Portrait photographed by Nick Vorderman

Sweetbitter, the debut novel by Stephanie Danler, is as easy to get sucked into and seduced by as is the world it uncovers… New York City’s restaurant behind-the-scenes. It’s less a kitchen confidential and coming of age than a snapshot — exhilarating, frustrating, confusing, wonderful — of a moment in time in the life of Tess as she navigates the tables of her waitressing job, the foibles of love/lust and where to go next. And as crazy as it seems to wax nostalgic about a mere decade ago, there’s something sweetly nostalgic about walking through the streets of New York City in 2006 in its pre-iPod days — yes, there was a time when phones still flipped open and texting was the new hot thing, when people still made eye contact over uncorked bottles of champagne at 4 AM. As they do in Sweetbitter. Here, Danler, who was bussing tables herself while writing Sweetbitter, reveals more, including the joys of gifting Moby Dick

My writing process during Sweetbitter was…
Disciplined. Between school and two jobs, one of which was waitressing, I had to be strict about writing time. I would set aside a whole day — say, a Tuesday — and write for 10 hours. No lunches, no workouts, no phone calls with friends. To write I need to be lost from the world, and it’s hard for me to write for three hours in the morning and then put on an apron and smile. It’s two different — and disparate — parts of myself. The schedule I was on seems insane to me now — but it taught me the most important writing lesson, which is that you have to prioritize it. No one cared if I finished my first draft of Sweetbitter — there were no agents, no deadlines, no one forcing me to be in the chair. But I had to treat it like a job, and be ruthlessly protective of my time at the desk.

Favorite line in the book…
Ah, that’s hard. I spent a lot of time on the sentences — I didn’t care about anything in the book except whether the sentences had the right rhythm, whether they were surprising enough. Occasionally someone will quote a line to me and I’ll think, “Oh, that’s nice, who wrote that?” They don’t feel like they belong to me. I like the lines in what I call, the Chorus. “I was obsessed with Chekov./I’m obsessed with Campari right now.” I love the repetition and variation in the broken fragments of dialogue.

Inspiration behind Tess, Simone and Jake…
All the characters in the novel are composites of the myriad servers and chefs and friends I’ve had in the industry over the years (and it’s been many years, my first job was as a hostess at 15 years old). That’s the thrill of fiction — you get to pull from everyone, everywhere, there are no rules. However, the summer between my two-year MFA program I re-read Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors by Henry James. I had already started writing Sweetbitter, but I began to think of Tess as a heroine in the vein of Isabel Archer. I kept thinking — what would Isabel look like now? And from the first person? The plot of em>Sweetbitter is a reprisal of Portrait of a Lady — the older, mysterious, manipulative female mentor, the toxic and damaged man. The label of “love triangle” never felt quite right for me — it’s about Tess and Simone. Jake is collateral damage. Isn’t it always about the relationships between women?

Favorite restaurant…
That’s too huge! I travel a lot so it depends on where I am — right now I’m back and forth between NYC and LA. In NYC I love to sit at a bar by myself and be decadent about it — wine, multiple plates, cheese, coffee. That usually happens at Marlow & Sons in Williamsburg or Gramercy Tavern. In LA, I will trek to the west side for Gjusta. In New Orleans, I have my classics (Casamentos, Domilise’s, Bacchanal), but I’m obsessed with a new place uptown, Kenton’s — oysters and perfect cocktails. In Rome, I go directly to Da Enzo in Trastevere (the neighborhood I lived in when I studied abroad there), when I’m in Spain, I make the pilgrimage to Etxebarri in the Basque countryside. Food is always at least 50 percent context — where you are, the weather, your mood and outfit, and your company. How can a person have one favorite restaurant?

Most challenging part about writing a book is…
Finishing. A professor once told me, “Finish everything you start. Even if it’s awful, just get through it.” I thought that was kind of mindless advice, like, “Duh, I’m trying to finish.” But what he meant is that it’s a great joy to begin a novel, a short story, an essay. And there are thousands of people that begin, shelve, begin again. You end up with a drawer full of clever first sentences and concepts. That drawer is valuable. But it is not a book. And in my experience, you don’t know anything about what you have — whether it’s good, bad, salvageable or brilliant — until you have reached the end. You’re going to rewrite that first draft about 50 times, so don’t be precious about it. Just get to the end of it so you can start the real work — revising.

