It takes a certain kind of writer to craft a novel that includes both meticulous biographical details about 19th-century French writer Guy de Maupassant and a botched sex scene involving a bro with a Fortress of Solitude tattoo near his penis.
But anyone who has read one of Sloane Crosley’s essays won’t be all that surprised she’s pulled off her fiction debut with both ample humor and highbrow literary references.
Her wit struck both cultural highs and lows when we meet to discuss The Clasp, her novel centered on three friends from college who are hitting the end of their twenties wondering: What they are doing with their lives, why they want what they want, and whether they should even be friends.
There’s Victor, a recently fired employee of a Google-esque company with an “Eeyore-like quality,” as Crosley describes it to me. There’s Nathaniel, a handsome screenwriter in Los Angeles still pretending to coast off a single commercial success. Then, there’s Kezia, the righthand man to a somewhat sadistic jewelry designer.
Yes, there is somewhat of a love triangle tying the three together. Throw in a treasure hunt for one of the most famous pieces of jewelry in literary history, the necklace from de Maupassant’s “The Necklace,” and you’ve got yourself a charming, intriguing comedy of manners.
Crosley is best known for insightful, funny essays about a range of topics, from accepting stolen furniture to her drawer full of toy ponies. Her first collection landed her on national bestseller lists when she was barely 30. She has written for The New York Times, GQ, Esquire and The Independent (where she had her own regular column).
The Clasp is filled with passing Balzac references and “easter eggs for short story fans,” as Crosley puts it. My favorite is when Nathaniel chastises Kezia for not reading The Lottery, Shirley Jackson’s chilling short story about a town that holds a lottery each year to determine which local will be stoned to death. “‘You’ve never read The Lottery?,” says a shocked Nathaniel. “Really? It’s like The Hunger Games only shorter and better.’”
Yet, Crosley chose the alluded groin tattoo scene to read at a press event for The Clasp--a bold move only enhanced by her parents being in attendance. “I think you have to rip off the Band-Aid,” she says of writing sex scenes she knows her parents will read. “I told them, ‘Well, I’m going to read one of the dirty sections. Here’s looking at you, Mom and Dad.’ There’s the phrase a ‘dick swing—Oh, Jesus.”
Crosley blushes and covers her voice when she remembers a party with a surprising number of toddlers are feet away from us at the West Village restaurant where we meet.
She switches to a whisper but continues to complete what she started, “a dick swinging in her face.”
Her composure is fully regained when I ask how she came up with another sex scene in The Clasp, one that involves a woman inserting a smartphone in her vagina. “There’s a tiny bit of Philip Roth in everyone. Maybe that’s my little nod to Phil?,” she says with a laugh.
An ability to crack dirty jokes about National Book Award winners is one of the reason that if there’s a New York literary scene “It” girl—let’s actually go with woman—it’s 37-year-old Crosley.
During college, Crosley began her career with internships at The New Yorker and Mirabella, which folded in 2000. “I’m box office poison,” she jokes.
Her first full-time job was working for a literary agent before switching to publicity. She eventually served as deputy director of publicity at Vintage/Anchor Book. In that chapter of her career, Crosley brushed professional elbows with literary jaw-droppers, including Lorrie Moore and Joan Didion.
Crosley remained there until 2010, nearly two years after her first book, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, landed her on the New York Times bestseller list in 2008 and was a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor.
That book of essays was followed by a second collection, 2010’s How Did You Get This Number?, which also hit the Times bestseller list.
Despite my efforts to press her for literary gossip, Crosley won’t “name names,” she says. “Of all the writers, four were nightmares and 60 I was privileged to publicize their work.”
Clearly, Crosley was (is) good at her job. While she says she doesn't handle her own publicity, she admits she may be more, shall we say, involved than the typical writer. “I’m sure it makes me a total pain. Doctors make the worse patients.”
She’s also tight-lipped about her relationship status. When I ask Crosley if she is in a relationship, she says “As long as we’re doing it as a ‘yes or no’ checkbox question, yes.” She isn’t sure if she wants children.
It feels admittedly patronizing to ask the author questions about her personal life when I am eager to ask her what it’s like being one of, if not the, chicest, wittiest toast of the modern literary scene.
Not for nothing is Crosley already in talks with a producer to write the script for a film version of The Clasp, which has been out less than a week when she and I meet.
Then again, I Was Told There’d Be Cake was in development at HBO to become its own series. “It got really far and then they decided they were not going to make it,” Crosley says with absolutely zero trace of ill will.
“I love writing for them. I would write pilots like a think tank to just get to keep working with them,” Crosley says about HBO, even though the cable network recently passed on a pilot she worked on with Carolyn Strauss, an executive producer on Game of Thrones.
The show was—wait for it—a black comedy about a bubonic plague outbreak in 17th-century Europe. “I remember before we went in to pitch, and I was nervous, I said, ‘What I can’t figure out is if you and I think it’s funny to pitch HBO a comedy that takes place in the 17th century or if the show is funny?’”
Strauss’s response: “‘What does it matter? Get out of the car,’” said Crosley with a laugh. “She’s very tough love.”
