By Madison Pontz | Banner photo by Nick Vorderman
I had seen the cover of Stephanie Danler’s novel Sweetbitter littered across sales shelves, “best of” lists and magazine reviews before I snagged a copy while on a beach trip this summer. That specific shade of dusty pink seemed to have followed me around for months before I delved into Danler’s debut novel. The story itself is poignant, but what’s really striking is the beauty of her prose. In it, we follow her 22-yearold protagonist, Tess, as she leaves home to work in the intense, dark, yet somehow still quite glamorous world of fine dining in Manhattan. Danler took some time to speak with Fine Living Lancaster about her writing process, how much of the plot was pulled from her own life experience, where she sees herself in 10 years, and how it feels to have created what people are referring to as “the book of summer 2016.”
[Stephanie Danler] The idea that I would write a coming of age novel—one that was inextricably tied to the arc of becoming of woman—came to me early, while I was managing restaurants in my late twenties. I think there’s an extended adolescence that takes place in your early twenties, when you’re not expected to commit yet: your job, your love life, or your location. You’re in flux and also trying to stabilize yourself. I hadn’t seen that moment explored in fiction.
The genre is difficult because in its traditional form, it takes the reader on a linear, formulaic journey from Point A to Point B. The character should start one way, go through some sort of crisis, and emerge clearly transformed. I think that’s an over-simplification, and also a fictitious portrayal of the way we grow up. It’s messier than that. And we never fully land at the place where we’re aiming to, we’re always taking a step forward and a step back.
[FLL] Is your book at all autobiographical?
[SD] I would say most novels are drawn from life, from one’s experiences. Tess— the protagonist of the novel—begins with some facts from my biography. I moved to New York City in 2006, landed in an apartment in Williamsburg, and landed a job at a prestigious restaurant that changed my life. But the plot of Sweetbitter is invented, and Tess, therefore, is invented as well. I never knew a Jake or Simone, but I knew many versions of those characters. They are also facets of myself.
[FLL] At some points, it almost felt like New York City is another character in your novel. Why did you choose to set your story in there, specifically?
[SD] I think for certain seekers, those with almost delusional ambition, New York City is the only place for them to go. It is the most crowded loneliest place in the world, and that communal loneliness is such a comfort. It is the most difficult place in which to prove yourself, but if you manage to do it, it’s an accomplishment that can never be diminished. It’s also a place where you can truly leave your past at the bridge and reinvent yourself—there’s a very long literary tradition exploring that journey, but working in restaurants you see it happen every day. LA often calls the dreamers, but New York City calls the survivors. No one decides to stay there accidentally.
It had to be New York because the stakes for survival are always so high. And having just left New York for the moment, I can tell you that no matter how you leave, with success or without, it feels like a defeat. The seemingly simple decision by Tess to stay in the city is a victory.
[FLL] What is your writing process like? How long did it take you to write Sweetbitter?
[SD] I wrote the first draft of Sweetbitter in the two years I was in graduate school—I was desperate to finish it before I left the program. I edited it for about six months with my incredible team at Knopf. My writing process is a bit unbalanced, and reminds me of restaurant work. When I clock in for a writing day, it’s a ten-hour binge in which I do nothing else. Most of the time I can’t cook or go to the grocery store or do laundry. I can maybe do four of those a week if I’m obsessed by something. The rest of time I need to be out in the world, gossiping, camping, drinking at lunch, going for runs. I need actual life, not just thinking about life.
[FLL] Who are some of your literary influences?
[SD] I’m deeply influenced in general and I like to honor how much I’ve been taught. I read so much, I feel like any time I write I’m in conversation with a certain writer or book. For Sweetbitter, there were so many I kept close to me and returned to again and again. I love the writers of the early seventies— Renata Adler, Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag. They made these weird, experimental novels and also wrote formidable essays. Across the board they were inventive with their syntax and rhythms—their sentences are ruthlessly good. I love that they weren’t afraid of creating unlikable women in novels—we need more of that fearlessness now.
[FLL] What film, music, or other aspects of pop culture have played a role in shaping your work and outlook on life?
[SD] I’m not great on pop culture, and I always feel terribly behind the times. However, Sweetbitter had some direct influences. For film it was Dirty Dancing, which is an underrated female-comingof-age movie. Everyone watches it for the dancing, and criticizes its sentimentality, but it’s the story of a woman learning her body, and learning to take ownership of it. It doesn’t end with a wedding. How rare is that?
The music of LCD Soundsystem, The Knife, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, this dance-able electro rock that was so prevalent when I moved to NYC, is on every page of the novel. Moving to a new city and learning its sound and music is a unique rite of passage that I didn’t want to ignore.
Lastly, the always-shifting downtown scene of the New York City was on my mind, especially when shaping the character of Jake. Early Ryan McGinley photographs, the mythology of Dash Snow, Elizabeth Peyton paintings, and the Ballad of Sexual Dependency by Nan Goldin. Many scenes of the novel were inspired by a painting or photograph or song—I wrote the diner scene between Tess and Jake after staring at “Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper.
[FLL] How does it feel to have written what many people called the book of summer 2016?
[SD] It continues to be humbling. It’s strange that instead of making me feel powerful, it makes me feel so small, like I was a conduit for something larger than myself. I can’t take credit for it. I worked hard, and the people at Knopf worked harder, and then so much of releasing a book is about timing. You can only pray that a book finds its readers—you can’t manufacture it.
[FLL] Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
[SD] I imagine there will be massive changes and I imagine my day-to-day will be very similar to my life now. I live in a house covered in books. I write, I read, I take walks, I laugh with friends. I travel constantly. I have so many ventures still coming for me—whether it’s teaching, or opening another restaurant, or writing for television and film—but my days have always been based around books, writing, and eating