Stephanie Danler, STRAY: A MEMOIR

Stephanie Danler, STRAY: A MEMOIR

Zibby Owens: I’m excited to be talking to Stephanie Danler today who’s the author of international best seller Sweetbitter and the executive producer of the Sweetbitter series on Starz. Stray: A Memoir, her latest book, comes out in May 2020. Her writing has appeared in the Sewanee Review, Vogue, The New York Times Book Review, and The Paris Review Daily, among many other publications. Her nonfiction received an honorable mention in The Best American Essays 2018. Her criticism won the 2019 Robert B. Heilman award from The Sewanee Review. A graduate of Kenyon College with an MFA from The New School in fiction, Stephanie currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband, her toddler, and her soon-to-be daughter.

Welcome, Stephanie. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Stephanie Danler: Thank you so much for having me. I wish we were talking in person.

Zibby: Me too.

Stephanie: This is a really good substitute.

Zibby: Better that nothing.

Stephanie: Yes. This is what we’re all having to do right now.

Zibby: Yes. We’re Skyping mid-coronavirus while everybody’s at home. I have to say, Stray has gotten me out of my own head more than almost anything else lately because it’s so immersive and beautifully written. I just needed it right now. It came, for me, at such a good time to just get into your head and the way you see the world. It was a gift for me. I don’t always say that, so I just wanted to say that from the start.

Stephanie: Thank you.

Zibby: Can you tell listeners what Stray is about?

Stephanie: Stray is a memoir about the months when I returned home to California. I moved there from New York City. I had a reckoning with my past, with my parents, with my childhood in California. It is about being the child of addicts and the inheritance of damage. I think that so often when we look at the genetic factors of addiction, we’re looking at a one-to-one ratio, which is, my mom’s an alcoholic; therefore, I’m an alcoholic. While that wasn’t my story, the period of time I’m writing about in Stray is when I realized that I had inherited a lot of their darkness and their recklessness and their propensity for self-harm even if I wasn’t technically an alcoholic or a crystal meth addict. The book is about trying to move past that and give myself a different life or a possibility for a different life.

Zibby: Did it help you to write it, emotionally? Was it really hard? How was it to go into all of that?

Stephanie: It did not help, no.

Zibby: It was a horrible mistake. It was a mistake.

Stephanie: It wasn’t a mistake. The book, I wrote it so quickly and with such urgency. There was a lot of force behind it, which I think you can feel when you read it. It’s very raw. Living with that part of myself, with the darkest parts of myself, was really difficult, especially given that I was writing it while I was a brand-new mother. My son was five months old when I started the first draft. The disparity between having this family and having a wonderful, supportive partner and this beautiful, healthy child, which is a miracle, and then going back in time to a person that I was who didn’t believe that any of that was possible was really hard. It was hard to traverse. It was hard to be in the office and to come out and nurse and just connect with my son and my husband. Then I am so grateful now that people are reading it. The way that they’re responding, really smart people that I admire, I’m getting notes and feedback. People are moved by it. That’s really gratifying, but I don’t feel great about the book itself. It feels like such a dark book to me. I think it will just take time.

Zibby: I don’t think it being dark is anything negative.

Stephanie: It’s not. I think in comparison to something like Sweetbitter which had an element of fun and levity to it, this book doesn’t have it. I think about my children reading it. I’m now pregnant again. I’m having a girl, which somehow seems more fraught to me. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Based on my own relationship with my mother, I feel like I’m entering into potentially complicated territory. I think about my children reading it. I hope that what comes across at the end of that book is about hope and love and connection, and not just a catalog of ways that I’ve been hurt.

Zibby: It doesn’t come across that way. Everybody has the circumstances into which they were born. This is how you processed yours in a very place-oriented, time period, constricted way. I think it was really awesome. It worked for me.

Stephanie: Thank you. It’s great to hear from readers. It’s also happening so quickly. I started that first draft less than a year ago. That’s why I think it’s going to take some time to process and feel the period at the end of the sentence. It feels kind of open and loose and everywhere all around me still.

