She might look sweet and delicate, but Stephanie Danler will shock you in her writing. Her debut novel “Sweetbitter” is already a best-seller. This thrilling story about a small town girl making her way through vibrant New York evokes infinite possibilities in the reader:
I am very direct. I like contact, and I love the subversion of honesty in the middle of a lot of bullshit. I tend to be a bit rebellious. My saving grace is my manners, enforced by my mother from a young age and reinforced ten fold by restaurant work. I had this classical education, have read Proust, Homer, Dante in English and Italian, but people are always shocked by my cursing. That’s a lifetime of kitchen work and keeping up with boys whose vulgarity was supposed to shock me. I don’t trust someone who is too polite.
Sweetbitter is your debut novel. The writing must have been a very special process. Had you had the idea for the plot in mind for a long time?
By the time I got to graduate school, I had been thinking about Sweetbitter for a few years, while working at restaurants. I was thinking about these young women I kept hiring, the kind that said to me, “I’m only going to be here a few months until…” and I would nod and think, “Whatever you say.” I would watch them fall down the rabbit hole – their first tastes of the food, their first understanding about wine, watch them fall for the bartender, watch them come in with darker circles around their eyes…And even as I watched them make mistakes, I kept thinking about how pure that time was. It’s all present tense, you’re free from your past, and unconcerned about the future. That was where Tess started, and the rest of what little plot there is came from an attempt to write with and against Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. I love the figure of the older woman, wise and beautiful, slightly toxic.
I probably won’t stray from fiction and non-fiction, but I have some key ideas. Now – and always – it’s about timing.
Did you ever imagine your first novel would be as it turned out?
Which part? The part where Knopf published it? The part where it found so many readers? I couldn’t have imagined any of that. But I will say that from the second I wrote the first sentence, “You will develop a palate,” I knew I had something. Maybe it was just a book that I hadn’t read but wanted to, but I felt like it was urgent to finish, like the book had somewhere to be. I had a lot of encouragement from my professors in graduate school, but at the same time, no one – ever – has said to an MFA student, “This will get published.”
I don’t know that every author wants their book to reach as many people as possible. I think – in my case – I wanted the book to find its readers. People moving to a city or people that had moved to a city once, people in the restaurant industry, people who were struggling at any age to “become” themselves. Reaching a wide audience is a little scary. They often want this book to be something it’s not (i.e. Kitchen Confidential or The Devil Wears Prada) and that often leads to a lot of polarized readers. But polarization is one of the by-products of making art.
“I was told – many times – that Tess’s rock bottom as the end of the book was too “unlikeable.” But I knew that her spiral had to be real and dangerous, not a fairytale version of a dark night. I know now that when people say that something or someone is unlikeable in fiction, it has more to do with their expectations of the genre than what I wrote. We seem to expect our women – especially our damaged women – to be cured at the end, happily ever after, when we all know that is not the experience of life. My loyalty was to real life.”
Did any particular person in your life spark your inspiration to write this story, or does it all come straight from your experiences?
Definitely not one person. I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 15 years old, all over the United States. Iput it all in there. I had too much to play with, too many lives I had lived, co-workers I had adored and drifted away from. The book is a series of composites, which is one reason the restaurant isn’t named – it’s a blur of every place I’ve worked at, from California to Colorado, Ohio, and the myriad places in New York City.
The story (in Sweetbitter) appears to be universal. I tend to divide the readers into two camps, a) restaurant people and b) non-restaurant people. I think I’m more surprised by how resonant it is with people who have never tied on an apron. There is still something universal to being lost and earnest and curious at twenty-two, no matter where you live or what your age is now. We all remember the freefall of youth.
How was your relationship with literature as a child?
Roubust! Certainly it’s the reason I’m in a position to give interviews! Reading has always come first. I started reading quite young and reading way over my head. By the time I wanted to write my own stories, around 8 years old, I wanted to mimic the books I loved. At 8 years old it was Edgar Allen Poe and Oscar Wilde, by 10 it was JD Salinger, by 13 it was Sylvia Plath. My writing is a conversation with the books I love, but in this voice that I’ve had since I was a girl. I don’t believe in the anxiety of influence as much as I used to. I look at my journals and it was always me.
Success to me feels shockingly similar to failure. I cannot tell you how many mornings I wake up paralyzed with anxiety, thinking, How can I be better, I need to do more, I need to earn this. I’ve been working so hard, for so long, that I can’t really turn it off. There were ten minutes – the day after I got my book deal and I was going into my waitress shift – where I felt like a warrior. I remember walking down the street totally victorious that I had made it out alive. Thirty minutes later I was cleaning a bathroom. That’s how it continues to be. There’s no time for patting myself on the back, there’s too much work to do.
What’s the best compliment you’ve received so far on Sweetbitter?
There’s no best. Every time someone tells me how it’s changed them, or even that it moved them, I’m totally overwhelmed. It’s difficult to take in. I realized quickly that the compliments – or the insults – have nothing to do with me. I am a conduit between the readers and the book, and I am always humbled by it.
What has this process taught you?
That self-preservation is key. Protect your writing time and the self that writes. Don’t read about yourself on the internet, don’t read reviews, keep the artist in you protected from the noise. That’s the only way to go on creating, because the rest of it is a total shit show.
Do you have any kind of lucky charm or writing “ritual”?
Reading. Mostly poetry when I’m blocked. I write a lot in transit. If it’s not working, move, get in the shower, the car, the subway. I don’t take notes when I’m out, but I will compose whole paragraphs, pages, and know that if they’re any good they will come back to me on the page.
“For Sweetbitter I listened to a lot of music from my life in 2006, most of which found its place in the book. LCD Soundsystem, The Knife, The Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, New Order…but that’s often to get me in the mood. I find myself writing in silence, not noticing that it’s silent.”
Besides writing, my passions are food and wine, obviously. My obsession with how I eat, how I feed my friends, how I mark my life with beverage rituals, it’s not going anywhere. It’s the lens through which I see the world, as is writing. I have terrible wanderlust, which also goes with food and writing. I am not comfortable in life unless I know when my next trip is…it can even be a road trip, I just need to know my escape routes.
“I’m most grateful for my sister. I have such a supportive friend family, especially around my writing, but I don’t have a traditional family network. Instead I have a sister who is my best friend, first reader, and all-around favorite person. I couldn’t function without her.”
“There are so many women writers I hold in my head for their commitment to the craft of writing – Virginia Woolf, Clarice Lispector, Renata Adler, Sylvia Plath, Diane Arbus, Joan Didion…the list is too long.”
A life without literature would be probably less tortured, but ultimately worthless.
Do you already have your next novel in mind?
I am working on a book of non-fiction, based on an essay I wrote for Vogue magazine on the inheritance of addiction. Not as much fun as Sweetbitter, I can tell you that.
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