A Conversation Between Sloane Crosley and her Editor, Sean McDonald
You’ve written two bestselling books of essays but THE CLASP is your fiction debut. What are the biggest differences between writing fiction and nonfiction? Are there difference processes, different problems, different satisfactions?
Well, a novel is made up. Although by the time you’re done, that’s really not the biggest difference. With a novel, you can’t see where you’re going. This is uncomfortable but, for me, was necessary. I wrote a terrible novel when I first graduated from college. Part of the reason it was terrible is because it pivoted around a dead goldfish. But the larger issue was that I meticulously planned every chapter. This made the actual writing a chore. Each night I was babysitting this plot, just trying not to kill it. So I grew to hate the planning. And then I published the two books of essays, where if I had to plan at all, it was short-term structure. This is a very simplistic observation, perhaps second only to “novels are made up,” but: Essays end. Even if you don’t have the right structure, you can reverse engineer an idea without ruining six months of your life. It’s one of the pleasures of essays, shutting a door and opening a new one, whereas one of the pleasures of the novel is opening the same door, day after day, and giving yourself the responsibility of building a world. For me, the biggest the trick was to find that balance. How do you hold onto a story without choking it to death? It’s like pearls. Pearls are always set a bit loosely in their prongs. If you try, you can spin them a little. This is because the setting has to be tight enough so that the pearl doesn’t pop out but loose enough so that it doesn’t scratch.
Your novel takes inspiration from the classic short story “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant. Why that story? (Why Guy?)
Ah, why this story and not all other stories? It’s a famous story and doesn’t need me championing it, but I do think it’s famous for some of the wrong reasons. We conflate it with O. Henry stories, but it’s deeper than that. And I knew, in some vague way, that I wanted to write a novel that involved a short story. Some of my favorite novels are about ballets or operas or paintings but I have always loved short stories. “The Necklace” is not even my desert-island short story. That would probably be “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” by Russell Banks or “Errand” by Raymond Carver or “Lawns” by Mona Simpson or “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham or O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” or Joyce’s “The Dead” or Chekhov’s “The Lady With The Little Dog” or…We all get the idea. But I was sitting at home one night, pawing through old anthologies, and I reread “The Necklace.” I was surprised by how contemporary it felt. Not timeless — though it’s that, too — but contemporary in the motivations and depictions of the characters. I thought the story could possibly be the basic current I ran through each of my own characters.
And then I started to find out more about Guy. He was a vain, prolific, insensitive womanizing egotistical genius with a bushy moustache and a foul-mouthed parrot named “Jacqout.” I was sold.
The main characters—Kezia, Nathaniel, and Victor—are college friends nearly ten years out of school and their lives haven’t turned out exactly as planned. What made you want to write about that time in life?
It’s a time when there’s a real divide in the kinds of lives your peers are leading. The person to your left is on her third child; the person to your right is on his third drink. And it’s noon in both cases. I’m thirty-six and my characters are seven years younger. I suppose I wanted to say a proper goodbye to that tricky time in my life before I left it for good. Frankly, I don’t see myself Tom Wolfe’ing it and exploring the undergraduate Greek system forty years hence. So I wanted to capture this time while I could still feel the repercussions, not just recall them.
Are there particular novels or writers (or films or music. . . ) that influenced THE CLASP?
Oh, man. The Group. The Emperor’s Children. Bel Canto. Bel Ami. Lost Souls. Lost Illusions. The Big Chill. The Long Goodbye. The Dreamers. The Philadelphia Story. National Lampoon’s Vacation. Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. Kicking and Screaming. Pulp’s “Common People.” James Salter. Charlotte Gainsbourg. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s hair. A half a pound of Camembert cheese.
What about locations? The novel has a strong sense of place.
I was familiar with all the US locations but Paris and Normandy required more work. Poor, poor me. At one point, I sublet my apartment for a month in exchange for place in rural Normandy. I went with a photographer friend of mine. She was there to take pictures of WWII buffs. We were looking at the same landscape so differently. I’d see a church and picture it during Guy’s childhood. She’d see the same church and picture a parachuting soldier stuck on the steeple. After she left, I moved into the chateau where Guy was born, renting out a guest room. I explained why I was there and the family who tends to the house kindly gave me a rate and kept me in bread and yogurt while I tried to figure out how a fictional character might break into their house. This was interesting to explain in French.
THE CLASP is told from three different perspectives. Can you talk about how those came about?
I started writing this novel a few weeks after I quit my job at Vintage Books and Victor came out right away, this guy who felt adrift. I’m sure his job anxieties were informed by mine, by this new life I was leading, watching my Con Ed bill increase because I was home all the time. As for Nathaniel, he wasn’t even supposed to have a say. He was supposed to be a jerky minor character but he kind of wouldn’t go away. Finally, given the obvious anatomical similarities between us, you’d think that Kezia would have come the most easily. But I got to know her last. Though, by the time I was done with the first draft, she was my favorite.
Who is your favorite now?
Nathaniel. He’s my guilty pleasure. A fact that annoys me on behalf of Victor. You know, I used to think people who spoke about their characters as if they were real were cracked in the head. My assumptions have not changed.
You’re funny. David Sedaris called you “perfectly, relentlessly funny,” in fact. How do you test if what sounds funny in your head is still funny on the page?
You’re supposed to test it first? Recall.
Are there moments in THE CLASP where you thought, “yes, this is what I want a reader to take away from this character?”
Joan Didion once said that you can throw an entire novel into relief with the right line and you’re sunk if you never hear it. Honestly, I didn’t think a 400-page novel would be “sunk” if I never heard one line. An essay, maybe, but a novel? Then, sure enough, there was a scene during which Nathaniel comes to the realization that “the danger of her wanting nothing from him struck him harder than the danger of her wanting everything.” It’s not Shakespeare, it’s simply the moment where I thought: Here is what he needs to learn. I reread the book, making sure he didn’t know that lesson before that line and started to know it after. Didion wins again.
One of the three main characters works for a designer and some of the plot hinges—pun!—on jewelry knowledge. Another character works for a second-tier search company. The third is trying to make a career in Hollywood. Did you do any special research for the book to get the details right?
Researching 19th century France was not as tricky as to trying to capture the nuances of three different contemporary jobs, none of which I’ve held. These characters know their lives well enough to be dissatisfied with them, so I needed to get those chapters right. In order to better understand the New York tech world, I primarily consulted my friend who cofounded FourSquare. His advice was extremely helpful in ways that surprised us both (for instance, one has “managers,” and not “bosses” at a company like Victor’s). For the jewelry world, I gave those chapters to Lisa Salzer, who runs a company called Lulu Frost, which is about the size of Rachel’s company but a bit bigger and run by a sane person. As for Nathaniel and Hollywood, I have been on enough comically awkward Hollywood meetings myself and have enough frustrated writer friends to get a good idea of Nathaniel’s world.
For the research about precious stones, I fell down a rabbit hole of sapphires and clasps and silver polishing cloths. It loved doing it. My own appreciation for jewelry as art, for the history and significance of a single piece, is real. I don’t think I would have been able to thread it through the entire novel if I didn’t feel as strongly about rare stones as Kezia does.