To call Stephanie Danler generous would be an understatement. Before we ever met, she read an advance copy of my memoir and posted about it on her Instagram account. For this fledgling author, it felt like the equivalent of being on a late-night talk show. Thinking it was a shot in the dark, I asked if she would be in conversation with me for an event at McNally Jackson in Williamsburg. At that time, in 2018, Danler lived six months out of the year in Los Angeles and six months in New York. She was in production on the second season of the television adaptation of her best-selling novel, Sweetbitter, and six months pregnant with her first child. And yet, she said yes.
I had heard about Sweetbitter, but I hadn’t yet read it. Its publishing story is mythical: the waitress who hands her manuscript to someone at Knopf and gets a book deal. I’d seen the wine glass on the cover, the bestseller status, and somehow reading it didn’t feel urgent. Really, I was jealous. I assumed I knew something about Danler’s life. It seemed charmed.
I read Sweetbitter and realized it had earned every bit of praise it received. It is a work of careful and keen observation, full of yearning, and satisfying in an almost gastronomical way.
Then I read a precursor to her memoir, Stray—a heartbreaking and lucid essay called “Stone Fruits,” which appeared in The Sewanee Review. In it, Danler reckons with her abusive mother, now disabled from a brain aneurysm, and her drug-addicted and largely absentee father. Any notion of her life being charmed was demolished.
Or was it? I had always thought charmed meant easy or without friction. But really to charm is “to control or achieve by or as if by magic,” and Danler’s prose has a sorcerer’s prowess and a wisdom that borders on mystical. The writer and witch Amanda Yates Garcia says that each initiation we face can teach us what our magical powers are and what gifts we have to offer the world. Danler offers beauty and hope in the redemptive powers of writing. Her gifts lie in her willingness to share some of the most intimate and painful parts of her life.
This interview was conducted over the phone in late April, while both of us were quarantined at home.
A lot of people have called your first book, Sweetbitter, an autobiographical novel. And yet, though you obviously drew on your own experiences to write that book, it is not quite autobiographical. Why did you choose to write Stray as memoir?
I’m generally not concerned with genre. As a reader, I don’t care how factual a novel is or how fallible a memoir is. But when I started to write about people I love, who are still alive, it became important to me that I held onto the truth as much as possible. It’s my truth, so it’s subjective, but I think if you are going to say that your mother hit you, or your father overdosed, or that your lover treated you cruelly, you owe it to the people involved—whether they like it or not is a different story—to tell the truth. I wanted several times to turn it into a novel because the idea of hiding behind something was so appealing. Controlling the story when you’re writing fiction can be such a relief, especially when you’re dealing with the unruliness of real life, which doesn’t conform to a narrative arc. I think I struggled with Stray for so long because I didn’t have a big ending and I thought memoirs demanded real turning points. For Sweetbitter I had an ending because it was invented. I thought, Oh, this is the swelling of the symphony that marks the end of our journey. With the memoir, I could have ended in a thousand different places. It’s really about that ongoing-ness of living. I would have loved to just disguise myself and not feel so raw about it. But I do think it’s important for readers to know that it’s true.
I don’t know if you outline or not, but did not knowing the ending hinder you as you began to write? Or were you writing because you were trying to figure something out?
I was collecting pieces for such a long time that it became a kind of outline. But I could not actually write the book until I knew the shape of the entire story, which included the ending. In the meantime, I was able to research California, continue examining my past, collect memories, talk to family members. I wrote the first draft of this book in nine weeks from start to finish, but at that point I had hundreds of note cards. They had been tacked up in fifty different arrangements and many of the passages had already been written, so I had a very clear sense of where I was going. I also couldn’t write it until I figured out the present tense story line for Stray, which is moving back to California and being embattled in a love affair. I wanted the narrator to be speaking from a clear place.
There are two romantic relationships in the book. There is the Monster, a married man with whom you’re having an affair, and the Love Interest, with whom you are slowly falling in love (and who you later marry.) At one point, the Love Interest seems worried about the way you seek drama and asks, “You can’t write if there isn’t conflict?” Was it more difficult to write about your relationship with him since it’s less “dramatic” than your relationship with the Monster?
In a way it was easier. When I was very slowly falling in love with the Love Interest, I didn’t trust the depth of a relationship that felt good or easy or “healthy,” which is a word that I hate when it’s applied to relationships. It’s too virtuous. It’s gross. You want to do something devious when you hear that. I had a really hard time believing my relationship with the Love Interest could sustain me or interest me. But that’s conflict, that distrust. That’s something to write about. Writing about the Monster was really difficult—to remember how deeply in love we were. There was something very pure and electric and life-altering about the way we felt toward each other. We were willing to risk so much to try, and we kept trying, we couldn’t let it go. I think that my adolescent value system is still enamored with that kind of love. Where you’re powerless, you have no control, you submit yourself over and over again. You fetishize the pain. It’s so different from the kind of love that I am experiencing now in my life with my husband. And so, to inhabit both … to go from my office, reading, you know, a ten-thousand-word sexting WhatsApp transcript from five years ago, to then walk out and to see my husband, to nurse my child, I actually felt like I was going crazy. It was a very beautiful time, while I was writing Stray, but it took me hours to recover myself at the end of the day. And, you know, you don’t have hours when you’re a writer and you have a newborn. Read More