Sloane Crosley, CULT CLASSIC

Sloane Crosley, CULT CLASSIC

“I don’t think I could be accused of identifying a marketplace. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have written about Abraham Lincoln and vampires and how to eat blueberries and save your life.” Zibby is joined by New York Times bestselling essayist, columnist, and novelist Sloane Crosley to discuss her romantic comedy thriller, Cult Classic. The two talk about the kinds of conversations they have on book tours, when Sloane knew she was ready to write a rom-com set in New York City, and how she became a literary it-girl. Sloane also shares the life experiences that served as inspiration for her next nonfiction project about grief and why she views it as the sibling to Cult Classic.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sloane. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Cult Classic and everything else.

Sloane Crosley: And everything else. You’re welcome.

Zibby: Everything else under the sun.

Sloane: Happy to be here.

Zibby: I was actually just watching your event with Emma Straub that you had posted on Twitter. I was like, this is so cool. I remember a couple years ago before the pandemic, I went to an event at Books Are Magic with John Kenney and Courtney Maum. I was in the back. There weren’t that many people there. I was like, I can’t believe it because this is so amazing. I was like, wouldn’t it be great if somebody was recording this and no matter where you went you could just get these recordings? Then there I was on Twitter. I was like, oh, see, now it’s all happening.

Sloane: It’s all happening. Although, they position just a regular old iPhone on a tripod right in front of you. You sort of forget that it’s there. It feels very deep state at the end when they’re like, wave to the people at home. I’m like, hello, NSA. It was a blast. She’s amazing and obviously has done this once or twice before. That was the last stop. Not the last stop. I’m also going out to Long Island this summer, but basically the last stop on my book tour. It was ten cities. It was a nice welcome home.

Zibby: Are you exhausted?

Sloane: A little bit, but it’s so funny, it is genuinely great to see people’s full bodies again.

Zibby: I was happy not sharing my full body, but okay, I see what you’re saying.

Sloane: I don’t know what they feel. I haven’t asked them about their opinions about mine. Nice to interact with them, to see them. Also, so much of what I write is at least attempted humor, and so doing all these events — not many because I didn’t have a book out. The events I did do over Zoom throughout the pandemic, it’s like reading into a green screen or something. You’re like, I kind of need to know what you’re laughing at or what is not funny. David Sedaris infamously does this. He goes around and is much more fluid than I am. What people don’t laugh at or what they do, you can see him crossing things out and taking notes on material. I don’t have that much investment in my readers. It’s crazy.

Zibby: I just went to this preview play performance of Jody Picoult’s new play, Between the Lines, at the Second Stage Theater. I took a group of Moms Don’t Have Time To community people. The director got up at first. He was like, “If you don’t know what a preview is, we are all going to be listening. Anything you laugh at, we’re going to keep. If nobody laughs, it’s out of there. We are listening. Laugh at your own will. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Sloane: That’s actually an interesting social experiment because it’s basically saying, I’m going to unwind your instinct to go to the theater and be generous. I’m going to actually make you more British. You’re going to boo at what you don’t like because it’ll be more helpful to me. To unwind that American, almost puritanical politeness at the theater, which we think is a big deal, that’s probably hard to do.

Zibby: There was no booing. There was no booing at all.

Sloane: No booing, good.

Zibby: After I got into it, I forgot that I was supposed to be actively laughing as opposed to, ha.

Sloane: Are you an active listener?

Zibby: I was actively listening, but I don’t always laugh out loud all the time. I’m like, ha, that’s funny.

Sloane: You do the LA thing where you say it’s funny.

Zibby: Yes. I’m actually in LA right now. Maybe that’s why I’m doing that.

Sloane: Are you? The LA thing, to me, is very, that’s funny. I’m like, or, alternatively, you could laugh.

Zibby: My husband says that to me all the time. He’s like, “If it was funny, you would be laughing.” I’m like, “I acknowledge it’s funny.” Now what I want to do after watching this this morning, your interview, I want to start a podcast where everybody just throws up the book event audio.

Sloane: The book event audium?