Zibby: But you did choose — did you want to write it? Did anyone tell you you had to write it?

Stephanie: No. I am under contract for a second book from Knopf. Sweetbitter season two, the television show, wrapped four days before I gave birth to my son. I was so ready to talk about something else, to write about not a twenty-two-year-old girl or not the restaurant industry. I love both those things. I’m so grateful that I got to delve into them deeply, but I had been sitting on this book for years. My editor flew out to LA when my son was seven weeks old. We had lunch. It was my first time leaving the house. My boobs are leaking. I’ve still got maternity pants on. I was like, do I have a glass of wine at lunch? Am I still a human? What’s happening? He said, “Your next book is due in a month.” They set up deadlines. I’m like, “Peter, that’s a joke. I have not written a word. I have a seven-week-old baby.” He said, “Well, when do you think the next book will be ready?” I could’ve said 2022. They don’t force you to write these books.

Zibby: No, I know.

Stephanie: I said June. I was like, “End of June. I can do it.” I think I was just wanting, one, to still be a writer. I think that the postpartum period, if you are a creative or professional, or let’s say for any woman, your sense of identity is so shaken. I wanted to feel like a writer again, but I also had been wanting to work on this book for a long time. I gave myself the deadline of the end of June. I turned it in the first week of July.

Zibby: That’s not bad. That’s pretty close.

Stephanie: It was very close, very close.

Zibby: It’s so hard to go back and forth. I feel like even if I sit and watch a sad movie or I have a difficult conversation, to then open the door and go be a mom and be all upbeat and mom-ish is hard. For you to have to spend — I know your baby was so little, but even just to — that on/off switch, it’s a lot to have to do.

Stephanie: There was a lot of crying. When I look back on that period of time, we went to extraordinary lengths at a practical level in order to ensure that I could write the book. We moved to Europe. We sublet our home. My husband quit his job. We did everything possible. It was a beautiful time period. That’s why I was able to write it so quickly. It was just a lot of crying. Baby’s crying. Mom’s crying. Husband’s drinking. He was trying to have a glass of wine and some jamón serrano, and everyone’s crying. It was not seamless.

Zibby: I feel like that mirrors, though, the traditional path. I feel like no writer says, “Oh, that worked out. How easy was that?” Most of the time, it’s a messy, in-it type process, but this is particularly more so than maybe most.

Stephanie: I think that I kind of mythologized these writers who worked with daily schedules and wrote six days a week, a thousand words a day. You always hear about those people that really show up at the desk. I am just not so well-integrated. I had to remove myself several times zones away from my life in order to find the focus. At one point, I was interviewing nannies. You’re talking about hours. Forty hours a week, it doesn’t cut it to write a book. I need to be able to go to work until eight PM if I need to. I really, really could not have done it if I didn’t have a primary caretaker for those months. I wish I didn’t have to upend my life, but that is the way this book needed to be written.

Zibby: It’s great because now every book you write, you can pick a new exotic locale and just settle in and justify it.

Stephanie: Totally. I might be divorced, but I totally can do that.

Zibby: Side effects. Before we talk more about the book, I have to just fast-forward to the present day because I read your Sewanee Review article about how you were stuck in Hawaii. You had gone there on vacation. As you were there, the whole coronavirus panic broke out. You wrote this beautiful — literally, I felt like I was reading your diary of what should you do? I’m like, she could’ve emailed this to me, basically. You were like, “Had I put my family at risk? Others at risk? Are we thoughtless and reckless people? Will we be trapped here? Are we safer in dense, germ-ridden Los Angeles pacing our eight-hundred-square-foot house with a toddler? Or are we safer on this island –” meaning Hawaii — “cooking all our own food, isolated in nature where my son Julian collects pieces of coral in a bucket? Underneath of that, the one question, the only one any human can be thinking right now, are we safe? No, we are not safe.” Then you ended the article and didn’t tell the reader what happened. I was like, tell me what happened.

