Stephanie Danler’s debut novel Sweetbitter was a runaway bestseller and established her as an exciting new voice in fiction. For the follow-up, Danler has turned to memoir. Stray explores her volatile childhood and coming to terms with her past — perfectly describing the way addicts take over and change our lives, whether we give them permission to do so or not. Bookseller Sissy Gardner interviewed Danler via email.
Sissy Gardner: The structure of this memoir, the movement back and forth in time, was so perfectly suited to the search for self we all feel. Who we are presently is so entwined with the imperfect people who raised us, and our own imperfect past selves. How did you decide to craft that?
Stephanie Danler: I knew it would never be a “linear” memoir. Constructing stories like that is great for talking to a therapist, but I don’t feel it accurately reflects the way we remember, or how it feels to be haunted. From Proust, to Elizabeth Hardwick, to Jamaica Kincaid, there are so many examples of personal writing that uses the form to probe into how we often feel that we are in two places at once (our past and present) or that we’re two people at once. I wanted to create a memoir that had the feeling of circling certain events, because that’s how my mind works. I’m still circling my mother’s aneurysm, trying to understand it, even now.
SG: You’ve shifted from novel writing to memoir — I imagine this story made you feel especially exposed, but freed you at the same time. Could you tell me about the tension there?
SD: Exposed, yes, freed, not so much. Freedom to me is having total control over the story, as you do with fiction. Freedom to pivot, or embellish, or transform. Using facts felt very rigid to me. I believe Didion compared nonfiction writing to sculpting, where you have a certain amount of artistic license, but the material is set. And while I enjoy the challenge of different forms, be it memoir, essays, novels, or a script, I can’t say that I enjoyed writing this book. But that’s not memoir’s fault. It’s my own aversion to vulnerability.
SG: Here’s a question I could not have imagined asking you last winter: Many of your fans will feel a deep personal connection to this book as addiction and neglect are themes in so many of our lives. Since regular book touring is on hold for now (I guess?!?) are you able to plan any sort of connection with your readers? How do you feel about promotion during these strange times?
SD: I’m of two frames of mind these days: the first is that I miss the highs of touring. Of seeing friends, or a writer I know, in the crowd, of signing books, of getting to say, thank you, in person. There is something in those events that protects you from the nonstop cycle of judgement, criticism and praise that accompanies putting a book into the world. But at the same time, I’m active on social media. I spend a portion of the day saying thank you to strangers all over the world. I’m doing a half dozen virtual events, and will make myself as available as possible to questions. All of us writers are making the best of it — there has been a ton of camaraderie and cheerleading in my little corner of the writing world.
SG: Are you working on a project now, and if so, what type?
SD: I have a few scripts I’m working on, but before I went into quarantine (coincidentally when I started to do press for Stray as well), I was at work on a novel. I was in a very exciting stage of it (research and initial pages), but haven’t found myself able to focus on it since. A novel takes so much decision-making, and for me those decisions need to come from a grounded place. I don’t feel grounded right now. I feel like the world shifts under my feet every day. But I am looking forward to a time when I can be quiet with that book again.
SG: And finally, what’s your favorite thing about indie bookstores?
SD: Recommendations from booksellers and sitting on the floor in a corner with a huge stack of poetry, dipping in and out the books. That was something I used to do weekly (before I had kids), and I look forward to doing it again on the other side of this.