Sloane Crosley is wandering around Tribeca, a little lost: As she reveals in one of her new essays, “Lost in Space,” she was diagnosed with a severe temporal-spatial deficit disorder; as an adolescent, Crosley wore a bracelet on one wrist to distinguish left from right. This evening, she’s trying to find a quiet place for us to talk about her second book, How Did You Get This Number, the follow-up to her best-selling 2008 essay collection, I Was Told There’d Be Cake. Maybe her current disorientation has more to do with her role at the moment: Crosley’s day job is deputy director of publicity for Vintage/Anchor Books (the paperback division of Knopf), so she’s usually setting up interviews, not being the subject of one. “It’s incredibly intimidating,” she says of being an author in the company of her ridiculously enviable roster of writers, which includes Dave Eggers, Lorrie Moore, Joan Didion, and Jonathan Lethem. “But I feel like you have to be intimidated by some things to function. You know it’s over if you’re no longer starstruck. When I was [an assistant] at HarperCollins, Russell Banks called, and it was as if [he were] the Easter Bunny.”
And yet Crosley is holding her own. Cake was not only a commercial hit, a rarity for a book of essays, unless your name is David (i.e., Sedaris, Rakoff); it was optioned by HBO and chosen as a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. At Vintage/Anchor marketing meetings, Cake (published by Riverhead) is used as a reference point for potential sales of similar titles—which, in a strange turn of events, Crosley could eventually work on as a publicist. She admits it can feel weird, but she lives for weird. If her memoiristic stories can sometimes sacrifice deeper emotion for cleverness, she is also, at 31, at the beginning of her career. Crosley says that while Cake was an evocation of her twentysomething disappointments, Number has pushed her into “darker and riskier” territory. For example, in “Show Me on the Doll,” she flies solo to Lisbon just before her 30th birthday, a place she’s randomly chosen by spinning a globe. The trip is more endurance test (which seems to be her preferred mode of adventure) than idyllic vacation and emblematic of her keen ability to transform bleakness into mordant humor. On her last night, she hangs out in a bar with hipster clowns-in-training; she doesn’t know Portuguese, they don’t speak English, so they resort to the lingua franca of pornographic Pictionary, drawn on cocktail napkins. “They went through puberty, developing scalloped breasts and generous crotchal endowments,” she writes. “It was like those ridiculous ABC After School Specials on AIDS and child abuse and class warfare, the ones that made Degrassi High look like quality programming.”
Despite her spatial disorder, Crosley is, thankfully, intrepid, and her jaunts yield irreverent travelogues, like “Le Paris!”: “I awoke to the vague but identifiable smell of cheese. The kind of cheese where if you didn’t know it was cheese, you’d think someone took a crap on the metro and set it on fire. And then put it out with milk.” Her depictions of people—herself included—can be equally unflattering, but she’s too nice to be truly mean. “The hardest thing is spending twelve hours a day accommodating the rest of the world, then going home at night and criticizing it. I would be curious about what I’d write if I didn’t have to worry about offending.” And when exactly does she write? “I don’t really know. Which is a scary answer,” she says, laughing; in actuality, she devotes “nearly every vacation I’ve ever had and a couple of nights a week.”
That is, on the evenings she’s not schmoozing at book parties, readings, and media functions, which is part of the appeal of her job. A self-described “social gal” (the Observer once called her “the most popular publicist in New York”), Crosley says work provides “something to react off of. I don’t understand how you can be a decent writer and not know people. Mary Karr once talked about how much more accurate her writing would be if she walked around with a video camera strapped to her head. Though it can be insanely unfashionable, walking around with a camera strapped to your head.”
How Did You Get This Number
By Sloane Crosley.
Riverhead Books. $25.95.