Sloane Crosley on Comedy, Twitter, and the Rise of the Personal Essay
The Author of Look Alive Out There in Conversation with Megan Amram
Sloane Crosley’s latest collection of essays, Look Alive Out There, is available now from FSG.
Megan Amram: It’s been ten years since the publication of I Was Told There’d Be Cake? How have you changed? Have you gained a lot of weight?
Sloane Crosley: What’s “a lot?” When Cake came out, I would go to all these meetings in LA and everyone had cake for me. Everyone. The cake knew no bounds, shied from no time of day. I felt like I had to eat all this cake to be polite and I also felt it was ironic because the first essay in that book is about a private joke gone wrong in the guise of men gifting me plastic ponies. And now I was just reliving it with pastry. NBC had red velvet and I remember thinking: Well, that’s ballsy, NBC. But I’ve lost my cake weight.
As for more profound changes as a writer, I’m sure they’re there but it’s harder for me to notice them since I’ve been living with me. Since this is my third book of essays, I like to think I’ve gotten funnier but more sophisticated. I know I’m definitely less concerned with squeezing in ten jokes per paragraph like a dancing monkey with terminal monkey disease. I feel like I can let these essays breathe and be themselves and the confidence I have in writing them is what makes them funny. Because trying too hard to be funny is almost as bad a look as trying and failing.
MA: Wait. You’re allowed to not try to be funny? I had no idea! I’m definitely going to try that in the future!
SC: It’s true. Humor writing is often spoken about like horseback riding. You either go bareback (effortless) or full dressage (Seinfeld). But it doesn’t have to be that way. I say this as someone who has been on a horse thrice ever and therefore can take ownership over this analogy. And as someone who is both amused and skeeved out by the term “sidesaddle.”
MA: When people ask you “when did you first know you were funny,” what do you tell these monsters?
SC: I start crying and ask them if they’ve seen my mother.
Isn’t it funny how any humorist or funny writer or standup comedian in the world has gotten this question? Do people ask doctors when they first knew they liked blood so much? I’m sure you’ve gotten this a ton. You are the kind of pure funny that scares the shit out of me. Like 20 triple lutzes in a row funny. I need time to just skate backwards and have that be it between tricks or else I’d pass out.
MA: You are too nice. I can’t believe you would make up nonsense words like “lutzes” just to pay me a compliment. You are literally my best friend.
SC: This is the ultimate sign of best friendship, creating a new word for someone. I’m going to stop trying to win people’s affections by buying everyone I meet a star at The International Star Registry™ and start making up words instead.
Anyway, where were we? Oh, right. What are people looking for when they ask about the origin of humor? Was I left out as a kid and deeply unpopular until the seventh grade, whereupon I mostly pulled myself together as a person? Yes. Have I always felt like I was observing people and that they liked me better when I made them laugh? I think so. Perhaps I just have the right temperament, somewhere between easily delighted and easily pissed. But the real answer, for me at least, goes something like “I don’t know, please stop.” So the temptation is great to just answer this question by swinging the pendulum the other way, pretending “Sybil” was based my childhood and that instead of breaking apart into multiple personalities I started writing riffs on frozen yogurt.
“Perhaps I just have the right temperament, somewhere between easily delighted and easily pissed.”
MA: Speaking of riffs, do you think it’s important for authors to use social media?
SC: I think it’s completely dependent on the author. Some authors really should not be doing it and that’s okay. Let’s leave these people alone. But some excel at it and it’s wonderful for introducing them to new readers. It’s nice to get confirmation that you’re reaching people, especially if you work by yourself all day. Though I don’t have to tell anyone that when that confirmation becomes replacement therapy for having a life, you’re in deep trouble. For the authors who do it, I don’t think they should feel the pressure to tweet like they write. I love Susan Orlean’s twitter feed because it’s so deliberately honest and unartful. Like she really just wants you to know what she’s up to, what page she hit that day, how she’s procrastinating, what she fed her animals. I find it therapeutic.
MA: My favorite literary twitter (other than Susan, who I also love, and you of course) is probably poet Patricia Lockwood, who is an absolutely hilarious insane person. And Stephen King. And of course, the famous humorist Mike Huckabee. Truly one of the most avant garde comedic minds of our time.
SC: Agreed about Stephen King and I will have to check out Patricia Lockwood’s now. I don’t follow Mikey. Sometimes I spot check him and others who came from the same river of evil sludge. I have this idea that a lot of people also have—that I don’t want to contribute to the problem. Boy, are they learning a lesson from my actions!
MA: Okay. So now for the hard questions.
SC: Oh, that starts now?
MA: What are your favorite essays in Look Alive Out There?
