Sloane Crosley Ventures Into the Unknown

The author's second novel, Cult Classic, will bring you on an after-hours trip through downtown Manhattan—and down an internal spiral about owning your past.

by Katherine Cusumano

Sloane Crosley wearing glasses and a grey blazer, city in the background behind her
Courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan. Treatment by Ashley Peña for W.

“Don’t you ever feel that, when you’re rounding a corner and you’re like, ‘I’m definitely going to run into somebody’?” the writer Sloane Crosley asks me. “And it’s not because I’m oh-so-special and psychic—you just sort of have that feeling in the air that people are out?”

It’s a salient question. On June 7, Crosley, 43, will publish her second novel, Cult Classic, about a thirty-something editor for an online publication who, in the course of a night out in Manhattan’s Chinatown, runs into an ex-boyfriend. The next night, it happens again—and again and again and again. Soon, the protagonist Lola is drawn into what Crosley describes as a “faux wellness cult” called the Golconda which promises to help provide closure for all past relationships in order to move on to the next.

How? A cleanse, of a sort. Only it involves no tonics or tinctures; instead, you find yourself bumping into everyone you’ve ever dated, night after night. “I experienced these men as no one is supposed to experience them, as if being propelled from a T-shirt gun,” Lola says as she searches her own romantic history online, trying to divine who she’ll come across next. “It was like seeing every cigarette I’d ever smoked in One Great Big Pile.”

It’s a luminous spring morning when Crosley and I meet at La Bonbonnière, a West Village institution where, I quickly realize as we order coffee and French toast, she is a regular. Most of the staff seem to know her by sight. There’s a brief, off-the-record exchange involving maple syrup. Real regular behavior. But when I remark on all of this, Crosley insists she’s “a mere guest-star by comparison” with one friend whom she often accompanies here. “I think they’re nice to me through the transitive property of my friend,” she says.

In her writing—starting with her debut essay collection from 2008, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, and through two subsequent collections, a novel, and countless other essays (including two for W)—Crosley conjures vivid, viscerally funny portraits of New York life. In an email, the novelist and essayist Zadie Smith, a friend of Crosley’s, describes her as just as humorous and stylish in real life as she is on the page. “Sometimes you have to take a deep breath before having a conversation with Sloane because it’s like being in His Girl Friday, but only one of you is off-book,” Smith says.

But for a long time, Crosley had sidestepped writing about romantic relationships: “It was a topic that I knew why she had avoided. As a young woman writing personal essays, it’s dangerous territory that sets you up to get treated a certain way,” her longtime editor, Sean McDonald, tells me later over the phone. The Sloane Crosley who narrates her essays is carefully constructed; I observe that she rarely seems to be asked, or to answer, questions about her personal life in interviews. “I think it’s a neat trick, how to write three books of personal essays about yourself and have people basically not know who your parents are,” she says. (It’s also one of the ways that you can discern her previous life as a publicist: She has a firm hand on the narrative.)

Eventually, avoiding more intimate matters got exhausting. “It’s everyone’s life I know, mine included,” Crosley says. She began writing the novel in 2017, tapping into a different register than some of her previous work. “Sloane is a brilliant quipper, and that’s one of the most fun things about her writing,” McDonald says. “Cult Classic is still perfectly quippy, but she sort of allowed the story to take over. I think there’s a confidence there.” Although Crosley’s first goal in her writing, whether fiction or essay, is to entertain (“at the end of the day, you really have to sing for your supper”), the novel is also concerned with the ways people find themselves stuck in repetitive cycles and the choices we make, she says.

Just then, a tourist seated at a neighboring table leans over to ask us about the French toast, and Crosley gamely entertains her queries. When the woman gets up to leave, Crosley turns back to me.

“What were we talking about?”

“Free will,” I say.

“Just that,” she says, faux-dismissive, before she takes up the train of thought again. “You can’t get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you just might get what you need, as the wise man once said.” She pauses, steeling herself for the punchline. “I believe Jesus said that.”

Crosley handed in the manuscript for Cult Classic in March 2020, just before the pandemic shut down New York. Now, two years later, its seemingly haphazard run-ins between acquaintances feel like a vestige of a pre-pandemic city. So does its after-hours downtown atmosphere. “All this cool made me tired,” Lola observes dryly of the neighborhood where she keeps coming across the exes. As a reading experience, it’s a really good time, full of snappy dialogue and acerbic observations. But it’s also a probing look at the ways that people search for easy, prescribed solutions to their problems. The Golconda, it turns out, isn’t so far removed from contemporary wellness culture or advertising, or even Modern Psychology, the magazine where Lola once worked, whose editor-in-chief fashioned himself “a full-blown psych guru.”

“The truth is, repetitive language, the idea that something will change your life, the idea that you will hit a higher version of yourself or reach some kind of mental or existential salvation—those are all ideas that are propagated by the average mail-order diet website,” Crosley says. It occurs to me later that what motivates Cult Classic is also, in a way, an essayistic impulse: How do you come to terms with the decisions you’ve made? How do you live alongside your own experiences? “You know when you’re being held back by something, just like you know what to eat already—and people make a fortune telling you what to put in your body,” she continues. “It’s about undermining your own experience for the sake of appearing healthy. And I think it’s bullshit. I think we can remember everything.”

“Wisecracks and sharp wit are natural for Sloane, but I think her humor has deepened and broadened to acknowledge that the joke’s on all of us all the time,” Smith writes. “We’re all heading to the same quiet place. Sloane knows that, and she can even make that funny.”

When we talk, Crosley is also about to receive edits on her next book, Grief Is For People, which is expected to be published late next year. It’s her first full-length work of nonfiction, recounting a series of tragedies that occurred around the same time: a targeted break-in to her apartment, the death by suicide of her closest friend, the pandemic. She’s also adapting Cult Classic for film, a project she’s not allowed to say much about just yet.

As we get the bill and walk to the end of the block, she offers advice for celebrating my 30th birthday next year. Then, she turns the corner and disappears into the bright city afternoon.