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. This is part two of our interview.
Oxford Exchange: Everyone who’s ever been in our bookstore knows I could go on about this all day. But let’s spare them. I want to talk about poetry. You invoke Anne Carson in the novel and in your interview with The Paris Review.
Stephanie Danler: Heavily.
OE: And she talks about how she feels that her “personal poetry is a failure”. And you’ve mentioned before that poetry is the closest to how we actually experience life—with our emotions going this way, our experiences coming in that way, random thoughts seeping in here—so what does that mean for the novel? Does it become the organization and structuring of those experiences? Moving it away from the personal?
SD: The impulse for poetry is probably first. And that’s what makes me a sentence writer and not a novel writer. And then the question becomes how to tell a story with these sentences. The poems in the book, I refer to as the chorus in my head. It is the sound of dinner service. It’s the fragments and trying to make sense of them. Initially you try to thread conversations, you try to remember threads and then you decide to just take it for what it is. And you understand it has this sort of disjointed beauty to it. I love Anne Carson’s line there, but I don’t love the part of that line that suggests that the personal is somehow weak. This line is from her poem, “Stanzas, Sexes, Seductions”, which is about wanting to be genderless and have meaningless legs. So somehow the personal is more feminine and weaker than the objective. I think that factors into Sweetbitter because I wanted to really explore, in confessional form, the personal. Certain passages are deeply subjective moments where we are very close to her angst and pain. As a writer you’re supposed to shy away from that because it can become sentimental which is the death of all writing. So I was very curious about playing with that line.
OE: This confessional style. It has a rhythm, it’s very sure of itself, it’s quick and colloquial. But it does lend to the idea that this novel is you, Tess is you. You’ve been asked this before and you’ve said it’s not autobiographical. But I don’t know. Holden Caulfield clearly isn’t Salinger, but of course he also totally is. In what ways was this story yours? What are the things that this novel grapples with that you were or are also grappling with?
SD: Well it starts with lots of facts. 2006. 22 years old. We get the job at a restaurant that looks a lot like Union Square Cafe. We get the experience of falling in love with the industry. The unexpected love and sense of family that comes upon her during her first shift drink. And I always thought of that scene as when she begins to fall down the rabbit hole. Now, I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 15, but that experience—I mean, I moved to NY to become a writer. I’d gone to undergrad for writing, I had what I thought was a novel—that was terrible, but not that bad actually or not as bad as it should have been. But I thought that I’d have this restaurant job in New York only for a moment. I knew how to work in restaurants, and I knew it would support my writing habit as it always had.
But I got consumed by the industry and the lifestyle, where the highs in NY are so much higher than anywhere else in the world. So the expertise that I was finding in my co-workers, I quickly wanted to emulate. So I went to wine schools, I got an advanced diploma, I worked with amazing people and chefs. So, as an industry—it is such a life. And the most shocking part of it was how fulfilling it all was. I was just like, hey, this is me. This is my career.
And I didn’t miss writing. I mean, I wrote everyday—but I wasn’t crafting anything. I didn’t lack for anything. I had growth, I had tons of vacation, I had a family, I was managing and educating these kids—the work was so fulfilling. So it was really important for me to show that it wasn’t just a trap—the industry, I mean—that’s one thing.
Another thing is how, when looking back, I saw how I would, continually through my early years, just press buttons thinking it would make my real life start. When you’re 22, you’re like “I’m supposed to be an adult” so maybe if I do this I’ll become a real person or maybe if I do this I’ll feel like a real person. And that can last for a really, really long time. So even though Tess and I are so different, we’re on a similar path where you are constantly seeking. And that’s the means and the end. We’re both just looking for knowledge. I’m still pressing buttons waiting for my real life to start, you know? If I write a book it will start. Or, once I do a TV show real life will start. Oh, if only I moved to Los Angeles! That stuff is about your soul, so to speak, and Tess and I are similar in that way.
OE: So you just spoke about fulfillment and soul, but you also mentioned this sort of quick-twitch, mechanical button pushing. And that part, to me, feels empty of soul. Is that what makes you turn back to art-making at the end of the day? When you can see the strings and the buttons and you realize, as you said earlier, that we’re just making this up?
SD: No, because even when you can see it, you’re invested. It’s your life, after all. Every leap you take and button you push, there’s almost this forgetfulness. I never can achieve such an objective view. I never have the calm of feeling like I’m the puppet master, in control. But, I do get that feeling through writing. So, out in the world, you get to live fully and feel all the feelings but, by writing, you also get to sit in a room by yourself and analyze it fully.
OE: So is that the function of art, then? Sorry, I’m going to harp on this. Is art just the materialization of our longing to be in control?
SD: I think there’s an impulse there. I think about this sometimes because I write my narrative constantly. When I can’t, those are often the most devastating experiences. I’ll give you an example of something I’ve written about in my non-fiction. My relationship with my father is something that I can not actually write the ending for. I’m not in control of it, and it’s heartbreaking because, normally, I am. We come back at the end of the day and we rewrite our lives in our journals and we fantasize in our fiction, and so there’s nothing more frustrating than having to give up totally. That’s the biggest failure as a writer. To not be able to write the ending that you want.
