Stephanie Danler is talking about her affair with a married man, over Skype, to a person she has never met. It's early April, a few weeks into the country's COVID-19 crisis, when it still feels nerve-wracking-weird to conduct interviews over video calls, instead of the draining, slightly depressing, familiar-weird of video calls that will settle in months later. When it still feels novel to blow-dry one's hair or put on a lip tint for a Skype interview. We discuss where we were when the shelter-in-place emergency order came down (her: Kauai, me: New York City) because remembering the beginning of the quarantine used to be a thing that we did.
Talking about your affair with a married man over Skype is a daunting task for anyone, but feels especially generous on Danler's part because of the many readers who fell for the glossy-magazine-profile version of her life: a huge two-book deal at Knopf, resulting first in the best-selling megahit Sweetbitter; then, a two-season television adaptation of the novel on STARZ. Plus she's attractive and stylish; even during her waitressing years, she did her time at high-end Manhattan establishments like Union Square Café.
This version is true, but it's merely one small portion of the whole truth.
Her memoir is not meant as one of those "oh, you think it's been easy for me?" missives — in fact, she says that is one of the potential notions that almost stopped her, many times, from writing the book — but like most compelling memoirs, the trauma and pure un-fair-ness of her life story will hit readers instantaneously.
"I've said it before, that Sweetbitter was like winning the lottery," says Danler. "But it did not change my life at a material level the way people probably assume it has. There are some assumptions there that I don't have the time or the energy to correct — but it is true that I've been able to make something beautiful out of what was a very dark past."
Stray, which is split into three sections — Mother, Father, and Monster — alternates between examining Danler's childhood (years defined by her parent's addictions, divorces, abuses, but also money, beauty, and joy) and examining her present-day, which for the memoir involved moving back to her hometown of Los Angeles, living in a Laurel Canyon rental that likely previously housed members of Fleetwood Mac, and waiting for her boyfriend to leave his wife. From the reader's perspective, it seems impossible that she left out any pain: Less than 10 pages in we learn that she found out, as an 8-year-old, that her father left her family because he was a cocaine addict (that is, dare we say, only the beginning of her parental tragedies). She describes in detail the sight of her mother in the hospital after having a brain aneurysm, and again after she had a car accident that ended her autonomy completely. She uses the transcripts from WhatsApp conversations with her married boyfriend to inform dialogue, like when he told her she'd gotten so skinny that her breasts were deflating or the (many) times he ignored her begging him to be with her.
"The first time I read the book as a whole I saw where I tried to cut a corner because it hurt me too much, or because I was ashamed of it," she says. "But what interests me in memoir is when the person is really able to excavate themselves and look at their fears — that's when a memoir feels like it's vibrating to me, like it's alive."
When Danler signed with her publisher, Knopf, they preemptively greenlit a second book, predicting as publishing houses often do that Sweetbitter would be a success. She thought she would follow it with a novel, and had told her team as much, but admits with a laugh that she hadn't written a sentence of any such book. The path to Stray came in pieces: First, in 2015 she wrote an essay for Vogue describing her father's crystal meth addiction (see: earlier note about the cocaine being just the beginning), which Danler describes as "the crack in the dam" in speaking publicly about her pain. Late the following year she wrote an essay about the landscape of California (a truly violent place, as she unpacks) that began a meditation on the heaviness of living so close to the source of her pain again.
"It's a deeply complicated place that requires a certain level of amnesia for me," she says. "I feel that way about my parents, too.... I couldn't think about their pain and suffering and continue to lead a productive life. Once I wrote that piece I knew I could write a book about it."
It took years to come to the concept, but once she arrived, Danler worked quickly. She only finished the memoir in June, a process rushed partly because of her pregnancy (she is due with her second child in July — that isn't a spoiler if you follow her on Instagram or read the dedication page of Stray, but we'll let the book explain the rest) and partly because she didn't want to lose her nerve. She preferred the rawness to stay intact, fears she may have turned it into a novel instead of its current, highly primitive, form. There's so much to think twice about, not the least of which is the vulnerability required of everyone in her life who is written about.
"I feel for my parents all the time, that they have no control over this narrative," she muses. "And that I, as a mother, could give everything to my son and still not control the story that he tells at the end of the day about his journey."
And then there's The Monster. The moniker comes from a moment early in their relationship (the illicit stage, that is) when he rehashes a mutual childhood memory of a dropped piece of pizza ("You picked up that filthy piece of pizza and you ate it. You were a monster. And that's when I knew.") The first version of Stray did not mention their affair.
"I really believe that children of alcoholics are the best secret-keepers in the world," says Danler. "That made me really good at keeping my own secrets. But once I realized how tied that relationship was to my habits, I knew I had to go there for the book to make sense."
Everyone in the book is clearly identifiable except for The Monster, and writing those portions required a balance of the desire to tell the absolute truth (insofar as that's possible within the medium) and a desire not to intrude on his privacy (in the present tense of the book, he is still married). If his wife reads Stray, she'll see the other side of their marriage: The time he left Danler's side to go on a couple's trip to Palm Springs, the late-night WhatsApp conversations, the visits to Brooklyn, London, Rome, Athens. Or the details of the affair might be unrecognizable, because only two people know which facts are invented to obscure an identity.
"In the end, I think it's more important the impact he had on me than whether he was a fully-created character," Danler says. "The point is the way he made me behave and the way that I behaved for him."
Stray ends with Danler's decision to stop the affair. Insofar as a timeline is concerned, the narrative ends right as Sweetbitter is about to hit shelves. That novel gave Danler her status as literary It Girl — one with tens of thousands of Instagram followers and one of those Day Out With features in The New York Times — but its (admittedly muted) autobiographical energies hint at the reality put forth in Stray. As Danler sees it, her readers won't be surprised that the person who wrote Sweetbitter has a conflicted relationship with her parents and a tendency towards self-destruction.
As long as we're conflating things, it's easy to see the ending of her memoir as the end of a journey to fix herself; an Okay, I'm good now! wrap-up. Danler is frank that this life that she has now is one she couldn't have imagined for herself back when she made the kinds of decisions she writes about. There's a moment in the book when she describes her engagement to her first husband. She finds herself pivoting from a person who assumed her family history precluded her from ever attempting to have a family herself, to a person who thinks, why not? Maybe it's a particularly millennial affliction, to be born into this world either believing that is possible for you or not at all, but the moment will feel familiar.
"You're talking about self-worth, right?" she says when I ask about where she currently falls on the why-me to of-course-me spectrum. "It feels like that struggle is a part of my physiology, a part of my birthright. So I still have to give myself the same pep talk. Why not me? Why can't there be another story for me — one that doesn't burn itself to the ground."