Stephanie Danler On Writing The Intensely Personal Follow-Up To Sweetbitter

No pressure. Stephanie Danler’s debut novel, Sweetbitter, was an international bestseller and the basis for an acclaimed series — she’s the creator, executive producer and writer — currently wrapping up its second season on STARZ. Now, she’s working on the follow-up to that phenomenon.
“I still don’t have my sound bites for it,” Danler cautions Christene Barberich, Refinery29’s global editor-in-chief and cofounder, on this week’s UnStyled podcast. But the new tome, a collection of “autobiographical essays,” is definitely thousands of miles away from the quasi-fictional Manhattan restaurant world of Sweetbitter, inspired by Danler’s earlier professional life. It’s also been much more personal, even painful, for Danler to put these words down on the page.
“I moved back to California in 2015, which is where I’m from,” she explains. Back home, Danler decided to confront her difficult family origins. “I'd worked with people for a decade who didn’t know anything about my parents and didn’t really know anything about my childhood.” She no longer speaks to her father, who struggles with a crystal meth addiction, and is back in contact with her mother, who contends with alcoholism. But reliving those memories wasn’t just rough emotional work — it was a steep writerly challenge, too.
“There's something so hard about writing about being a child,” she tells Barberich. “Because you are blameless, and it's not an interesting state to be in. To be like, you were an alcoholic, you were a drug addict, you abandoned me, you hurt me! That feels so one sided, and it’s not complex or the whole truth.” Part of the larger, more excruciating truth: recognizing herself in them.
“I don’t shoot crystal meth, I don’t drink and hit the people that I'm close to, but I have this black hole that they have,” she explains, “that I've filled up with things over and over again throughout my life. So anyway, uh, it's really not fun to write!”
Danler’s thoughts turned again to her mother when she and her husband recently welcomed a little boy. “It’s so easy to blame [my mom],” she says. “She is a depressed alcoholic who had a hard childhood herself, and she didn’t know how to raise us. She didn’t know how to connect, and she didn't know how to stop hurting or put her hurt aside.”
What’s her own prescription for more effective motherhood, then? Danler says she doesn’t have one. “I’m a very new mother. So I don’t want to make any statements about anything — I have no idea what I'm doing, but you do have to put your pain aside, and you do have to take the role pretty seriously about what your showing your child about what it means to be human and how life works.”
To hear Danler and Barberich’s entire conversation about family, writing, self-destruction, working in TV — and why she “didn’t want to be an old woman at a bar crying” — listen to this week’s UnStyled by subscribing via Apple Podcasts today.

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