Author Interview: Stephanie Danler

Stray is a memoir that explores what it’s like to face a family past of lies and addiction, while still moving forward to find peace. We spoke with author Stephanie Danler about the memoir she had to write, Alex McKenna’s narration, and the role independent bookstores have played in her life.

I read Stray on the edge of my seat. This is a story of triumph: the triumph of grit, talent, grace, and beauty over the dark pull of inner demons. I’ll be thinking about the courage it took to write this book for a long time to come.

Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance

Please tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write this book and how this story took shape for you.

Many people assumed that my first novel, Sweetbitter, was a thinly veiled memoir and that Tess, the protagonist, was me. Though Tess and I have much in common, I knew that my own biography was distinct from hers, complicated and very private. In fact, it was something I rarely talked about with others, even with friends

In 2015, I moved from New York City back to Los Angeles, California, where I was born and raised. I told myself I moved for the usual reasons: New York had gotten too expensive, I could spend more time outdoors, and so on. But when I settled back into Los Angeles, it was not the bohemian idyll I imagined. The Santa Ana winds, the volatile topography, the drought, the history of environmental exploitation, it all seemed deeply unstable. And then there were my parents. Being back in California caused me to remember them: their addictions, their pain, how they hurt me. And while I am not an alcoholic like my mother, or a crystal meth addict like my father, I could see clearly how I had inherited their cycles of self-destruction. I did not believe I would get better.

Stray is the memoir I felt I had to write: personal and raw. It is about the damage we inherit and repeat, but also, occasionally transcend. It is about what we try to forget and can’t, and it’s about boundaries. It’s also about love. I hope it speaks to you.

In two sentences or less, what’s something that might surprise listeners about your audiobook?

Alex McKenna is the voice of Sweetbitter, and now also Stray. She’s also my best friend. She’s a character in the book and allowed me to write about an extremely personal and painful moment in her life. It’s such an honor to have her tell my story.

Have you listened to your own audiobook? If so, what struck you about the narration?

Listening to Alex tell my story makes me weep: partially because I get so self-conscious about my sentences, but mostly I’m crying with gratitude. She has known me since I was a teenager, seen all of my mistakes and phases, and has loved me and supported me throughout. She’s a massive acting talent, and you can hear in the microphone, but the book came out so intimate and real. I wish she could just talk for me in general!

Are you an audiobook listener? If so, what are some of your favorite audiobooks?

I’m not, but if I were, anything by Alex McKenna. I did once listen to six hours of East of Eden on a road trip and it was thoroughly enjoyable. But I just had to read the actual pages when I got home.

What have independent bookstores and/or booksellers meant to you personally and professionally?

Most of my adult education has taken place in independent bookstores. I’ve written in their cafes, spent hours in their stacks, and had incredible conversations with their staff. When I lived in New York City, I visited three (The Strand, McNally Jackson, and Three Lives) weekly. They all had their different days and routines associated with them. Even when I couldn’t afford to buy anything, I would just go in and touch the books. I don’t know who I would be without them.

Header photo by Emily Knecht

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