In “Stray: A Memoir,” Stephanie Danler ’06 confronts the demons of her past.
Story by Elizabeth Weinstein | Photos by Jodi Miller
"It’s a strange time to be on a trip,” Stephanie Danler ’06 said when I reached her by phone on a Friday afternoon in March. She was in Hawaii with her husband and their toddler son, Julian. “We got here before things turned,” she added, referring, of course, to the COVID-19 pandemic that was beginning to spread like wildfire on the mainland. Otherwise, they would have canceled.
She had briefly stepped away from her family (which is about to grow larger when she gives birth to a second child this summer) to talk with the Kenyon Alumni Magazine about another big arrival — the publication of her much-anticipated second book, “Stray: A Memoir,” by Knopf in May. Danler’s first book, the 2016 novel “Sweetbitter,” was a hit with critics and readers alike. It was adapted into a TV show, produced by Danler herself, which ran for two seasons on Starz.
“Stray”— a probing meditation on place, family, addiction, memory and trauma — is an unexpected, but perhaps not surprising, follow-up to “Sweetbitter.” Danler, whose prose sings with poetic cadence, has never been a stickler for genre conformity.
A heaviness hung in the air and on the phone line. “It feels weird to talk about anything other than the virus,” I admitted to Danler.
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “It feels very self-indulgent or something.”
During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, I asked Danler about the experience of promoting a book while navigating the uncertainty of a pandemic — as well as her thoughts on memoir and privacy, boundary-setting and self-care, the power of Kenyon friendships and more.
How does it feel to be promoting a new book right now?
For me, touring is so much about connecting with readers. So if I don’t get to tour, I will find a way to be with readers this year when it is safe. My thoughts are with everyone, but I’m thinking a lot about independent booksellers right now. I’m thinking a lot about businesses that have been hurt. Quarantine is fantastic for reading, but it’s about how you continue supporting your community.
Let’s talk about your book, “Stray.” Does it feel different to talk about a memoir versus a work of fiction like “Sweetbitter”?
It feels very different. The stories I wrote about in “Stray” are very much alive and still a part of my life, whereas when I finished “Sweetbitter,” the universe of that novel felt complete and discrete, like it was its own entity. “Stray” is about the ongoingness of navigating family, and there’s really no artifice to hide behind.
Reading “Stray,” I was struck by how it felt deeply personal while also preserving some mystery. How did you decide which areas of your life to share and which to keep for yourself?
When I was gathering material for “Stray,” I was really interested in scenes (from my past) that haunted me, and I collected those for years before I sat down to write the book. The scenes could be a landslide in Laurel Canyon or a dried-up lake bed in central California, or my mother taking my sister and me to Disneyland for dinner. I was interested in the question, “Why are these scenes tender to me?” I left out anything that did not cause me a little bit of pain. If it hurt me, even if I didn’t quite understand why, or what it meant, I knew it was probably an essential part of this story, which is really just a story of turning a small corner — it’s a very subtle moment of transformation.
The writer Roxane Gay has talked about the process of creating boundaries for herself and sticking to them, especially when writing memoir. How did you approach boundary-setting while working on “Stray”?
Well, there’s the contractual boundary of therapized culture, which is, “If you treat me like X, Y or Z, you will not have me in your life.” I had drawn up contracts like that with my parents several times during their various rehabs. Those are helpful because they get you in the practice of articulating what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. But they are hard to enforce because there is context and extenuating circumstances and, of course, there’s the volatility of the heart. For most of us, when we love people with addiction, compassion is both our greatest flaw and strength. Then there are boundaries that are made in the mind, which I think were more essential to the writing of this book. I have to be able to separate from my guilt, from my shame and from my need to be liked. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel guilt or shame, or disgust at how unlikable I am or my parents are. It just means that, for the sake of telling the truth — my truth —and for the sake of writing, I have to hold the hard line there.
The book takes place mostly in California, moving in and out of scenes from the distant and more recent past. Tell me about your decision to structure the book around location rather than chronology.
I wouldn’t have written this book if I wasn’t actually on the soil of California. There was a reverberation that I got from being back home, and from being in this landscape, that was so foreign and familiar to me and was causing me to remember. In New York, it’s easy to obliterate your past and fill up your cup with the present tense, which is partially what “Sweetbitter” is about. When I came back to California in 2015, I had to reckon with how false that was and how much trauma and suffering I carry with me, even if I can keep myself really busy to distract myself from it. Place was really what caused the book, and so I continued to anchor it in place. I’m inseparable from the mood of the place where I am. The character in “Stray,” which is me, is also deeply affected by the trauma of Los Angeles itself — how it was made, what it cost and the uncertainty of its future.
