a reader into a new book is wonderful, but it can be a bit dangerous as a writer if you really are a sponge and you start potentially writing like the thing you’re reading, so I tend to read non-fiction when I’m working on fiction, and fiction when I’m working on non-fiction. It provides at least some buffer. But the truth is that on the granular level, the tools that you use are not so different. I mean they’re different in terms of the point of the writing and the soul of the writing, but the actual tools you use to have someone say “crossed the room, turned the doorknob, and opened the door,” there’s only so many ways you’re going to say that, and it’s going to look exactly the same in a novel and an essay. So it’s sort of all a bit mixed, but at least I can have the pretense of not writing in someone else’s voice while I’m writing non-fiction. I would never want that to happen.
GAL: When you are reading non-fiction, is there a specific genre you lean towards?
SC: I tend to read dark things, or biographies. I’ll read things about the Holocaust, or there’s this great biography I just read about Jonathan Swift. I also loved They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. But that’s actually pretty common for people who are categorized as humorous or humor writers. They’re horribly dark people. If you ask David Sedaris what he’s reading right now, I’d bet you a million dollars it’s either about the Holocaust, or about some endangered species and about how weird they are. I’m not picking up books that are sort of like mine, which is kind of funny. Having said that, there are definitely times where if I feel lost, and think “What is the point of this kind of writing at all?” You can do worse than to pick up Heartburn, or you could do worse than to pick up Fraud by David Rakoff, and just remind yourself that you hope to put yourself in the ring with your heroes, and that’s sort of helpful, but it’s not what I gravitate toward when I’m not feeling bad about myself.
GAL: When you’re reading, is it important to you to hold the book?
SC: Oh, I like to hold the book. But you’re also talking to someone who keeps a paper calendar. So, say what you will about that, but I never plug in a date to the wrong year, you know? Not my problem. My problem is more that I’ll cancel plans on people because I’ll think I have something to do because I can picture my own handwriting. And if my book isn’t on me, then I come home and it’s like “pick up dry cleaning,” and I’m like “Dammit!”. But yes, I’ve never used an e-reader of any kind, I don’t have an iPad. It’s very important to me to read the books and feel them in my hand. It feels more intimate, and also more memorable. Frankly, it’s a shame that that’s not universal anymore, because as much as e-readers have actually gotten people to read more, for my personal experience, it’s a bummer not to be able to judge people on the subway based on what they’re reading.
GAL: Are you a delicate reader? Do you make notes and stuff, or are your books pristine?
SC: I like my books pristine. I don’t take notes in them. I remember once a friend of mine borrowed a copy of a book called You’ve Got To Read This, which is edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, and Jim Shepard is a golden god if you’ve never read him. It’s this wonderful short story anthology that I think Harper published. And he borrowed it and he came back with it...he wrote in pencil, but he wrote all over the book. And I honestly never looked at him in the same way again.
GAL: It’s an odd move to make notes and then give a book back to somebody, because then you no longer have the notes.
SC: I mean, you borrowed it, the whole structure of this is that this isn’t yours. Like, “Not yours, not yours,” in blaring red lights, “Not yours.” Sometimes if I’m inspired, I’ll either scribble on a notepad or text myself a line, but I don’t take notes in the book. Physically, I’m quite careful with them. I’m not a spine-cracker.
GAL: Do you have a spot that you typically like to go to to read, or can you read anywhere?
SC: Oh, I can read anywhere. I wish I could say the same for my writing, but yeah, I can read anywhere. I have an old, ratty pea green velvet chair in my house that I like to sit in and read, or I read in bed a lot. Subway, park benches, I live near Hudson River Park and I really like reading looking at the water.
GAL: What about for your writing process?
SC: Not looking at the water. [laughs] It involves a tremendous amount of futzing. A weird amount of unaccounted-for time that I couldn’t tell you what I did, it’s like… you ever see Contact with Jodie Foster, where there’s all this static and unaccounted-for time and she’s secretly on another planet? That’s sort of what happens to me. I have no idea what I’m doing first thing in the morning, but then eventually I settle down and usually I’m writing by around now—but probably really around 10. And write in the mornings as much as I can, and then sometimes I have a spurt in the afternoon but mostly it’s the first half of the day when I write.
GAL: Are there any physical totems that you need nearby? Or is it just once you’re down to it, you’re down to it?
SC: There are a couple, but it’s bizarre, I wouldn’t even tell you what they were.
GAL: That’s fine!