Author(s) who influenced me the most…
Like picking a favorite restaurant — impossible. When I was writing Sweetbitter, I leaned a lot on the female writers of early Seventies — Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, Didion, Sontag. They weren’t afraid of experimentation, of conflict or ambiguity. I wanted to make a strange book, that didn’t fit neatly into categories. I am heavily indebted to my poets — it’s hard to pick just one, but I am always in a conversation with some piece of Anne Carson’s. The poets I read are all over the map – Frank O’Hara’s poem about avocado salad in the morning was with me the whole time, and Simone sometimes sounds like Jorie Graham or Louise Glück, even while she’s quoting Keats. Emily Dickinson was huge for the novel, but so was Ariana Reines’ short collection “Coeur de Lion.” I read and re-read constantly. I must have read Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick a dozen times by now and every time I understand a new facet of it.

Best writing advice received…
I mentioned finishing above, and that was from the writer Darryl Pinckney, one of my professors at The New School. I also loved when novelist Jonathan Dee said to us in class, “When you’re a writer, no one cares if you don’t show up for work. The world doesn’t need more novels.” I think he got that from one of his professors, but now I pass that on to aspiring writers. You aren’t accountable to anyone when you write, except yourself and the muses. You have to create your own deadlines, your own sense of urgency. Many writers have told me, “It doesn’t get any easier.” Meaning the second novel. I’m currently testing that maxim out — I hope it’s not true.

How I combat writer’s block…
I read. Most often poetry. It never fails to ignite something. I also write long emails that end up having a form like my essays. The best way to combat writers block is to write (duh), but occasionally you have to trick yourself. “I’m just going to re-type this 20-page poem by Kenneth Koch” (“To Marina,” yes, I’ve done that), or say, “I’m just going to write a quick letter to my dead grandmother.” I suppose there are a million prompts. But so much of writing is done away from the page. When I’m out running, or walking in the city, or driving the freeways, I’m composing, making connections, fidgeting with sentences. It’s important to honor the passive time in which we need to just stare out the window — that’s a huge part of writing.

What I’m reading now…
Right this moment I’m on vacation and I was sent off with gifts from my agent and people from Knopf. Kristin Dombek is a genius — her essays are extensively researched, meticulous, but they breathe. She isn’t afraid of herself in her work. She has a long essay coming out from FSG called “The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism,” that I read in an afternoon and haven’t stopped thinking about. I’m reading Trainwreck by Sady Doyle, which comes out in September. I have this not-so-secret obsession with the way the media cannibalizes young women (think Britney Spears), and Doyle explores the phenomenon from a feminist angle. Robin Desser at Knopf sent me the novels of Francesca Marciano, and I have no idea how I’ve missed this writer. Her first novel, Rules of the Wild, has the epic romantic quality of The English Patient, but set in modern, conflicted, Africa. The novel almost felt old-fashioned, but with edges. If someone knows me and is brave enough to give me a book, I will read anything.

Book that made me want to be a writer…
Catcher in the Rye when I was 10, and Ariel by Sylvia Plath when I was 13. At 10 years old, I already distrusted adults, and had an obsession with running away. The strange part of reading Catcher at such a young age was that I couldn’t articulate what I connected to, just that it felt like the book was for me. That is such a pure, primitive kind of reading, something I can’t do anymore. Plath taught me about words. And that your pain is your currency as a writer — not just your ability to experience it, but your ability to translate it. I can’t connect to a book in which the author hasn’t left a little of their own blood on the page.

If I could be any character in a book for a day, it would be…
That’s a hard one because most characters are tortured by their circumstances or natures (that what makes them interesting to read about) and aren’t we all tortured by those things enough in real life? Who is happy, balanced and well-adjusted in literature? I wouldn’t mind being Emma Woodhouse. Austen often leaves her heroines better than she found them.

Book I always give as a gift…
Bluets by Maggie Nelson. The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson. The Wild Iris by Louise Glück. The Dream Songs by John Berryman. Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick. I give books for birthdays and the holidays, all my friends are sick of me gifting them poetry. Occasionally I throw a curve ball and gift Moby Dick — people don’t know how strange and psychedelic it is! I love a novel that’s a total mess and still a masterpiece.

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