There are a few things you should know about Sloane Crosley before reading this interview. She’s the author of two books of comedic essays, 2008’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake and the just-released-in-paperback How Did You Get This Number. Before that, she worked as a publicist for Vintage/Anchor, repping authors like Toni Morrison and Jonathan Lethem until she sent a funny e-mail to an editor friend at The Village Voice, who published an edited version and effectively launched her literary career. That’s the short (and probably not entirely accurate) version, which has hovered like a dark cloud of missed opportunities over countless writers, myself included, who are now incapable of writing even a simple e-mail without wondering, Is this funny enough? Crosley doesn’t remember exactly what she wrote in that fateful e-mail, but she does recall that, unlike most with e-mails, she did spellcheck it and avoided using emoticons. “I don’t do emoticons unless I’m making a big deal out of them,” she says. “I’ll type out, ‘This is so amusing is makes me want to grin in pixels. ’ And then do it.”
The following interview was conducted by e-mail. Crosley composed her answers while sitting at a desk in her apartment on 16th Street in New York City. She was wearing jeans and a tank top, and drinking an Arnold Palmer. Her Arnold Palmer recipe consists of “more iced tea than lemonade,” and she insists that the lemonade must be added first. “I have a theory that lemonade floats and iced tea sinks,” she says. “This has no basis in reality, but it tastes good.”
Eric Spitznagel: We should start with the question that every young author gets asked at least once in his or her career. You have very shiny hair. How do you keep your hair so shiny?
Sloane Crosley: By eating the skins of people who post negative Amazon reviews, mostly. Really? I just spray this Japanese stuff in it called “Power Shining Mist.” If I go without it, it really hurts my chances of being recognized. You can see it in a stranger’s eyes. They thought maybe I was me but I must not be me because my hair is so incredibly dull.
I’m trying to think if there’s another author with notably shiny hair. Jonathan Safran Foer maybe?
Nathan Englander used to have—and still does have—amazing hair. But the length of those curls was intense when he published his first book. Samantha Power has great hair and obviously that’s what she’s really known for. Should I be worried that if we keep talking about it, it’s going to fall out from all the pressure to be pretty and then I’ll just be another bald author?
I’m pretty sure that’s when you grow a Dostoyevsky beard. You accessorize to distract from your flaws. Wasn’t this part of your job when you worked in publicity? Helping authors get camera ready? You could probably tell us which authors have hair plugs, right?
I spent some time plugging authors, if that’s what you mean. Their hair ultimately wasn’t of much concern.
Give us some inside dirt. What’s it like to work as a publicist for Vintage? I assume it’s a nonstop barrage of author egos and bizarre requests. How much cocaine does Ian McEwan need before he’ll do a public appearance?
Using British measurements or American? No, I have no dirt. I also never worked with Ian. But I do have a real answer to this. In general, the dirt I carry around from ten years working with authors is not cool-ugly or glamorous-ugly, it’s just people-being-human ugly. Out of all artists, authors are the least trained for the spotlight. Wanting attention isn’t a requisite part of the package. When you design a dress or a building, you have to have some conception that real success means a public life. For actors, musicians, and dancers the performance is even tied into the creative process. Most authors are having a relationship—or trying to—with the media for only the first or second time and it brings out the worst in people. I mean the worst. As it should. It should turn every well-meaning and brilliant author alive into a manic, egomaniacal, reality-detached, finger-pointing baby. But ultimately these people are not assholes.
Are you sure? I’ve met a few authors who made a pretty convincing case that they’re assholes.
But even the assholes wouldn’t register as actual assholes in the world of, say, finance. Or Hollywood. They’re just parents of something creative. It is only a handful of authors who can come through the media gauntlet without screaming at themselves or their publicists. I got lucky. I got to work with such classy folk more often than not.
I was going to ask if you’ve ever been a publicist-berating asshole, but the very idea of it is just so adorably implausible. The one thing that everybody in publishing seems to agree about you is that you’re sweet as pie.
I know lots of sweet, kind people in person so I don’t fully understand why I’m singled out for not being a jerk. But I’ll take it because I am so profoundly uncool in a thousand ways but I really want to be one of those people whose friends are all, “Man, you must have done something really terrible to piss off Sloane!” In reality, my fuse is of a perfectly average length, if not on the short side. So in an ironic twist, this nice-gal reputation will probably turn me into a complete nightmare.
You must’ve had at least one moment when you lost your cool and said or did something terrible and childish?
I definitely have had a couple of irate phone calls to my agent about minor matters and the fact that I can’t even remember what they were about only speaks to how diva-ish I must have been behaving.
That’s close, but I’m looking for something really, really dickish. Have you ever barked orders at a bookstore employee, telling him to get you another bottle of Bling H2O?
Booksellers are awesome, I can’t imagine why anyone would ever be anything but gracious to them. Seriously. Where would you fit it in? I guess you could heckle them while they’re glowingly introducing you. Oh! Once I lied to an author escort (person who the publishing house hires to take you around a city while you’re on tour). I said my throat was sore when it wasn’t. On the way to a reading, he was asking me a lot of “how did you get started writing” and “what makes something funny” questions. I knew I was about to get asked the same things in public and I’m a terrible faker when it comes to delivering stock answers as if they’re fresh. But I couldn’t tell a group of people that I just went through all this with the dude hovering by the door and would prefer they ask him instead. I grew increasingly irritated at his refusal to notice that I hadn’t initiated a single sentence of our conversation. So I flat-out asked him if it would be okay if we didn’t speak the rest of the time. I think he knew.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but you are a monster.
I have a copy of How Did You Get This Number in hardcover, so why should I buy the paperback?
