Sweetbitter chronicles a year in the life of Tess, a fresh arrival to New York City in the summer of 2006. She lands a job as a back waiter at a prestigious restaurant in Union Square and comes to life, discovering her many appetites, ravenous for experience. Tess’s voice, her language, her desire for connection all capture the excitement and instability of being young and set loose in a new city. Her entanglements at the restaurant—punishing, exhilarating shifts, chaotic late nights, a descent into an alluring love triangle—are intoxicating, often overwhelming.
Danler knows the world of restaurants well. She’s worked at Buvette and Union Square Café, places that inspire true loyalty, that create their own languages, their own frames of reference. It’s no surprise this experience translates beautifully to fiction. As the owner of Tess’s restaurant tells her, “We are creating the world as it should be. We don’t have to pay attention to how it is.”
Danler and I met on a sweltering July afternoon at Via Carota in the West Village. Bowls of ripe lemons decorated the bar. Passersby cupped their hands against the glass of the window, peering inside. In the lull between lunch and dinner shifts, servers folded napkins and spoke softly at a long communal table.
The Rumpus: The opening pages of the novel, which begin with the words “you will develop a palate,” introduce a voice, a sort of guiding force. And this voice exists separately and is different from Tess, the main character. How did you decide to begin that way?
Stephanie Danler: Every section begins with a “you” passage: “You will develop a palate.” “You will burn yourself.” “You will kiss the wrong boy.” “You will see it coming.” And I always imagined it as the voice of prophecy, as a voice in her head that is her older self, that she can’t quite identify. I think initially, if it’s anyone, it’s Simone, but as you go on, you realize it’s Tess from wherever she’s landed, talking back to her twenty-two-year old self saying, “you will develop a palate: go.” The story takes off from there.
It’s also very consciously an homage to Bright Lights, Big City, which is a novel that tells the entire story in the second person. I don’t know how he pulled it off. It’s still spectacular to look back at.
Multiplicity of voices was important to me. I also have the sections where it’s just fragments of dialogue from the restaurant, and that’s almost a first person plural. I don’t think that we always talk to ourselves in the first person. There are a lot of ways we speak to ourselves. So, the scenes where Tess is by herself are very different. She’s more observant. She’s more reflective. Though many times I was told that kind of switch wasn’t going to work. And I said, no it will! And it does for me.
Rumpus: It’s very cohesive, which might be a strange word to use, but all the voices are united in this way.
Danler: Well, it’s a unity of tone. It’s the same kind of lyricism, attention to the same kind of details, and I really think you can get away with a lot formally if the voice is grounded.
Rumpus: We meet Tess as most everyone in the novel does, with very little personal history and almost no back story, aside from a few hints here and there. How did you decide to essentially begin Tess’s life, as we know it, when she comes to New York?
Danler: I really don’t see the need for much back story if you’re writing about the present. And if your story is focused on a moment. I believe it’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, where a man falls off the back of a wagon and that’s how we meet our main character. He’s just appeared. There’s a long literary tradition of people coming from nowhere and nothing and coming especially to cities to reinvent themselves or recreate themselves. Of course, we all have pasts, but what I was looking at was a moment in this industry where your past really doesn’t matter.
Rumpus: This is when her life starts.
Danler: Her autonomy starts. Her making choices for herself starts the second she crosses the George Washington Bridge. Everything before that, she’s been acted upon, and this is the first action she’s taken for herself.
Rumpus: The experiences Tess has, that come to engulf her entire life, mostly take place in this specific, rarefied world of a high-end Manhattan restaurant. What is it about this environment that draws people in, that ultimately becomes universal?
Danler: That is one of the benefits of fiction. I have been working in the restaurant industry since I was fifteen—I started hostessing at a seafood place in Southern California—and I’ve never left. Though the restaurant has the ethics of a Danny Meyer establishment, it is so clearly not. It’s every restaurant I’ve ever worked in. I got to layer all of the different batshit, insane people I’ve met at every job into it. I got to layer every disgusting thing I’d ever seen or heard about or could imagine. I hoped that there was a universality to it, while at the same time I wanted to be specific to the level of service because I think it’s been so foundational in the shift we’ve seen in restaurants. In 2006, it wasn’t so ubiquitous. It wasn’t the standard yet. It was really like being let into a rarefied world and that’s specific to Danny Meyer, but I also think that being let into a private club or sorority or fraternity, or being let into a subculture is across the board at all restaurants. Whether it’s a clock-in-clock-out temporary situation in the middle of nowhere or quite the opposite, that sort of temporary and intimate family, it’s the same.
