OE Spotlight will be featuring Stephanie Danler and her internationally bestselling novel, Sweetbitter, on October 23rd at Oxford Exchange.
Stephanie recently spoke to us over Skype, where she talked about tight-walking the line between commercial success and literary merit; why Albert Camus does not depress her; gratitude as both a hashtag and a foundational life philosophy; and the tiny, unheroic ways that art can move you through life.
Oxford Exchange: Interviews with Vanity Fair, The Paris Review, NPR, Vogue. Now you can add the Oxford Exchange blog to the list. Stephanie, I think it’s safe to say you’ve arrived. Are you nervous?
Stephanie Danler: I am very, very nervous. Except that I’ve done this like 700 times. So hopefully I’ll make it through.
OE: Well let’s start with my own personal experience with the book then, so we don’t cover old ground and bore you. As a slightly insecure male picking up this book, I saw the pretty cover and I saw the pink and this wine glass and…I guess I just felt like I knew exactly what Sweetbitter was going to be about. But when you read it, you quickly understand that it’s something deeper. It’s artistic and it’s dark and it breaks your expectations and then breaks them again. All in the best ways. By the time I finished, I was telling people, damn, this book is a kind of Gatsby with a sexier cover.
SD: That’s interesting because I did have a lot of concerns when we were marketing the book, about managing people’s expectations. I was worried that people who pick up this book and think it’s going to be an expose of the restaurant industry—they were going to read one page and then hate it. It’s not going to work. There are people out there who wanted the book to be more Lena Dunham. But I’ve never intended to write anything like that. I never stopped focusing on the literary merit.
In publishing—and this is honest—the holy grail is the literary crossover. Where you find a certain amount of commercial success with a literary project. And so, the whole time I knew that’s what Knopf was aiming for. Because Sweetbitter has a lot of bridges and angles, it can be commercial—we had this food angle and New York and sex and drugs. But underneath that, I’m freaking out, thinking that’s never going to work because this is just the weirdest book—it’s really poetic, really dark, and it has no plot—how could it ever cross over?
But what Knopf knows, that I didn’t know, is that people come to a book and they take one aspect of it. People come to Sweetbitter just to take the food thing, or the being young and in New York thing, or the nightlife; and they might not be reading it for the prose.
OE: So you were able to walk those bridges and cross over, but is that maybe at the expense of your audience not connecting with the novel the way you intended as an artist?
SD: Well, I think my intentions become totally irrelevant. I intended to write beautiful sentences and I didn’t really explicitly care about anything else. That’s real. Not story, not anything. The writers that I admire are prose stylists. And some people don’t care about that at all. They like the drugs, they like the sex, they like the food. But that’s the beauty of it. That’s the art.
OE: A friend saw Anthony Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See) speak and told me he says something similar. Basically how, at a certain point, you need to stop worrying about everything except your gut.
SD: You have to disassociate from it completely. To start thinking about your art as a product, that will destroy the part of you that creates. You can’t write—you can’t make art—from that place. So I keep it separate. I’ve been touring for months and I’m going to continue through the end of the year. But it’s a totally different person. It really is the public-self vs. the private-self. And I work really hard at the public-self, but it’s all in an effort to protect the private.
OE: That’s funny, because even before our owner found Sweetbitter in our store, she’d encountered it on Instagram. So there are these two worlds, it seems. In one, you see this very attractive, fashionable portrait of mainstream success. I mean, there’s a picture of Eva Longoria holding your book floating around on social media. But then there’s this the world that exists on the page. On one hand, you wrote this deeply artful and finely tuned book about finding yourself amid broken dreams, and meanwhile all we want you to talk about is your favorite wine. So there has to be a line between Stephanie Danler the writer and Stephanie the…is it the character? Is that ever annoying, having to walk that line?
SD: Well, it can’t annoy me because this is such a privilege. It’s a privilege to have any sort of platform, and if I want to talk about Renata Adler (Speedboat) and preach poetry to people who would never have picked it up before, then I also have to talk about what shoes I’m wearing and what kind of rosé I like to drink. It comes with the package of being able to have a voice. And it’s so unbelievably ludicrous to me that any one would ask me anything. And now I have people come up to me and say, I think I’m dating a Jake. Should I break up with him? And I’m like, um, am I fucking qualified to tell you what to do with your life?
So it’s not annoying. I’m too aware of how lucky I am to be in this position. Really, what it’s like is my “server self”. It’s my job to give you what you need. If you read this because you’re dating an emotionally unavailable asshole, and you come to the book, or me, to tell you that you’re going to get through it, or, if you’re interested in writing because you don’t know how to get published—whatever it is, it’s my job to give that back to you. So I just try to meet people where they are.
