How to Grieve the Living: A Conversation with Stephanie Danler
Francesca Pellas Talks to the Author of Stray
Grieving the living is an act of courage, a painful process Stephanie Danler hadn’t planned on undertaking just as her first book, Sweetbitter, was about to publish. It was 2015, and Danler was in the middle of moving back to her native Los Angeles after a decade in New York—as she packed up her life, she began to remember.
First, her mother, an alcoholic living with the after-effects of a serious brain aneurysm; then her father, a recovering addict who left the family when Stephanie and her sister were toddlers. At first, this act of remembering felt like a betrayal of her parents (“Telling the truth about them, when I’ve been trained since childhood to keep secrets, is unthinkable”), but she soon discovered that in her new home in Laurel Canyon she couldn’t write about anything else. That’s how Stray, her new book, was born. It’s a memoir in three chapters: Mother, Father, and The Monster (Danler’s married lover at the time). It’s also a slow journey towards a different kind of love, and a recounting of the author’s rediscovery of the landscape that made her: California.
Stephanie Danler and I had a conversation via Skype a few days before Stray was published, amid the Covid-19 pandemic. She was speaking from Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and her son, and a daughter on the way.
Francesca Pellas: This book starts with you moving back to Los Angeles, after a decade on the East Coast and quite some time spent traveling the world. Going back to your hometown, in a way, opened up this door that allowed you to write about your parents. Do you think that Stray would have been different, had you started it somewhere else? Would it even exist?
Stephanie Danler: Stray would not exist if I did not move back to Los Angeles. I had been living in New York for twelve years, and I, like many people that move there, loved that you had the opportunity to start over when you arrived, and that you could become essentially a better version of yourself. I wrote about that quite a bit in Sweetbitter. I thought that I had coped with my past and that I had cut ties with my parents, and that the story was over. But then I moved back to California and had this feeling of home, that is activated by the land, by the winds, by the climate, by the volatility of the topography… And being back home made me remember how much I loved them, which seems silly to say except that all of my adult life was about distancing myself from them and not thinking about it too much. When I figured out that writing about California was also writing about my parents, that’s when I actually knew there was a book. I don’t think there could have been a book in me remembering my parents while I was living in Rome, or New York, or traveling…
FP: Or in Sicily, that I read you love!
SD: (She laughs) Where I wish I was right now!
FP: What was the biggest challenge that you faced while writing this book?
SD: To name one is hard, because it was generally such an unpleasant experience. But I’ll say it was blocking out my own shame while I was writing. I’m pretty good at blocking the rest of the world while I write and I become obsessed with a project: I don’t think about my readers, or marketing, or my editors, or what the consequences might be… But in this case I had to dig into myself in a fairly brutal way and I was often left at the end of the day with overwhelming feelings of shame. I was also in charge of a newborn, so it was a very blessed and beautiful time in my life, and yet at the same time there was this cloud above me of every self-destructive, reckless, hurtful thing I had done. That was very difficult.
I knew that the book needed for me to be as honest as possible about myself; I really wasn’t interested in a story that was “Here are some people who have done something wrong to me.” The question I was obsessed with was: how am I like them? And also: how am I not like them? How have I become my parents, how have I become The Monster, and how can I escape? The hardest part of writing this book was the dissonance between still feeling like this trapped, scared child while also being a new mother who was nursing.
FP: Did becoming a mother help you heal that scared child, or did it at least change something in the way you saw your parents?
SD: It definitely gave me more compassion for them. I think that that’s true when anyone becomes a parent, regardless of their relationship with their parents. When you’re handed this tiny, vulnerable creature and you feel the weight of the commitment that you’ve made… it’s terrifying, and I think that people respond to how terrifying it is in healthy ways and in unhealthy ways. So while I believe that I have made a certain amount of peace with my parents and with not having them in my life before I had a child… I really opened up a sort of portal within myself, especially in regards to my mother. I started asking myself: what was it like for her? Was she as scared as I am? Did she know what to do? What did she think her life was going to look like? How long did she breastfeed me? I felt very connected to her and unfortunately, based on her disabilities, I’m not able to have answers to any of those questions. But I felt close to her again. It made the writing harder, to be honest; I think a writer needs a fair amount of distance and a certain touch of coolness, especially with matters as sentimental as parenting and childhood trauma. And I was so tender, the whole time. I still am: Julian is only 17 months old after all.
FP: Besides your mother and father, the third fundamental character in this book is The Monster, your former married lover. A relationship that made you suffer greatly. What would you say shifted in you, or allowed you to go from there to what you have now: a loving partner and a family in the making? Or maybe: if you were to give a piece of advice to someone who’s entangled in a toxic relationship and wants to set themselves free, what do you think that you would say?
