Book publicist turned best-selling author Sloane Crosley doesn’t have a new book coming out any time soon, but for those of us who are eager for more of her hilarious, perceptive observations, it’s lucky she’s gotten into the digital publishing game. Up the Down Volcano, Crosley’s first full-length essay since the publication of her second collection How Did You Get This Number, is available exclusively on Amazon as a Kindle Single. This hilarious yet harrowing account of summiting the Ecuadorian stratovolcano Cotopaxi — Crosley-style — reads more like an epic than her previous works, yet it retains her signature brand of intelligent humor, which stems from keen observation and honest self-assessment. EW caught up with this busy writer to talk about her new Single, the ways digital publishing can resemble the music industry, Arrested Development, and a lot more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I laughed out loud while reading “Up the Down Volcano,” but I was also very conscious of the fact that your experience couldn’t have been funny when you were going through it. Are many of the experiences you write about only funny in retrospect?
SLOANE CROSLEY: Yes. Those generally make for better stories. I think that if you can see the humor while it’s happening – this is cliché – you’re tempted to not live in the moment, or it’s already fermenting into a story in your mind as it’s happening. You start mentally taking notes; that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t come out as funny or a worthwhile story on the other side, but for me personally, it’s more rewarding if there’s something [deeper] going on. Part of me thinks that it’s a defense mechanism that takes the pressure off of just trying to be funny, but most of me thinks that’s where people need humor the most, both as readers and as writers.
To me, the most relatable aspect of this story was the notion of your body betraying you — in this case, in the form of altitude sickness — and how that experience can catch you completely off-guard.
There are some social, casual diagnoses we make toward our fellow man that actually have real medical basis behind them but they get bastardized. For instance, if you said someone is “totally an alcoholic,” or “totally an anorexic,” those are things that actually people suffer from. So you almost have to step back and say, “No, I really mean it.” For me, a good example is, “Oh my God, I’m having a panic attack.” A panic attack hits when you’re not panicked – when your body’s actually relaxed enough and it knows that there’s nothing else going on, and now’s the time to unleash the fury. It’s that kind of thing where you think, “Is this actually what’s happening to me right now?” I was working at my old office job, and I was in the middle of talking to somebody in the hallway who was incredibly superior to me, and I was trying to make a good impression. It didn’t help that I thought my heart was going to fly out of my chest.
Do you think a lot of humor has its roots in trauma?
I’m trying to figure out if I mean what I’m about to say – I think I do: I can’t think of one really bad thing I’ve ever heard of where there isn’t some sort of humorous art form that has come out of it. It’s not always successful: Life Is Beautiful is the biggest piece of trash ever and should be burned. [Laughs] However, there’s some pretty funny stuff. If you read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, there’s weirdly a lot of humor in that he can only blink with one eye. What that man went through is, to my mind, one of the heights of individual human suffering. There’s a lot more mass suffering, but I’m just trying to give an extreme example. Even in something much more everyday — like a trip up a mountain everyone climbs — there’s something. Even in the two days since this essay has come out, friends are like, “Oh, I’ve climbed Cotapaxi.” It’s a little insane but not totally unheard of. The more common it is, the more you’re going to be able to derive some kind of humor from it.
In the essay, you talk about the virtues of being a “light packer,” or a “light planner.” Does a certain level of unpreparedness make life more interesting to write about?
I can’t see the forest through the trees, except the trees are people. You have to get in certain situations to begin with — leave the house. I have a disproportionate amount of faith in the goodness of the world and that everything will actually work out okay. I had an author I worked with at Vintage who pointed out to me, “Now everything in your life falls into one of two categories: It’s either a fine experience and it all works out, or it doesn’t and it makes a good story.”
As someone who’s worked in the business of selling books and now writes them, how have your attitudes about Amazon and digital publishing evolved?
It’s so funny how my personal loyalties fluctuate a little bit, being a company girl for so long. I truly adore Knopf — I think it’s amazing, but my first job was for a literary agent, so back then, it was like we were defending the author against the big bad publishing house. Then I get to the publishing house, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, don’t any of these outside forces realize what we’re up against trying to produce good books?” [Laughs] Then I leave, and suddenly, Amazon creating its own publishing program doesn’t quite seem like the end of the world anymore. Also, it’s the timing of it that makes it totally okay for everyone. I don’t have a book coming out in the next six months where this is going to interfere. It’s all good for everyone, so that was part of my reason for doing it.