It felt to me like the person you were hardest on in “Stray” was yourself. Toward the end of the book, you ask, “What if I could be kind to myself? Turn this one corner? What else, I wonder, is possible for me?” What have you learned as you work toward this goal?
That makes me really emotional just hearing you say that. Children who grow up in abusive, unstable and neglectful situations often struggle with being kind to themselves, because that’s not what they have been modeled. I think that is something I will struggle with for the rest of my life. When I became pregnant with my son, I wasn’t scared that I was going to be an alcoholic or neglect him or abandon him — those are my parents’ mistakes. I was more concerned that I wouldn’t be able to teach him how to be kind to himself, or how to trust the world, because that is something I am still working on. When I was writing “Stray,” we had moved to Barcelona. My husband had quit his job and was taking care of Julian so I could write this book. I gave myself three months to write the first draft. I would finish a day of writing and remembering, and end up being haunted, and then look at my son, my husband and the city of Barcelona, and I could not understand how I could possibly deserve this moment of beauty — how this woman I am writing about in “Stray” could maintain or hold this life. And so that line is me telling my younger self that there is a possibility for grace, health, good decisions and love.
My favorite parts of “Stray,” and of “Sweetbitter,” center on the power of female friendships. How have the friendships you formed at Kenyon evolved since college?
Carly de Castro ’06 and Alex McKenna LeClair Grey Heitz Close ’06 were roommates in McBride. They were both from L.A., but from a very different L.A. than the one I grew up with, and I was just kind of in awe of them. They ended up becoming my best friends throughout college. We all lived together, and when I would go back to California (on breaks) I stayed with their families (instead of with my mom). We continue growing and evolving together — Carly and I lived in New York together in our 20s and Alex and I lived together in our early 30s. Now we all live in L.A. and are in totally different phases of our lives, and we are bonded not just through the fun that we had, but by loss. Carly lost her mother when we were 25, and Alex lost both her parents in a four-year span during our late 20s and early 30s. And I have ambiguously lost my parents. The three of us understand each other’s hurt, and we also understand the importance of the family that you choose. As we all have kids it has become even more important. We all keep showing up for each other. Kenyon friendships seem to have such a solid foundation. In my experience they last well into adulthood.
Given the sensitive nature of the material, at what point, if any, did you share manuscripts with the people who appear in the book?
I did, but late in the game. I gave a few people an opportunity to change whatever they needed me to change, and I was fortunate that no one needed that much from me. I did not let my parents read it. I don’t have a relationship with them that I am protecting, and I needed for it to be my story. The most important readers for me were my sister, my aunt, and Carly and Alex — the people who lived through this period of time with me. I let my ex-boyfriend read it, as well, because I have no desire to intrude on his life. I worked really hard to tell a true story about us while protecting his privacy, and I wanted to make sure that I had done that successfully.
I imagine that writing a book is a very different experience from working on a TV show. What did you learn from working on the Starz adaptation of “Sweetbitter,” and what surprised you most?
The experiences could not be more different: One requires extreme isolation and introspection, and the other requires an extroverted open-mindedness. What surprised me was how similar running a TV show is to running a restaurant, and I don’t think that I would have been adept at it or been able to maintain my position on the show if I hadn’t run restaurants for so long. I don’t blink from 14- or 18-hour days. I love the camaraderie of being on set, and I love the writers’ room. You sit around a table and you say, “What else could happen within this world that I created?” I found it so exciting. I had no desire to reproduce “Sweetbitter” beat by beat. If I did, I think I would have adapted it as a film, because that’s a complete story. I was interested in expanding the world and getting to know characters in ways that I wasn’t able to in the book, and once you get the actors involved, they knew so much, instinctually, about characters that I had created but they embodied. I learned so much from watching the actors.
What projects are on the horizon for you?
I hope I get to continue making film and television because I love writing scripts. They move quickly, there is a certain levity to them and I thrive on that collaboration. Right now, I am mostly working on my third book, which is a novel. I have been nursing this novel along for a while and it has wanted my full attention. On the day I sent in the final copy edits on “Stray,” my editor wrote to me and asked if I was going to take a few days off and relax. I was like, “I’m already 30 pages in!” So I am working on that and I’m having my second baby in July, which is enough for this moment.
Anything else you’d like Kenyon readers to know?
I don’t want to sound like a cheerleader or advertisement for Kenyon, but publicly and privately, I credit it with the career I have right now. I feel lucky that I got that education, because it wasn’t a given that I was going to go to a prestigious university. I was going to go absolutely nowhere; I took getting into Kenyon, and then getting accepted into P.F. Kluge’s “Intro to Fiction Writing” class as signs, or omens, that I was supposed to do this.
Web extra: Listen to Danler in conversation with P.F. Kluge '64 for a 2016 episode of the Kenyon Review podcast.