The first sentence of Stephanie Danler’s riveting debut novel is perhaps more an injunction than an imperative: “You will develop a palate.” Over the 355 pages of Sweetbitter, the narrator, twenty-two-year-old Tess, encounters a number of appetites. She arrives in New York City during the heat wave of 2006 and applies for a job at a prestigious Manhattan restaurant. The manager, a man, stares at her just a little too long—the black sundress, the pilled cardigan wet with sweat—and we sense that her education will soon begin. Oysters, Pinot Noir, lines of coke at the bar. “The sour, the salty, the sweet, the bitter.”
As with Rachel Cusk’s Outline or Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Sweetbitter offers us a protagonist bearing hardly any backstory. The novel, like its opening line, prefers the future to the past and prizes experience over explanation. Tess’s life is partial, unstable, continually revised, and her greatest moments of change happen in the white space between sections. What does it say about her that she feels most authentically herself in the carefully curated unreality of a restaurant? Hospitality involves “setting a stage,” the owner tells Tess. “The believability hinges on the details.”
On a Monday afternoon in May, I met with Danler to talk about Sweetbitter. We were twelve blocks from the old location of the Union Square Café, one of several restaurants she worked at before getting her book deal, and she sat with her back to the window drinking Campari and soda through a straw. We talked about Maggie Nelson, James Salter, the disturbing stories she wrote when she was eight years old, and learning not to apologize for pleasure.
How early did the title come to you, and why did it feel right for the book?
The title was there from the first draft. It came from Anne Carson. Sappho was the first one to call love bittersweet, I think, and in Eros the Bittersweet Anne Carson suggests that bittersweet wasn’t true to the word order in Greek, and also wasn’t true to the order in which love is experienced—that it should be sweetbitter instead. Something about that metaphor and the way it related to life and taste, food, and sex, held up as I began working on this novel. I’d quit my job, changed my whole life, and had gone back to graduate school. The first thing I submitted in class was the first twenty-five pages—it was a short story then, but it started with the same words, “You will develop a palate.” The ideas and characters were there, too, but it was chaos—a floaty, ethereal voice piece—and Tess was really blank. Even blanker than she is now.
That idea of your protagonist being “blank”—why was that important? It made me think of something Rachel Kushner told me, that she believed “the backstory isn’t the story you need.”
I wanted Tess to reflect the New York experience for a lot of people—you arrive and you’re straight into this bubble, and all that matters is the bubble. Your past falls away. It doesn’t matter. You’ve started again. When I was writing this novel I became obsessed with Rachel Cusk’s Outline, where there’s really no backstory at all. It was being published in installments in The Paris Review. I liked Ben Lerner, too, and in both cases there’s very little backstory, you just sense the presence of a past life off the page, don’t you think?
I think I just really like the way Lerner and Cusk aren’t concerned at all with the lines between memoir and fiction in those books. You can put the label “novel” on it at the end and that’s that. What I really loved about Outline were these hints of damage or pain, this aura of the character having run away and the way Cusk resisted the urge to explain it. You look at a book like The Sun Also Rises and you see another novel where some kind of knowledge about the author seems to give the book a life beyond the page. The book itself can be reduced to its essentials, which is what I wanted in the end with Sweetbitter. I don’t think there are rules to “full” characters and that stuff anymore. Do you? Maggie Nelson’s Bluets was also huge for me while I was writing Sweetbitter—another book where the writer is leaning into ambiguous white spaces, as you put it—something I’m definitely interested in doing, fragments followed by longer scenes. Bluets is a kind of breakup song and essay and meditation all at once. And then I opened Argonauts and read that first paragraph, with the dildos and the ass-fucking on the floor. I love how moments of violent desire pop up in her work.
They do in Sweetbitter, too.
Yeah. There’s not enough good erotic fiction. I like writing about sex. I wanted to write about sex. I feel like food and sex go hand in hand. The intensity, the sense of all your senses firing at the same time. The temporary intimacy. All that links restaurant work with sex. There were times when I was writing Sweetbitter when I thought I might go even further with the sex, into full Argonauts territory. I had dreams of writing a great anal-sex scene like the one in A Sport and a Pastime. I wrote it, and I cut it. Not because I thought it would be too sensational, but because it didn’t seem true to Tess. But I did want the whole undercurrent of the book to be about sex in some sense—about Tess’s appetites across the board. Figuring sex out—or thinking you’re going to figure it out—is a really important part of becoming a woman.