Zibby: I want to start a podcast so that people can listen. I would’ve liked to have that on a podcast so I could’ve been — I guess I could’ve done it —

Sloane: — Oh, the book event audio. I thought you said audium. I’m like, I don’t —

Zibby: — What do you think? One day, it would be you and Emma Straub. Then the next episode would be in London. It would be whoever.

Sloane: I guess it depends on when you hit people on their promotional gauntlet. My LA event I did with Judy Greer, it was really lovely, who really also — she’s very smart, but because I think she doesn’t normally interview authors, did her homework to a degree that most authors don’t do. She read the book twice. She went back and read The Clasp to look for similar DNA. She had already read my nonfiction. I’m like, oh, man, this is more work than Salman Rushdie would do — I can guarantee you — for one of these events. Some of them are recorded. Some of them aren’t. If you had hit me two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have had anything to offer you, in other words, if you did it with other authors. Now I have a couple of recorded events. She was really great to talk to as well. It’s always interesting to see the different angles that people bring to those events. I feel like Emma, obviously, is going to be more literary, a little more process-based, if you will. Although, I find that such a giant word for what I do. It’s both too much and too little at once. Process sounds like how you would put together this pen. I’m like, what I do is more elevated than that. Also, it’s a lot of pacing and eating cheese. I don’t know if that’s a process. Judy’s was about the roles of the different women in the book and stuff like that. She’s an actress. It’s interesting. Yeah, you should do it. You should start up a little audio club, like a late-night cocktail house.

Zibby: Yeah. I wouldn’t even be on it. I would just put the audio up for people who aren’t there. Anyway, whatever, I’ll talk about this later. I thought this was a brilliant idea. It is six o’clock in LA, so maybe it’s not going to seem like a good idea once I’ve finished this cup of coffee.

Sloane: Oh, my gosh.

Zibby: No, no, all good. All good. I love it.

Sloane: How are you feeling, too?

Zibby: I’m good. Why? Should I not be feeling good?

Sloane: Didn’t you have the rona, the COVID?

Zibby: Oh, didn’t everybody at this point? I mean, yes.

Sloane: I had mine in January.

Zibby: I had mine in April. I’m good. Thank you, though. That’s very sweet. I could go through the litany of complaints about my body, but I think I’ll spare you the — .

Sloane: It’s my favorite thing to talk about, but okay.

Zibby: How are you? How are you feeling? No body ailments?

Sloane: My body is fine. My only ailment right now is — I was telling a friend, I was like, “My right hand is, weirdly, a little swollen and hurts. I really do think it’s probably some either tendonitis or a little bit of early osteoarthritis or something. I don’t know. I’ll go to a doctor and see if it turns out it needs to be amputated.” My friend was like, “Well, you just signed all these books on book tour.” I’m like, “That makes it sounds like a very vain injury.” There were definitely people on the book tour. Not that many people that I hurt my hand from signing books. I think it’s unrelated, but it’s kind of a nice fantasy that it’s this vanity injury.

Zibby: Totally. I would go with that. I would say, I’m having carpel tunnel from all the —

Sloane: — I hurt my wrist from all the soup I’ve been pouring for people in need. I sprained it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Let’s talk about your novel for a second, Cult Classic. I have been following you reading your work, like everybody, probably, out there forever, and just so appreciating all the essays and all the work and how you can go from essays to fiction and essays to fiction. Now we have a novel, so the essays are put aside. I don’t know, do novels require something different than cheese? Is there something on the menu when you’re writing a novel from an essay?

Sloane: A lovely gouda, mostly, a fancy cheese as opposed to a cheddar of nonfiction. It is funny because it does feel like teams the way you’re like, okay, now you’re on — it does feel like Red Rover, kind of. Send one on over. That’s actually how it feels, almost, creatively. On a nitty-gritty level — I mentioned this to Emma, so forgive me if I’m repeating myself. There are very similar ways that you describe — your eye is going to be your eye. You describe things through a similar prison. Prism. Excuse me. Wow, Freudian. This is prison writing.

