Sloane Crosley: ‘I don’t think America deserved a birthday party this year’ | Fiction

Sloane Crosley, 42, is best known for her droll, acerbic personal essays. Her latest novel, Cult Classic, is a savvy, effervescent caper through the romantic history of its heroine, Lola, a New York everywoman who’s wrestling with misgivings about her fiance when she mysteriously begins running into a series of ex-boyfriends outside the same downtown restaurant.

How did Cult Classic come about?
It’s like, where do babies come from: when an idea and a laptop love each other very, very much, a book comes out. If I try to narrow it down, thematically it comes from avoidance. I didn’t want to write about dating. I’ve written one or two essays that involve dating and I’ve seen what happens.

And what does happen?
I get pegged as someone who writes about her wacky adventures in dating.

So what changed?
Age. At a certain point everyone realises that it doesn’t matter what other people think. I wanted to give a literary treatment to dating because it’s what takes up a section of your life. If I had been married for 20 years and got a divorce and wrote a book about divorce, nobody would think it was some sort of revolution or revelation.

How does writing fiction and nonfiction compare?
Fiction feels scarier and somehow more embarrassing to me. It feels like performing. If there’s a talent contest and the options are read a poem, spin in circles or juggle and speak German at the same time, I would choose to read a poem, but this feels like juggling and speaking German. All the raw material is coming from inside the house, and so you’re more culpable for every choice, as opposed to bouncing off the reality of the world.

Lola’s fiance, Boots, is a glassblower. Tell me about that choice.
Because Boots was not going to be in the book that much, I wanted him to have interesting trappings without being too cliched. I liked the idea that it’s this profession that combines artistry and attention to detail but then you have the heavy equipment. There’s something very sexy about it.

How much do you and Lola have in common?
Her observations, the way she phrases things, are not distinct from mine. But her choices and her near fatal ambivalence and indecision towards her own life is not me. I could use a little more of it, frankly.

No spoilers, but the plot hinges on a brilliantly absurdist twist. Did you worry about plausibility?
My secret is that I don’t think it’s absurdist at all. A lot of this book is a send up of wellness culture and technology – we’re trying to reformat and perfect every single part of our lives, down to the last cell. I feel like its speculative aspects are close to happening.

Your next nonfiction book, Grief Is for Humans, is about your close friend’s suicide.
Yes, it’s bummer nonfiction. I have an allergy to the word chapter, it makes me feel very self-serious, but there are five of them and they’re the five stages of grief, so we know it’s not a laugh riot.

And you wrote that during the pandemic?
I wrote it during the pandemic like a crazy person. But in a way that’s when you’re supposed to do it. When is the correct time to read or write a depressing book – is it on the beach or is it in a snowstorm?

Has Covid had a lasting impact on New York?
I became overly defensive during the pandemic because it felt important that we be fine. Now I think we mostly are but people’s tolerance with one another has decreased. We swore that it would increase if only the world would give us back our lost cities, and it’s like we aren’t fulfilling a bargain.

Should we talk about the overturning of Roe v Wade?
I took off to come here [the UK] on Independence Day, so I watched the fireworks from the aeroplane. I was not sad to leave. It’s horrifically bad. Nobody needs to hear my opinions about whether or not we should expand the supreme court but I will say that America is really where the phrase dumpster fire comes from, and it was heartbreaking to watch those fireworks. I don’t think we deserved a birthday party this year.

What’s your best romantic advice?
A pithy but applicable piece of advice comes from Seinfeld. Jason Alexander’s character says the trick to a healthy relationship is each person has to feel like they’re getting the better deal. It sounds so transactional but it takes this horrible thing we do and uses it for good.

Has any of your childhood reading stuck with you?
I loved Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, Roald Dahl. The idea that something is lurking just beneath the surface or just behind a closed door is very, very appealing to me.

Who’s your favourite literary character?
Madame Bovary. She’s horribly misunderstood and I adore her. I don’t know if it was necessary for Woody Allen to bring her back in a time machine – did you read that short story? Leave it to him… Also, it’s the first book I ever read in French and I don’t think I could do it again – it was at the height of my French.

What do you plan on reading next?
The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty. I’m so excited to read that.

Which writers working today do you most admire?
I’d say Rachel Kushner, Gary Shteyngart, Zadie Smith and Sigrid Nunez. I also really enjoy Daniel Kehlmann, Dana Spiotta and Lily King. Olga Tokarczuk is brilliant. They’re all lyrical without being pretentious, funny without celebrating their own jokes. Their work is confident and immersive. I just know I’m in good hands.

What’s the last really great book you read?
I don’t know about “great” but I’d recommend Diana Vreeland’s autobiography, DV. It’s enchanting (which seems like a very her word) and very of its time. I’ll give you the first line: “I loathe nostalgia.”

Cult Classic by Sloane Crosley is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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