Stephanie Danler: How I Write

For the first time since she was 15 years old, Stephanie Danler is no longer working in a restaurant. Thanks to a two-book deal with Knopf, she’s now able to devote herself full time to writing.

Stephanie Danler jacket photo for digital

 

For the first time since she was 15 years old, Stephanie Danler is no longer working in a restaurant. Thanks to a two-book deal with Knopf, she’s now able to devote herself full time to writing. Her novel, Sweetbitter, was written while pursuing an MFA and waiting tables at a trendy New York restaurant.

Sweetbitter, which has received laudatory reviews, follows the experiences of a young woman, Tess, as she moves to New York City and (like Danler) starts working at a hip Manhattan restaurant. Relationships, love, life in the restaurant industry, and food and wine are key elements of the story.

 

Real-life inspiration

Sweetbitter is drawn from my life – I moved to New York City when I was 22, I got a job at a prestigious restaurant in Union Square (the now-shuttered location of Union Square Café) and I fell absolutely in love with that world. The experiences are authentic. It wasn’t just that serving experience that informed the book but my years managing restaurants. I knew how restaurants work and run, and it’s from a position that you can see all the moving parts that you make a novel out of it. I could have figured out Tess’s voice, but I wouldn’t have been able to figure out the authority of Simone and Howard if I hadn’t seen the other side.

 

Writing process

Though I was a waitress, I’m actually terrible at multi-tasking. I realized this in graduate school when I was working as a research assistant and a waitress and writing the book. I need to be doing each task fully. When I clocked into a shift at Buvette, I didn’t think about my novel, and when I finished my shift at 4 a.m. and was having my shift drink I would think, “Oh fuck, what did that person say?” Your brain is really wiped clean at the end of shift. When I had writing days – which I had to block off – I didn’t leave my room. I couldn’t socialize, I couldn’t turn my writing self off and on. Sweetbitter was written in these huge binges where I would isolate and do nothing but write.

 

Food/wine as story component

I don’t know how to separate myself from my love of food – I know that I learned it, but it’s so much a part of who I am now, of how I participate in the world, that it feels intrinsic. But I was often reminded that most people didn’t live the way I did – obsessed with hard-to-find ingredients, new recipes, unmarked restaurants you had to travel to. I was aware that I was in a singular and rarefied environment. It wasn’t a conscious choice to tell Tess’s story through food, but the idea of girl discovering the world of the senses – how to taste, how to manage desire, how to navigate intimacy – well, her palate seemed the essential platform.

 

Revision process

Intense! Even if I’m happy with the first draft (as happy as anyone can be with a first draft, usually it’s just relief at having finished something), I usually rewrite the entire thing, even if I keep the majority of it the same. I print it out, I mark it up and retype everything. It feels terribly inefficient most of the time, but I’ve found that I can’t just jump into a piece and add a scene or change a character’s action. I need to write my way up to it, and I find that most of the time any change has a ripple effect across the piece.

 

Writing routine

I write longhand every morning while having coffee and toast. I’ve been doing it for all of my adult life. They are notes mostly – on the weather, my body, feelings, ideas I’m turning over. I’ve found as I’ve gotten older I mostly write questions to myself. I do a lot of longhand sketching of scenes, but most composition I do on the computer surrounded by notebooks. I always imagined that when I stopped restaurant work, I would turn into someone who sets stable, daily hours aside to write. But I still write in extremis – 10-hour binges or days in which I don’t participate in the world.

Allison Futterman is a freelance writer who has been published in several magazines.

 

 

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