Sloane Crosley Wrote a Book About Her Friend’s Suicide (Because She Wanted Him to Laugh)

Sloane Crosley Wrote a Book About Her Friend’s Suicide (Because She Wanted Him to Laugh)

“You’re reaching me in the room where the writing of it happened,” Sloane Crosley says of her memoir, Grief Is for People (MCD/FSG). “Actually, now that I mention it, you’re also reaching me in the apartment where part of it happened.” That part—a 2019 burglary in which a thief cased her apartment, climbed in through her bedroom window, and stole 41 pieces of jewelry—begins what she describes as “my uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow book.” The other part is that, only weeks after the break-in, her closest friend, Russell Perreault, died by suicide.

Crosley’s relationship with Perreault was built on books. When she was 25, he hired her into the publicity department at Knopf’s Vintage Books imprint, where she worked on paperback campaigns for celebrated authors, including Joan Didion. Crosley and her colleagues spent summer weekends with Perreault and his partner at their Connecticut home; it was Perreault who convinced her to buy the 1920s Dutch spice cabinet in which her jewelry lived, and Perreault whom she called while she waited for the police to arrive. He is funny and difficult and giving. Losing him is extreme. “It’s taken a while to understand that it’s not just that someone wonderful is dead, it’s that this person is missing,” she says. “Does that make sense? The head count of extremely close friends is off, and it sometimes takes me a second to compute why.”

The book roughly follows the structure of the Kübler-Ross grief cycle: denial, bargaining, anger, depression… “I don’t believe in acceptance,” Crosley says, “I accept nothing, and so it’s ‘afterward,’ which is fitting for a book anyways.” The writer sifts through her memories for signs she might have missed in Perreault, and through the internet for her purloined belongings.

“‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live…’ So begins the embraced-to-the-point-of-asphyxiation Didion passage from The White Album,” Crosley writes. “The line continues with: ‘We look for the sermon in the suicide.’ If there is a sermon to be found in what happened to Russell, it’s that he needed to be told stories in order to live.”

“I will say,” Crosley tells me, “that Russell probably wouldn’t read this, because he never read anything that his friends wrote.” (Though when she dedicated her 2018 essay collection, Look Alive Out There, to him, he carried the book around, opened to the page, to show to everyone in the office, his colleagues told Crosley, who had by then long left Vintage to write full time.)

Vanity Fair: I’ve been at memoir readings where during the Q&A, people in the audience really lean into, “This is not a question, this is a comment,” and then just tell the author things about themselves. It’s not like you haven’t written about difficult things before, but it does feel like you might get a different level of that from this book.

Sloane Crosley: Yeah. There are a lot of references in the book to Didion the author and Didion the human being, because I was lucky enough to work with her. And I remember for the paperback of The Year of Magical Thinking, walking her across BEA at the Javits Center—which, on a side note, she walked perfectly fast and ate a lot of food; I want the record to show that there’s this idea of abject misery for Joan, and it’s not necessarily correct. I mean, I wasn’t there for the very end, but I’ve watched her eat and walk.

At the Javits Center, no less.

At the Javits Center, no less, where everyone loves to take their constitution. People would come up to her and share their stories about relatives who had died, or a nephew with leukemia, stuff like that. She was perfectly pleasant to those people, but they wanted so much from her. They would say, “Does it ever get better?” And she would have this very kind way of saying no. I can’t believe I jumped off talking about Joan Didion, but she’s someone who’s obviously, culturally, incredibly intimidating. [But] it didn’t stop people from going up and confessing to her, and now that she had written this very personal book. I’m not putting myself in the ring with her writing, I’m just talking about the reaction to the topic.

Russell was obsessed with James Baldwin. There’s a great James Baldwin quote where he says, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” I don’t know if I’ve ever written anything that I feel like is, hopefully, a contribution to that, in the way this book is. You do want to connect with people, but I’m also, obviously, a little nervous. What happens if I’m in a bad mood?

I was at Yaddo this past summer, and sometimes they do this thing where you have an option to read your work. I didn’t want to do it, at first, but then I thought, “Wait a minute, I should take advantage of this. I have this group of really nice, supportive artists who have become my friends. Why don’t I just read, not what I’m working on, but use them as guinea pigs.” Because I’ve never read aloud from this and, frankly, I’m still at a stage where I’ve got to train myself to separate the book from my dead friend. So let’s see if I can get through it. They didn’t laugh, and I confided in a friend afterwards, “I don’t think they liked it.” And she was like, “What makes you say that?” And I’m like, “Because nobody laughed.” She said, “Is that how you’re used to getting validation for your writing?” And I said, “Yes. It’s actually the only way. I know no other way.” And she’s like, “You’re going to have to get used to something else.”

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