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For ‘Sweetbitter’ author Stephanie Danler, memoir writing felt like ’a tightrope walk’

David Wilson for The Boston Globe

After the success of her debut novel, “Sweetbitter,” which she wrote in a “euphoric, manic state,” Stephanie Danler found herself writing in a more autobiographical vein. An essay about environmental trauma in California turned out to be about her difficult relationship with a drug-addicted father.

“At that point, all of the writing I had been doing about my mother, about my father, about my childhood, about being back in California — it all became connected and I knew that there was a book,” Danler said. “And still, it took me another year before I admitted that I was writing a memoir.”


In “Stray,” out this month, Danler untangles her troubled childhood and rocky path toward adult happiness. “I found this kind of writing and this kind of vulnerability really difficult,” she said. “I felt haunted. I had trouble sleeping. Really, memoir is a tightrope walk. And there’s no net beneath you.”

She loved her parents deeply, but had to contend with the “long line of violence, alcoholism, mental illness in the family.” And there’s bad luck, too: In the same year, her mother suffered a brain aneurysm (she survived but with brain damage) and her father spun out of control with a crystal meth addiction.

“When I first published writing about my father, I was so scared,” Danler said. “And the response that I got from people who felt reflected in it, or felt that their lives were similar, gave me enough courage to write this whole book. I just want to contribute to the conversation about how we recover and how we love ourselves.”

The mother of a young son and pregnant with a daughter, Danler doesn’t know if her children will ever read her work. “I’ve written about pregnancies, I’ve written about drug use, I’ve written about sex and I will continue to because I think honesty is really important to my work.”


Danler will read her “Stray” at 7 p.m. on May 28. www.harvard.com/event/virtual_event_stephanie_danler/.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.