That speed bump has hardly paused the prolific Crosley. A return to non-fiction with her third book of essays is her next project. “I have about half a book’s worth. I need to think about some larger, set pieces,” Crosley says. She is also continuing writing scripts and may even consider a westward move. “I have flirted with LA, but I’ve never dated it,” she says.
Crosley is savvy enough to be coy about future plans. That’s not exactly surprising to any of her readers. Her wit and insights cut with precision and depth, which is why I’ve seen her as a chip off the Dorothy Parker-Nora Ephron-David Sedaris block.
Even when she’s spinning an intricate web of a plot, Crosley never dulls that sharpness.
In fact, one of the great moments in The Clasp was Kezia’s inner monologue about a slightly younger and infinitely more irritatingly precious office underling, Sophie, who wears stickers on her forehead and anthropomorphizes pieces of jewelry, talking to a necklace in a cooing baby voice whose clasp (ahem, the title) keeps breaking.
In a scene similar to the “Cool Girl” speech in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl that dissects and skewers the fantasies men have of forcing women into their very specific, non-achievable cool, what I call the “Sophie manifesto” acts similarly as a larger, stand-alone of social commentary:
New York was swarmed with Sophies. She was sick of being bombarded of them, tired of their childlike sexuality dictating how she should be. ‘You know what’s important?’ the Sophies said. ‘Finding yourself! Whatever self you had when you were twelve? That’s who you are. That girl. Any move past twelve was a move in the wrong direction.
“That was actually a lot longer in the first draft,” Crosley says when I bring up the Sophie passage. While Crosley repeatedly stresses that Kezia is by no means a fictional alter ego (and that doesn’t take a lot of convincing as one reads The Clasp) she admits “there are moments of me, including the moment she said she was sick of being told the women you were, really the girl you were when you were twelve.”
“You see these girls with adorable Instagram feeds of color-coded book shelves and all that stuff. It feels unfair to have spent all that time growing up and becoming a woman and taking ownership of yourself to be told by certain women there is only one brand of cool, and it's very stilted and childlike to me,” Crosley says.
I ask her what she thinks explains the Sophie phenomenon.
“I think it’s like the pendulum swung too far almost. It started out as a reaction against ‘I don’t have to be sexy for a man, I can be whatever kind of woman I want,’ this really lovely mission towards sisterhood,” she says.
“And what do we all remember? We remember our all-girl camps. We remember all these icons from the ’90s. We all love Chloe Sevigny. Then, we latched onto it. It’s not that there aren’t pieces to the aesthetic that I don’t love. But now, if you happen to also love red lipsticks and you also want to dress like a grown-up, it seems like that is being pushed out in a weird way.”
Crosley demurred when I asked her to name a modern-day Sophie or reference a Sophie in her own life. “Some of my best friends are Sophies,” she said with a laugh a dramatic inflection of understanding—mocking the “some of my best friends” paraphrasal excuse so often used for homophobia or racism.
But she admitted that “it’s sort of risky. I was somewhat aware of walking a line where I don’t want to come off as judgmental or anti-feminist. Obviously, I’m a huge feminist. I’m alive so that’s really all that’s required [to be one].”
Crosley voices this same sentiment through Meghan, a smart, aspiring model from Philadelphia who is staying with Nathaniel while visiting LA. She packs a punch in her relatively few pages when she complains about being judged by the pressure not to judge other women.
“There’s this specific brand of feminism where we're supposed to give blanket approval to all women and everything they do—every art form, every outfit,” Crosley tells me. “If you don’t like it, you're being catty or anti-feminist. I think it’s incredibly detrimental to women to be told they need to support all women, no matter what.”
With her charming, self-deprecation and, perhaps, a bit of lighthearted deflection, Crosley laughs. “Now, I’m on a soapbox.”
Crosley thinks female authors may have the upper hand when it comes to writing characters of the opposite sex. “Maybe it’s for the same reason why it’s sexy when women wear men’s underwear and not quite as sexy, depending on your preferences, when men wear your underwear,” she pauses, assuring me this analogy will work out.
“I imagine it’s easier for women to write like a man, and I feel it’s the men who get flak for not writing convincing women. Maybe watching Jonathan Franzen prance around in a bra is not as interesting as Jennifer Egan in boxer shorts.”
She waves off more recent literary debates too, whether fictional characters (especially ones written by women) need to be likeable, which was prompted when Publishers Weekly interviewed Claire Messud about her 2013 novel The Woman Upstairs.
“These debates all seem a little manufactured: Should women write men? Are men writing women enough? Are characters supposed to be nice? Are you there God, it’s me, Margaret?,” says Crosley, the last a humorous nod to the Judy Blume young adult novel.
“Part of it feels manufactured because we want people to be emotional about books. I think a lot of this is to gin up our own literary drama. In any other respect, I’d say this is not a good thing. But I think it is if it get people get excited and gets them caring about literature and having conversations the way they would about whether Noma the best restaurant in the world.”
“We don’t have scandals the way other industries do,” says Crosley, with her uncanny ability to mix of high- and lowbrow in a pretty package of dark humor.
“It’s not the NFL. Norman Mailer’s dead, so no one is hitting anyone.”