SC: That’s like asking me to pick favorites within my extensive collection of Faberge eggs but FINE. “Outside Voices,” “The Grape Man,” “Brace Yourself,” “Cinema of the Confined” and “The Doctor Is a Woman.” That won’t mean much to anyone who hasn’t read the book. But what is interesting is that these are not all my editor’s favorites. I think these are just the ones where I know I’ve either stuck the landing or I did what I set out to do. Or, if I’m very lucky, I’ve said something new, something that other people have been thinking but haven’t articulated in the same way.
MA: You handled that question very well. Humble yet self-promoting. A+++.
SC: I learned it from watching you, dad.
MA: What do you most want people to take away from Look Alive Out There?
SC: Something to recycle. (I just really wanted to answer that as an insufferable depressive. Don’t take this away from me.)
MA: I would never. But I am going to call you and make sure you’re eating enough. I can send you some soup and donuts. What’s your address again?
SC: There’s this great story about Matt Damon meeting Prince and he said something like “you live in Minnesota, right?” (I mean honestly, what does anyone say to Prince?) And Prince said: “I live inside my own heart, Matt Damon.” I live where Prince lives, Megan, and I think you know that.
MA: How would you categorize your humor? And do you agree with the way other people categorize it?
SC: Other people have called it old fashioned and I love that. I mean, I’m grateful for any compliment. “Biting” and “acerbic” sound painful but sexy. “Dry” is nice though not sexy. Though I admit: I don’t fully understand the old fashioned bit. Rather, I know of what they speak, but what would new-fashioned humor writing entail? Twitter? Yes, Look Alive Out There has many pages and paragraphs scattered throughout those pages. Seems like what people are really talking about is my chosen topics, not how I’m addressing them. And I would categorize my own humor as like finding money in your pocket and getting excited and then realizing that it’s your money. It was always your money.
MA: I would categorize your humor as “funny” and “humorous” because I’m very smart!
SC: It’s pretty exciting that you are secretly my mom.
MA: There weren’t many collections of essays, at least not by women, when I Was Told There’d Be Cake came out. And then it blew up. What was that experience like and do you think the landscape for personal essays has changed?
SC: Yes, if by landscape we mean the venues that inform that landscape. I started writing for The Village Voice, The New York Observer and the “City” section of The New York Times and nary a one of those sections/publications exist now, at least not in a way they used to.
In their place, around 2011–2014, there was this boom and bastardization of the confessional essay online. I hate to say this but women in specific were being rewarded (not financially, obviously) for sharing their most intimate moments or gutting their friends and sexual partners. This is nothing new, a time-honored weirdness of our culture. But suddenly it’s not just that they were being rewarded, they were being told it was high art and the wave of the future. And if you didn’t like it? Must because you’re prude or offended or can’t handle the truth, Old Lady. And I was all: Yes, you’re right, I can’t. Because I signed up for your thoughts and what’s important about your story and a point, not just the facts of the case. That’s what a personal essay is. I also signed up to be entertained or educated.
The good news is I think we’ve really moved past that and now what’s happening is that there’s more room for deep, smart, funny work by everyone online, not just women. The New Yorker and Vogue and The Paris Review were not publishing meaty personal essays online until around 2015, I’d say. And there are so many longform websites now or, say, publications like The Baffler. It feels like the bar has been raised again, back to where it should be. Which is a rare occurrence, for America. I don’t actually know if any of my dates are right here. I am not an Internetologist.
“I hate to say this but women in specific were being rewarded (not financially, obviously) for sharing their most intimate moments or gutting their friends and sexual partners.”
MA: Don’t be hard on yourself. You are an Internetologist. You got your PhD in Internetology and you have a tenured position at Internet College!
SC: I mean, sure. That’s factual.
MA: What about the experience of Cake coming out, personally?
SC: I wish I had understood more about what was happening at the time. I didn’t have a sense that people were reading it or that they were finding themselves in it. It was a paperback original for which I was paid a pittance so that helped confirm the idea that no matter what, it really wasn’t a big deal. The first moment that floored me was a TSA agent in Madison, Wisconsin who checked my ID and told me my writing made her laugh. I was dumbstruck. I wanted to live in the Madison airport. Then publishers started using my book in their press materials and in marketing meetings. Then the title started showing up in cartoons that had nothing to do with the book, political cartoons in the New York Post, things like that.
It’s probably not surprising that I understand it much better now than I did then. Because while I was very far from the first woman to write personal humor essays (understatement), Cake did land in a place where they just weren’t selling. That was a boy’s club. And so if that coincidence means I had any part in the fact that more women get money to tell their stories now, great stories, if I laid even a piece of that pipe by being a comparison title, good.
MA: This is beautiful. I’m crying so hard I can barely type anymore, the tears are getting everywhere. Gdoam youey, slaone!!!
SC: DO YOU NEED DONUT SOUP? Is that what this is about? Pull yourself together.
MA: Okay, fine. Last question then. What’s the weirdest question someone has ever asked you at a reading?
SC: The location of another author’s reading. And that’s not me being an insufferable depressive. That’s me living in the world.