Rumpus: You’re behind the scenes. You’re in on something. You go through so much with this group of people even if it’s only for a few hours at a time. But it feels like you’ve been through war, or it can.
Danler: Absolutely. It’s very much the trenches and that is the same at every restaurant I’ve ever worked at.
Rumpus: For Tess, it seems there’s a sense of belonging in play: becoming a member of the 51%, as Danny Meyer would put it, feeling like she’s been selected but not entirely sure why at first, especially coming to a new city and being initiated in this way.
Danler: Every restaurant has its initiation rituals. They take your clothes. They take your name. They teach you a new language, a new way of holding yourself, a new way of moving. So I knew that all of that would apply to anyone who had worked in the industry.
Rumpus: Maybe it’s a coming-of-age thing, or the fact that everyone’s had that job, often early in life, that’s changed them in some precise way, but I think it feels so much bigger than just the restaurant industry.
Danler: I’m very fortunate to hear that from people. Whether it’s someone who had a job at a magazine right out of college or a teacher just starting out, that first job means freedom and it’s where you discover a lot about yourself, what your limits are, what your strengths are. It will inform how you move forward.
Rumpus: Simone is such an important presence in the book. She’s attractive, elusive, kind of maddening. The relationship between her and Tess is so common among women, but we don’t see it that much in fiction, or at least I haven’t. This balance of admiration and aspiration, a push and pull. It’s not physical, but there’s so much desire there.
Danler: I see that as the main love story, the main artery of the book. Obviously this is a very sensual book and there is a lot of lust and desire and a physical aspect to it, but one of Tess’s main appetites, so to speak, is for family. This is what drives her to New York City, this search for family. If we know anything about a back story, that’s what we know. And there is so much maternal yearning and projection that goes on with Simone. And Simone knows it and toys with it. But she also knows it’s destined to fail.
She is the first character that really came to me in very early drafts. Her voice and her way of speaking. Her sense of authority. Her wisdom and glamour. Each of those things will be stripped away from her in the course of the novel.
Rumpus: Our vision of Simone at the beginning of the book and at the end—it’s heartbreaking.
Danler: But she’s still speaking and acting the same way. She doesn’t crack, ever. It was important to me that it’s not Simone who transforms, but Tess’s understanding of her.
And relationships between women are always more interesting to me. Jake is so auxiliary to what is going on between the two women. He’s also important to Tess, but the love that she’s looking for, she’s looking for from Simone.
Rumpus: Jake was most interesting to me when he was with the two of them. It puts his behavior into a different kind of perspective.
Danler: Simone gives Jake depth. He’s a flat character, not because I missed writing some part of him, but because that’s how those men are to us. They are flat, thin characters and they give us the same lines over and over again and we’re searching for the little moments of vulnerability and damage. Or you’re trying to break through that veneer. Every time Tess is around Simone and Jake together, she knows that’s when Jake is being real.
Rumpus: And she wants to access that for herself, even though that’s probably impossible. Maybe it’s a grasp at maturity or thinking, “I can handle this.”
Danler: I think Tess thinks that if she can fix him, she can fix herself. She says, quite explicitly, in the novel, “I think both of us could stop hurting if we came together.” And I think people with a certain type of damage are often attracted to others with similar damage.
Rumpus: They see themselves in others.
Danler: So they think: “if I can soothe this, it’s soothing for me.” Which has never worked, unfortunately, in the history of the world.
Rumpus: And yet we keep doing it.
Danler: But I think the struggle is worthwhile.
Rumpus: There’s also an optimism there that I find comforting.
Danler: I fully believe in that, in optimism and sincerity. I think I have both sides. People assume that I’m Tess, and they probably always will, but I’m very much like Simone as far as my cynicism. I feel quite weathered by the life that I’ve lived and so different from Tess. It was almost difficult to conceive of her, and yet I know that I do have that optimism, or at least I did. It’s both, and I really treasure when I meet sincere, vibrant, optimistic, honest people because they are increasingly rare.
Rumpus: Especially here. It’s so easy to be jaded, to feel you’ve seen it all before.
Danler: That’s the mark of a New Yorker, and she’s observing that. That it’s not “cool” to be excited. But she’s thinking constantly, all of this is so exciting!
Rumpus: It’s so apparent in all these different aspects of her life. She’s hungry for everything in this unabashed way. It’s so true to being that age.
