Must-Read: Stephanie Danler’s ‘Sweetbitter’

by Natasha Wolff | June 20, 2016 3:00 pm

Stephanie Danler begins every day writing longhand—a habit the 32-year-old picked up as soon as she could put pen to paper—and the best ideas come when she’s on the move. “I like transient places: hotel rooms, trains, airplanes,” she says of her preferred writing environments. “Whenever I’m settled anywhere, my world is taken over by other tasks, but when I’m floating, my mind is very clear.”

The latest product of that creative wanderlust is Sweetbitter, Danler’s first novel, which is told from the perspective of Tess, a 22-year-old who leaves a mundane past in flyover country for a fuller life in New York City. The book closely mirrors the experience of the author, who, like her protagonist, graduated from college (Kenyon) and landed a coveted job at a critically acclaimed restaurant (Union Square Café). That perspective lends Danler’s prose a sincere, confidential quality. Broken into four parts, spanning the seasons, Sweetbitter sails along on Tess’ tailwind from sweaty escapades with her fellow servers to revelatory backroom tête-à-têtes over potato chips and rosé champagne.

Danler, who worked as a waitress until recently, started the book seven years after a formative stint as a sub-server at Danny Meyer’s famed eatery. It was a thrilling, terrifying period in which her appetites for food, wine, hard work and love were all fully awakened. The high-stakes restaurant industry proved to be a fitting backdrop, says Danler: “That verified, isolated and adrenalized world was the perfect environment to show a girl developing a palate for life.” 

While her own proximity to the book’s central characters and events offered ample fodder, Danler emphasizes that Tess is a wholly invented persona. And though the subject matter was self-reflective, Danler says, Tess’ experience is really about something more universal.

“It’s representative of what happens when you come to New York, which is you reinvent yourself completely,” the author explains. “You get to start over when you cross that bridge.” For Danler, who grew up in L.A., the act of moving to the city “and being able to survive and thrive here,” she explains, “was hugely therapeutic.” But writing the book was not a serene process; instead, she admits, it was an experience in turns both fraught and triumphant.

Triumphant indeed: “There was something arresting, an alarming wisdom, a fully formed confidence and an unusual relation to the page that is so rigorous, so generous, so fully engaged and engaging,” says Claudia Herr, Danler’s editor at Alfred A. Knopf—which acquired the text in the fall of 2014 as part of a two-book, high-six-figure deal—of her first encounter with the manuscript. “It’s one of those voices that makes everything else sort of go quiet, because you want to pay so much attention, because it bears so much attention.”

The act of paying attention, after all, is of huge import to the author and likewise dwells at the heart of Sweetbitter. Asked what the key takeaway has been after nearly a decade spent working as a server, Danler, who is already researching her next book (about a group of American expatriates living in Egypt during the 2011 revolution), pauses thoughtfully. “It’s hard to remember who I was before I fell in love with food and wine,” she says. “It’s the most gratifying way to pay attention to the world—to look closely at textures and colors, to experience flavors—but it’s really about engaging and being present. And that overflows to every part of your life.” 

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