Aug 15, 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.
If you missed the first half you can find it right here.
In Part Two 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 mediaphile. 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 this week to chat with me about her not-so-overnight success as a rising literary star.
Ms. Danler signed a six figure deal with Knapf for her first book, the coming of age story of a the young woman transplanted into New York City’s upscale, cut-throat restaurant world. Best-selling author Jay McInerny 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, please click “subscribe” to automatically see new interviews with your favorite authors and help other writers to find us.
If you missed the first half of this show, you can find it at WriterFiles.FM and in the show notes. In part two of the file, Stephanie and I discuss the dichotomy of procrastination and deadlines, why relationships are important to writers, on the deconstruction and sanctity of creativity, how great writers leave blood on the page, and some sound advice on why you just need to finish.
Let’s talk about your work flow a little bit. Are you working on a Mac or a PC there?
Stephanie Danler: Oh, a MacBook. I had this ancient one that was so heavy that I used to lug around the world, and this one is so light and fancy. I adore it.
Kelton Reid: They get lighter by the day, don’t they?
Stephanie Danler: I’m very happy about that.
Kelton Reid: Are you a Microsoft Word, or a Scrivener disciple?
Stephanie Danler: What’s Scrivener? I have no idea. Microsoft Word. I’m not, like, a software person.
Kelton Reid: I just assume that there are two camps, and the Scrivener’s like a new … It’s a newer software that incorporates a lot of kind of organizational tools that a lot of writers are using now. But you sound like a classic, dyed in the wool Microsoft Word-er.
Stephanie Danler: Yeah, and lots of notebooks. Not structured or an outline person, or an organized person at all.
Kelton Reid: Do you have any best practices, kind of going back to block and whatnot, for beating procrastination?
Stephanie Danler: I mean, no, on procrastination. I don’t know how to beat that. I would welcome any tips that you have. I should listen to the other podcasts.
Kelton Reid: I think a lot of writers lean into it because it’s part of their creative process.
Stephanie Danler: I think that deadlines are incredible, extremely helpful, and I think adrenaline is extremely helpful. Maybe that’s because I worked in restaurants for so long that it feels very familiar to me. For beating block, I think there’s just reading. I think that when you’re feeling bored or uninspired by your own mind, I think it’s time to visit someone else’s mind. I was just recently rereading Susan Sontag’s journals, and she’s admonishing herself. She’s like, “You will not read anymore. You are procrastinating.” I was like, “Okay. I could just be so lucky to procrastinate like Susan Sontag. I’ll take the reading.”
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. For sure. So Campari and soda, a glass of wine. How else does Stephanie Danler unplug at the end of a long writing day?
Stephanie Danler: There’s definitely a beverage involved, and I think that it really does signal that you’ve exited the work day in a way. I like to be outside. It’s part of the reason that I moved to Southern California, even though I’d barely been here. But I think it’s important to actually be in nature as much as possible. You miss that in the city, by just contact with the world. I need to talk to people. It’s a very intense experience to sit alone with your many voices all day, trying to decide which to listen to.
I think that calling someone and getting out of your own head and your own problems is the reminder that, “Oh, I’m just a human. I’m just a regular human being in the world, and I’m going to go to sleep, and this doesn’t matter so much.” It does. It’s art, and it’s what I’ve dedicated my life to, but there’s also just living, and being a good friend, and a good partner, and making meals. That’s equally as important.
Kelton Reid: For sure. Well, I’d love to dig into your creativity if you have time.
Stephanie Danler: Yeah. That’s like, the vaguest word. It’s like one of those catch-alls, and it’s like a branding tool now, that I don’t even know what it means. But yes, ask away.
Kelton Reid: How do you personally define creativity?
Stephanie Danler: As I was just being so cynical about creativity, I was thinking also about how sacred it really is. When I think about real creativity, I think about that moment when you’ve been staring at the same material, or the same words, or the same landscape, or building, or face, and you feel like you know it. You feel like everything about it is staid and formulaic, and it’s dead. Then these synapses connect, and it’s new. Then I think about Ezra Pound’s slogan, “Make it new.” I think that that’s creativity. There is no new material. There’s only new ways of perceiving, and that is where original, exciting thought comes from.
Kelton Reid: When do you personally feel the most creative? You may have already answered this, but can you nail it down?
Stephanie Danler: Yeah. I think that it’s really important to remember how much of writing takes place away from the desk and off the page. I find that I’m very creative where I’m having those synapses firing, where I’m seeing connections, when I’m in transit. Whether I’m driving, or walking, or riding the subway, those are extremely fertile times for thought, because you can wander.
That’s all writing, for me. That’s all work. I’m not always even in a rush to write those things down. I kind of observe the thoughts, and if they’re important, and if they’re going to add to whatever dialogue I’m having, they’ll come back to me at the desk. I think in transit is a really lovely time.
