Stephanie Danler: Empowered by Choice

Photograph by Emily Knecht

Stephanie Danler’s first novel, Sweetbitter, was heralded as the millennial coming of age story. Set against the backdrop of a fine dining restaurant in Manhattan, it was a love letter to the pleasure of food and the frenetic sensuality of New York in the aughts. With the impressive advance Danler earned, she was able to step away from her decade-plus career waiting tables and step into her long-held aspiration of being A Writer. But what happens in the aftermath of a dream attained?

In her latest work, Stray: A Memoir, we are introduced to Danler in the months after the sale of her novel. She has been pulled to return to her hometown of Los Angeles, leaving behind her husband and the self she had created while living in New York. The Santa Ana fire winds gust ominously through the canyon where she has moved, and debris from the eroding hillside crashes down on her precariously constructed rental. The menacing lure of her married lover, whom she aptly refers to as “the Monster,” perpetually looms. Returning to California unearths a cascading swell of memories about her family—her abusive, alcoholic mother who threw Danler out of the house when she was sixteen; her largely absent, drug-addicted father, who then took her in—and the trauma of that upbringing.

In Stray, Danler’s examination of her self is razor sharp, her prose lyrical and haunting. She details the darkness within her extended family without sentiment. Through her exploration of her past, she discovers the ways her family’s damage has armored her and set in motion the pattern of self-destruction that has followed her throughout her adult life. Danler’s unflinching gaze at her process of discovery leads to epiphanies about forgiveness, inheritance, and fate so quiet in their honesty that they shine, brilliant with hope.

On an early spring day as the pandemic surged around the world, Stephanie and I, both sheltered in place on opposite coasts, spoke about the interconnectedness of psychological and physical landscapes, writing across genres, generational trauma, developing compassion for oneself, and feeling empowered by choice.

—Elizabeth Lothian for Guernica

Guernica: You start Stray with the line “The list of things I thought I knew but did not know grew quickly during my first weeks back in Los Angeles.” Immediately I was drawn into the journey you are about to take. How did you come to this line and what were you hoping its effect would be on your reader?

Stephanie Danler: I don’t remember writing it. I remember knowing it was the first line after I had written it. I had been collecting episodes for a long time. I had been writing about my father in 2015 for an essay that I published in Vogue and I had a short piece on jacaranda trees, which are prolific in Southern California and cover the streets with purple blossoms, and I had thought that that would be the beginning of the book for a while. And then as I wrote this episode—which is really just dropping the reader into the middle of a scene of me living in Laurel Canyon, trying to entertain, find my footing and settling into the fact that I actually have moved back to Los Angeles—that line seemed to me a thesis statement in the best possible way. At certain points I believe different people suggested I start with flying over Los Angeles and landing at LAX airport—in a section that comes about three pages or so later—and I was certain that that sort of traditional introductory remarks would not be as powerful as just having the reader with me as I experienced the fear. And really that first section, where the hummingbird dies and the Santa Ana fire season winds are coming through the canyon and the sense of doom, but also how that doom is the character—me, myself—it activates the Proustian moment. The madeline that causes this rush of memory that will be the rest of the book.

Guernica: Starting with the dead hummingbird, which your friend notes is a bad omen, and then moving into the dinner party scene where we first encounter the theme of destruction—both of your physical world because it is fire season in Los Angeles, but also of the life and marriage you have left behind in New York—was so powerful. Can you tell me a bit about how you came to weave your writing about these two aspects of your life together?

Danler: I wrote a piece for the Sewanee Review called “Engrams, California,” and it was about going to the Owen’s Lake area to see a piece of land art with a man I was dating and understanding that I was at a site of full environmental catastrophe, one that Los Angeles was built off of. But it was also about being very close to a place that I had been many times with my father. When I wrote that essay all I had pitched to the editor was, “I have something about water and California and trauma.” I hadn’t started Stray yet in a formal manner at all. I had been writing memories of my parents at that point but I really had not connected it all. Stray at one level is just a story about someone who moves back to her childhood home, not her hometown per say, but the place that she is from. The place she identifies with. The weather and the landscape that she identifies with. And when I wrote “Engrams” I realized how closely related all of these ideas were, that I was driven to come back home, that this place caused me to remember things that I hadn’t had to think about in New York because I was so busy and I had so thoroughly recreated myself. I also realized that the damage of my parents was not put to bed at all but that I was still living with it and living through it and reenacting it. It was when I wrote that piece that I became aware that all of these ideas had something to do with who I was now—which the reductive version of that is someone who’s able to make good choices for herself and have a family and have a career. Things that I did not think were going to be possible for me for most of my life.

Guernica: Place, California specifically, plays such a major role in Stray and often acts as a driving force behind episodes in the book. I was struck by how you titled chapters using the name of the neighborhood or the city where the scenes take place. How did you come to choose this as an organizing structure?

