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'Sweetbitter' Is A Savory Saga Of Restaurant Life And Love07:37
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 (Claire Harbage)
(Claire Harbage)

At the beginning of Stephanie Danler's new Sweetbitter, there's an image of a girl, Tess, driving over the George Washington Bridge. We don't really know much about her. She's come to New York City to leave her past behind — a common experience. She falls into a job at a landmark restaurant, loosely modeled on Union Square Cafe.

And what she thinks is going to be a temporary job, a placeholder, becomes her life. She falls in love with it — and that's the arc of the book, her love affair with this world. Danler tells NPR's Rachel Martin that while she has a lot in common with Tess, "she quickly became a character, and is in many ways much better and much worse at life than I was at that age."


Interview Highlights

On why she didn't just write a memoir

I wasn't interested in it. I really loved the freedom of fiction. I loved that — I've been working in restaurants since I was 15 years old, and I got to compile all of those restaurants into this restaurant. And all the servers that I've known, and all the men that I've known, and all the mentors I've had ... it's thrilling, that's the thrill, that's why we write novels.

On why she set the book in a restaurant

If the guests had any idea of the rich life that is going on behind the scene, and the drama and the sexual tension and the sadness and the joy and the friendship, I think that those currents add a lot of energy to restaurants.

Stephanie Danler

Well, I had this expertise in restaurants ... I've worked every position from hostess to the general manager and the beverage director. So I had this knowledge that, you don't notice your servers, they're invisible mostly. But I would always think to myself, that as I was waiting tables, if the guests had any idea of the rich life that is going on behind the scene, and the drama and the sexual tension and the sadness and the joy and the friendship, I think that those currents add a lot of energy to restaurants. I prefer to dine in places where I can feel the staff a little bit, they have a little bit of a personality. But I hadn't ever seen it written about, I saw that there was a space to create something there.

On figuring out how to write a good sex scene

Sex is the undercurrent of the whole book, because what we're really investigating is Tess's appetites across the board. And also her becoming more of a woman, this transition fromg girlhood to womanhood. And sex is a big part of that, figuring out lust and desire. So I knew it was essential to the novel that I write a sex scene. And you have all these technical choices as a writer, which is, am I going to fade to black? What kind of language am I going to use, how far am I going to go with this? And there were drafts in which I went much further. And then I went back, and I thought, what is true of Tess's voice? ... and so when I was writing about sex, it was sexy, because it was sexy to Tess.

On whether Tess's experiences were good for her

That's a great question. Because I am still so grateful for my experience — and I just stopped waiting tables like a year ago ... she is grateful. It does change the way that you pay attention to the world, it does change the way that you interact with your senses, this kind of education. And I don't think we know much about what's going to happen to her. And we know that she's going to continue to make mistakes, because this is not a linear path that she's on. But she's wiser. She has more knowledge, and that is her power.

Copyright NPR 2019.

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