Kelton Reid: Do you have a creative muse right now?
Stephanie Danler: I have been walking a lot since I’ve been back, and I live in Laurel Canyon, so I’m surrounded by trails. I used to walk a lot in New York as well. I used to walk the bridge. I found that to give me a really great mental space. I’m always reading poets, and I read poetry first thing in the morning, and that is such a huge part of my practice. They, whoever they are, never fail to make me excited about language again, which, excitement is one step away from inspiration. Usually that works.
Kelton Reid: Very nice. In your estimation, what makes a writer great?
Stephanie Danler: That’s a huge question. I really value honesty. Not just honesty, but sincerity in writing. I find, in a lot of modern or postmodern fiction, I feel this distance from the reader, this lack of sincerity, where I’m supposed to be appreciating how clever something is, but the writer hasn’t actually left any blood on the page, so to speak. There isn’t this authenticity, and I’m drawn towards writers in which I can really feel their pulse right behind the page. I don’t know whether that’s lived experience, and there are plenty of fiction writers who make everything up that can give you that feeling, but that’s a mark of talent.
Kelton Reid: Completely. Do you have a couple of favorites right now that you’re just kind of stuck on? Sitting on your bedside table?
Stephanie Danler: I have such an insane stack on my bedside table. I am so bored of hearing myself praise Maggie Nelson, because I do it all the time, but Maggie Nelson is a critic, essayist, poet. She most recently put out The Argonauts, which is a masterpiece. Then, we have her book of poetry. It’s really a poetic essay called Bluets. At this point, I’ve read everything that she’s written, and she does not care about genre. She does not care about the rules, and I find it so inspiring.
Kelton Reid: That’s awesome. Do you have a best-loved quote floating there somewhere over your desk, like so many authors?
Stephanie Danler: Yeah. I have a bunch. I actually have a bunch of poems. But my real quotes are on my body. I have some tattoos that are quotes that I carry with me. I have, “This is Water,” from David Foster Wallace, which was a speech he gave at my university, Kenyon College, which has now turned into, like, a manifesto of sorts. What else do I have? I have Clarice Lispector, the last line of her book The Passion According to G.H., is, “And so I adore it,” which is really just an affirmation, after you’ve gone through this novel of destruction, really. It’s really allegorical and very Kafkaesque, even though I hate it when people call things Kafkaesque. That’s the easiest way for me to put it. After you’ve gotten to the bottom of this hole, where there’s no meaning, it ends with this kind of cry, “And so I adore it.” I think of that one often.
Kelton Reid: Very cool. I’ve got a couple of fun ones for you, to wrap it up. 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: Are you a paper or an e-book lover?
Stephanie Danler: I don’t have an e-book thing. I can’t do it. I can’t even talk about it.
Kelton Reid: Should we cut this?
Stephanie Danler: It makes traveling so difficult. No. I love that people read, and my friends have their Kindles, and they love their Kindles, and it’s made them more voracious readers, and I’m so happy about that, but that’s repulsive. I can’t. You have no sense of weight or where you are in a book, and you can’t dog-ear the pages, and you can’t write in them. It’s just, no, no, no. Not for me.
Kelton Reid: Well, I believe that you can make marginalia in some Kindles now, but of course it doesn’t look the same years and years down the road when somebody else opens the book.
Stephanie Danler: There’s something about reading, even on a computer screen, where you have no idea of where you are in the novel. I love reading a passage and knowing that I’m one-third of the way in, and that sense of expectation that it builds. The way you engage with it knowing that you’re five pages away from the ending, you’re just lost on the screen in cyberspace. It’s terrible.
Kelton Reid: It sounds like an alternate dimension.
Stephanie Danler: You don’t have to cut this. I really believe in everything I’m saying. I’m very comfortable with this.
Kelton Reid: We’ll leave it all in. It’s great. It’s good stuff.
Do you have kind of a favorite literary character of all time?
Stephanie Danler: That’s such a fun one. I love Henry James‘ women. I love Isabelle Archer from Portrait of a Lady, followed closely by Madame de Vionnet in The Ambassadors. One is like, the young, intelligent, optimistic heroine of the novel, and then Madame de Vionnet is the older, manipulative, cynical, slightly toxic character. Obviously, if you have read my book, I’ve drawn from both of those. I love his women.
Kelton Reid: If you could choose an author from any era for an all expense paid dinner to your favorite restaurant in the world, who would you take, and where would you take them?