Is it frustrating when people assume that Tess is you?
Tess was never me, not really. I hostessed at restaurants when I was fifteen years old and managed restaurants in my late twenties. I had seen these girls come into restaurants over and over again, new to the place, wanting temporary work, not planning to stay for long, then ending up staying for years, and Tess was very much this idea of the new girl that I’d seen walking in the door so often. Tess would never have gotten a job at the Union Square Café, where I worked. But, of course, she’s also like me in some ways. Her sense of New York when she first moves here is my sense of New York. And in the novel, Tess gets called “buoyant,” and my experience of New York when I arrived was that it made me feel buoyant. Like Tess, I found that in New York I was trying to instigate a new life. Tess is chasing experiences that are textbook not-good-for-you, but she’s hoping to press a button somehow—to move forward into her real life.
When Tess arrives in New York, she’s asked if she wants to be a writer, and she says no, honestly or otherwise. Did you know early on that you wanted to be a writer?
I did. I knew really young. Always. I read these Edgar Allen Poe stories we had at home when I was maybe eight years old, and I loved them and wrote all these really dark ghost stories afterward, and—this probably isn’t the kind of thing I should be talking about in interviews—I had to go see the school therapist. The teachers had read my stories and they thought I was disturbed.
What were the stories about?
Oh, a young girl is at a sleepover and she gets possessed by all these demons and goes and kills herself in the kitchen. That sort of thing. I illustrated them, too.
You said that this novel started out as a voice piece, presumably plotless, but the finished novel does feel like the work of an author who is interested in plot.
In its earliest form, the plot of my novel was The Portrait of a Lady, cribbed almost directly, with a little bit of Dangerous Liaisons mixed in, and a bit of The Ambassadors. I had this summer between year one and two of graduate school, rereading Henry James and discovering Isabel Archer again, and that was the best thing that could have happened to me. I became aware of something I hadn’t thought about when I read James first time round, which was how this was a man writing about Isabel—how there were these parts of the book where he knew, but didn’t know, what her experience was. There were these small gaps that I found really exciting—spaces where I wondered what Isabel Archer would have said or thought if it was her, instead of James, writing this story. I remember meeting with different editors. Some of them said things like, Your book is Girls meets Kitchen Confidential! And Claudia Herr, who eventually became my line editor at Knopf, was really quiet in the meeting—there were all these big personalities there—and she said, quietly, at the end of the meeting, It’s a bit Portrait of a Lady. I thought, Yes! You! You’re my person. Done.
Do you think Tess’s appetites, and her attitudes towards those appetites, change over the course of your portrait of her?
I do. At twenty-two, she’s had a healthy, average amount of sex, but hasn’t really yet understood desire or real lust. And I think that happens a lot, that young women don’t find real lust until later, although perhaps it’s happening earlier and earlier now. In New York, she starts playing with intimacy and learning how to work her body, and how to not be embarrassed about being a sexual being. She begins in a mode where she’s apologizing a lot about everything, and by the end, if there’s any epiphany at all, it’s probably that she no longer apologizes for her appetites. Of course, indulging one’s appetites can lead to a lot of unraveling, but she doesn’t know that yet.
In an essay on knitting last year, you used that word, unraveling. You wrote that there are two kinds of women, “those who knit and those who unravel,” and you suggested you were a great unraveler. Is that also true of Tess?
I think it’s a fun distinction—knitters versus unravelers—and fun to write an essay about, but of course women don’t fall neatly into either category. I think most unravelers long to be knitters, and I think Tess is in a mode of seeking—a dangerous mode to live in, but perhaps also the most interesting one. There’s a dissatisfaction in her. There’s this question of, Is it enough? That’s always on her mind. That question caused her to leave her home in the Midwest and move to New York City all alone. I think that trait, if it’s there, doesn’t leave people. It doesn’t mean she can’t have a fulfilling life, and eventually have all those things that a knitter has, which in my essay are a husband and children and long-term friendships, but I think that impulse she had to leave her home behind and start somewhere new will always stay with her. People like Tess keep moving. They knit, they unravel, they move on.
Jonathan Lee’s most recent novel is High Dive.