As far as debuts go, Stephanie Danler’s book “Sweetbitter” was a success. The author scored a six-figure, two-book book deal with Knopf, and “Sweetbitter,” boosted by celebrity endorsements, got a Starz adaptation. The show, for which Danler served as an executive producer, stars Ella Purnell.
Four years later, Danler’s follow-up is “Stray,” a memoir. Her second book marks a new storyline for the author, who based “Sweetbitter” on her years working as a waitress at Union Square Cafe. It was a work of fiction, but many conflated the events depicted in that book with her own experiences.
“I devoted myself to that story for four years, to the story of a 22-year-old girl and what it means to come to New York City, and the story of the family that we create in the workplace,” says Danler. Now in her 30s, she was ready to inhabit a new self on the page, one closer to who she is today.
She originally set out to write a novel, but found herself drawn to nonfiction.
“I was in denial for at least a year that the writing I was doing about my family, the memories I was collecting, the obsessions that I had with California and the environment, that all of these were coming together to be a book,” she says.
In addition to the emotional weight of sitting down and excavating the past, Danler had to confront the stereotypes of genre. “You’re talking about a long-standing false binary between the emotional and the intellectual — the emotional being feminine, and the intellectual being masculine,” she says. “There’s stigma around memoir; less so today for a generation below me that has come of age with online confessionalism,” she adds. “But for me, memoir still felt smaller writing than a novel.”
Once she let go of her preconceived notions of the genre, it became clear that she was, in fact, committing to a memoir. “And that’s what I needed to write, because it felt the most urgent,” she says.
Danler began working on “Stray” after moving from New York back to California, where she grew up. Settling into her Laurel Canyon home, Danler started writing about her father, who struggles with drug addiction. Those early pieces were a fissure. The more Danler wrote about family, the more she kept writing: about childhood, about her mother’s aneurysm and resulting disability, and the crystal meth addiction that unraveled her father’s life. She had never spoken about these experiences to anyone, not even close friends.
“That was the beginning of an awareness that there were so many other people out there suffering similar situations, and much worse situations, and I could contribute to a conversation,” she says.
The memoir is divided into three sections — Mother, Father, Monster — a subtle riff on a memoir trope. “If you’re writing about your parents, it’s ‘mother, father, myself,'” she says. “And in this case, the realization is that the monster is actually me, and not my lover.” She writes the book in present tense, weaving in stories of her childhood while navigating an unhealthy relationship and potentially falling in love with someone new.
Despite all of the heaviness, her book surprises with a happy ending. Jumping ahead in time, Danler is in a strong romantic relationship and has a newborn son. “Making one good decision for myself, whether it was to let go of people who hurt me or to nurture relationships with my friends, led to a very, very different life for me,” she says. “One that I couldn’t have imagined in 2015.”
Danler is homebound in Los Angeles, her book tour sidelined by the pandemic. But there are other major life moments on the horizon to consider: she and her husband are having another child, due in July. Danler has also started working on her next novel, although it feels premature to discuss before “Stray” has been released.
“You have one child, and people are like, are you having another?” says Danler. “I would say, I mean, I just pushed him out — how could I even think about it? That’s how it is with books, too.”
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