O.C.’s Own Stephanie Danler Follows Bestselling Novel ‘Sweetbitter’ With a Memoir

Photograph by Emily Knecht

“Stray” is Danler’s account of growing up in north O.C. with alcohol- and drug-addicted parents and her struggles as an adult to cope with the damage. Brave, clear-eyed, and at times heartbreaking, it took shape after Danler moved from New York to Los Angeles, finished work on the TV series, and started a family of her own.

What were the highlights of working on the series “Sweetbitter”?
I liked the collaboration aspect, which is so different from writing a novel—getting to work with so many brilliant artists, from the art department to the actors to the other writers in our writers’ room. I would have loved to have worked with those people every day for the next 20 years, and getting to have that experience felt like a miracle. It didn’t have to do with me or my talent, to be honest. It was the right time for that story, and it took on a life of its own.

Was “Stray” emotionally difficult to write?
Of course. In order to write, you have to relive it and try to remember how scared, confused, or wounded you were as a child. It’s incredibly painful. And then you’re supposed to snap out of it as soon as you leave the room where you’re writing. Which is generally impossible. It was a very confusing time to be writing about this darkness. My son was 5 months old when I started this version of this book. It was very confusing to go from the joy of being in a new family and also go backward, constantly, to a time when I could never imagine having my own family.

Did you consider addressing your family’s dysfunction in fiction?
I did. I would have been a lot more comfortable calling this a novel. But at the end of the day, I do feel accountable to the people I’m writing about to be telling the truth. If you are going to say, “My mother was an alcoholic. My father was a drug addict. Here are the hard, sometimes abusive situations I was in,” I wanted to make sure that it was fact, and that no reader might think that I had stacked the emotional stakes.

Can you talk about what role the California landscape plays in the book?
The book wouldn’t exist without me having a reckoning with my home in my birth state. I left when I was 16, I moved back when I was 31, and I was really blown away by the richness and complexity and depth. I think I had written it off. Also, as a child, there’s something really reductive in the way that you see your home. So coming back and realizing that there is weather, seasons are changing, that there are Santa Anas and October is our hottest month and the entire month of June is gray—things that totally escaped me as a child.

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