The Path Not Taken
Stephanie Danler, author of "Stray," on taking an unexpected turn out of childhood trauma
Stephanie Danler’s memoir Stray invites us to look closely at our own life: our family dynamics, our loss, our trauma, and the moments of happiness that still exist within that fragile frame.
With deep introspection and stunning prose, Danler tells us about the years she spent after writing her first novel Sweetbitter. Leaving New York for a return to California, painful memories emerge, she recounts being brought up by an alcoholic mother and an absentee father addicted to meth, raising a sister whose life is seemingly miles away from her own despite their living under the same roof for most of their childhood, falling in love with a married man.
Danler tells her story candidly, without summarizing cause and effect or tying a neat bow on the end. The honesty she brings to her reader allows us to think about our own story, the parts that make up a whole without trying to fit our identity into a preordained box.
Frances Yackel: The title of your memoir—at once a noun, an adjective, and a verb—can elicit so many things. What are you trying to capture with this word?
Stephanie Danler: Originally it was the noun that drew me—an animal in exile, surviving on the kindness of strangers. And as a verb, I’m drawn to this idea that there are paths—often prescribed—that we stray from in our lives and that it’s often in the straying that we grow.
FYl: In an interview with The Paris Review you said that your first novel, Sweetbitter, reflects the city in which you lived but that the narrator was decidedly not you. How, or why, did you decide on a memoir for your second book?
SD: I was in denial for years that I was writing a memoir. I wanted to start a novel, but the writing that felt most urgent to me was about my parents and about California. I pitched an essay to the Sewanee Review about California and this new relationship I was in, and about how damage lives on in us, and that’s when I knew there was a book. Even at that point, I didn’t want to call it a memoir because the expectations that come with the genre felt too heavy. I didn’t have a big ending with catharsis or a major change of direction. It’s the story’s ongoingness that I most wanted to convey. And how little decisions can build up over time to create change. I—like most people—had preconceived biases about what memoir was. As I read more and more from that world, I realized that there were absolutely no rules and that deeply inventive, experimental, and emotional writing happens even when you’re telling the truth.
FYl: Similarly to your novel, Stray brings deliberate attention to your environment, telling the reader about the history and beauty of California’s cities and landscapes. You treat your setting like you would another character. In what ways is your environment important to your writing or your writing process?
SD: Being back in California as an adult was extraordinarily eye-opening—it was familiar but mostly it wasn’t! We often take the landscapes of childhood for granted, and I know I did. I thought we always had homogenous, good weather, that our produce was season-less, that the hills were brown year-round. None of that is true. We have rainy seasons, fire seasons, gray Junes, frost in December. The citrus trees all peak together. The hills in March after a rain are as green as the Pacific Northwest. The love interest in the book uses the phrase “desert eyes” to mean when our eyes really start taking in the details and nuance of a place, and that’s what it felt like to be back here. I also believe that the physical landscape mirrors the psychological one—things look threatening when you’re scared, benevolent when you’re at peace, even if it’s the same view. And so it became important to show, first how flawed, corrupt, and damaged this environment is, but then also, how I began to fall in love with it.
FY: Toward the beginning of the book, you mention working on a piece about your father, mentioning how difficult it was to write about him. Did you face the same difficulty writing about your family in Stray? How did you overcome this struggle?
SD: Writing Stray was awful. I want to say something writerly and wise about the struggle, but the remembering and recreating a woman in a depression who doesn’t believe she’ll ever save herself, well, just experiencing it again in my mind felt a lot like depression. And I wrote this book during a beautiful time in my life. My son was 5-months-old and I would come out of my office to nurse him and not understand which life was real. The one where my sadness is swallowing me up, or the one where I have a family and we’re safe for the moment. I cried every day of writing. I worked late and slept late. And there were scenes I resisted until the last possible second, scenes that filled me with so much shame I felt nauseous. The only way the book progressed is that the writer in me knew that anything hurting was probably important and needed to be examined. It did get easier on the second and third drafts to see it as a book and read it a bit more dispassionately. But no. Sweetbitter was fun. This wasn’t fun.
FY: I love the theme of boundaries in Stray, of creating your identity through the ways you separate yourself from the people in your life. You say, “Here is where you end and I begin. However, while boundaries are powerful, they’re unfortunately not solid.” Do you think our individual identities are created by our family and friends or we build boundaries against them?
SD: I think our identity is formed in differences. That’s true when we’re toddlers—it’s necessary to differentiate from our parents, establish an ego, a will. That fades as children want to blend in, take comfort in groups and webs of relationships—which is natural and can be beneficial. I still imagine other people with loving families and the deep comfort it must be— my husband has it and I adore being with his family. But a lot of those relationships or group identities aren’t constructive—they’re built on guilt, abuse, codependency. That’s when relearning boundaries is so necessary—and it feels impossible as an adult because you’re so conditioned to taking on other people’s pain, to rescuing, to ignoring your instinct. But I believe in a lot of cases, your life depends on being able to say “No More”.
FY: A classmate commends you after finding out that your story is “not just a love story” and the comment sets you on a search for the meaning of the phrase. Do you think you found the answer? Did writing your memoir help you in this search?
SD: Calling anything “just a love story” is a barely-veiled sexist comment. It reveals a sentiment that has so infiltrated academia that even well-meaning feminists like myself still want to disown stories of love, the domestic, sensitivity, sexual trauma. We’re embarrassed by these stories, that they’re somehow too personal and we need to make them more abstract, more allegorical. Part of my learning curve in moving into non-fiction was owning how powerful it can be to just tell your story. That I didn’t have to make excuses for it or embellish it in order for it to be “literary.” Whatever that word means.
FY: You often question and explore the definition of happiness in Stray, did you discover anything about this indefinable word while writing about it?
SD: Ha, no I did not discover anything about happiness, except that it’s one of those catch-all words – like love – that is made up of a mosaic of highly subjective, ever-evolving context and storytelling. With my son, I try not to use it because I will never be able to explain the meaning of it to him. He’ll know it when he feels it, but the second he can describe it will probably be gone.