Danler: I loved the idea of a recurring chapter title that could help orient the reader to where they were in a story that wasn’t necessarily linear. Laurel Canyon and Los Angeles are the present tense, whereas Long Beach and Seal Beach mean my mother, Colorado and Washington are my father, and everything else is a new exposure, usually somewhere the Love Interest or the Monster has brought me. I think of psychological landscapes as inseparable from the physical landscape: how safe you feel often colors the scenery more profoundly than facts. In that way, Laurel Canyon can be bohemian and romantic, then, the next day, shabby and haunted. I wanted to show all sides of the places where I’ve lived deeply.

Guernica: Your depiction of California was particularly compelling to me. Often Southern California is portrayed as a glowy place with abundant produce and smiley, healthy people. Your focus on its inherent unsustainability—“one lake after another drained, droughts coming, the fires reignited, oceans rising”—was refreshing to read and also increasingly pertinent to the realities of climate change. Was it important to you to shed light on how California has been developed?

Danler: The short answer to that is yes. But I didn’t have a political agenda writing this book. I wasn’t concerned with writing about the environment or pointing out all of the ways in which we’ve really cannibalized ourselves in Los Angeles, leaving no resources for the future. I had to include it in the book because, after living in New York for twelve years, being back in Los Angeles and so much more in touch with nature, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And I think your average Angelino has so much more of an awareness of their vulnerability than I ever did when I was in New York. In New York, for me, everything felt so controlled. You know, even if the train is late, the trains run. There are other people around. There is no threat of earthquakes. There is no threat of a coyote coming to your backyard and staring at you through the window. So the sort of wildness, the environmental wildness, of Southern California really struck me. I think it was abetted in no small part by the fact that my house, the way that it was built was quite obviously untenable. After the span of the book, I ended up having to leave that house because the hillside continued to fall. Everyday when there are rains and landslides I’m like, that little house isn’t going to make it that much longer!

That hyper awareness of being back in a place that I had sort of taken for granted as a child—that it’s always sunny, that we have the best produce, that you can go from the beach to the mountains in a day, this sort of tourist postcard idea of California, which is what California has sold the rest of the world—versus being back here as an adult, and seeing how utterly ridiculous it is to build a metropolis in a climate that cannot support a metropolis, was an obsession. But I didn’t come at it thinking I want to write a book about the environment.

Guernica: You also highlight that despite the “violence” at the root of California’s development, “we cling to our routines and arguments… believing deep down that we’re exempt from consequences.” The belief that we’re exempt from consequences is a very American way of thinking.

Danler: At the time I was falling into a relationship and then falling in love with someone who had an entirely different set of eyes on the city, and California in general. There is a passage in the book that I think speaks to what you were saying is uniquely American, where I say that I traded any real concrete practical knowledge about the world that I live in in order to read Henry James novels and be able to talk about them with like six people. And I think about how much I treasure my education—and I do—but to meet someone who was so full of practical knowledge, who had an entirely different lense when he looked out the window of a car on what he was seeing, made me realize that the over intellectualizing of my education had made it really easy for me to ignore the environment. I don’t know if that’s uniquely American, or uniquely the Western world, but I think that it is something that all of us do, constantly. It’s what has allowed us to get to the state that we’re in—which is on the brink of collapse.

Guernica: Touching off of your education, I know you studied fiction on both the undergraduate and graduate level. Stray is your first book of nonfiction. I’m curious about the experience of switching genres. Did you find it challenging? Or did you find any freedom in not being bogged down by a hyper awareness of craft, which I find can sometimes feel constraining to creativity?

Danler: That’s interesting. I do think that I struggled with believing that Stray wasn’t literary as I was working on it, at different points. Or that memoir wasn’t literary. I did not feel a freedom, and in fact I really didn’t think about it too hard initially. I write from autobiographical material and I feel that I’ve been training my entire life to be a novelist, whether that means I’m a fiction writer or I’m a nonfiction writer. I never really was bothered by that.

For my first novel, Sweetbitter, there were many times that teachers or colleagues suggested I turn it into a memoir and I was positive that it was a novel because it was not true, in the traditional way. And there were several times during the writing of Stray where I was thinking, I’ll just turn this into a novel and not worry myself with it. The distinction that I learned about while writing Stray was that I personally believe if I’m going to say certain things about people that I have loved and people that I respect, and if I’m going to expose truths about them and the way that they treated me, I wanted the reader to know that it was a fact. That my mother did kick me out of the house in this year. That I was this age. That she did throw my things away in trash bags. That I did push her down the stairs. That she did hit me. And have the reader be able to depend upon that as a fact that was not designed for emotional manipulation. And I felt that I owed that to my parents. I don’t think that they care one way or another. I think it probably feels like a betrayal regardless. But I owed that to my parents and I owed that to the reader.

I did not feel more free. If anything the emotional tangle of writing about real, living people was incredibly distracting. I think the book would have come sooner if it had been fiction, where I was only responsible to myself. I wrote Stray very quickly but it took four years for me to sit down and do that writing.

Guernica: There is a certain weight that comes with writing very personal stories, especially if they are what I would call hard stories. Towards the beginning of Stray you mention that writing about your family, specifically about your father, is “coming, unplanned and fevered. With the words come the memories, once dormant, now exposed.” While you are writing these pieces that have trauma involved in their telling you come to feel like you have flu-like symptoms. The stirring up of memories that are difficult to deal with can, so often for those of us who write personal stories that have hard aspects to them, become an emotional experience.

