May 19, 2020

Stephanie Danler

‘It would have been a lot less painful to write this as a novel.’
Interview by
We talked to Sweetbitter author Stephanie Danler about her extraordinary new memoir Stray—why it was difficult to write, which memories haunted her and how it changed her perspective on motherhood.
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We talked to Sweetbitter author Stephanie Danler about her extraordinary new memoir, Stray—why it was difficult to write, which memories haunted her and how it changed her perspective on motherhood.

What was the genesis of Stray and how long did it take you to write it?
I didn’t know that I was working on Stray when I moved back to California in the fall of 2015 and started to write about my father. A piece I wrote for Vogue that came out in February of 2016 was the beginning of me even considering writing about such personal material. Then it took another year before I wrote a piece for the Sewanee Review, and that piece was supposed to be about California and not about my family. But once I wrote that piece, I saw that the two were connected—being back in California, remembering things that I hadn’t thought about in over a decade and reckoning with my parents and myself. At that point I knew there was a book in that world.

That was 2016, and I didn’t sit down at a desk to write the first draft of this book until May of 2019. I had been collecting memories on notecards and notebooks, things that came to me that felt tender and hurt a bit to recall. And I figured that if I kept collecting those, a story would eventually present itself—which it did by the time I sat down to write. I wrote the first draft very quickly, in nine weeks, and had to go through multiple drafts after that. But I had been thinking about it for such a long time at that point, it really came out quickly. It had some urgency.

Why did you turn to memoir for this work? With the success of Sweetbitter, did you consider telling this story in a fictionalized form?
I did, all the time. Especially when I was scared, I would want to turn it into a novel. But at a certain point I committed to nonfiction because it felt really important to me that, if you’re going to say hurtful things about people you love—and not hurtful as in mean-spirited; hurtful because they are true and secrets—then I think you owe it to the reader and to the parties involved to tell the truth, and for the reader not to have any question of whether I added this scene where my mother hit me in order to heighten the tension. The material I was dealing with didn’t need any embellishment. However, it would have been a lot less painful to write it as a novel, I think.

What were the challenges in making the transition from fiction to memoir?
Being bound by the facts is really hard. Making a satisfying story out of something as chaotic as lived experience is really challenging. When you’re writing a book, you are creating a world, and when you’re writing nonfiction, that world is yourself; you are the foundation of that world, and it makes you feel vulnerable pretty much all of the time. I didn’t get that feeling of control that I have in fiction writing.

With Sweetbitter, I wanted to write about big abstract things. I wanted to write a subversive female coming of age, and I wanted to write about being 22, and I wanted to write about family and the workplace, and with Stray, I couldn’t even think in the abstract. I was just trying to tell my story sentence by sentence. I still don’t even know what Stray is about really, in an overarching way—but that might just be me. That might not be the case for all nonfiction writers.

I hope that I can just tell my story and through my story say that you can change your life.

In Stray, you write, “I want to stop writing things I’ve only said out loud to a handful of people, most of them paid professionals.” How hard was it to write this book?
It was very hard. I think initially it was hard because children of alcoholics are trained from birth to be secret keepers. I had a lot of pride in my ability to keep secrets, as evidenced by the love story in this book about an affair I had with a married man. And I took a lot of pride in being able to stoically bear my pain, and pride in my coping mechanisms. And so to me, telling my story was weakness. It was complaining. It was navel-gazing and self-absorption. I went through a long period of time when I thought the story wasn’t worth anything, that it wasn’t bad enough—that the abuse wasn’t bad enough, that the neglect wasn’t bad enough. All of that is really, really common in adult children of alcoholics.

The next part that was really hard was spending time writing about such a dark period in my life and such dark memories while having a newborn. I would come out of the office to nurse and feel like I wasn’t there—like I was still in 2015 or in high school—and I would look at this miraculous baby and this life that I created for myself and think, well this isn’t possible because the woman in that book is about to self-destruct. She could never have these things. And so the day to day, the actual writing, was really hard. I remember reading an interview with Mary Karr where she said that when she was writing The Liars’ Club, she would nap on the floor in the middle of writing sessions like a trucker. I had a very small child, so I wasn’t able to nap in the same way, but that level of exhaustion and despair was really hard to live with.

Stray has a distinctly episodic structure. What led you to organize the book in that fashion, rather than a more linear narrative?
I think that memory works in an episodic, emerging-from-the-unconscious fashion. We don’t remember our lives linearly. Sometimes when we tell a story at the dinner table, we will make it into something linear because that’s the easiest way for people to digest it. But when I was back in California, having all these memories come back and haunt me, they weren’t haunting me in a particular order, per se. And I wanted to reflect that in the form. I’m also really drawn to this imagistic structure, in which I try to expose a moment as completely as possible and then move away from it, which is something that poets do so beautifully. There is a way to tell this story linearly, but I don’t think that you would feel the impact of it in quite the same way.

One of the most impressive aspects of the book is its atmosphere, especially the scenes in nature in California. How important was it to you to evoke that atmosphere?
Such a huge part of returning home was rediscovering this state as an adult and feeling like there were traces of my own personal trauma embedded all over, sort of like landmines. But there was also so much I didn’t know. Part of meeting the Love Interest in the book (my now-husband, Matt) was seeing California through a new set of eyes. Growing up, I always believed that the desert was ugly. But being taken there by someone who has a different lens on the world, who isn’t troubled by his past or trauma, and seeing the desert with new eyes—that is why I live here. That transition that I go through in the book is how I discovered my home again and made some peace with it. I also think there’s a volatility to Southern California that’s embedded in me—a sort of distrust and fear or awareness of the natural world, and I didn’t realize that this is where it came from. It came from this environment.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Stray.

