Prairie Lights — Monday, April 24 at 7 p.m.
LA-based writer Stephanie Danler’s recently-released Sweetbitter spins the tale of a young twenty-something looking to find her way in the world after graduation. The story is told through the lens of front-of-house restaurant work, a job that proves to be both Exhilarating and exhausting for the novel’s heroine, Tess, and one that Danler experienced first-hand in her formative early twenties.
Ahead of her reading at Prairie Lights on Monday, April 24, we chatted with Danler over email about Sweetbitter and the parallel course it charts with her own life.
Give us a little background info: How old are you?
Where did you grow up or spend your formative years? How has that shaped your experience?
I never know how to answer that. I grew up in a small beach town outside of Los Angeles, Seal Beach. I went to high school in Boulder, Colorado; college in Ohio; but really grew up when I got to New York City when I was 22. The one aspect that overlaps in all those places is restaurants. I got my first job as a hostess at Walt’s Wharf and I’ve been working in the business ever since. I always had a restaurant self and a writer self. I never expected the two to come together, but lo and behold.
Where are you currently living and how did you land there?
I’m currently in Los Angeles. When I sold Sweetbitter I was able to quit waitressing and focus on editing. But I realized that I had this crazy freedom — I mean, it had been nearly a decade of New York City, and much longer of restaurant work; I was no longer married, no longer tied down. So I sublet my place in Brooklyn and traveled for a year, bouncing between hostels in Europe, friends’ houses and artists’ residencies. One of the places I stayed was a tiny house in Venice Beach. I hadn’t lived in California since I was 15. I felt like a stranger in the best way. I could run on the beach everyday. L.A. is a city, but it’s a quiet city. Right before the book came out I needed that quiet, so I loaded everything on a truck and said goodbye to New York. Not for good. But for now.
Some people just know in their gut what they are cut out to do and for others it’s more of a discovery process. Did you always know you wanted (or were meant) to be a writer?
Always. I never wanted to be anything else — hence the restaurant work. I knew that restaurants were where artists went to support their creative lives. My writing life starts with my reading life — that’s true to this day. But when I was seven, eight, I started to write my own stories mimicking what I was reading. Edgar Allen Poe. The Babysitter’s Club. By the time I was 10 I read Catcher in the Rye and wrote a story about a girl who runs away and lives under the Seal Beach pier. I still think that my writing is simply a conversation with the books I love.
What writers or artists have inspired your work?
Lots of ladies and a few gentlemen. Let’s start with Henry James, Edward Hopper. Elizabeth Hardwick, M.F.K. Fisher, Joan Mitchell, Rebecca Solnit, Renata Adler. I admire master stylists — everyone I mentioned has such a mastery over the sentence, or the paintbrush, instantly identifiable.
Sweetbitter is your first published book, but does your other writing explore similar thematic elements?
I suppose it does. Sweetbitter is really about the search for family. I think in my nonfiction I’m obsessed by questions of home, of a metaphorical orphan-hood. I am obsessed with how people learn to make boundaries around themselves, how people stay brave enough to love. Obsessed with the weather, food, sex, the distance between what we say and what we mean. I think behind all my writing is the ancient ethical question, “How should I live?”
Working in a restaurant was the inspiration for this book; how will your next work come about? Will you seek inspiration from similar sources?
If by similar sources you mean my life, then yes. I write from my life but I don’t feel restricted by it — I apply a heavy dose of imagination. I’ve had many lives and I expect I will have a few more — I’m not concerned about a lack of material.
Your book is a coming-of-age-story as well as a story about food. How did you weave those two ideas together?
When I landed on the first sentence and the metaphor of the palate, I knew I could make the book I wanted. The entire plot is contained in the line, “You will develop a palate.” That’s the voice of fate talking, and, spoiler alert, nothing else happens. But in learning her tastes in food and wine, in learning how to speak about them and master them, she’s making the same progress in life. It’s a pretty classic sentimental education story, but everything is grounded in the senses.
The book is based off of your real-life experiences. What made you decide to write a novel rather than a memoir?
I never had any interest in the memoir idea. I wanted to write Portrait of a Lady. I wanted to write Speedboat. I wanted to write like Jorie Graham and Louise Gluck. I believe with a novel you have a chance of something much more universal — hopefully timeless — rather than being stuck with all the idiotic shit I did when I was 22. I’m working on a book of nonfiction now, and it’s much more difficult for me — the narrowness of what actually happened.
I love the snippets of dinner-hour conversations you’ve turned into poetry and tucked into your writing —
it gives me hope that I might some day be able to appreciate poetry. What made you want to include this aspect in the book?
There are two components to that question — first, I didn’t expect those sections to be labelled as poetry. I wanted them to feel like dinner service — fragmented, broken conversations that rise above the general din. They do have a rhythm, as does poetry, but I never crafted them to stand on their own as poems, only as dialogue.
However, poetry is the lifeblood of the book. The structure — the idea of the illuminated moment that arrives without preamble or reflection — is based on poetry. The romanticism and lyricism in Tess’s voice is inspired by poetry. I wouldn’t be a writer without my love of poetry, and I guarantee anyone can come to love it. It’s about finding your poets. For people that enjoyed the food writing in Sweetbitter, I recommended the anthology The Hungry Ear, edited by Kevin Young, all poems of food and wine.
As a former server myself, I’ve always thought everyone should experience work in a restaurant — I think it would alter the way people view their servers and bartenders. Has your experience in restaurant work changed the way you eat out?
I agree about restaurant work — I don’t trust people that haven’t worked service! And yes, sometimes I feel that I am half at the table as a guest and half in service — watching the bartender get behind on drinks, seeing that the hostess is killing one server by triple seating them, noticing the way the manager works the room. Friends say it will stop eventually, but it hasn’t yet.
You’re someone who clearly appreciates good food and wine. How do you eat well on the road or during a long stretch of work?
By appreciating the high and the low. I travel so much — for Sweetbitter, for the writing I do for Travel and Leisure and, finally, for pleasure. Planning my meals is a huge part of that — best cantina in Austin, oysters in Napa, guinea pig in Cuzco. But I have eaten more airport Caesar salads with glasses of terrible Pinot Grigio than I am comfortable admitting. When I was on tour in Miami I got in late and ate cold pop tarts out of a vending machine for dinner. I try to embrace both.
And finally, could you give our readers some recommendations?
Where to travel?
Too many to list — I am always trying to get to the Mediterranean (Bozcaada in Turkey for wines, Folegandros in Greece for quiet, Sicily for food, going to Menorca in July) but right now I’m fixated on exploring Mexico and California. I just moved to L.A. so the fact that I can drive to Tijuana, the Valle de Guadalupe, and Baja in a few hours is too exciting.
What to listen to?
New Future Islands just came out — heaven. They’re one of my favorite live shows, they go full-throttle. I love rock music you can dance to.
What to drink?
I drink rosé year round but it’s officially the season. I’m partial to France on that front — anything from the south that’s cheap and cheerful, or something from the Loire for more structure. A rosé from Bandol or Cassis to splurge.
What to eat/cook?
I love the spring produce — it comes from living in New York City for so long. Those first asparagus, fava beans, snap peas and ramps. The waiting makes them even more precious. I am a simple cook — in season, fresh produce doesn’t need more than olive oil, salt and lemon.