Danler: Yes, the experiences of writing Sweetbitter versus writing Stray could not be more different and I assume it will be that way for the rest of my life. I wrote Sweetbitter during a kind of depression but the book was a light within that depression. And Stray I wrote during a fairly happy, grateful time of my life, which was having my son. He was five months old when I started the first draft. He was seven months old when I turned it in. But the book was dark and heavy and haunting and helped poison us in many, many, many ways. A lot of that is the contents but a lot of that might have to do with the genre as well.

Guernica: What often comes up in hard stories is a theme of generational trauma. You detail it on your maternal side—your grandmother being abandoned by her mother in her adolescence, as you also were; the way women in your maternal line were groomed for marriage and motherhood from girlhood and the ripples that trauma caused in their lives, especially your mother’s. And on your paternal side, most notably the death of your father’s teenaged brother, which broke his family. When you were growing up were you aware this generational trauma was at play?

Danler: I don’t think I had the language or the wide-lens perspective to understand generational trauma when I was a child but I did understand—which I hope comes through in the book—that adults were very sad people. And that they could not be depended upon. And the dots between my grandmother being abandoned, or all the women in my family in my maternal line being incredibly charismatic alcoholics and abusive, that is something I started to put together with the help of therapy, and growing into myself.

Throughout my adolescence I didn’t see that my rage was connected to my mother’s rage or that my ability to fight back was connected to her ability to hit me and my grandmother’s ability to hit me and to have hit my mother. And I certainly, for the first probably twenty-nine years of my life, did not see that I was anything like my father. But I did understand that there was something in my bloodline that was dangerous, that I had to be faster than, that I had to survive. I understood that from a very, very young age and whether that’s depression, alcoholism, violence, potentially mental illness, any of those. I think this sort of fear kept me running from California to Colorado to New York.

Guernica: You come to realize as you reflect on your experiences and relationship with your mother and father that many of the self-destructive tendencies you developed, and your ability to “armor” yourself against vulnerability, were the result of just trying to survive. These moments were not only eloquently written but also so relatable to anyone who has had to make it through a situation where survival is the number one priority. Did this realization about your will to survive come to you as you wrote? Did writing about it allow you to develop the compassion for yourself that you note is “so much easier” to have for others than ourselves?

Danler: Thanks to a lifetime of therapy, I’ve known for years that it doesn’t take much to send me into survival mode (fight or flight). When I finished filming the first season of the Sweetbitter television show, I was dealing with an exhaustion that scared me. I saw a homeopathic doctor, we ran some tests, and found that my cortisol levels don’t really drop. Cortisol is responsible for our response to stress, our immune system, a host of things. Most of us have our highest levels in the morning and they taper off in the afternoon, heading into our lowest levels while we sleep. My levels weren’t going down in the afternoon. All of which to say, it wasn’t all in my mind, it showed up in my body. I have a very hard time turning off my fear and anxiety.

I don’t know what the benefit of writing Stray has been yet. It certainly didn’t feel cathartic while writing, and the idea of having my story judged and picked apart doesn’t seem “healing” either. I’m hopeful that connecting with readers will give me some relief. I think having a child has made it easier for me to have compassion for myself. I want him (or my soon-to-be daughter) to be kind to themselves. I can’t control the world, or what the future will bring for our family, but I do have some control about the voices that end up inside their head. The only way for me to teach them is to practice kindness, gentleness, forgiveness on myself.

Guernica: You touch on the notion of inheritance quite a bit—not just the material inheritance, such as your great-grandmother’s snake ring, and the physical, such as your mother’s eyes—but also the practice of keeping secrets, and the resulting lack of trust in anyone that practice creates; the practice of forgetting, which you note had been “equivalent to loving”; the belief that you have the same “black hole that sits behind your father’s heart.” As we get closer to the present day, you come to some epiphanies both about yourself and your future. You write, “I’ve forgotten I can choose something else. Forgotten that choice has always been the antidote to fate.” Has recognizing your ability to choose positively impacted your life and journey into motherhood since writing this?

Danler: Feeling empowered by choice is the journey of Stray. Feeling weighed down, haunted, or hopeless in the face of my past mistakes, or of my parent’s lives, my inheritance, is so familiar to me, I’ve spent a lot of my life recognizing that as my “home.” The only way I’ve known how to process is apathy. To make an active choice, to change a direction even slightly, one can’t be apathetic. You have to care, which is why the book ends with that feeling of real care. It’s so risky. You have no defenses. The epitome of that kind of care and is, of course, when you love a child. The vulnerability is so terrifying (for me). But it’s also–in a way–what I’ve been working towards or growing towards my entire life, which is to love this world without reservation. I don’t know that I have it in me to love a partner like that–do any of us?–but in the case of my son, I don’t want to protect myself. I want to be able to feel like this, even if it only means more suffering down the line. Arriving here is something I couldn’t imagine when I was younger. It’s proof that our lives can change course.