Zibby: How do you really feel about your job, Sloane? Let’s get right down to it.

Sloane: Similar prism where it’s just, your eye is going to be your eye. Your eye for detail or how you receive something is going to have some sort of universality across from fiction and nonfiction. It’s all about what serves the character, whereas there’s a little bit of ease with nonfiction because I’m like, well, it’s what serves me. It’s what serves my voice. It’s what is going to get across my experience of this thing that actually happened or this thing that I’ve been observing or my politics, whatever it is. For fiction, it’s the basic throwing of your voice. It’s all about making sure the jokes make sense for the character, for the person, that they move the story along. You want the thing to be funny — you as in me, as in one — and entertaining.

Zibby: I also want it to be funny.

Sloane: Exactly, but you can feel like, is this important for me, or is it important for the characters? There’s a little bit more of a selflessness in fiction. There’s less of the vowel I, but there is a little bit more of — I really don’t like to say worldbuilding because it’s such a Hollywood term, but that is what you’re doing, so that.

Zibby: Let’s going with it. Again, I’m in LA, so we can…

Sloane: When in Rome, eat organic as the Romans did.

Zibby: Maybe we should back up and you should tell listeners what Cult Classic is about.

Sloane: Oh, sure. Why not? We’ll just keep them guessing. How fun. People have the attention span for that now, right, and just wonder? It’s about a woman who is in her late thirties in New York and is engaged. She’s in a serious relationship. She’s worked for a magazine called Modern Psychology, which is, by far, the least creative part of the book. It’s definitely basically me taking Psychology Today and twisting it. In the book, it folds. Her former boss, this man named Clive, who was always a cult-of-personality, larger-than-life character, has sort of transferred his manipulation talents to becoming this kind of psych-pop guru. He’s started this club that could be a cult out of an abandoned synagogue on the Lower East Side. He’s completely gutted it into this mind control experiment, into a combination, without giving away too much, of various tactics. It’s sort of a romantic healing place. It gives people closure through different packages. He is running this experiment on his friend and former employee, our heroine. She steps within a five-block radius of that building, she will run into an ex-boyfriend. He’s gathering all these men there.

She has to make this choice to go through with it or not, whether she goes ahead and does it. It’s one of these things where it seems very like speculative fiction and sort of outlandish, but the more I talk about it to other people, the more the book has been out, the more I realize it’s really this realized 3D version of what happens if you look at your phone and you’re looking at a text exchange from years ago that you should not be looking at. At the risk of being gross and quoting myself, there’s a line at some point in the book where she says that — she’s seeing these men and going through these old paraphernalia of them or archives of them that she has, old letters, old mementos, old text exchanges. It’s causing these things that were supposed to be memories to become emotions. They’re still memories for them, so they’re not on this even playing field. It’s a lot about morality and closure and a philosophical approach to romance in the book. That’s what it is. It’s a mind control cult comedy meets a rom-com, I guess.

Zibby: Dare I ask where this came from?

Sloane: I’m very flattered because people do ask this. They haven’t asked it of anything else I’ve written. I think it implies, hopefully, creativity or something a little bit unusual. I like to think that Bret Easton Ellis got asked that for American Psycho, but maybe not. Maybe people were scared to ask. The general themes of the book in broad strokes came from really avoiding writing about romance, about dating, about relationships, and also about New York. New York is so threaded into my work. It’s my home. I live here, and I write nonfiction. What do we think is going to happen? It’s not going to be a bunch of stories about chopping wood in Utah. I wish. That sounds nice, but it’s not going to be that. I have always been, not pigeonholed, but there’s an assumption that I write about dating, a certain sort of — I don’t mean chick lit, but I mean chick-iness. Just how I am disseminated into the world, I thought, okay, I’m not going to make this worse, these assumptions that I write about dating, by writing about dating. I was avoiding for a hundred essays, this thing that means so much to me, that’s so much a part of my life, that’s a part of — even if you’re married, it doesn’t matter. That is a whole category of everyone’s life. Even if there’s nothing there, that’s a huge category, especially then.

