Q & A

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

The Cult Classic novelist and humor-writing virtuoso has turned her eye to grief, death, and loss—and it’s not not funny.
Image may contain Sloane Crosley Adult Person Accessories Glasses Head Clothing Knitwear Sweater and Face
Photograph by Jennifer Livingston.

All featured products are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, Vanity Fair may earn an affiliate commission.

“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."

There is so much humor in the book, but it maybe doesn’t feel like laugh-out-loud humor.

I mean, it does to me, but the thing is, the sort of purist part of me wrote it for the same reason you write anything, to only connect. (That's supposed to be in a British accent.) You feel like you have something to say, you think you can say it better, you can say it best, and so you do it. It's why anyone writes a book, but a little part of me also recognizes that it would be a great side effect if it saved even one person from the self-help aisle. That would be good, but it's not why I wrote it. I didn't write it because I'm like, "Oh, I've identified a marketplace in humor about suicide."

Did you get joy from spending time with the memories of Russell?

I think so. I still don't have a lot of ownership over the fact that it's memoir. I mean, I know it's not essays, but it just feels like long-format nonfiction, so the idea that this is his story, my story, our story, it feels sort of imposter-y to suggest that. But I think, again, it's almost like the whole experience is a photo negative of humor writing, even though it is, in fact, humor writing. Normally for humor essays, you've seen so many versions of them, if you can still have one line that makes you laugh or one line that you think, "Okay, that's pretty good," after editing something 50 times and reading it out loud twice as many, it's kind of nice. It's almost like you can still see the ruins of an abandoned city of what was there. You're like, "Oh, that's where the church was. I get it."

There is so much humor and there is so much tenderness, but Grief Is For People is also the kind of thing that I think people might describe as unflinching.

It's difficult to write about people who are alive; it's difficult, I found out through Grief is for People, to write about people who are dead, but you weren't married to them, and you're not related to them.

I think you can make yourself so safe and so insulated in the things you say that you don't say anything. And then, you're in no danger of telling any story, whether it's biased or yours or someone else's, you're just in danger of saying nothing. There are lawyers for that, and hopefully there's ethics for that on the part of the writer. I've always done this thing where I look at the things that I've written and I think, "Am I not saying the worst possible thing I could say?" And if the answer is yes, that's a good thing. Coco Chanel used to say she'd get dressed and take one thing off.

How does it feel sharing this very personal, private version of him that you had?

It's a compliment—to both Russell and hopefully to the book—if it makes people miss him. But at the same time, I'm also very aware that it's about the structure and the mechanisms of loss and grieving, in general. A lot of this is about laying claim to all the things that we don't feel like we're allowed to mourn. A lot of it is about the difficulty of mourning a friend, the difficulty about being that upset about the jewelry, the weird, amorphous mass of COVID and not knowing where to put that, the difficulty of how to mourn book publishing and what it used to be, without sounding like a bitter, 70-year-old white man. How do we do it?

Hopefully if it's a guidebook or a map to anything, it's a way to figure out how to process all those kinds of losses. Sometimes I don't think of it as a book about suicide. I do think of it as a book about a friendship that didn't ever quite fit cleanly anywhere, and a person who didn't quite fit cleanly anywhere.

There’s an epigraph from Sondheim and one from Brooke Hayward. Both of them show up in the book in different ways, but how did you select those quotes, and at what point?

Russell actually worked on The Everyman's edition of his lyrics and knew Stephen Sondheim. Part of the reason I chose the Into the Woods one, "If life were made of moments, even now and then a bad one," is because of what we were talking about before, about the only thing that got me through grief was that feeling of if I am just in the present tense, then nothing is gone, and nothing is hypothetical. Nothing worse and nothing better is coming and nothing wonderful and nothing terrible has happened. I'm just here. But once you pop out of grief, it's not really how things work. It's a string of events. You are not a goldfish. So that's what that quote is about: "But if life were only moments, you'd never know you had one." There's that temptation to just have this one moment and not the bad one, but you need all of them.

With the Brooke Hayward quote, Russell knew her very well, she lives nearby his house. They had this really delightful, beautiful connection. But there's a spirit in that quote, a sort of wryness. "Either you jump out the window or you live." There’s this hope to it. I think the book is sad, but I don't think the book is particularly dark. It's just, hopefully, honest. And it's true, those are the two options.

The main person who you write about in this book is not with us anymore, but there are other people who are. Did you give the manuscript to people who appear in the book?

I gave it to them, but only in Sanskrit. “Good luck. See how much you want to read it?” No, I do. I gave Russell's partner the manuscript very, very early, well before galley, because I really wanted his input. And then everybody got either the manuscript or the galley.

I think it is a real gift to have fact-checkers, and to have lawyers and to have other witnesses and human beings that, yep, they might not agree with the exact patina of what you're saying, they might not agree with the timeline of what you're saying, but it's helpful that they're out there.

Did you put other projects aside to write this book?

I have a novel that's slow cooking because of this, but also I think that both the book and the events described in the book have changed me in ways that I'm still growing accustomed to. The nature of his death is so extreme, it sucks up all the oxygen in the room…There's something about taking ownership over a death that you don't quite feel like is yours. It's hard enough to lose somebody, it's even harder to feel like you don't even have a right to be as upset as you are.

Did your feelings about having ownership over this loss change as you wrote the book?

I don't feel like I own it any more or less than anyone else, just because I wrote a book. I own a book, not the death. And that's very important for the other people who love him, too. That's a clear delineation in my mind. I'm not closer to him, necessarily, than other people, but I just feel like I'm not that mushy of a person, hence why I love the Brooke Hayward quote.

There's an inner '50s dad to that quote that I quite admire that's like, "I don't know, go outside and play." But I do finally feel ownership over my grief with this. I feel comfortable acknowledging the shape of it and how big it was, and how big it remains.