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Q&A: Sloane Crosley on ‘Chick Lit’ and Brisket

Thirty-two-year-old writer and humorist Sloane Crosley has published two books of essays on topics ranging from what not to do in the office (bake cookies shaped like the boss) to how to attend an Alaskan wedding (armed with the definition of “scat”; it means “bear feces”). She spoke about her Jewish cred (her grandmother dated actor Zero Mostel), the backhanded compliments given by men to clever women and making readable art out of her life. Crosley’s most recent collection, “How Did You Get This Number” (Riverhead), a compilation of nine satirical essays, is scheduled for release May 3. Listen to the full interview here.

Allison Gaudet Yarrow: As you tell it in the book, how does a nice Jewish girl end up at confession at Notre Dame?

Sloane Crosley: My friend who is Protestant decided that she wanted to [go]. You wait on line long enough for anything, and [you] start thinking, “I kind of want to confess.” My grandmother is going to do triple salchows in her grave because she was hardcore.

Hardcore Jewish?

Oh, Lower East Side, Orchard Street. Dated Zero Mostel for a long time. I ended up spitting out “Je suis un Jew” to the priest. It was pretty embarrassing.

You didn’t grow up religious, but was there a moment when you knew you were Jewish?

If you’re Jewish the way I’m Jewish, you know through food. Maybe that’s a reason I’m a vegetarian now. A lot of brain, tongue, borscht.

How do you take your life and make something readable out of it?

You have to be a good editor and weed out what’s an interesting essay versus an interesting cocktail party story. The Paris story [“Le Paris!”] really was a cocktail party story. I realized I could reframe it in a more meaningful and funny way.

How much time do you need between experiencing something and writing about it with enough distance to create something interesting?

That’s tricky. In “How Did You Get This Number,” there’s an essay about being in seventh grade. It was not written in eighth grade. That was some distance. There’s an essay about seeing something violent happen to a baby bear in Alaska, which was a challenge to make funny what is ostensibly unfunny.

What inspired “How Did You Get This Number”?

With narrative nonfiction, it’s, “How do I portray what happened accurately with the viewpoint I want to express?” [My first collection] “I Was Told There’d Be Cake” did that, but I felt more pressure to be slapsticky funny. [“How Did You Get This Number”] was closer to the kinds of essays that I wanted to write, which are darker, more melancholy and, I think, funnier.

How do you balance funny with dark? Some of your essays have a loneliness to them.

I was going through a difficult time when I wrote these, and you can see it….

There’s a certain point where all the technical tricks in the world won’t help you, and the essays either have that magic in them or they don’t. You know when you’re writing something that’s really good…. And when you’re writing something that’s total crap, you know that, too, but hopefully none of those are in the book.

Is it more difficult to be taken seriously as a humorist, oxymoronic as it sounds, if you’re a woman?

The difficulty is when people seem so self-satisfied complimenting a woman for what they perceive to be a man’s domain. They reveal themselves in the surprise. I’ve had men tell me — and this comes from a kind place — that they like that I’m “quick” or “clever.” All I can think is, a) Who the hell have you been dating? and b) How insulting it would be if I told a man how adorable I find his being clever.

Can women write about love without it being deemed “chick lit”?

It’s tough. It’s a subject that has been trodden on by very talented trodderers throughout the centuries, most of whom are not women. That was part of my fear with writing about it. That last essay [“HDYGTN”] was the hardest thing I’ve ever written, but it’s also something I’m so proud of.

How does turning the people in your life into characters affect your relationship with them?

That’s the big question. I don’t think of turning them into characters any more than I think of myself writing memoir. Yes, the most common vowel is “I,” but they’re humor essays. This is not the story of my life. My parents serve as a lovely checks-and-balances system with each other about the veracity of what happened.

With the people in your life whom you love, with your family…

You assume I love my family.

I’m going out on a limb. Do you say, “I’m writing about you”?

There is a difference between asking for permission and giving someone an ample warning. I’ve always given a warning. You’re borrowing something; you leave a note to say you took it. You give them a galley.

How do you know what’s funny?

How do you know what’s funny?

I laugh.

Exactly. Timing is what’s very difficult. The trick is to know when to let yourself go into craziness and to know when to rein yourself in. If you’re saying, “I’m walking down the street and I saw a pigeon and I imagined all these things about the pigeon,” what’s the good note to end on? Where the pigeon is dressed up as a tranny pigeon? You have to trust in the quirk in your own brain.

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