I wanted to do it, but I thought — you know. You read all these books. These are very difficult subjects to tackle in a unique way because everybody writes about romance. A lot of people write about New York. I wanted to tackle it in a way that felt a little unusual. Then I just had to wait, like a tiny baby cobra, to strike until I found something that felt like me, something that I was interested in. I do live here. Walking around and seeing all these cool abandoned synagogues or synagogues that are owned only by one person or that have been changed into a cultural center, they’ve had all these lives. The churches in New York are very similar too, but most of them are still churches. There’s something a little bit changing hands about synagogues. There were a couple on the Lower East Side that I just thought — maybe, ultimately, this book comes from real estate envy. Wouldn’t it be cool if this magical, insane, this derelict building that if you snuck into the inside — the way I describe is, it looks like a squared-off version of the Guggenheim. Wouldn’t it be cool if that existed? I think that just pure, almost childlike, Willy Wonka or Roald Dahl kind of influence, creativity would apply to a comedy of manners. Once I had them both, I think that’s where it came from, but I don’t remember — there are writers that remember writing the first line. My mother died today. I don’t remember the first line of it.

Zibby: You want me to read it to you?

Sloane: Oh, no, I remember the first line.

Zibby: I’m kidding.

Sloane: remember. I was like, oh, no, don’t do that. When I think of the early images, I think of the first time — before she knows that there’s this plan afoot to manipulate her, our heroine, she’s just running into an ex-boyfriend on the street, which is a thing that happens. It’s not remarkable. It certainly doesn’t only happen in New York. I think of the first time she’s in this hip restaurant and leaves and runs into the first boyfriend. She passes the bar area of the restaurant. There are all these bespoke, cool cocktails with sprigs of things in them and these patrons attempting to shift in their chairs that are actually nailed down to the floor. I know that’s not how the book starts. I think that might be the first thing I wrote.

Zibby: I love it. To get away from the book, which we can come back to —

Sloane: — Oh, please. I’ve spent ten cities talking about the book. We can talk about anything.

Zibby: Okay, great. I’m not as prepared as Judy, but I did go back and peruse a lot of your old essays and everything. One was particularly resonant to me because I’m constantly apologizing for things. You wrote one in The New York Times about why women apologize. Except for British men and women, people aren’t always apologizing for things as often, which I do constantly. I’m going to work on that, so thank you for that.

Sloane: You’re welcome.

Zibby: All the things from being a Vanity Fair writer and all your Bold Type columns and Mad Men and all your New York writing and all this voluminous collection of all of your stuff, how did you get on this track? How did you become this literary it-girl sensation that you have risen to become? Where did it start? When did you know you were a writer?

Sloane: I had this immediate image of my business card saying “Literary It-Girl,” just handing them out to people. There’s no number. You’ll guess it if you know it.

Zibby: It could even be That would be funny.

Sloane: @itgirl, that’s not necessarily how I self-identify, but I also wouldn’t kick it out of bed. I’m like, that sounds good. It sounds like people are reading my work. However they get to it, that sounds good to me. I don’t want to take you back too far, like, it was a dark and stormy night.

Zibby: Go ahead.

Sloane: I wanted to work in publishing after college very much. I wasn’t really sure about being a writer. I kind of wanted to be an archaeologist, actually, which has, weirdly, some overlap.

Zibby: I was going to say, there is some similarities there.

Sloane: Yeah, there are, weirdly, some similarities. The problem is the similarities end with statistics, which I was not incredibly good at. You don’t have to do any of that when you’re writing. You do have to do that when it’s a science. I worked for a literary agency. Then I moved to publicity. Then one day — this is how I really got started writing, how this happened. Then one day when I was twenty-four, I was moving apartments. I locked myself out of two different apartments in the same day while moving. The first one, I moved a box, shut the door. You know how instantly you’re like, that doorknob’s not going to turn when I open it? Had to call a locksmith. Had to call the same locksmith later that day. At the end of the day when he was giving me my second bill nine hours later — I had this doormat that said “déjà vu” frontwards and backwards. He points with his pen. He goes, “That’s a funny doormat.” It was the first time I felt this sharp relief of the essay format. I felt, I’m going to write about this, and so I did. A friend from The Village Voice published it.

