Aug 8, 2016
The instant national bestselling author of the acclaimed debut novel Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler, stopped by the show to chat with me about her not-so-overnight success as a rising literary star.
Ms. Danler signed a six-figure deal with Knopf for her first book, the coming-of-age story of a young woman transplanted into New York City’s upscale, cutthroat restaurant world.
Bestselling author Jay McInerney called Sweetbitter “… a stunning debut novel, one that seems destined to help define a generation,” and the book has been compared to Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.
Before returning to her love of writing, and earning an MFA in Fiction from The New School in NY, Ms. Danler spent much of her life working in the food and wine industry.
Stephanie has also written essays for The Paris Review, Vogue, Literary Hub, and Travel + Leisure.
Join us for this two-part interview, and if you’re a fan of the show, please subscribe in iTunes to automatically see new interviews, and help other writers find us.
In Part One of the file Stephanie Danler and I discuss:
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These are the Writer Files, a tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of working writers from online content creators to fictionists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and beyond. I’m your host, Kelton Reid, writer, podcaster, and media file. Each week we’ll discover how great writers keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving, and avoid writer’s block.
The instant national best-selling author of the acclaimed debut novel Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler, stopped by the show to chat with me this week about her not so overnight success as a rising literary star.
Ms. Danler signed a six-figure deal with Knopf for her first book, the coming of age story of a young woman transplanted into New York City’s upscale, cut-throat restaurant world. Best-selling author Jay McInerney called Sweetbitter a stunning debut novel, one that seems destined to help define a generation. The book has been compared to Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.
Before returning to her love of writing and earning an MFA in fiction from the New School in New York, Ms. Danler spent much of her life working in the food and wine industry. Stephanie has also written essays for The Paris Review, Vogue, Literary Hub, and Travel + Leisure. Join us for this two-part interview, and if you’re a fan of the show, do click “subscribe” to automatically see new interviews and to help other writers find us.
In part one of this file, Stephanie and I discuss why you should write what you know and love, the unglamorous yet rewarding work of promoting a new book, why cultural artifacts are great for research, an author’s careful balance of daily beverage consumption, and why the old rules of productivity shouldn’t apply to writers.
We’re rolling with author Stephanie Danler. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to rap with us about your process.
Stephanie Danler: Of course. Thank you for having me.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. I am a big fan of this new book, Sweetbitter. I have to say it’s my new favorite. I don’t say that very often. I know it might sound like maybe I say that to every author, but I loved and hated it. I’ll tell you why. It’s because I’ve waited tables for many, many years of my life, and it’s giving me flashbacks.
Stephanie Danler: I hear that all the time. I hear the PTSD that people start to sweat a little bit, especially in some of the more intense service scenes, which I imagine are really boring for a lot of readers. They’re like, “I get it. She carries three plates. This is not that difficult.” But for people in the industry, that kind of crush and intensity of service, I still get PTSD, and I didn’t stop waiting tables that long ago.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, it’s amazing that it’s been years for me as well, but I still kind of get those waiting tables dreams where I have a nightmare, which is totally kind of like a PTSD response. Of course, it’s a stress response, but it’s …
Stephanie Danler: What’s yours? Everyone has a different one.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, oh yeah. It’s like the restaurant fills up, and you’re the only server, and you can’t do anything right, and everyone’s speaking a different language. You just want to get one coffee to a table, and you can’t span this football field sized restaurant. How about that?
Stephanie Danler: That’s a great one.
Kelton Reid: What’s yours?
Stephanie Danler: God, mine is so specific, and it’s that I go into the wine room to pull a bottle of wine, and none of the bottles have labels on them. They’re all just black. I’m digging through this endless pile of glass, and I’m sweating the whole time.
Kelton Reid: Oh my. Yeah. Okay, cool. It’s definitely something that waiters get, but you waited tables in a very specific type of restaurant, like a fine dining place. The book is amazing, the language and the prose really, really captures that setting, so kudos on the success of the book. I understand it’s doing very well, getting a lot of great buzz.
Stephanie Danler: Thank you. Yeah. Totally has surpassed any of my wildest expectations. I’m ready to go home now, but not quite yet.
Kelton Reid: Are you still in New York City, or are you…
Stephanie Danler: No. I just got back to LA where I am currently camped out. Technically this is home, but I’m still working for Sweetbitter, constantly.
Kelton Reid: Okay, yeah. Cool, cool. That’s exciting. Maybe for listeners who aren’t familiar with your story, can you give us kind of a little bit of your origin from maybe just from waiting tables in New York City, or being a back waiter in New York City to best-selling novelist?
Stephanie Danler: That is such a clean trajectory. I wish that it went like that. I moved to New York City at the same age as my protagonist in the novel. She moves when she’s 22 in 2006. That is in fact when I moved to the city and the age that I was. Unlike my protagonist, I’d been working in restaurants my entire life. I started when I was 15 years old, and I never had another job. I knew when I got to New York that I needed to find restaurant work quickly and that that was what would support me while I wrote because I did move to become a writer. I had just finished undergrad, and I had two parts of a very bad novel that I thought was going to be a great novel.