Stephanie: Adam Ross, the editor at The Sewanee Review, asked for a slice-of-life letter as if we were writing him about where we were on March 14th. At that point writing that letter, I had been calling Delta on a Monday. I’d been calling Delta since Saturday. I could not get through. I had been on the callback list twice. Then finally, Delta just said, “Please call back at another time,” and disconnected people. We were on the verge of just going to the airport to fly standby, but anyone with kids knows that that is a last, last, last resort. You don’t want to be hanging around an airport for six hours maybe getting on a flight. At the same time, we were fine. We were cooking our food. Julian had plenty of space to play. There were no other people around. We hadn’t had contact with anyone. I mean, there were other people staying in condos, but I hadn’t been in a restaurant or in the same room with people in over a week. We really did not know what to do. The news was coming so quickly and changing hour by hour.

Then this rainstorm started. The bridge connecting the town we were in, Hanalei Bay, to the rest of the island of Kauai went underwater. Even if we had wanted to go fly standby, we couldn’t get out of Hanalei Bay, with no clue of where it was ending. That letter is really a slice of, when is this rain going to stop? What’s going to happen to us? Now, what happened to us is that night the power went out on the entire island of Kauai. It happened around seven o’clock. My husband and I went to bed. We were like, this is not great. We have a whole fridge full of food and an electric stove in this unit and a toddler who eats more than I do. We woke up in the morning, still no power. By the afternoon, I was starting to panic. The hotel had made bowls of canned chili on a grill in the parking lot. I can’t eat that. I mean, I can. This is not an issue of snobbishness. I’m a terrible snob, but I just can’t feed that to my son for multiple meals. The supermarket in town got a generator.

What happened was a friend of a friend had an open cottage with a generator. I’m not kidding. This was so crazy and random. The friend of a friend said, “Please go stay there.” It was a beautiful cottage that’s nicer than my home that I live in. The power was out for twenty-four hours, but we had a generator. It was a gas stove. I went from eating crackers and canned chili to being able to make meals for my son. The bridge did not get out of water for two days. At that point, we were twenty-four hours from our original flight. It did not stop raining. We took our flight home, and relief. We’re relieved to be home. Hawaii is very beautiful. I think that even, as you were just saying about New York City before we started this podcast, I think the desire to be close to your home even if you know that it might technically not be as safe as someplace else, it’s really strong in all of us right now. It’s an illusion of control. It’s my home. It’s my bed. That’s my market that I go to. Here we are. You and I are both sitting in the middle of a self-quarantine, shelter-in-place order in Los Angeles, and similar in New York City.

Zibby: It’s really hard to believe.

Stephanie: I know.

Zibby: Not to go back to the book because you’re probably sick of talking about it, but I —

Stephanie: — No, please.

Zibby: I feel like your book is so much about that sense of home and the search for home, and what does it mean, and going home again and revisiting, and having to deal with your parents again and all the stuff that opens up. Sometimes I feel like going home is maybe the most painful choice you can make, in a way.

Stephanie: Absolutely. I had spent a lot of that year that I moved back here, 2015, traveling. There were very lovely places that I could’ve ended up if I really wanted to leave New York, and I could’ve just stayed in New York. I did feel this pull to know this city again as an adult. I did not realize how complicated it would be, of course. When I got here, I think that the landscape of California has that sort of fragile, volatile, doomed quality to it, the way that the hills don’t hold in place, the way that we go into droughts then into mudslides then into fires. I realized that while I had taken all of that for granted as a child, that anxiety that really come to define my life. I couldn’t reckon with that anxiety from New York City. I had to be here. What I found is that this city is nothing like what I remember it as. Seeing it from adult eyes and with the help of someone, the love interest in the book who has a completely different lens on the world than I do, I don’t think that I’ll leave California. I might leave LA, but I think this is where I live now. This is where I want to spend whatever days are left to me.

Zibby: That sounds so dire.

Stephanie: I mean, we’re talking about shelter in — you know exactly what I mean.

