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Friday, October 8, 2010

Sloane Crosley Interview

Sloane Crosley stopped by Third Place Books recently to sign some copies of her newest collection of essays, “How Did You Get This Number?” While she was here Vladimir, who runs Third Place Press and operates ‘Ginger’, our Espresso Book Machine, had the opportunity to ask Sloane a few questions:

(Vladimir is introduced to Sloane Crosley. A brief moment of awkwardness while they discuss accents, podcasts, the Espresso Book Machine in the room, being a fan, and finally Vladimir figures out that his tape recorder is actually working)

VV: When you first started writing, was the essay form your aim, or just something that kind of happened to come up?

SC: I think the concept of making people laugh is certainly an aim. It’s not always the aim, but when I first started writing I thought I was going to write fiction – and I still might write fiction but the essay form for now, at least, is what’s coming more naturally to me.
Writing is a strange thing. I mean, you’re a volunteer. No-one needs you, so the question is sort of, “Why write?” Because you try to respect yourself and you try and get close to whatever it is you feel you have to say or whatever it is, the combination of what you feel you have to say and what you feel other people have to hear. It’s important to have the balance between that. I start writing essays, I generally know about 80% of what’s going to go in there. And then I generally end up learning, through a boomerang effect about 20%, something I didn’t know before I started writing about how I feel about an experience or really about what something means. And that’s what I do like about the essay format, and when you get that with fiction.

VV: How does the humor always slip in?

SC: Hopefully naturally and hopefully amusingly. I don’t really know. I think humor is a very difficult thing to talk about because the second you try and address why something is funny, how it’s funny, – when do you pull back,?when do you insert something? – . It kills it a little bit. Yyou do have a natural instinct when you’re editing, thinking, “Well, this is going too far in one direction. You know, too slapsticky, or this is trying too hard, not trying hard enough.” You have a sense when you edit it, but when you first write it, I have no idea. It’s a funny thing that – I mean, I don’t know how one gets funny or how –

VV: You’d rather leave it a little mystical?

SC: I would actually rather do the opposite. I’d rather know exactly how it works, because then I could harness it a hell of a lot better and make all these essays perfectly funny.

VV: Do you think the label of a “humorist” can get in the way of a writer’s ability to grow?

SC: I think any kind of label does that, I mean, unless your label is, you know, “Pulitzer Prize winner.”
You could probably grow under that, with that kind of soil. But it does get in the way a little bit. You just want to make sure people know what they’re buying. It’s the same thing as if you label something “chick lit” and it’s not, or you label something as “Memoir” but this doesn’t really feel like a memoir to me. I mean, they’re essays. That’s something very different. I don’t think of myself as telling my life story, you know. If people are disappointed because they don’t like your book, or they think they wanted it to be better, or they don’t think it’s “whatever” enough, that’s fine. That’s totally their right, but it’s dangerous if they think, “Oh, this is going to be just like this other writer,” and then it ends up being maybe a little sadder, maybe a little darker than they thought it was going to be. You just want to make sure that everyone knows what they’re getting into.

VV: So, it must be risky to lay your life out so honestly. What kinds of reactions are you getting from friends and family?

SC: Mostly good. While this sort of a slightly darker, more melancholy book [Than the first collection, “I Was Told There Would Be Cake’], it is nicer in a way. I think [the people I’ve written about] could take it in a lot of ways and there are a couple tributes to certain friendships and obviously those people aren’t going to complain. Most of them sort of aim the ridicule at me, and sometimes they turn the shield outwardly [toward] people that I’m not really talking to so I don’t know what they think. But they know that they’re buried, any identifying characteristics or salient details are completely glossed over. They’re not their real names or where they work and they’re also essays, so therefore they’re not, you know, permeating the entire collection, so at a certain point the responsibility comes off me and is back on to them. If they want to tell everybody that they’re outraged that I said that I had a roommate I didn’t get along with—I’m not telling anyone who it is.
It is kind of a funny line to walk, though. At what point does the responsibility no longer become you. It’s the same thing with reading in general. At what point have you lost control of what you’ve written and the fact that it’s now public domain?

VV: True. When people sit around and discuss your book and it turns out they’ve pulled things out that were never there?

SC: Mmm. That’s amazing. I mean, that’s actually something everyone learns in fifth grade when you start reading the sonnets or whatever, and you start: “ the host of golden daffodils” and what this means and you think, “I had that, Marshall McLuhan moment from Annie Hall when Woody Allen is, you know, on a line and someone’s debating about the director’s work and what it means. And all of a sudden the director appears and says, “Actually, no, that’s not at all what I meant. You’re totally wrong. You’re way off base.” You kind of wish for that.

VV: This is kind of a follow-up to what you just mentioned, but I did notice that your new book is – it’s more nuanced. It’s still very funny, but you’ve developed a deeper sympathy towards the world at large and how your personal experiences fit into it which I think enriches the whole experience of your essays. Was it harder to write this book because of that?

SC: It’s interesting. I mean I thought maybe people might read this one. [Laughs.] I didn’t write the other one thinking that anyone would, and I think that honestly maybe it boils down to something as simple as that. But beyond that, I wanted to challenge myself a little more. I wanted to write about things that were objectively unfunny. Being lost; Having a weird crisis about furniture; Having a violent experience with a bear; Being broken up with; almost moving into a crazy old brothel. You know, these are not always really funny. And I think the trick is to make them funny, and if you can do that—I don’t know if all of these pull it off or not—but when they do, I think that’s the writing I’m most proud of. And really the last essay, which is almost novella-like, was really hard to write —I’ve never really written about relationships because it’s not something I’m particularly interested in writing about. These aren’t very female-oriented essays except that one. That is the only one that kept me up at night.

VV: Well, speaking of that essay, that was probably the one that I connected with the most, and I think any writer’s hope is to be able to make that kind of connection with someone. You mentioned that was more of a female kind of perspective, but I think you really managed to walk that line. I have to say, vouching from a guy’s point of view, I think that the things you explore in that story are universal. I personally found it cathartic for personal reasons so I really appreciate it.

SC: Oh good! I mean, that’s the thing. It’s so hard, especially with narrative non-fiction – if something—not bad, even, but just off-kilter—something significant happens to you, the world is not your therapist. What are you working out on the page? And that line between essentially blogging and journaling and actually creating something that has structure, that has meaning, that is at least trying for something. I would never say that all of these succeed in that. But I know I can say with authority that they’re all at least trying to connect somehow.
I think the “only connect” thing – might be the answer to why I’m writing to begin with. [Laughs.]

VV: I get that. I think ego is kind of out of the equation when it comes to writing. At a certain point, everybody just wants to get in touch with the world at large sometimes.

SC: Yeah, it enters back in when you’re thinking, “Which one of these should be my author photo?” But you cannot possibly be in your head when you’re writing, if you want to write anything.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Sloane Crosley interview coming tomorrow!

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