I think the most autobiographical part of Sweetbitter is the experience of falling head over heels in love with an industry, and it giving you a life that is very full and that is not a means to an end, but is immensely gratifying in and of itself. That’s what I found when I got to New York. And so, after my first job, which was at a landmark restaurant that’s no longer there, Union Square Café. Danny Meyer’s first restaurant. After that, I went to wine school. I helped open wine stores. I was the beverage director for a small restaurant group. I was the general manager. I helped open new businesses. I was a food and wine professional and very attached to that identity.
It wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I remembered why I had moved to New York City. At that point, I had this idea. I wanted to tell a coming of age novel that subverted the genre in a few ways. First by being about a woman, and second by being not about age 14 or age 18, but about this extended adolescence that we’re experiencing now in our 20s where we’re not married. We’re not supposed to have careers yet, and we have this period where we’re actually just supposed to be figuring out how to be.
I married that with what I knew, which is 15 years in the restaurant industry. I had this expertise, and I had this world that was so rich. I went back to graduate school, and I was getting my MFA, and the first thing I wrote was the first sentence of Sweetbitter. Two years later I had the first draft finished.
Kelton Reid: That’s cool. That’s really, really cool.
Stephanie Danler: Yeah, and there was a lot of messy, awful stuff in the middle of that, so it wasn’t so clean. I do love that story, waitress turns into best-selling author.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. It’s a good one.
Stephanie Danler: I just woke up one day, and poof, there was a book.
Kelton Reid: I noticed that you quoted Sappho in the opening there. Is that where the title comes from?
Stephanie Danler: Yeah. Sappho famously was the first writer to call love bittersweet, but there’s a more recent translation by the poet Anne Carson, in which she looks at the word in Greek and says, “No, it’s actually sweet bitter.” That’s also the order in which we experience love, the sweet first, and then the bitter.
Kelton Reid: That’s cool.
Stephanie Danler: I love Anne Carson, so I just went with that.
Kelton Reid: Very cool. The world is so ripe for that subculture. I love how you’re kind of going through the palate, the flavors, the everything, the appetite of that world. It’s an amazing read, so kudos on that. Where else can we find your writing out there? I know you’ve written for some kind of bigger name publications. Have you done travel writing? Is that right?
Stephanie Danler: Yeah, I do. I have two other types of writing going on. I occasionally, with much angst, write personal essays. It’s not my natural habitat, but I also have had a really great run with Travel + Leisure. I have an incredible editor there, Jesse Ashlock. We’ve done three pieces together now. I’ve always been travelling. It’s a huge part of my life, and it’s what I’ve spent all my money on, and what I always will spend all my money on. It has turned out that I get to write about it. It’s not always that glamorous, but it’s incredibly rewarding. Then the personal essays have found homes on The Paris Review website, Vogue, and Lit Hub, Literary Hub, all sites that I’m so honored to be on. The Vogue thing was insane. No one thinks they’re going to be in Vogue. It’s so weird. I’ve never even read Vogue.
Kelton Reid: That’s crazy.
Stephanie Danler: Again, I had a genius editor who pulled out this personal essay for me. I think I get more feedback about that essay which talks about drug addiction and developing boundaries with addicts. I get more feedback on that than anything I’ve written, including Sweetbitter.
Kelton Reid: Wow. Yeah, all great stuff. I’ll link to those. You also have a personal website, which I’ll link to. That’s StephanieDanler.com. We’ll put that in the show notes for listeners also. What are you working on right now?
Stephanie Danler: I am working on this podcast, and then I am working for Sweetbitter. I do have two essays that are close. Then there’s that dreaded second novel that Knopf is waiting for, which I will turn my attention to shortly, but I just got back from touring. I think I need a little bit of mental space.
Kelton Reid: We will be right back after a very short break. Thanks so much for listening to the Writer Files.
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Kelton Reid: We’ll look forward to hearing more about that as it develops. I’d love to just kind of dig into your process a little bit and learn a little bit more about your creative and writing process.
Stephanie Danler: Yeah.
Kelton Reid: Let’s talk about productivity a little bit. When you were working on the book, how much time were you kind of putting into research? I know that you did a lot of personal research over those years as a server and industry worker. Did you find yourself doing a lot of research while you were writing the book?
Stephanie Danler: It’s interesting. People ask me often whether I had to research the industry or the food and the wine. Those things were so second nature to me, but what I could not remember was 2006, probably because I was drunk and working at the restaurant, but also I was 22, and it was a decade ago. I keep notebooks, but my notebooks are, “I woke up sad today. I woke up happy today.” They’re useless.
I found myself very grateful for my hoarding tendencies and all of these old New Yorkers and New York magazines, and a collection of old Gourmet magazines, which is now out of print, but was the most beautiful food magazine in the world. I have a storage unit full of these print magazines. All of the information is online, but what you don’t get is the ads and the feel of what was happening in 2006; what restaurants were opening, what menus looked like, what songs were popular. Those were so helpful in jogging my memory.
