April 23, 2020
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First novels rarely get the attention that Sweetbitter is enjoying as it launches this spring with a 10-city tour, glowing reviews and articles in an array of major magazines. But few novels, first or otherwise, are as extraordinary as Sweetbitter. Stephanie Danler ’06 (who was Stephanie Mannatt at Kenyon) has crafted a sensual coming-of-age story about a young woman’s first year in New York, where she works as a “back waiter” in a fine restaurant — as Danler herself did. In exquisite prose, Danler evokes not only the sumptuousness of food and the controlled chaos of restaurant work (as well as the chaotic lives of waiters and cooks) but also the city itself, with its changing seasons and moods. Danler recently spoke with Dan Laskin, book editor of the Alumni Bulletin, about the book and its success.
The language in this novel is so highly wrought, so sensuous and lyrical.
I adore poetry, and I mostly read poetry in my free time. I hold myself to a very high standard; there can be nothing wasted. I don’t write poems, but I think that that sort of rhythm and precision is ingrained in me. And food just lends itself to new metaphors, luscious language. As does New York City.
Yes, the novel is a kind of love letter to New York, but one that includes all the mess and pain that living there can bring.
Anyone who is living in New York and trying to write about it is trying to capture this sadness and nostalgia that you carry around with you, the struggle you’ve been through, but also how intoxicating it is, every single moment. It demands your presence. If you’re using all five of your senses, whether for food or for walking down a city block, there’s so much to capture.
Why is that lyricism important for the sensibility of Tess, your narrator?
The entire book is a voice piece, to a certain extent, and this [lyricism] is the way she observes the world. Even before she gets to the restaurant and begins tasting food, she already has that palate, she’s already primed for this kind of experience. That’s the reason she’s moved to the city — because she wants the intensity of flavor and the intensity of life in every aspect.
Periodically, Tess stops herself to say something like, “I don’t think I said it well before, let me try again,” as if she’s struggling to describe her own experience.
The entire book, in a way, is about her learning a new language, for how to talk about food and wine, and also to speak for herself. She’s quiet in the beginning; she stops herself and stutters a lot. She’s perceived as ditsy. By the end of the novel, when she’s talking back to people, she’s become herself.
It’s interesting that we don’t even learn her name until halfway through the book. At first, we know her by the nicknames that others give her.
By the time we find out her name, I think it has stopped mattering. I think it’s the element of surprise to herself that’s really interesting. Also, there are a lot of initiation rituals in training in a restaurant. It’s the same as in the military. They take everything away; you get a new set of clothes, you learn a new language and you get a new name. All of that happens to Tess within the first 10 pages.
The novel unfolds over the course of a single year, with a section devoted to each season. Was that your concept from the beginning?
The very first draft of the book was a 25-page short story that had the same first line and the same last line from each of the four seasons. In the restaurant industry, you pay attention to the world through the seasons and through food. In my first job in New York, at the Union Square Café, I worked practically in the greenmarket. You pay attention to food, when it’s at its peak, how fleeting that moment is. This is what we’re all living for, when the asparagus comes into season, when the truffles arrive.
You worked in restaurants for nine years. Was your apprenticeship similar to what Tess goes through?
In my first job, absolutely. I actually had way more experience than her! I got my first restaurant job when I was 15. When I was at Kenyon, I worked at Middle Ground [now the Wiggin Street Café]; I worked there all through college. When I left my first job in New York as a back waiter, I started working at a retail wine store. I’ve never had an office job. My years in the restaurant industry were so varied; I’ve had every single job, from top to bottom.
But many waitresses who are also writers don’t write about their day jobs. Why did you write about this world?
I knew I wanted to write a female coming-of-age novel. I wanted to write about that amorphous post-graduate time in a person’s life. I had been working in restaurants for so long; I knew that world intimately. I wanted to show that it was intense and real; it’s not just a transition, a means to an end — it can be the end. But there’s also the metaphor of the palate. Once I hit on [Tess] developing a palate, I realized that the palate doesn’t just have to be for food and wine, it can be for intimacy, and for lust, and for the urban experience. And the book took off from there, from that first sentence: “You will develop a palate.”
You were writing this novel while also waitressing and doing an MFA program at the New School. It sounds exhausting.
It was. I was waitressing at Buvette in the West Village. I worked the good shift, because I was a fantastic waitress — you can put that in your interview! I worked Thursday through Sunday nights. I had classes Monday and Wednesday, and Tuesday I worked as a research assistant for the head of my department. I would write in these long binges. Which is actually how restaurant work is. You clock in, you work for 10 hours, and then you crash. I wrote like that. I did not want to finish the New School with a short story; I knew that I had a novel in me, and I knew that I could finish it. I didn’t work on anything else in school; every time I submitted, it was as many pages of Sweetbitter as my classmates could take. And I kept going — which is what any writer should do, just keep going, get to the end of the book.
Can you talk about your development at a writer, from your time at Kenyon and even before?
I never wanted to be anything else. I had written from a very, very young age, and was an avid reader. I went to Kenyon because I wanted to be a writer. When I moved to New York, I had my thesis, which was two parts of what I thought would be a five-part novel. Then, when I got the job at the restaurant and realized that I didn’t have time to do my laundry, let alone finish a novel, writing kind of fell to the side. But I still wrote every morning. I have a practice of hand-writing in a notebook every morning. It’s a practice I never lost. I had this idea for a novel when I was about to turn 30, and it felt like, “Now or never.” I knew the writing would come back to me. I knew I still understood sentences, and I had never stopped reading, which is how anyone learns how to write. And, given the time and attention that graduate school allowed, it exploded. It felt like a fever.
Feature articles in the New York Times and elsewhere have noted the fairy-tale nature of your success — how you gave your manuscript to Peter Gethers, an editor at Penguin Random House and a regular at Buvette. “Unsolicited novels are rarely any good,” the Times story said. But your book wowed Gethers, and suddenly you had a two-book contract with Knopf.
The fairy-tale [story] is sometimes difficult for me, because it washes over the hard work, the years that went into this. Poof! Overnight, I was a writer. When I graduated from the New School, I found an incredible agent, and we were in the process of shopping the manuscript around. But I will say that there is something very fated about what happened. When I had my meeting at Knopf, I hesitate to use the word, but it felt like magic.