For a variety of reasons (including your mother’s brain aneurysm that left her disabled), your parents were unreliable sources. How did you approach that problem from a narrative standpoint?
The entire book was always going to be about my experiences and not about trying to imagine their lives. I love memoirs that do that—Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance comes to mind—but I didn’t want to investigate. I could have called all of my aunts, all of my cousins, any living grandparents, my mother’s ex-boyfriends, and really tried to figure out who they were. But the book is more concerned with their absence. It’s about grieving them and accepting the loss of them and accepting in some ways the loss of the potential to know them. In my mother’s case, she changed so drastically after her brain aneurysm and lost her memory. And in my father’s case, he hasn’t earned the privilege of us knowing each other yet. So I didn’t need to piece together who they were, but I do wonder throughout the book what were their joys, and what were their private conversations, and what did they want when they were my age, and what was it like for my mother to become a mother. The fact that those things are not available is very common. A lot of people never get that from their parents, whether because their parents pass or because they simply aren’t capable of sharing these things. So that felt truer to the book.

At one point you write, “God, how I envy my mother’s lack of memory.” That’s a striking statement for a memoirist. Can you comment on the irony of that statement?
Later in the book, my sister and I wonder if our mother is happy, and I reflect that states like being happy or sad are sort of ancillary, or unnecessarily existential, because she just is. She just is. The days are the same to her. She has little frustrations, and she has little moments of victory like all of us do, but she doesn’t want anything anymore, and she’s not living in the past or the future. There's something about that that really appeals to me—that seems much more peaceful than the extremely heady, neurotic existence that I’m currently in. I’m not saying that I would prefer to be brain damaged, but I do think that memory sometimes is a hindrance. The stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and what we’re capable of doing can limit us in the present. I think that’s what I meant when I wrote that line.

Did your perspective on your family’s predicament evolve over the course of writing this book?
Yes. Having Julian, my son, and starting the memoir so shortly after he was born, my view on my mother naturally changed. As I thought about my mother’s hope and all of her expectations as she married my father and did what she had been told since childhood she was supposed to do, which is get married and have children, and being 24 years old and not really knowing herself and then being a single mother of two kids by the time she was 28—I don’t know how she did it. I don’t know that I’m capable of that level of sacrifice. I don’t know that it wouldn’t make me as angry as it made her. So I think the easiest way to put it is that I have more empathy for her—but it’s not even empathy, because I can’t imagine it. It widened this misunderstanding between us because, God willing, I will never be able to imagine that life. And even if for some reason I did end up a single mother, I would have started when I was 35 and not 24. I can’t know how she kept going.

I’m constantly learning. The best part of being a writer is getting to read.

What did you learn about yourself from writing this book?
I learned first that I’m not my parents—which has been haunting me since I was fairly young, that I would become them. But I’m not an alcoholic or a crystal meth addict. I don’t plan on becoming either one of those things.

I also learned that the mistakes I will make as a mother and as a partner and as a friend and a writer will be new and my own. It won’t be their mistakes. When I look at my son, there are certain things that I’m very relieved he won’t have to experience, but then again . . . to be determined what his journey will be. In a way, it’s not up to me. You can give your kids absolutely everything and sacrifice your life for them and still not get to be in control of their story, which is terrifying. But there’s a certain amount of relief to have arrived at motherhood and be able to say, OK, I’m not going to make those mistakes that my parents made—at least not those specific ones.

Stray will not be easy reading for anyone with a family member who’s an addict. What do you hope such readers will take away from your book?
I don’t have a takeaway. And I think that’s part of the reason I never wanted to write a memoir, because they often have really cathartic turning points that are prescriptive—and I love that, I need that, please tell me how to live—but I don’t have that for readers. Instead, I hope that I can just tell my story and through my story say that you can change your life. It is possible.

When it comes to nonfiction, who are some of your literary role models?
I was thinking a lot about people who do both—people who write novels and write nonfiction and do both well. The obvious choices are Joan Didion and James Baldwin in the 20th century. Those are the titans that really mastered both forms. I really admire Dani Shapiro, who is also able to do both, and Carmen Maria Machado, who is a brilliant fiction writer and maybe an even more brilliant nonfiction writer. I loved her book In the Dream HouseRachel Cusk does both really well. There are so many. I’m constantly learning. The best part of being a writer is getting to read.

What’s your next project?
Before the world fell apart via Covid, I was working on a novel. I find it very hard to sustain that focus right now. And happily I have a lot of work to do promoting Stray and pivoting from a tangible, physical tour to thinking instead about what we can do in the digital space and how I can connect with my readers. So that’s the perfect kind of work for this time because it’s busy work and it feels vaguely productive. I also have some scripts I’m working on. I always have many projects going at once, which I think you have to if you’re going to make a living as an artist. So I’m excited. I think if my brain can get there, I would be excited to go back to working on that novel.


Author photo credit Emily Knecht

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By Stephanie Danler
ISBN 9781101875964

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