Kelton Reid: That’s cool.
Stephanie Danler: That counts as research, I think.
Kelton Reid: For sure. Before you actually sit down to get going, do you have any pre-game rituals to kind of get you into the mood?
Stephanie Danler: Yes. I’m big on beverages, like multiple, multiple beverages. There is usually a cup of coffee that is lukewarm and anyone else would think is disgusting, but I drink it all day. Then there’s tea, and there’s water. Then at some point, there’s a Campari soda. Then at some point, there’s a white wine. I think the beverages are twofold because you need to be hydrated while you write, right? Everyone knows that. But you get to get up from the desk every 20 to 30 minutes to refill something or fidget with something. I find that very valuable.
Kelton Reid: Oh, for sure. Yeah, taking breaks is important. Staying caffeinated, also important, up to a point.
Stephanie Danler: Yeah, such a delicate art with caffeination, being caffeinated. Caffeination, I made that up.
Kelton Reid: When you’re working on a bigger piece, or even an essay, are you working on it every day? Are you scheduling or blocking out times or word counts?
Stephanie Danler: I think that when I am lucky, I’m obsessed by a project enough that I’m working on it every day. I’m not a fantastic multi-tasker. I really do need to focus in on one project. I very rarely am juggling two pieces of writing at the same time. I do block off whole days. I find that I cannot dip in and dip out. Maybe that also goes back to being a bad multi-tasker. My social self and my writing self are so far away from each other. Like, even just to talk to you today, it means that I can’t write. I’m in a different head space. Maybe later today, if a shift occurs. I have to block off whole days. That means, no, I cannot go to lunch. No, I cannot go get a drink. No, I cannot work out. No, I cannot go to the market. You just really have to put strict boundaries around that time. I do.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, so that gets you into the flow. It sounds like you’re working big stretches, in marathon stretches.
Stephanie Danler: Yeah, that is how I work. Yeah.
Kelton Reid: Cool. Do you find that you’re getting more stuff done in the mornings, or are you kind of just whatever time of day?
Stephanie Danler: Yeah, mornings are hard, because I do get up early, and I read. I have a handwriting journal practice that I’ve had for my entire life, but really there are so many emails. There’s the business of life, and that always feels most pressing in the morning. I find that I have a productive period around 10am after that stuff has fallen away, or I have a better sense of my day. Then around 4pm, anything leading up to a meal, I am like, “I’ll write for two hours, and then I get to eat.”
Kelton Reid: Yeah, absolutely. Do you like to work with headphones on, or are you somebody who prefers silence?
Stephanie Danler: I like music. I have a hard time with music that has words, though. I think when you’re dealing with words, and I have worked in silence before and found it very productive, but it’s also a little frightening, especially if you’re working for ten hours with no noise. That is a little intense for me. There’s something about music where I feel like I’m in touch with the world still.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. I find it interesting, actually, that kind of in the restaurant on a busy night, there’s a sound that kind of a busy restaurant makes that’s almost like brown noise or something where all conversations just kind of melt into one thing. Then you’ve got that soundtrack underneath that’s like an ambient soundtrack or something like that. Do you have memories of some of those tracks that would come on at the restaurant during a service night?
Stephanie Danler: Oh my God, of course. Don’t you?
Kelton Reid: Yeah, totally. It’s really interesting. I’ve tried to make playlists that incorporate songs from different eras of different restaurants to kind of remember those times.
Stephanie Danler: The last job I had was at a restaurant called Buvette, and “Slippin’ and a Slidin ” by Little Richard would come on at midnight when things were beginning to break apart, when people had gotten too drunk, and we got this late night rush that we weren’t expecting. Everyone’s so tired and hungry. I would always look at the bartender and just shake my head, because that song was like, “We’re doomed.”
Kelton Reid: That’s awesome. When you hear it now, you kind of…
Stephanie Danler: I have not listened to that song since I left that restaurant.
Kelton Reid: You can’t.
Stephanie Danler: No, I would never.
Kelton Reid: Gotcha, gotcha. Let’s hear your thoughts on writer’s block. Do you believe in it? Is it a thing? Have you ever experienced it?
Stephanie Danler: Oh God, it’s like one of the most powerful myths about writing. Every writer is asked about it, and it’s been endlessly discussed, but what’s interesting … I don’t think writer’s block exists. I think that the way that we measure productivity is not applicable to writing. Usually, you have active time equal to your production to the amount of money you’re getting paid. None of those rules apply. This idea that you’re blocked makes an assumption that there is another way that you should be working, that there are goals that you have to hit.
However, I have had the experience of having so much energy for a piece and diving into it, and running into literally a wall, a mental wall, and being like, “Oh, what is this doing here? I’m just going to bang my head against it, and I’m sure it will disappear.” Then finally saying, “I have to walk away.” That’s what I think of when I think of writer’s block, but it’s actually something else, which is some wiser, less egotistical self that is also me looking down and saying, “This isn’t working. Walk away.” That’s your instinct. That’s not really a block.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. I like that summation. Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy the Writer Files Podcast, please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes or to just leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM. You can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.