Danler: And people are attracted to it. Everyone is attracted to that person, whether they’re simply nostalgic for it or whether they’re getting a vicarious thrill from seeing someone else who’s getting genuinely excited by the world.
Rumpus: There’s such a focus on sensuality in this book. Wine, food, and sex are all central. I heard echoes of James Salter while I was reading, given the way he writes sensually, about sex and otherwise. What did you keep in mind in how you paid attention and wrote about sensual experience?
Danler: Her tone is really informed by poetry. What I mean by that is she has a poet’s way of paying attention. In the way that I chose to illuminate moments, the book is not a linear, traditional narrative, but a series of moments. I aspired to write it in the way that a poet can light up a certain image or moment and imply a story around it. There’s also something about the economy in poetry. Nothing can be wasted, which Salter certainly understands.
Rumpus: Everything has weight.
Danler: And rhythm. Salter is really incredible with alternating short and long sentences and I definitely took a lot from that. Sex is a means of transformation, of touching darkness, of pushing boundaries. Sex is a means of self-exploration. I took all of that from him. I’m conflicted about Salter, because I adore him but he doesn’t write great women all the time—Nedra in Light Years being the obvious exception.
Rumpus: It’s a very real critique.
Danler: Of course. So, I’m conflicted about that, but, as a stylist, I think few people can touch Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime. I’m also in conversation with Salter not just about food and sex, which are very corporeal and easy to link to each other. They’re temporary. It’s an appetite. But also in not shying away from erotic writing. I went through a phase in early drafts where I really had to confront what kind of language to use for the sex scenes because I was determined not to fade to black.
Rumpus: I hate it when people do that. It’s not true to life, to experience.
Danler: I do, too. When we’re talking about someone’s sentimental education, like we are in this novel, if we’re going to pay attention to food like this, we need to pay attention to sex like this. And to the flowers. And to the light at sunset. That’s what makes her voice authentic.
Rumpus: It’s refreshing, because people do shy away from it.
Danler: It’s distracting if it’s not done properly, to be honest. I had to cut some more graphic scenes because I didn’t want them to dominate the novel. And they didn’t quite fit with this gentle, romantic, lyrical way that she’s participating in the world. But they were fun to write.
Rumpus: The novel is set in 2006, which was such a particular time. Cell phones weren’t nearly as pervasive as they are now.
Danler: It was pre-smartphone, which is great for a writer.
Rumpus: I never know how to write about technology.
Danler: No one knows! Because we as human beings don’t know what to do with them yet. If someone were to write a truly realistic novel about the year 2016, the characters would be on their phones the entire time. Text message conversations would be the new novel. We all spend half the day looking down. There would be no inciting incidents, no dramatic exchange between people unless forced or drunk. People still connect, but the bulk of our days are taken up by our devices. I don’t know how you write that kind of contemporary novel.
Rumpus: There are writers who attempt to replicate it in some kind of realistic way, but I don’t think we’ve figured it out yet.
Danler: I was grateful not to have to write about it in the novel, from a technical standpoint, but I do think it makes the story feel older. People have said it feels timeless, which isn’t true because the music, menus, bars, and restaurants all correlate to 2006. But it is timeless in the way it causes us to reminisce about a past New York.
Rumpus: There’s this “calm before the storm” quality.
Danler: Absolutely. I think all of us think that about the time we moved to New York. Regardless of when that happens to be. As soon as you get here, you memorize the city that you moved to. You adore it and then it changes immediately.
Rumpus: In writing this novel, do you feel like you’ve released something? By that, I mean, in the way we look back on our relationships and behavior in our early twenties and acknowledge or accept the mistakes we made, knowing that they weren’t really mistakes, that they were essential?
Danler: Tess’s mistakes are her own, and so different than what I went through. I didn’t feel the catharsis I felt when I wrote an essay about my father or when I write essays that deal with the dissolution of my marriage or things that I’m still working through. But what I feel release from is answering a set of questions I’ve posed myself as a writer. Can I do the first person? Can I do this structure of vignettes? Can I write about food in a new way? Can I write about the restaurant industry in a new way? Can I keep people engaged without relying on plot? I did set challenges for myself, and those I feel that I can release.
People ask if I’ll write something else similar to this. I don’t think I’ll write about being twenty-two again. I’ll always write about women and food and sex, but it will be under an entirely different set of circumstances.
Rumpus: You want to set new challenges for yourself.
Danler: Exactly. You have to be engaged or the writing will suffer. That sense of urgency is essential.
Author photograph © Nick Vorderman.