Stephanie Danler ’06 returned to Kenyon for the first time since graduating to read from her hit novel “Sweetbitter” at an event sponsored by the Kenyon Review.
“I love Kenyon, and I love it so much that I never returned after I graduated because it was too painful to think about coming back here,” Danler said to an overflow audience in the Cheever Room of Finn House. “To be with your best friends up on a hill doing nothing but studying what you love and reading and writing: that will never happen again in the rest of your lives.”
After leaving the Hill and moving to New York City, Danler secured what she thought would be temporary employment working at Manhattan’s Union Square Café. However, much like Tess, the protagonist of “Sweetbitter,” Danler fell in love with the restaurant world, spending the rest of her 20s rising through the industry.
Eventually, Danler decided to embrace her lifelong love of writing, earning a master’s of fine arts from the New School and returning to the novel that she had toyed with for years. Her debut novel was published in May and earned attention from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, Vogue and Paris Review.
Danler, an English major, credited her success in part to classes she took from Writer-in-Residence P.F. Kluge ’64 and Professor Emeritus of English Perry Lentz ’64, and also to a high school teacher, Doug London ’74, who encouraged her to apply to Kenyon after recognizing her gift for writing. “When I got in here, it felt like a confirmation that this was the path I was supposed to be on,” she said.
Asked about her most significant Kenyon memory, Danler thought back to a class taught by Lentz in which she read Henry James’ novel “The Ambassadors,” which became one of her favorite novels. The book inspired her while writing “Sweetbitter” and helped her develop the character of Simone.
Danler also reflected on the last line of the poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” by Rainer Maria Rilke, which reads “you must change your life.” “It’s a beautiful poem,” Danler said. “To me, it’s this transformation from observing and engaging from afar with a work of art — for me it was my book; I’d been thinking about it for years — to: you must change your life. Right now. It’s time to go.”