There’s a monster in Stephanie Danler’s closet. It first reared its head in the Starz TV adaptation of her debut novel Sweetbitter, in the form of the familial nickname given to the main character, Tess. It’s also the ominous alias given to the man with whom Danler engaged in a tortuous, toxic affair in the wake of Sweetbitter’s success. Now, there’s the looming cloud of the monster she’s worried she could turn into as she untangles the memories of her childhood and adolescence in Stray, out May 19.
Despite the autobiographical elements in Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler never thought she’d write a memoir. Or if she did, certainly not like this. Stray pokes so closely at the wounds of addiction, heartbreak, and parental failures that it may come as a shock to those whose perception of the author has so far been defined by the oyster-slurping, millennial pink rose-drinking of Sweetbitter. Danler herself was hesitant to shed that protective shell until the positive reception around a personal essay for Vogue on her father’s crystal meth addiction told her it was time to dig deeper.
“I think that memoirs fail when they aren't willing to self excavate,” Danler recently told Refinery29 over the phone. “If you are not willing to look at your part and you want to tell a story about being victimized, it's a less compelling memoir. We go to memoirs to see the journey.”
This particular journey is rooted in 2015, just after Danler was given the six-figure book deal that would launch Sweetbitter into orbit. She reflects on and the ways she fears the toxicity of her relationship with her parents and their “patterns” have already manifested inside her. Even when she surfaces from these reveries, she’s faced with her current predicament: an affair with the married “Monster,” whose willingness to drop everything and enamor Danler for a weekend is matched only by his reluctance to actually leave his wife and commit to her full time. At the time, Danler sees their affair as proof that she is not capable, nor perhaps deserving, of a committed, loving relationship.
Stray is Danlers chance to finally tell her own story. A frequent frustration around the success of Sweetbitter was readers’ insistence on believing it to be a memoir in fiction’s clothing. Her new book barely touches on any of Sweetbitter’s hallmarks (restaurants, New York, being 22) and leaps ahead to California after Danler, now in her 30s, had quit the service industry to become a full-time writer.
“That was more a decision not to write about my first marriage because it felt not applicable,” she explained about this time gap. “[Stray is] the next phase of that story for people that want to believe that Sweetbitter is autobiographical, which people will forever. [Stray] would be like what happened 10 years later if Tess went home.”
The memoir ends with Danler slowly escaping the misconceptions she had of herself, and readers have watched her next chapters play out in real time. She is now married to the man who appears as a new love interest in the book, and they are expecting their second child. Danler is also expecting her second novel — a story that “has an autobiographical spring” but is a book “that no one can say is a thinly-veiled memoir.” There’s a lot to look forward to, but to really appreciate it, Danler first invites us to look way, way back.
Refinery29: Did some things in Stray ever feel too soon to write about?
Stephanie Danler: “The present tense of the memoir is 2015, which is not technically that long ago, but because it's before Sweetbitter came out, it feels truly like another lifetime. It was also a time when I couldn't imagine a) that I would get to continue to be a writer and b) that I was ever going to ever be able to have a functional relationship or children with someone — I am now married again and due with my second child in July. So many major shifts happened in the past five years that it might as well be looking back on my adolescence.”
Would you ever write about the Sweetbitter phenomenon part of your life?
“That I need a lot of time for. That is something that I think takes a decade to understand and I think takes some wisdom and some more experience than I have right now. I think I'll need to have published quite a few books in order to understand the anomaly or phenomenon that Sweetbitter was. And the same goes with making television. I could write an essay about what it was like and micro-aggressions of sexism and frustrations and conflicts, but it's a very limited experience.”
What did looking back through the Stray parts of your life involve?
“I'm an active notebook keeper, which is really helpful for things. From the more recent past, I use WhatsApp a lot of the time because I was traveling so much [and] you can save transcripts of your conversations. I have transcripts of my conversations with my best friends, with my sisters, and a lot of the times within those conversations with friends and even with The Monster, I'm talking about writing or I'm repeating to them episodes that are sticking with me. I will say that reading a 500,000 word transcript of a very hurtful affair will mess you up. It might have been five years ago, and you might believe you have a lot of closure, and you might love your newborn baby and your husband, but trying to live in both spaces and remember how in love you were and how much you wanted and how hopeful you were, is really, really, really sad.”
Were there any memories that, upon researching them, you learned may have happened differently than you thought?
“My sister is the perfect example. I showed her early pages of the section about my mother and she turned to me and said, 'But you didn't nurse Nancy. I did.' And I said to my sister, like, 'No, I'm positive that this happened. I gave up my job and I had an apartment lined up.’ And she said, 'Well, where was I?' We realized as we talked through it that I was home for three months nursing my mom. My sister lived there for the next two years. Her experience of being my mother's caretaker totally eclipsed my experience of three months before I ran away and went back to my college and then moved to the East coast.”
Reading a 500,000 word transcript of a very hurtful affair will mess you up.
What has it been like having the people in your life who appear in the book now read it?
“My husband is the love interest in the book and he obviously read it a hundred times. I let my cousins on my dad's side read it and I did give an early copy to The Monster because though we don't have contact now, I have no intention of intruding on his privacy. I wouldn't say he was thrilled, but everyone across the board was supportive.”
This is a very personal book which opens your life up to a lot of personal questions. Going forward with interviews or interacting with readers, are there any boundaries you're setting to maintain your sense of privacy?
“There's a lot that is not in the book that will never be a part of the conversation. Everything I wrote about in the book I am open and available for. I have really strict boundaries and [for Sweetbitter] people would ask me what I considered such wildly inappropriate questions for a novel and make these huge assumptions about me. And so I feel fairly prepared to discuss Stray as honestly as possible.”
You now have a novel, a TV show, and a memoir. Is there any one genre or medium you’re doing next?
“My next book is a novel and I've been at work on it actively since January, passively for years. It is a period piece about Los Angeles in the early nineties. When I turned in copy edits on Stray, my editor said, 'Okay, now go on vacation. Go rest.' And I wrote back and I said, 'I'm 50 pages into the next book.'”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.