Isn’t this format kind of perfect for you? Some of the best parts of your essays are the asides and their rambling nature — it’s cool that you’re not beholden to a strict word limit like you’d be for a magazine.
I had written this essay not just for fun – I thought it’d eventually go into a future essay collection. Then it got bigger and bigger and bigger, and as it did, I thought, it doesn’t fit anywhere now. I can’t get it through the doorway – awkward! [Laughs] David Blum at Amazon told me more about the program and the kinds of things they publish and why. You don’t want something to be unedited, but there’s a difference between chopping of 2000 words and chopping off 6000 words.
It’s also a way of singling out an essay that might be sort of “special.”
Having published the two books of essays, you’re not supposed to pick favorites amongst your children, but I say if I were to have 24 children, I’d sure as shit have favorites. [Laughs] You know in Arrested Development, Lucille defends herself saying, “Don’t be ridiculous. I love all my children equally.” Then it shows her earlier that day holding a martini at lunch and saying, “I don’t particularly care for Job.” [Laughs] I feel like that about the essays. But I could sense this one being one of the “big ones” for lack of a better term.
Yes, some essays have to stand out. Just as a reader, I got the sense that you must have singled out that wonderful final essay in How Did You Get This Number as one of the special ones.
I did! And it was one that I didn’t really want to write, which was funny. There’s always the one that feels different for me, and it’s always interesting in terms of response from readers and reviewers — how they feel about the two or three that always feel different. Sometimes it’s the pies de resistance, and then sometimes they say, “This is her one misstep — it doesn’t make sense.” I used to tell my authors, “As long as it’s a mix.” You know you’re in trouble when everyone finds the same problem, be it Us Weekly or the New York Review of Books. If they have the same issue, it’s probably there. [Laughs]
From a business standpoint, do you see the Kindle Single almost like a single in the music industry? Like a tease for a future collection?
I do! It’s funny that you mention this: Authors price the Singles themselves. You don’t want to flatter yourself too much, and I think also, both for my audience and my kind of readership, I very much liked that the price of it really is the same as a new song on iTunes. I’m not sure if I really thought of it that consciously, but I think that was in the back of my head a little bit. I mean, it’s got a lot more words than any song in the history of man. [Laughs] I can say that with confidence. Even if we dig up some 17th century Austrian choir piece. In that way, the bang for your buck is pretty good. I also like the idea of telling readers, “Hey, here’s the direction I’m going,” although it doesn’t mean that I’m going to do a book where I climb every single mountain in the world.
You quit your day job as a book publicist last year, but you have so much going on: developing your HBO show, writing books, writing articles … what does your average day look like when you’re not traveling?
I’m standing here in my apartment looking at a half-eaten plate of cheese — I’m trying to find a way to put a good spin on this [laughs]. I tend to write in the morning. I have certain rules that I’ve established for myself that took a while post-day job to figure out. Everyone says people who freelance or are writers struggle with the structure of it. I’m not allowed to check email before a certain hour. I’m not allowed to run errands during the day. I have to write a certain amount every day. You start thinking of your life as this giant kitty, and you’re just contributing to it. My blueprint is so much the nine-to-five or nine-to-nine job that I don’t take enough advantage of the fact that I can do anything with my time. The fact that I can be up at 4 and asleep at 11 doesn’t do it for me. [Laughs] You start feeling very strange.
I loved the essay “The Ursula Cookie” from your first collection in which you talk about your bad first job, and your struggle to break into publishing. Is your current reality the dream your early-20s self envisioned for herself?
No. [Laughs] Let me put it this way: I don’t feel as settled as I look. I think that’s true of everyone, probably. Except for Beyonce and Jay-Z. I don’t think they wake up and think, “Ugh, when’s it going to work out for us? Why can’t we catch a break?” Aside from them, I’m pretty sure everyone’s life feels a lot less intentional. I just interviewed Joan Didion at the Public Library, and I asked her, “When did this all stop feeling like an accident?” She talks about in After Henry, which is one of her later essay collections. Henry Robbins comes out to California and visits with her and John, and she feels a little bit self-conscious that he kept talking as if she were a real writer, and she felt the need to go along with it. I saw that and asked her, “When did that stop?” And she said it all feels like an accident. I don’t think there’s a moment where you start thinking, “Well, now this is my career.”