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Worked In The Restaurant Industry? This Debut Novel Will Speak To You

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Photo: Nick Vorderman.
Back in the autumn of 2014, Stephanie Danler was at the center of a New York Times trend story about the publishing industry. "Waitress Is One of Many New Writers With Big Book Deals" read the headline of the piece, which made it sound as if Ms. Danler had dropped her pages on the table of a prominent editor along with the bill, and magically wound up with a contract. But of course, that's only the surface of the story.

The truth is that Danler — who had spent many years climbing the rungs of the food and wine industry — recalls being at a desperate crux in the months before her book was bought by Alfred A. Knopf. Recently separated from her husband, moving from sublet to sublet with all her carefully collected things in storage, and back on the serving floor for the first time in years, she knew that she was far from the only 31-year-old in Manhattan waiting tables with a novel in her back pocket. And then, within just a few weeks, everything changed.

By December 2014, she wasn't a waitress with a book deal, as the Times wrote: She was an upcoming author, newly at work on her first novel — a coming-of-age story about a young woman who moves to New York City and gets swept into the underworld of an upscale restaurant, modeled on the iconic (and now defunct) Union Square Cafe. Sweetbitter began as the first piece that Danler wrote in her graduate programme at The New School, and became one of the most highly anticipated reads of 2016. Irresistibly dark and deeply sexy — a luscious treat for the senses — this novel traces a fall from innocence to the development of true identity.

We sat down with Danler one spring morning at Buvette in New York — the site of her last serving gig — over coffee and croissants to discuss Sweetbitter. Deep into the chat, Danler paused to flag down a server and put in an order for orange juice, insisting it's the best in the city. She was right: It was delicious.

More than that, it was the perfect acidic hit in an otherwise buttery, velvet breakfast. In life, as on the page, Danler knows how to tap every part of the palate.

This book centers on the restaurant scene, something you have a lot of personal experience with.
"Yes. I had my first waiting job at 15 — I've never had another job [in another industry]. I've never worked in an office; I worked in coffeeshops in college. I wanted to write a novel, and I got hired at Union Square Cafe. It's similar to what Tess goes through — that part is authentic, that's my life. I went to wine school after that, and went on to managing beverage programs. That was my career.

"But I had this idea for a novel, and I knew I wanted it to be in New York City. The fact that it was set in a restaurant, and I had this knowledge about food and wine. So the arc of the story became that she develops a palate. That palate is friendship — it's lust. But the palate is also really her mode of experience."

How did
Sweetbitter develop?
"The very first thing I wrote in graduate school was a 25-page short story called Sweetbitter. It had the same first sentence. It had the same last sentence. I knew I had something that was essentially a voice piece, and the process of turning that into a novel is what took the last three years. I had no idea what I was doing — I had all the usual doubts and despair — but I did know that I had something from those first 25 pages."

Your protagonist gets pretty crushed along the way in this book. Have you ever felt like that?
"It’s not a secret: I had this career. I left it. I took out loans like anyone does to go back to graduate school. I had an idea, but I hadn’t written in years. When I started I was married. When I started I had been in the same apartment for years and years, which was my home. And I had this identity as this restaurant person that I liked.

"And every single aspect of my life changed. I separated from my husband. I was a server again after being in management for so long. I was a lot older. I had lost a lot of people along the way, as you do. I was living in sublets, all of my things were in storage — I was so desperate in my 20s for my life to start that I had invested in all of those things, and I don’t have any regrets about that. But there was a point where all I had was this book. It was terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.

"It worked out, so we’re able to talk about it here. But I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. It’s funny, taking risks — you can only tell in retrospect if it was brave or foolish. People talk about being brave. And I’m like: It was always so close. You’re always just a hair away from falling on your face."

There's a romance between Tess and a man named Jake in the novel. But there's also an intense central relationship between Tess and an older server named Simone. What is between these two women?
"[With Simone] it’s full infatuation. But there’s this maternal aspect that makes it a little dangerous, because Tess is essentially an orphan. I was really conscious of making her that way, not only so we didn’t have the burden of her past — so she could see the world freshly. Because that’s what New York City attracts, especially in the restaurant industry: You’re cut off from your family, even if you’re still close to them.

But there was a point where all I had was this book. It was terrifying.

Stephanie Danler
"We all come here in our 20s or in our teens, and we’re trying to re-create that [familial] intimacy — that security and that stability — and so we do it with our friends. We do it with lovers. We try and do it our work environment. The restaurant industry especially has this intense intimacy: It’s very immediate — and also very fleeting. But you don’t realize that at the time."

Back to Jake: Is he modeled on anyone in particular? Or is he a aggregation of that un-getable guy?
"People come up to me and say, ‘I know a Jake.’ He is modeled on this emotionally stunted man who comes to New York and he knows numerous options, is very beautiful and totally shut down — completely emotionally unavailable.

"The thing these men need, in my experience, is a transition. They evolve or they stay the same. In the book, Jake is 30, and I feel like that’s around the time when it becomes life or death for your character: whether you’re going to become a person at your best, or you’re going to essentially be very lonely for the rest of your life."

How has Sweetbitter changed your life?
"When I got my book deal, I’d been in the restaurant industry for my whole adult life. I had been under pressure for so long — the pressure to finish school, to finish this novel, of working in a restaurant and my other jobs that I had throughout school. It took a while for me to believe that it was real. I spent months thinking this is going to disappear. Then, I was editing the book at this artists' residency in the woods: that freedom to write, to do nothing but that, is such a privilege.

"I did not pay off my student loans. I pay like everyone else. But I was able to give myself a lot of freedom that I hadn’t felt in a long time. That freedom included traveling, and seeing friends that I hadn’t been able to see in years. Working in the restaurant industry, initially, I was on Saturday nights for nine years in New York City. People stop inviting you to birthday parties; they stop inviting you to baby showers. There were so many weddings I missed because I could’t get off work, years and years of this.

So I had a period of time [when] I took my life back a bit, that year I was editing. I may never be able to do it again. But it was really exactly what I needed."

Sweetbitter, an Alfred A. Knopf book, comes out on May 24, 2016. Listen to a clip of the audiobook, voiced by Alex McKenna, below.
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