I started publishing for The Village Voice, for The New York Observer, for The New York Times. Then I started working for Playboy, GQ, all these different places while I was working at Random House for ten years. Twelve years total in publishing. Ten years at Random House. Then I published my first two books while working there, which was really crazy to take your vacation to go on book tour. I think that’s a young person’s game. Now I’m like, no way. Then it just took off from there. I started freelancing for all these different places as well as writing. Back when Graydon Carter was running Vanity Fair, I did the Hot Type column for a little bit, which sort of dovetails with what you do. That’s how I got my career, I suppose. It’s not a path I would necessarily — I wouldn’t recommend to anyone, listen, go be a book publicist. Arrange other authors’ tour schedules for a decade. Then publish a paperback original collection of essays, hope it takes off. That’s not a great path. I do miss sometimes — I write this books column for the newly revamped Departures magazine. I’ll still review for The Times. I do miss having it be my job to force-feed people books. That’s what I liked about the Hot Type column. You’ve got to read this. Now I just do it one on one. I do it in person.

Zibby: You’re welcome to come help me anytime if you would like to help in this endeavor.

Sloane: If you need a research assistant, I am your girl.

Zibby: I’ll just send you my books because you probably don’t get any books of your own sent to you.

Sloane: No, none. In terms of the lit it-girl thing — not to turn this into a therapy session.

Zibby: Go ahead. Let’s do it.

Sloane: You’re like, bring it. It is interesting. I think it’s because there was a specific moment — this, I can kind of pinpoint, unlike the first line of a book or how your career got started. You’re like, I don’t know. I’m just working hard and sleeping. I will say there was an instant when, before my first book came out, The New York Observer, on the cover of the art section, did this huge piece that said “The most popular book publicist in New York,” or something like that. I don’t know. I should know because it’s framed somewhere in my bathroom. Tina Brown said you should always frame your press, or have other people frame it, really, but keep it in the bathroom so no one thinks you’re a megalomanic or an egomaniacal person. Anyway, sorry, long story. I think everyone on staff, because I had been pitching them books on the other side of the industry, assumed that everybody knew me. They almost positioned it as our girl, local girl makes good, which has been partly great and partly a real albatross at the same time. That’s sort of the moment that I think it changed.

Zibby: I do feel, though — do you know Todd Doughty?

Sloane: Of course.

Zibby: When he told me — because I had — I can’t even get any words out. As a book publicist, he had pitched me many clients, so I had worked with him on email for all of that. Then when he had a book, I was like, oh, my gosh, that’s so — I felt this sense of ownership or something. I’m like, look, you went from that to this. I was so excited to have Little Pieces of Hope on. There’s something about watching someone rise where you feel invested in it or something. I don’t know.

Sloane: Also, if you’re getting sent — it’s emotional. It’s also just a numbers game. If you’re getting sent all these books, which you are, and you have some personal connection or something with just the name that registers — you’re going to be like, oh, all these fish are going by. That’s a different colored fish. Just the ability to spot it and to differentiate it is very helpful. I worked for Vintage Books publicity back when they had their own really dedicated publicity department that was pretty populated. I don’t know what they put in the water. The traditional thing, even if you watch pop culture or live in the world, is that there’s the editor that has a secret novel under his or her desk, not the publicist, necessarily. Vintage publicity, in the space of five years, had Hanya Yanagihara, me, a writer named Paul — he’s now a professor at Harvard; he has several books — a man named Ethan Rutherford, who has a great short story collection called The Peripatetic Coffin. Even, there was a woman — there is still a woman, Jen Marshall, who’s now a literary agent, who contributed to this very famous anthology called The Bitch in the House. It’s a crazy thing. I feel like it’s not as rarefied as it seems. Of course, being a good publicist, we try to make it seem rarified. We try and make it seem special. I think that there is something nice.