Zibby: I know, I know. I had this moment when things were looking particularly grim. Right now, not that they look much better, but I was sort of convinced that I was going to die in the next two to three months. This is a week or two ago. Now I feel like, okay, maybe I won’t, but I don’t know. It was before I settled in here and hid, essentially. I was like, so if this is the last two or three months of my life, how do I want it to go? Do I want to change anything? Then I realized, no. I still want to do Zoom calls and Skypes. I still want to be busy. I still want to be with the kids. Then acknowledging that sort of made things a little easier. Maybe what you’re saying, that you want to stay there forever, it’s like, okay, I’m going to go into cruise control. This is what I got. I’m going to go with this. We’ll see what happens.

Stephanie: Yes, absolutely. I think that I spend so much time fantasizing about different lives, which is how I ended up in Barcelona on a whim to write this book, Stray. Having a sense of belonging here is really different for me. I have such a complicated, beautiful relationship with New York City, like everyone who lives there. I never ever, a single day that I lived there, thought I’m going to be here for the rest of my life. I think that that feeling is now what I equate with home. It could’ve been Portland, Oregon, or Boulder, Colorado, or the Catskills at a certain point, but it’s California. It’s the Pacific Ocean. There’s something about it that has settled that question for me. You grew up in the city.

Zibby: I’m there because I’m from there. I feel like if I had been born in a small town in Kansas, I would be there too. There’s something about coming home to where you started, where it all began. For a while, I did live in Laurel Canyon, which is part of your book. I lived right on Wonderland. That was so funny because I didn’t even realize when I lived there — people were like, did you hear about the murders? I was like, is that why I got this great deal on this rental? I was twenty-one years old. What did I know?

Stephanie: Laurel Canyon is really this bubble, the land that time forgot. It’s so beautiful. I miss it all the time. I really equate it with being alone. I don’t know that I could have the life I have now with the walk — it’s not very walkable. Did you notice that?

Zibby: Yes, I did notice that.

Stephanie: It’s really isolated.

Zibby: I could barely drive there. The roads are so —

Stephanie: — Totally. I do think of it fondly, especially in spring months when everything gets so green.

Zibby: After you came out with Sweetbitter and it became a TV show and all the rest of it, did your head just spin? What was that like for you having all of that success just come? What was that like? Not to say you didn’t work hard at it, but what was that like? How did that change your life?

Stephanie: It changed every aspect of it from the day-to-day to what I was able to imagine myself doing or what I could aspire to. First, there is this element of luck. I did work really hard, but what happened with Sweetbitter was so much bigger than me personally or any talent I have as a writer. That is about luck and timing. I was so aware that something like that probably doesn’t happen multiple times in a lifetime, and so I said yes to absolutely everything. What it felt like to have all that happen was a lot of work. I toured with Sweetbitter for a year where I only had one month that I didn’t travel. I’d go to Wichita. I’d go to Tampa, Florida. If someone asked me to Skype into their book club — I ended up stopping doing that, but in the beginning, I was like, yes, yes, yes. I will be up. I will write for free for any online publication. I totaled it up once. I think I wrote, and this was early, seventy thousand free words in so far as little pieces or interviews that I wrote back. Yes to everything. Then I was making television. I said yes, I want to be involved, as involved as possible. I want to work the twenty-two-hour days and be on set at two in the morning. I want to get into arguments about casting. I want to read every script.

It felt like struggle. Success felt like struggle. I had enough sense not to be too attached to maintaining it, like, Sweetbitter‘s going to go on forever. This is a television series that’s going to go for ten years. It’s the new Friends. I was so aware that it was a moment and I would never get another chance like that. Very easily, I could have a really nice writing career, but I could possibly never have another book that hits like that and still have a very nice career like a lot of writers do. It felt like a lot of work. It felt like a lot of conflict just in getting work done and in learning an entirely new medium and an entirely new workplace, which is television. It felt like a lot of my life was on hold, which I think — when we got pregnant with Julian and I was living away from my husband, living in New York for six months of that year, doing everything long distance, making television at thirty weeks pregnant, I was very ready for that rollercoaster to end and see who I was at the end of it. Now, becoming a new mother doesn’t really help you see who you are. It maybe distances you even further. I think writing Stray helped. Having months of not traveling helps, quiet.

