Big on Instagram. You might say that about an it-bag or a much-hyped lip balm. But a book? What place does that have on an Instagram, the home of green smoothies and yoga poses?
Stephanie Danler’s debut novel Sweetbitter (Oneworld, $27.99) is about to change all of that. With its lush pink cover, its glossy hardback slip and its sleek cover design, it’s the book that everyone is reading this season. Emma Roberts, Eva Longoria and oh, just about every cool girl worth their Mansur Gavriel bucket bag in your feed is ‘gramming a flat lay with Danler’s book. She’s officially broken big. And the first-time novelist, won’t mind us saying that. She loves Instagram – she’s been regramming every single shot of someone reading Sweetbitter.
And not that Tess, her main character, would mind either. The story follows a 22-year-old girl stumbling through life in New York City, working as a (pretty terrible) waitress and (slightly better) sommelier in a high-end restaurant in Union Square. It’s about growing up against the backdrop of the city where people have historically always grown up, and Danler credits Jay Mcinerney and Joan Didion as her ultimate Big Apple literary inspirations. But it’s about being 22 and on your own in the big city, falling in love with all the wrong men, making mistakes and learning about taste, pain, desire, loneliness, yourself and… food.
Because food is at the heart of this novel, which has some of the best descriptions of eating – incandescent and limpid – I think I’ve ever read in a book, excepting maybe Chocolat. Don’t believe me? Just wait till you read the scene where Tess and Jake, the tattooed, enigmatic bartender who is Trouble with a capital T, eat oysters for the first time in the cool room at the back of the restaurant. Trust me, you’ll be taking pictures of the pages and sending them to your BFF, that’s how true Danler’s writing is. Or at least, that’s what I did. Close up photos of pages bemoaning hangovers, worrying about not know what feminism actually is, watching the sex scene in Dirty Dancing over and over again and eating a whole sleeve of gingersnaps for dinner.
We caught up with the author to find out a little bit more about the book on everyone’s lips.
MARIE CLAIRE: The book isn’t autobiographical, but you <were> a waitress, and you <did> move to New York when you were 22… what kind of waitress were you?
STEPHANIE DANLER: I was a fantastic waitress! I was a great waitress. Are you kidding? I was a total pro. After I was a waitress I went to wine school and I became a wine buyer and then general manager [at a restaurant]. I left to back to school to do my MFA but I went back to waiting tables when I was writing Sweetbitter. What I had forgotten is how physically demanding it is. Those first couple of weeks my feet were throbbing and I was writing the book and I was like… This is what it felt like when I was 22 and this is what it felt like to have my body do this kind of work.
MC: Is there anything you miss about being restaurants?
SD: Oh, so many things… Since I’ve been [promoting the book] I’ve been back at the last restaurant that I worked at Buvette, which I love so much. Have you been?
MC: Yes, I’ve definitely had a lazy brunch there or two.
SD: Australians LOVE Buvette! I would say on the weekends it’s easily 50% Australian. I’ve been back at Buvette and I miss the camaraderie. Writing is such an isolated experience and there [is] such a nice balance in getting to work at the restaurant and perform and flirt and be loud and exchange energy and have this kind of adrenalized experienced. It’s the banter with co-workers, it’s the tiredness at the end of the night, when you’re all survivors and you’re gathered at the bar. That’s really special to me. And I put it all in the book.
MC: So, is that where the idea for the novel came from?
SD: Partly. I had this idea for a coming of age novel set in the restaurant world and the two seemed inextricably linked for me because of this idea of the palate. Where this character could develop a palate not just for food and wine but for different kinds of experiences, for friendship and drugs and intimacy and desire and urban living. And once that metaphor opened up I saw the novel pretty completely from beginning to end.
MC: The story about how the book got acquire is pretty crazy… Is it true that it happened while you were a waitress, talking to a regular customer of yours?
SD: I was. I had an agent who is a genius, and we were in the process of sending the book out, and I had been waiting on Peter Gethers [an publisher at Knopf] for years, he was a regular at Buvette. But [me being an author] had never come up before. We had never discussed it, and so the conversation that I had a book and he was an editor happened and he said that I should send it to him. It was just fate.
MC: The book sold for a record-breaking six figure book deal, making headlines around the world in publications like The New York Times and the Washington Post. How did it feel?
SD: I was really scared. I hadn’t expected for this to happen like this and so quickly. I wasn’t really prepared for the attention. And when the New York Times ran that article I had $400 in my bank account and a Saturday night shift in the restaurant and people were coming in to Buvette with the paper. Some people were mean and some people were nice and I was terrified. Because I didn’t write a book so it could sit in a drawer. I wanted to publish it. But I think that this kind of attention to any writer is a little scary. hat you're doing when you're writing, and what you're doing when you're doing interviews, and showing up places, and talking about your book is so different. when you're writing it is a private world. And you live in there with your book. I knew so little about publishing and so little about marketing and the book business [then]. I don’t really know what drives you when you’re writing, but for me it is a scary, desperation that makes me do this, that makes me want to finish, without really understanding the consequences.
MC: But did you do something to celebrate at least?
SD: Oh my god I celebrate all the time. I’m a professional celebrator, you don’t have to worry about me. Every little thing that happens, I celebrate. Like the book being acquired by Knopf, and then I had an essay of mine published on the Paris Review blog, not even the real Paris Review but the blog, and I collect old issues and that might have been the happiest day of my life, I drank champagne for four hours straight, I was jumping on the bed. What’s happening with Sweetbitter is so rare and as an author nothing like this will ever happen to me again, if I’m not toasting with my friends, if I’m not drinking as much champagne as possible, what is the point?
MC: Who is Sweetbitter for?
SD: I don't think that most writers have a demographic in mind when they write a book. That's something that you're agent comes up with. But I did think that if I wrote something that I myself, as such a reader, wanted to read it would find the people that it was supposed to find. I meet people who tell me I read it in a weekend, or I read it in 24 hours, or I really connected with it. And I think: you're my people. You're part of my tribe.
MC: What are you reading now?
SD: I just finished The Girls by Emma Cline on the plane. I think it’s an incredible novel, I’m realy excited for her. I’m reading The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson, I adore her. An recently I was on a Graham Greene bender for a little while. I was just living in this alternate universe in the tropics somewhere, with all these dissolute, world-weary men, it was fantastic.
MC: Sweetbitter is as much about New York as it is about food. What are your favourite New York books?
SD: Oh there’s so many. Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney is something I came of age reading. I think it drove me towards New York. And okay so Gatsby is on Long Island, but I think if you are writing about New York City you are grappling with Gatsby in some way. And then Joan Didion has an essay called ‘Goodbye to All That’ that I’ve read probably about 100 times. It’s about that sense of nostalgia that can be present even while you’re living in the city. Because it’s always changing. Even as you’re walking down the street, you know that you’re going to lose it one day.
MC: What’s your favourite book about food?
SD: I’m obsessed with M.S.K Fisher, a cookery writer from the mid 20t century who brought French ideas about gastronomy to the US in the 50s. Her book The Gastronomical Me is a collection of essays that are seemingly about food but are actually all about life.
MC: What’s next for you?
SD: I would love to say that I am working on a second novel but Sweetbitter is just 24 hours a day for me right now. I’m about to go on [my author] tour of 10 cities around the US. After that I would love to go on vacation for one minute.
MC: Where will you go?
SD: Oh, I’m going to Sicily. I’m obsessed with the Mediterranean. I went there twice last year. I’m going back as soon as I can. I am obsessed with every island there, you can put me on any of them and I am a happy girl!
Sweetbitter (Oneworld, $27.99) by Stephanie Danler is out in August.