What’s interesting, though, is that if Todd then sallied forth and had more books, depending on what they were, I wonder if the fact that everybody knew him would start to help or hurt eventually. I think the first one, it helps. This is such a specific non-problem to have. It’s sort of silly to talk about it in such detail. The first one, like I said, local girl makes good, the same thing you felt with him. Then after a while, people are a little skittish about covering their friends. They feel like, for the same reasons they wanted to cover them originally, there’s this thought of, oh, everyone already knows that person, because they know that person. Media is a very self-centered place. I don’t know if you know that, very . I do miss that feeling of “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees,” and really promoting books in that way. When I quit to write full time, there was definitely this sense of, wow, you’re living the dream. I’m like, I’m living a dream, but I missed finding interesting and creative ways to get people to cover books. I really enjoyed it.

Zibby: Freelance.

Sloane: Freelance. I’ll freelance.

Zibby: I’ll hire you. I have a book coming out. You can just help me.

Sloane: I can. No problem.

Zibby: Do you have your next book? Wait, actually, I read about what your next book is. Hold on. Grief is for People. Is that what it’s called?

Sloane: It is. That is what it shall be called.

Zibby: Tell me more about that.

Sloane: That’s interesting. When we were talking about before, fiction, nonfiction, I don’t know if I’m going to continue to go every other one. It’s not like I’m tiling a kitchen. I don’t know if it’ll be that even. The next one is Grief is for People. I keep thinking of these two books. Even though Cult Classic obviously has some pathos and darkness to it, hopefully some heft, and this book about grief is funny, I do think of them as the merry child and the sullen child. Cult Classic is the fun one. Then just you wait. This one is nonfiction sort of following, structurally, the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief, even though those are not clean. Anyone who’s experienced grief knows that they meld into each other. They bleed, but for narrative purposes, they’re very, very clean. It’s about a burglary I had. I had a robbery in late 2019. All my jewelry was stolen. It turns out that I was sort of being targeted or stalked in a certain way. Then a month later, my old mentor and boss at Vintage, and best friend, died by suicide. Then COVID hit. It’s mostly about Russell. It’s mostly about him and our friendship. I was, unfortunately, very inspired by real-life events for that one. Also, I look at books like Joan Didion, but also like Truth & Beauty. It’s very much about that. It’s interesting. I don’t think, for any of my books, I could be accused of identifying a marketplace, unfortunately. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have written about Abraham Lincoln and vampires and how to eat blueberries and save your life.

For this one, a little bit — obviously, my book about — Cult Classic is not — although, the worlds needs a book about a mystery/romantic comedy about a mind control cult. Maybe it does. This one, I felt a little bit — I don’t know if I’ve succeeded or will succeed at this. It’s not to say that. I did feel a little bit like when I was so sad about all these different things, but mostly, obviously, about the suicide, things I had to read were either self-help, some of it which was very high-quality self-help, but it was still self-help, or Kay Jamison — if you’ve ever read Night Falls Fast, it’s fantastic — or the Didion. There are tons of books about grief, but there was something about how ridiculous I found the whole thing. I thought, I think I might be able to hit this from a slightly different angle. I guess in that sense, it is like the fiction where you just sort of wait. We all live the same — not the same lives, but we all are taught the same lessons. There are certain universal themes in this world. I think you then just wait to jump. You wait for your entry point. Unfortunately, I was not waiting for this. Unlike the romantic comedy, I was not thinking that this was going to happen, but it did. It gave me an unfortunate way in. Hopefully, that’ll come out at the end of next year. If not, the year after.

Zibby: I’m very sorry about Russell, but I am looking forward to reading that. I think that’s a book a lot of people need right now.

Sloane: I hope so.

Zibby: Sloane, thank you. I know we were kind of all over the place this morning. Thanks for going with it.

Sloane: No, it’s fine. It’s me. I talk in a circuitous fashion.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on.

Sloane: Thank you for having me. It was great.

Zibby: I hope to see you soon.

Sloane: Have a good morning. Bye.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Sloane Crosley, Cult Classic

CULT CLASSIC by Sloane Crosley

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