SD: Let’s say that if you came to me and said that you’re trapped in an affair with a married man you can’t get out of, and you’re waiting for him to leave his wife… I could talk till I was blue in the face and tell you what a bad idea it is and how you deserve so much better. But the reason I couldn’t stop back then is that I had broken trust with myself so many times, I had gotten back to him so many times, and the way that he was hurting me was very familiar to me: it felt like a game that I couldn’t win, and it reminded me—as my therapist points out in the book—of trying to win my father’s affection, which was a very hurtful game as well. I hope it’s clear in Stray that I really did believe that The Monster and I were going to make it to a happier place; I thought that we were going to make it to a place that looks similar to what I have right now.When I figured out that writing about California was also writing about my parents, that’s when I actually knew there was a book.
And there was no amount of talking, from friends or my therapist, that could change my mind: I was circling a drain, waiting to hit rock bottom, and waiting for him really to free me. The shift in the book is from seeing myself as a victim, from waiting for The Monster to end this affair so that I could be free, to remembering that I had a choice. Of course that’s just the beginning, but that takes it into something active, which is: I’m not choiceless, I am The Monster, he hasn’t done anything to me, I am doing this to myself, all I have to do is stop and I’ll be free. I think at a really practical level it was about building up my trust with myself again; deciding, for example: I’m not going to see him this week, and I’m not going to see him next week, or the week after that. It’s keeping these small promises to yourself that builds your self worth over time: you’re protecting something.
I think sobriety is very similar: deciding that you’re not going to drink today, and that tomorrow when you wake up you have to start all over again. I wasn’t struck by lightning and one day simply said: I’m all done! No, it was more like: it’s been years of this and I have decided to stop. I ended the book with the decision, and with the feeling that I could fail at any point. As far as how I ended up with my now husband… it was very slow, almost like a reprogramming of my brain to not romanticize pain, and illicit sex, and secrets, and backstabbing.
FP: There’s a very powerful scene in which you say that the love Interest (now your husband) called your name from the other room and you thought: “What is wrong with me? I’ve lost all sense of proportion. How brutal is my other relationship that a man addressing me kindly by my full name makes me want to cry?”
SD: Right, it’s a reconditioning. It can’t just happen at a rational level: it’s about finding the erotic in trusting someone, which is not what I was used to think of as sexy. Sexy was: he might abandon me at any moment, I might never see him again. As opposed to someone like my husband who just doesn’t play games, he doesn’t know how or care to. What I’m struggling with in the book is believing that that’s going to sustain my interest; I don’t believe that I’m going to be able to move forward with someone because he’s whole. Or kind. Or trustworthy. And it took a while. I really wanted to contrast these two kinds of love. One is “I can’t breathe without you, I will bend over backwards to see you, I’ll get on a flight or drive through the night and meet you anywhere,” which is obsession. And the other one, what I found with the love Interest, my now husband, is that I slowly realized that I felt really good with him, and the next day came around and I was excited to see him and I felt good, and I thought “This isn’t a relationship, this isn’t anything serious, maybe we’ll just be friends at the end of this,” because it didn’t have the torture aspect.
FP: There’s another beautiful and touching scene in which the love Interest tells you about how he found his mattress in the street when he was living in San Francisco (actually, he found it in Alamo Square!), and you realize that “The more time I spend with him, the more my skepticism is interrupted by spontaneous bursts of affection. I’m having one now. It comes out like laughter. I can’t be close enough to him. I really like you, I say.”
SD: (She laughs) Oh my God, it took a long time to get rid of that mattress! But yes, it’s just small moments of laughter, of realizing “Hey, I’m not crying after we have sex every time, I’m actually kind of giggling,” and I would say that it took a year of very slowly realizing that this was the great love of my life. Not someone who treated me like a doormat and flew into town to have sex with me and then disappeared ten minutes later. This, what I was building with Matt, was love, or could be. But as I’m talking about this book a lot of people have said “your happy relationship,” “your healthy relationship,” and I just feel cursed! (She laughs). We have problems too! But every day I look at him be a father and I’m so extremely grateful that I found a way to him. And if that’s happy and healthy, I’ll take it.
FP: Thank you so much for sharing all this.
SD: Well, it was a very long answer!
FP: It’s ok, I’m more than happy with a long answer when it’s a precious one. Now, after a few tough questions, I have a lighter one, or two in one. You often say that food and sex go hand in hand. And you also say that there’s not enough good erotic fiction. So I would like to know: did you read something recently that you found good enough and that you would like to recommend? And also: is there a recipe, a dish that you find particularly sensual and that you would cook for someone you love?
SD: Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women comes to mind. Have you read it?
FP: Not yet, but I absolutely intend to.
SD: It’s not necessarily erotic all the time, because it’s a lot about sexuality and trauma, but there’s some wonderful erotic writing in that book, which is so close to the woman’s point of view, to her hope, her pleasure, and then her immediate disappointment. It’s so in the head of the women that are involved, and it’s amazing, considering that it’s nonfiction; Lisa Taddeo has taken an imaginative leap that is incredible.Knowing a little bit about the profit and loss game in restaurants, half capacity is not going to cut it, it’s not going to save anyone’s business, and so I don’t know what the other side will look like.