SC: I’m holding one right now while I’m talking to you. The totems themselves are a little magical and private, but there’s one thing I use sometimes—I actually have a glass timer. It’s a sand timer, very beautiful, very simple, and it’s an hour. And if I’m not writing, it’s sometimes a motivator to turn it over and be like “Okay, you have until the sand is gone to do this.” Which is so much different from setting an alarm, to physically watch it. It’s a nice, odd visual kick in the ass to write, but that’s the one thing I do I would say that’s slightly unusual. The rest is pretty standard. I have a cup of a warm liquid and water and I sit in my pajamas, and I have a laptop or a desktop, but the one thing I would say that’s a little odd is the sand timer.
GAL: That reminds me a bit of Truman Capote’s routine.
SC: What did he do?
GAL: He would only work from bed—he said he had to be horizontal to write—and he would be in his pajamas with his typewriter on his knees, and he’d move from coffee to mint tea to sherry to a martini throughout the day. He’d also smoke in bed, and his superstition was that he couldn’t have more than three cigarette butts in the ashtray at one time. I tried it for a week—
SC: You did not. You smoked in bed and did the sherry and all of that?
GAL: Okay, the smoking—I was like, “I’m not picking up smoking.” But I don’t drink, and I did that. I thought that maybe the writing would flow, but I really just kind of ranted at nobody, and punched the air with my finger a lot. He really was a genius, because I was just...wasted.
SC: It’s less about writing and more about alcohol tolerance.
GAL: True. I did a whole summer where I would try different routines for a week to see what would happen. It was a good time.
SC: I’ve definitely done that. Balzac had like 50 cups of coffee a day, and you know, somehow lived. But I’ve definitely tried out, you know, “Okay, well maybe if I wrote late one night, this is what I do now,” you know? I straddle this line between artist and functioning human being. I went to Yaddo earlier this year and that’s a really good place to try things out, because you have nothing else, your life has been cleared out to just write. And so you’re like, “Well maybe…” Speaking of Capote, one of my favorite bits in In Cold Blood is when he talks about finding Nancy’s diary, and the different handwriting and the different colors of ink she used. She was still at that age where she was saying: “Is this Nancy? Is this Nancy?” You know, testing out who she was when she died. And I feel a little bit like that when I have a lot of time to write. I’m like, “Maybe I’m a person who writes all night and sleeps till three. Or maybe I’m a person who gets up really early, or maybe I’m the person who just… takes random notes and doesn’t start at the beginning.” All these sort of techniques, and then no matter what you do, you come back to wherever you’re going to be the most productive pretty naturally. It’s sort of useless when people ask if I write in the morning, do you do this… it doesn’t really matter what I do, because whatever you do is going to be whatever works for you.
GAL: GAL has a friend who has a “sanity shelf” where she keeps the books that she returns to over and over again, whether for pleasure, solace, or knowledge. What books would be on your sanity shelf?
SC: Wow. It would be a weird shelf. Probably Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. Pnin by Nabokov. Probably Great Expectations, Me Talk Pretty One Day.... I don’t know! Oh, and The Collected Dorothy Parker, and The Tales of Guy de Maupassant.
GAL: If you were going to write your memoir, what would you title it?
SC: Haven’t we been over this already?
GAL: I know, I feel like some—
SC: No, no—that’s the answer.
GAL: Oh! [laughs]
SC: That’s really funny.
GAL: [laughs] Got it. That is a really good answer. Would you name three books that you recommend reading right now for readers of GAL, and then say why they feel crucial right now?
SC: Okay. Motherhood by Sheila Heti. I just think it’s fantastically different, imaginative, and thoughtful. It applies such careful moral thought to a subject that we sort of normally take for granted. She’s managed to say, I think, a lot of new things about a topic that’s difficult to say new things about. There are certain very well-trodden topics—it’s really hard to say anything new about Lincoln at this point, you know, it’s really hard to say anything new about certain aspects of World War II, and it’s also really hard to say anything new about motherhood, and having babies, and I think she did it. So that’s really wonderful. Dancer by Colum McCann is a fantastic novel that is very special. And if you’ve never read Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld...I think a lot of your readers probably have, but to me, this is her at her best. Also, it’s worth the price of admission for the names alone. Her character names in that book are phenomenal.
GAL: My last question. The last time we spoke, we did a quick round of Fuck, Marry, Kill, so I’m bringing it back. This time, the three are: Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jack Kerouac.
SC: Oh man, really?! Okay. Okay. I think—definitely fuck Tennessee Williams. Because everything about that’s hot. And then I think I would… I guess… wait, no. Shit. I guess I would then marry F. Scott Fitzgerald.
GAL: And hide your diaries from him.
SC: And hide my diaries from him. Also, it’d be really hard just knowing he was in love with someone else.
SC: But I would marry him. Because I think that as much as there’s probably not that fire there, there’s probably an eternal pleasantness. This isn’t someone who’s just going to be completely insufferable to deal with. Which brings me to Jack Kerouac, who gets thrown off a bridge in Big Sur, California.