Stephanie Danler: I would take this writer M.F.K. Fisher. She wrote in the mid-20th century. She’s ostensibly a cookery writer, but she’s one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century. She’s incredible. She basically writes personal essays that are centered around food, but at the end you’re crying and you don’t know why. She’s incredibly powerful and very dark and funny. M.F.K. Fisher and I … Where would I take her? She lived in France for so long. I would love to take her to Spain. I’ve been to Spain. I was a Spanish wine buyer for a moment, and I’ve traveled extensively throughout that country, and I think she would be shocked by the quality of food in places like San Sebastian and Barcelona. Yeah, I would take M.F.K. Fisher on a tapeo, a tapas crawl.
Kelton Reid: Nice, nice. Love that idea. Actually, it’s making me very hungry and thirsty thinking about that. Do you have any writer s fetishes? I know a lot of writers have collections and rare artifacts of the trade, and many don’t. Do you have anything that kind of hangs around or follows you around the world?
Stephanie Danler: I mean, I have my notebooks, and I’ve been writing in them forever. I have my ridiculous library, but I think that every writer has a ridiculous library. My collection of old magazines and old Paris Reviews and old Kenyon Reviews, those are kind of special and idiosyncratic. I have a small collection of The Partisan Review, which was really powerful in the 40s and 50s. It was more powerful intellectually than The New Yorker at the time. Those are so special. You have Jean-Paul Sartre writing for The Partisan Review next to Robert Lowell. Those are incredible.
Kelton Reid: Going back to the notebook really quick, what kind of notebook is it?
Stephanie Danler: They’re Moleskine notebooks. Black.
Kelton Reid: Aha.
Stephanie Danler: “Aha.” I know. So boring. I keep a small one for personal, private, nonsensical writing. Then, I keep a larger one for thoughts pertaining to work. If anyone ever tries to sell you the small notebook, you don’t want that. You want the big notebook.
Kelton Reid: Can you offer advice to your fellow scribes, fellow writers, on how to keep the ink flowing, how to keep the cursor moving?
Stephanie Danler: I think I go back to reading. I think you need to be reading as much as you’re writing, if not more. I also often tell fellow writers that you have to finish. I remember a professor told me that at The New School, Darryl Pinckney. He said, “You need to finish your projects.” I was like, “Well, duh. Of course, I’m trying to finish.” His point is that so many of us start things. There’s so much energy in, “I have written the opening sentences of the great American novel.” But we never finishing it is an entirely different beast.
I think another facet of that is not to be too precious about it because writers do not realize that your first draft is almost meaningless. It doesn’t matter how good it is, how bad it is. You’re going to revise it 1,000 times, and until you write the last sentence, you have no idea what you’re looking at. Whether it is the great American novel, or whether it has to be burned. Get to the end.
Kelton Reid: Well, Sweetbitter is a great novel. Congratulations. I love this blurb by Jay McInerney, who, that’s impressive alone, said, “A stunning debut, destined to help define a generation.” It really captures that fast paced, kind of late night, sexy subculture of the restaurant world, but it’s so much more. It’s incredibly well written, and I encourage the listeners to seek it out. I’m sure they can’t miss it at this point because it’s kind of everywhere.
Congrats on that. I did have a question about kind of, any of your peers from that period, if you are still in touch with them, did they have any thoughts on kind of how you captured the world?
Stephanie Danler: Yeah. I am, as you probably know, having worked in restaurants, your restaurant family, you see them around forever. I’ve had so many different restaurant families, and they’ve all shown up at one event or another. Even when I was in Portland, Oregon, where I knew no one, someone showed up who I used to work with who was living there. Everyone’s been so gracious and supportive, and the notes that I receive are so kind, and I think it’s because it’s fiction.
I think that probably everyone I’ve ever worked with picked up the book and was like, “Oh, I bet I’m in here.” They’re not. I think that it makes it easier for them to read, and also, so many times, they’re like, “This took me back. This is like a love letter to our lives in that moment.” That is exactly what I wanted. It really is a deeply nostalgic work, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was in the process of leaving New York, and Union Square Café was closing, and it really is a tribute to that moment of youth, and that moment in New York City.
Kelton Reid: That s cool.
Stephanie Danler: Yeah, they have been so lovely.
Kelton Reid: That’s awesome to hear. Well, congratulations on all of the successes, and we look forward to more. Hope you come back and talk with us again. Where can writers and listeners connect with you out there?
Stephanie Danler: I am very active on Instagram, which seems strange for a writer, because I cannot Tweet. I don’t understand anything about it. But there’s an incredible book loving community on Instagram, where people are sharing writers and recommendations, and I post a lot of poetry that I’m reading, and try to give it as much visibility as possible, and yeah. People seem to like reading it on Instagram, so that’s where I am.
Kelton Reid: Neat, neat. Very cool. All right, Stephanie. Well, thanks again, and it has been a true pleasure chatting with you about writing.
Stephanie Danler: Thank you so much.
Kelton Reid: 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 a 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, and you can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.