In the first line of Stephanie Danler’s bestselling debut novel, “Sweetbitter,” her narrator, Tess, begins, “You will develop a palate,” sounding a motif from the book’s initial moment. And just a few lines down another reveals as much about the heart of this novel as it does the writer who has penned it: “Eating becomes a discipline, language obsessed.”
Set in New York city in 2006, “Sweetbitter” is a coming-of-age story of one young woman’s initiation into the restaurant world, as well as her first true forays into lust, betrayal and adulthood.
The behind-the-scenes of restaurant work — from the cool choreography of dinner service to the chaos of a visit from the health department — is meticulously rendered. (Danler worked at a number of restaurants throughout her 20s, including the famed Union Square Café.) Romantic obsession is treated with equal verve: After tearing apart a parcel of fleshy figs, a gift from the object of her affections, Tess relishes that “lust rubied my blood, gave me the gait of an uncaught criminal.” This is a book, one might say, about appetites.
I spoke to Danler over the phone about Tess, Britney Spears, “Sweetbitter” and its reception. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
“Sweetbitter,” which came out in May, has entailed an extensive press tour and continues to be talked and written about. What has that been like?
People tell you that this will never happen. I know I wrote a good book and I always knew it would find its readers, but to have it have a widespread audience, it’s not something you can plan for or expect. I think what’s most surprising to me about it is that [at events] someone always makes a comment to me, “There’s so many women in the audience. Look how many girls are there.” And I realized this past weekend that all of these 22-year-old girls, what we would call millennials, are desperate for someone to talk to. And that’s what these people are picking up on, this fanaticism that has made “Sweetbitter” a success. I see it as a larger problem: Who can they talk to about sex or becoming themselves? There’s something else going on that’s much larger than me and much larger than my book.
Tess’ back-story is opaque to the reader, and in fact for much of the novel she goes unnamed. It seemed to me that she initially felt a thrill at getting to perceive herself as others saw her, and then ultimately a frustration. Can you talk about this device?
If you take that away from someone — their name — the reader is expecting that you’re going to give it back, that it’s going to be a triumphant moment, and I didn’t want to do that because she’s just not there yet. I kept thinking, “She’s not ready.” Her journey is self-knowledge, but nobody in the course of a year in their life goes from not knowing who they are entirely to “I reclaimed ownership of my name and I set off into the sunset!” That’s a fairy tale. [The reality] is minute, micro-movements forward.
I agree, and yet we often talk about a character’s “change” as being central to the arc of a book. As a novelist, how did you balance wanting to tell an honest story with wanting to write a satisfying conclusion?
I will answer you honestly. I don’t know if I’ve talked about this in other interviews, but in an early draft I was told by many people that the ending of my book was unlikable, that it makes [Tess] an unlikable character. So I came up with another ending and I sold it with that other ending. While I was editing, I was at an artists’ residency in the Catskills, and I was alone and it was 1 o’clock in the morning and I just thought, “Oh God! It has to be the [original] ending!” It was an imperative that Tess touch the bottom of whatever drain she was circling. She did exactly what she needed to do to become minutely stronger.
Why are we obsessed with our characters’ likability?
I was asked a question [while on a panel] about the pressure to make characters likable. I didn’t go first. I listened to two very talented male writers talk about likability, and essentially they both said, “That’s not a real pressure. People love to look at their worst selves. People love to see obsession and madness.” And I [didn’t say it but] was thinking, “People hate to see women in morally ambiguous territory, they are so uncomfortable when it’s not part of a genre like ‘Gone Girl’ or ‘Girl on a Train’ and we’re having a voyeuristic experience.” It’s entirely different for female characters. People come up to me — men and women — who tell me that the prose is really great, but the main character is so unlikable. She’s not unlikable — she’s sincere.
That reminds me of one my favorite passages in “Sweetbitter,” a section of dialogue in which Tess defends Britney Spears. Is Tess’ really defending her own experience in the world?
I don’t think she equates herself with Britney, but she has enough morality to know when something has gone wrong. There’s a new book by Sady Doyle called “Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock and Fear … and Why.” It looks at our female pop culture icons and the way that we cannibalize them, and that is something that has never sat well with me. I was attached to Britney Spears. What Britney experienced is something I know more about now than when I was writing the book, which is people’s expectations of you to be one thing, and the art of branding yourself as a likable woman in a commercial world.
Has the reaction to Jake, Tess’ love interest, surprised you?
What’s most surprising to me is when women come up to me and say they don’t understand Jake, or they’ve never met a Jake.
Wow, lucky them.
Exactly. I remember when I shopping the book I met with 11 different publishers. It was one of the most surreal weeks of my life. I was waiting tables and I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t understand that 11 meetings meant I was probably going to sell it. And I would walk into Little Brown or wherever and the receptionist would be like, “Oh my God, I read it last night and my best friend just moved in with a Jake.”
In other interviews and on your Instagram you often champion poetry. “Sweetbitter” is a book that isn’t afraid of metaphor, or of a certain linguistic opulence: there are a number of lyric passages scattered throughout its pages. What poetry inspired you while writing?
I don’t like to call those passages poetry — I have too much respect for poetry for that. Those passages are the Greek chorus, the “we” voice, the multiplicity. But poets play a huge part in the novel. I obsessively read Anne Carson. Sappho was the first person to call love bittersweet, and then Anne Carson was the first person, many millennia later, to say “No, the order of the words is Sweetbitter and that’s also the order in which we experience love.” When I read that I was like, “Done.” My food metaphor, my love metaphor.
Poetry’s relationship to the book is also about presence. There’s usually an object that’s your entryway into the moment. Look at Frank Ohara’s untitled poem about avocado salad in the morning or Seamus Heany’s poem about oysters. I’ll use my senses to enter a scene, to expose a moment as fully as possible and not explain it away. I can have Tess and Jake in a walk-in having oysters and that’s it. The scene ends when she takes an oyster. I don’t have to say why that’s important.
I’m glad that you brought up that scene. The sexual resonance of that moment reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” when (and I’m paraphrasing here) she “takes a ripe strawberry between her lips.” It’s Victorian, it’s veiled, but we all know what’s really going on there.
She was named after that character for a reason: a girl from the country that comes into society and is seduced and betrayed. It is the oldest story in the book. The ripe strawberry, Eve with the apple. … Food is one of our first entryways into sensation. It’s the satisfaction of a desire — maybe the first one.
“Sweetbitter” is set in New York; how does place inform the book?
When we talk about the American Dream, there are very few places left in America where you can actually achieve it, and I would say that right now New York is not — negative, not — one of them. However, what you have to do to reinvent yourself in a Gatsby sense is to break away from the continuous identity of wherever you were from. This is from the book, so forgive me, but it’s that unbridled ambition that can be absorbed by the city. People tap out of places all the time, and if they have that drive they have to go to New York to test themselves.
Many of the descriptions of food and drink in “Sweetbitter” made me salivate. What are your favorite spots in L.A right now?
I eat mostly on the Eastside, although I’m a Gjelina and Gjusta girl at heart. I also go to Domaine LA in Hollywood. Oh, and Greenblatt’s. Who knew that Greenblatt’s wine store has such an incredibly selection of classic wines? But the best thing about L.A. to me is cooking at home. I am enamored with Los Angeles.
French is a writer in Los Angeles.