And, hey, the thing is, I sold wine for years, so I’m happy to talk about it, but that isn’t what my book is about. There is a book here that I feel like sometimes I need to remind people about. Like, I’ve been asked by serious journalists, “So, do people have sex in restaurants?”
OE: Right, if that’s what you take from this novel, I’d really argue you’re missing out. But, on the first page of Sweetbitter, you touch on this, don’t you? You give us a roadmap for where Tess is going and we learn she’s going to develop a taste for things, but more, that she’s going to find the language to describe these tastes. Of course, that’s hard. It’s hard to really describe something because there’s always something lost. It’s never the same as actually tasting it, is it? Questions about restaurant sex and rosé, these demonstrate just how difficult it is to communicate. You can write a whole novel about something and still, do we ever really understand?
SD: What you’re talking about is at the center of every modern novel—that’s the failure of language. Post-modernism is founded upon exploring this question of where the limits of literature might lie. So you see a lot of moves being made in those novels that make reference to language—in Foster Wallace, it’s the way that he uses footnotes and parenthetical asides that function in this way to keep reminding the reader, “I’m making this up, I’m making this up”.
OE: To say, hey, there’s more to what I’m telling you than what I could ever simply tell you.
SD: And so, my novel isn’t like that. Now, there are some tricks, but in my novel you’re meant to forget that it’s not real. But Tess’ journey is about learning a language for something and then realizing that that language doesn’t matter.
That’s the journey of learning about wine, too, at a fundamental level—I’m going to learn how to break this apart by color and texture, by smell and taste and red fruits and baking spices and peppers, and then you reach a certain level of skill and then you realize, wow, this is all bullshit. That we’re just making this up. And that’s her final epiphany in the end.
Now, I don’t think that she’s so overtly aware of this or cynical by the end—there’s almost too much cynicism in all of our novels. But she’s certainly going through that experience.
Tess reaches this point that all those characters—Caulfield, Carraway, Jake Barnes—reach where her broken dreams are in her hands. But you choose not to fade to black. You give her something like a solution—poetry and artistic expression.
SD: I think that art always functions like redemption even if we’re left with nothing. Like the end of Tender is the Night, where Dick Diver just falls off the map—it is like totally being abandoned. But, for Tess, by her narrative existing, the success of it is that she’s turned it all into something.
Something that’s very important to me is gratitude. And that’s a very popular hashtag, but it’s also a very conscious lifestyle choice that I really believe in. And I don’t subscribe to many things—but gratitude has been foundational to me. And I wanted to show that in a character where that sort of hope and optimism exists. Where she refuses to let herself be victimized. She chooses to be grateful for knowledge.
And if you subscribe to that, you’ll always be okay. It’s like the way that The Portrait of a Lady ends with Isabel Archer’s hand on the door. You don’t know if she’s going back to her disastrous husband or is she’s going to save herself, but there’s this feeling that, either way, she will be okay. So I had to think about that for Tess, and how to do that without wrapping it up with a job promotion or a boyfriend and all of the typical things we associate with success.
OE: Well thank God you didn’t. Though that’s maybe much to the chagrin of those who opened the book thinking it’d be that sexy, restaurant exposé, but hey, they’re better off for it. I want to talk more about gratitude. How you go your whole life wanting your art to be seen and heard, your whole, entire life and here you are, finally getting your boulder to the top of the mountain. And it’s so heartening to see the humility you receive it with.
SD: Because I’m just so fucking lucky.
OE: Because, of course, we know what happens at the top of the mountain, right? I don’t know if there’s ever that moment where you get to wipe your hands off on your jeans and say, I made it, I’m done! I guess a lot of people can look at that endlessness, that lack of resolution as depressing, but then here you are, meeting these ebbs and flows with positivity and gratitude.
SD: Well, I’ve always been a practicing nihilist and you mention Camus and Sisyphus there—people don’t understand that it’s made me especially buoyant and grateful. Because though I’m invested in the struggle, I don’t have this expectation for catharsis. And so a lot of people find that depressing—they’re always looking for the healing, for the epiphany, for happiness. But, if you don’t have that expectation you’re able to look at the struggle and appreciate it. And as an artist, you try to expose and explore it.
Stephanie Danler will be discussing her novel Sweetbitter and signing copies at Oxford Exchange on October 23 at 1:30 pm. The second part of her interview will be released next week.