Zibby: Now you don’t have to travel so much right now with this book, it turns out.

Stephanie: Oh, my god, I know. I was going to be thirty weeks pregnant for that tour, but I have mixed feelings about it. I think that connecting with readers is a really important part of the job. I often say — and it’s not for everyone, but you don’t give birth to the child and then drop them off at daycare the next day and say, “Good luck here out in the world.” I do think that there’s a lot of work that comes after publication, if you’re up for it, if that’s your style.

Zibby: After Stray, do you have ideas for your next project?

Stephanie: I’m working on a novel. It is set in Los Angeles in the nineties, but very close to my heart. I think I will always kind of write from life. That seems to be my path, at least right now.

Zibby: It seems to be going well. Might as well. Let’s stick with that. When you run out of material, you can start writing about dystopian future societies or something. No, I’m kidding.

Stephanie: I know. I fantasize about being that kind of writer, of being able to imagine alternate worlds. I am so stuck in this world. Nothing about it makes sense to me, but I want to understand.

Zibby: You can tell. You can feel you sorting it out in the book. That’s what makes you just unable to put it down because you’re so rooting for you and wanting to see what you come up with. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors? How did you even learn? Did you learn to write this well? I know your teacher said to you from a very young age, “Oh, you’re a writer.” Did this just come? Did all of your training help? What advice do you have? That was a lot of questions.

Stephanie: Yeah, it was a lot of questions, but I got it. Training does help. I have always written like this. My journals from childhood are really interested in feelings and relationships and questions of identity and fear. I was drawn at a very young age to poetry, which has informed my style my whole life. Training helps because sentences and a vocabulary are unfortunately probably five percent of it. There is pacing. There’s storytelling. There’s an eye for capturing detail. There are lines of dialogue that are rote and then lines of dialogue that make a piece come alive. A lot of those things you can learn. I know that to be true, especially with television. I learned so much about writing after feeling like I kind of knew the ins and outs of style.

My advice, and the way that I learned all of that, was just by reading. I read scripts. I’ve been a reader before I’ve been a writer for my entire life. I still learn by reading. When I wanted to write a memoir, I had no idea how to write a memoir. I had never read most of them. It was a genre that I — I didn’t disregard it. I was just so interesting in fiction and literature with a capital L and poetry that memoir had kind of just fallen by the wayside, and so I read. I read fifty memoirs. I looked at how they were constructed and which ones stuck with me afterwards. What was possible? What are the rules? Then how do you break the rules?

Then the other advice that I give to aspiring writers often is to finish what you start. When you have identified yourself as a writer and you’re full of ideas and you have this life that’s giving you all of these unique experiences and this voice and point of view, it’s really easy to start projects over and over and over again. I’m going to write a Hunger Games-style YA novel today. Today, I’m going to write an Ernest Hemingway-style short story. Today, I’m going to write an elegiac piece about my mother. When I was in graduate school, Sweetbitter was the first thing that I turned in. I did not write anything else for the two years I was in school, and I had a book at the end of it. That book needed five drafts before it was ready to be published, but I wouldn’t have ever gotten there if I didn’t just get to the end. It’s so hard, but if you can get to the end of something, then you can look at it and say, oh, this has potential; oh, this needs help here. But until then, you’re just practicing.

Zibby: I love that. Thank you so much. Thank you for coming on this podcast, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” and sharing all of your stories. I’m such a big fan. I really am. This book is so good, so thank you.

Stephanie: No, thank you. It’s such a pleasure to chat about this, especially at this time. It’s a relief.

Zibby: Thank you.

Stephanie Danler, STRAY: A MEMOIR