OE: So it’s that boulder again? Is it how, in the end, as much control or fulfillment we obtain from writing and self-expression and art, we really can’t control life, we don’t get the clean ending?
SD: Yeah, totally. I also think about how, for a period of my life, I really thought that art was God. You know? People take solace in that—oh, my financial situation is a mess, my personal relationships are a mess—but I’m an artist. Like “I’m an alcoholic and a terrible husband but, hey, I’m a capital-A artist”. Art becomes their salvation. But I just came to this understanding that to buy into that—it’s not worth it. You’re trying to protect yourself from the messiness of life through your art. But I will always be toppled by my real life. I don’t get to live in that ivory tower.
OE: Well, because we know better, right? Anne Carson to the rescue again—in that same interview she talks about this. She’s talking about this “glare”—this thing that is moving through her work, within her work, even as her readers are charmed and engaged–that causes what she calls this “terrifying revelation”.
OE: And the “glare” is this, she says, “It’s just absolute dread. It’s bumping up against the fact that you die alone. You think about that from time to time all through life, and it continues to make no sense against all the little efforts you make to be happy and have friends and pass the time.”
SD: That shit is real! And so what an incredible way to pass the time—to make art. And to be lucky enough to get paid for it. But you can’t make it more than what it is, you know? I do believe that art is holy. But you can’t believe that is going to save you from yourself or from any one else. Yeah, art might allow you to keep going, to pass the time and pass it well, but it isn’t going to. It reminds me of Samuel Beckett: “I can not go on, I’ll go on”. It’s this endless internal dialogue, this endless back and forth that captures so much of how we live. “I can not go on, I’ll go on”. And by going on he means we–I hesitate to say triumph of life, because really it’s just a way, one of the ways of which to pass the time. We pass the time a million ways, and writing, I don’t even know if it’s my favorite. It’s just this deep impulse I have.
OE: Which I’m sure is true. However, that’s got to be so brutal for every writer who never made it to hear. Anyone who ever dreamt of being a writer just collectively got so mad at you. Like, “You’re the worst, Stephanie! How dare you be so casual about this!”
SD: (laughing) No! Writing is my favorite! It is! But to assign it too much merit, I think that’s a misstep.
OE: No, that’s exactly right. That’s the coolest thing about getting to chat with incredible writers. It’s this realization that, yes, Stephanie Danler is this incredibly talented and sharp and brilliant writer, but she’s still just a human being. And I think so many people—aspiring writers especially—they make that misstep that you just talked about. They look at a book like Sweetbitter that’s flying off the shelves, they look at you living this really crazy life and they mistake that as an ending. A perfect ending.
SD: It never stops. It never stops. I still have this career envy that I never talk about because it is so petty. But it’s true, when you publish your book—you’re still just normal, fucked up person. The only thing is that I wrote a book. That’s the only thing that separates me from my audience, from everyone else. That’s really the only advice you can give to aspiring writers. You have to write the book and make it true.
OE: So many people seem to forget that part.
SD: Yes! People come up and they’re like “How did this happen to you? What did you do?” And all I can really say is, “Well, I wrote a book.”
OE: Well, you pushed the only button you had the power to push. Which brings us back to the novel. And this is important because this is what our generation is told. Do this—go to this prestigious school, excel while you’re there, complete this internship, follow this dream, move to this city, never give up, push this button and this button and this one and—POP!—out will come your happy ending.
Sweetbitter has so many chances to be this easy book where it’s this familiar, straight line where this adversity is overcome and this happy ending prevails. But multiple times in the novel, you refuse to do that.
SD: Tess transforms in small ways, the ways we do in life. It’s one step forward and ten steps back. You find your voice, you lose it. You think you understand sex for a second and then you don’t. It’s a tug of war.
Writing is a high risk life choice. You don’t get a second chance to have your first book come out. This book came to me in one piece. I was alone. I was poor. I was in school. That vision never wavered.
OE: Could you have kept that up? That lifestyle. The being alone, the being poor.
SD: I was terrified. Absolutely terrified. I cried every day before my shifts. I’d been managing restaurants. I was married. My career was growing. And then all of those things disappeared within three months and all I had were these pages. I had 25 pages of a short story called “Sweetbitter”. And I became obsessive about it because that was all I had. But the fear was paralyzing. When I look back, it’s a black time. And it’s interesting, now that I’m supporting myself as a writer—somehow now I don’t have the time to write. But back then with three jobs and being so scared and unsure of myself, I found a way.
OE: Is that desperation, that necessity, is that tough to get back?
SD: That life-or-death feeling? That feeling of “Shit, I’m 31 and I’m going to be waitress forever if I don’t actually publish this book”. I don’t know if you can get that back. But what you do get back is that riskiness. And right now, the risk of failure is higher than it’s ever been for me. This next book has to be better. And I need to find a way to honor this obsession and follow what interests me. And in that way, it does become life-or-death again. I hope it always does.
Stephanie Danler will be speaking about and signing copies of Sweetbitter at Oxford Exchange on October 23 at 1:30 pm.