You shouldn’t. Go buy yourself a gourmet sandwich instead. Put some wasabi aioli up on that business. But if you haven’t bought it and you liked the first book (I Was Told There’d Be Cake) or you haven’t bought it, haven’t heard of the first book and just want something flexible to bring with you on the subway or to the beach, this is the book for you.
Aside from not having a bear on the cover anymore, like there was on the hardcover, is there anything different about the paperback version?
There is too a bear on the cover. If you buy the book and you bring it to me at a reading and you ask me to draw a bear on the cover, I will do it. I’m saying this on the Internet, so you know it’s true.
Any kind of bear, or specifically a grizzly? Could you draw a Himalayan Brown Bear or a Kermode bear? I didn’t even know that last bear existed until I looked up “types of bears” on Wikipedia. (We’re learning so much because of the Internet today!)
Would it surprise you to know I have not given it a tremendous amount of thought yet? Maybe just a nonspecific bear head. I think I could do a pretty good full polar bear rendering in profile. There’s white toilet paper on the paperback cover so that will help me out, color-wise. Otherwise I’ll basically draw a bunny, put some “x”s in the eyes, round-out the ears and call it a day.
The only reason I asked about the paperback at all is because I’m hoping it has a few extra pages devoted to Portuguese clowns. Do you have any more clown stories that you haven’t shared or might be saving for the next book?
You have to be careful about telling too many clown stories if you’re writing a book of humor essays. No one’s ever told me that but it sounds wise enough. It would be like a gynecologist collecting kayaks.
At what point when you’re hanging out with a group of clowns does it cross over from “well this is an unusual way to spend an evening” to “I am totally writing about this?”
I have definitely had experiences where I can feel the shift from simply living my life to being slightly outside of my life and taking notes. “Show Me On the Doll” (the clown essay) was actually not one of them. “Light Pollution,” the Alaskan one, was one of them. I could feel a kind of oddity saturation that made me stop and reflect. In general, however, I like to do as little reflecting as possible in the moment. I would drive myself and everyone around me crazy.
The first thing people usually mention about your books is how much they like the titles. Just how much thought and/or stress goes into coming up with a witty title? Does it involve complicated math equations or a team of high-priced punch-up writers?
Hello, jackpot question. For me, titles are either a natural two-second experience or stressful enough to give you an ulcer. If they don’t pop out perfect on the first try, they can be really hard to repair. Or, worse, if the author thinks they pop out perfect, but the publishing house does not agree, it’s difficult to shift gears. And then? Then you go insane. Truly and all-consumingly insane. You start listening to random conversations on the street and reading the backs of cereal boxes. You open every book you own to a random page looking for a phrase or an image that fits. You comb through every word of your own manuscript. You start to understand why perfume companies pay people multiple thousands of dollars to produce a single word. Your committee of decision makers grows wider until you’re asking your mailman what he thinks. And God forbid he doesn’t hear you the first time and asks you to repeat it. Then you think it must really not be any good. Also, very few people have read the book at this point so what you’re asking them is to tell you what color you should paint a house they’ve never laid eyes on.
A title like I Was Told There’d Be Cake is just so fucking good, it’s hard to imagine you having any doubts about it.
I hope he won’t mind me saying so, but Sean McDonald and a lot of the good people at Riverhead at the time thought it was too long and too girly. Seeing as how they are right about pretty much everything normally, I was inclined to believe them. But then I just couldn’t bring myself to change it. This lead to some extensive back and forth e-mails about what makes cake feminine as a noun and as a food as well as a couple of “Why don’t I just call it I Was Told There’d Be Guns & Ammo?” quips from me. It also seemed like maybe the title had a bad attitude. I liked everything about it they didn’t. But I knew there can be real consequences to being an inflexible author right out of the gate. I picked up the phone for a conference call with them with every intention of saying they could change it to “Fever Faker,” the title of the last essay in the first collection. I think I even started the conversation with “I have some good news for you guys . . .” And then I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I said no, that I didn’t care what happened but I had gone through a series of small gauntlets to get this thing published and I hit a wall. I thought they were going to kill me.
That’s when, for the rest of us, the story becomes, “That’s how I lost my first book deal.”
Over that? No, you wouldn’t. The process is both terrible and normal. Like childbirth or Michael Mann movies. Plus it goes both ways. They showed me the cover and I was iffy on it until the day of publication. I felt it was too much pattern and that you couldn’t tell what it was right away and that was a bad thing. I thought it was very girly coming from people who had just finished objecting to the gender of dessert. I love that cover so much now, it’s hard to remember ever doubting it. I’ll bet they look back on The Title Wars of ‘08 the same way. It’s just how the discussion works, even if mine was particularly knock-down/drag-out. Covers in general face slimier challenges, except it’s the overworked cover art designer that doesn’t want to shift gears instead of the author. Though if I was going to have a problem, I’d much rather have a cover issue than a title issue.
What abou t the new one? Did you have to fight for How Did You Get This Number?
This book was originally titled Show Me On The Doll. I think it was even announced to the press as Show Me On The Doll. But I love How Did You Get This Number. It’s tonally perfect. A friend said it half jokingly and I had the same little zippy feeling I got with Cake. I thought, “No, I can’t call it that.” And that’s how I knew I should call it that. Plus, like Cake, it suggests a particular essay in the collection without coming out and saying it. That seems cool to me. But part of me still thinks it should have been called Show Me On The Doll. There were just too many problems that couldn’t be ignored. If you get that reference, great. But about 75% of mailmen polled did not. They thought it was a memoir about child abuse or just thought it made no sense.
Since you’re such a smarty pants with the titles, would you come up with a clever, memorable title for this Q&A so that people visiting VF.com just to look at shirtless pictures of Rob Lowe will decide to read this instead?
How To Cover Your Whole Body in Shiny Hair.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com