I also always recommend James Salter: I think that A Sport and a Pastime is a very erotic novel. The French writer Colette writes beautifully about sexuality: a very ambiguous, fluid sexuality, which is surprising, if you think that she’s writing at the turn of the 20th century. But besides Lisa Taddeo, nothing else recently, I’m taking recommendations!
FP: I’ll let you know if I come across something!
SD: Thank you! As far as sensual food goes… I love being waited on and I love being in restaurants: the voyeuristic aspect of dining with a group of strangers, everyone drinking, the music at the perfect volume, the lighting, the performance aspect of it.. And so I really miss that since we’re quarantined, it’s not the same to cook a steak and then eat amid all of the toddler toys! But if I were to cook something with love and sensuality in mind… I think that red meat can be such a treat. I don’t eat it often in my regular life, but to go to a great butcher and find well sourced meat is very animalistic to me.
FP: Speaking of dining out… you know the New York restaurant world very well. The hospitality business is facing an unprecedented moment and probably its scariest challenge to date. Of course it’s not easy to imagine what the coming months will look like, but if you were to try: what do you think the restaurant industry may look like on the other side of this, and what could be the things to start building up again from?
SD: I have been trying not to theorize because I don’t know if that’s three months from now or a year from now, and I don’t know how you recover from something like this. I have lots of friends who own restaurants and I’ve been in contact with them: some of them have been able to pivot to offering goods, turning themselves into a market, some of them have been able to pivot to take-out, some of them have not; and our waiting to see where this lands, not just from a government standpoint—what they’ll be able to do, what the new rules will be, whether they have to be at half capacity, or take temperatures at the door, whether everyone inside has to wear masks… that’s one aspect of it. I think they’re waiting to see where people land on the other side of this. Are we going to feel safe enough, even if we have the option to go back to restaurants?
I personally think that we are craving it and I think there will be a flood if restaurants were to magically reopen tomorrow, even at half capacity. Knowing a little bit about the profit and loss game in restaurants, half capacity is not going to cut it, it’s not going to save anyone’s business, and so I don’t know what the other side will look like, but I do think that people will come out, I do. If and when that day comes I think that they will not take dining out for granted ever again.
FP: That’s true. I also think of the many people whose lives are now upended… Yes, the business owners are facing this incredible challenge, but I’m thinking a lot about those who don’t have any kind of protection. Anyone who is a bit familiar with the restaurant industry knows that the kitchens in New York, for example, are a world in itself, a secret world inhabited by people who are a fundamental part of the structure that keeps this city—and the restaurant world in general—together, and yet they don’t have any rights.
SD: Yes, no documentation, no resources, and they are a huge part of the labor force that makes New York run. It’s horrifying, truly. It’s horrifying for everyone: for servers who are now on unemployment, and especially for undocumented workers in the kitchens. Where do they go? There is no unemployment to collect for them, there are no loans, and the fact that there is no end in sight is the hardest part for everyone involved in the hospitality landscape. There’s no plan yet, and that’s really scary.
FP: I have two more questions and then I’ll let you go back to your baby. Here’s one: I believe that the place we come from has a way of mapping itself onto and inside us that comes out in many ways throughout our life, especially if one makes art of any kind. Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with California? Not as a writer specifically, but simply as Stephanie as a whole.
SD: I think that, moving back here, my relationship was conflicted: I had taken so much of California for granted, and had never taken the time to investigate it, definitely not the way that I investigated New York as a young adult. Being back here and seeing it anew changed me, actually, because it suddenly felt imperative that I understand the place that I came from, the place I was living in, and the consequences of that. By that I mean in a historical way: what is the city doing here, with no natural water on top of four different fault lines.
FP: In Stray you write a lot about how Los Angeles got its water.
SD: Yes, a crime, because that’s what it was: a crime! And before that, the genocide of the Native communities who lived here by the Spanish, and then the exile of the Spanish by easterners who were moving here and wanted to remarket California as a Mediterranean wellness retreat, Los Angeles in particular. The way that we have—such a strong word, but—raped the land for profit, the way that the city grew… New York has grown in density, while Los Angeles doesn’t have density, it has sprawl, and it has taken over our mountains, our rivers, our beaches. Everything is developed, everything is for sale, and there’s something really corrupt, not only about that, but also about the motion picture industry that is the industry that runs this city. There is a value that prioritizes fantasy over reality, which is something that I felt so strongly when I moved back here. But at the same time I also felt that I would never live anywhere else for the rest of my days. When I drive up the California coast, on Highway 1, I think it’s the most beautiful place in the world. Something about the volatility, and the fires, and the droughts… it’s my home, its instability makes it infinitely more beautiful to me, and I’m hooked, I’m just hooked. I don’t think I’ll live in Los Angeles forever, but I see myself in California for the long haul.
FP: Last question. You love poetry, and you read a lot of it. You also post a lot of it on Instagram. Can you tell me even just a verse from a poem that kept you company during these strange and suspended weeks?
SD: Yes, I don’t want to misquote it so I’ll just take it and read it to you. It has been on repeat in my head.
(She reads aloud)
We Lived Happily During the War
We lived happily during the war
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.