Questions by Rebecca Foster
1. Readers learn so few facts about Tess – even her name and where she’s from are not revealed until a long way into the book, and there’s only the barest hint of her dysfunctional family background. How did you exploit this sense of anonymity? Do you think of Tess as a kind of Everywoman?
There’s a long literary tradition of people that move to a city with the goal of becoming themselves – New York City in particular where re-invention is possible. You can drop your baggage or your past at the bridge, and start from zero. I wanted Tess to embody that idea, and also I found that I didn’t need her backstory – we know enough about her, that she’s got a little damage, that she’s sensitive, that she’s ambitious. For a lot of us, our lives really do start when we gain our freedom or autonomy, which is what she finally has.
2. Because of her good looks, colleagues assume Tess is not intelligent and give her demeaning nicknames. What did you hope to convey about the way beautiful young women are objectified?
I hoped to convey that it’s a feature of many workplaces, restaurants in particular. There’s de facto sexism in that world that I wanted to be honest about, and there’s also a more subversive form of sexism, which is that people are constantly making assumptions about Tess. She’s being told what and who she is for most of the novel. Part of her transformation is taking possession of herself, and developing her voice and talking back to these people.
3. How did you sustain the sense of mystery around Simone and Jake throughout the novel? Are others’ lives ultimately unknowable?
I’ve written so much backstory, so many timelines, for Jake and Simone. I knew what had led them to that moment in the restaurant. However, the novel is in Tess’s voice, and we can only see through Tess’s eyes. Part of being 22 is not quite knowing how to see what’s right in front of you. And what do we really know about our co-workers? Especially in an industry where everything feels temporary.
4. The restaurant world you portray here seems to embody pure hedonism – ‘eat and drink for tomorrow we die’. Yet Tess is dedicated to ideals and consumed by the search for her purpose. How do you contrast the book’s different philosophies?
I actually think the two philosophies you mention are connected. Tess is not searching for meaning outside her immediate surroundings – she’s not looking for God, or a cause. She’s looking for meaning in the details of her life, in her senses. Hedonism gets a bad rap – there’s not necessarily anything wrong with investing your attention in the things of world. It’s the extremes that she’s learning to navigate.
5. What is it about a restaurant that makes it the perfect setting for a novel? Is it ever really ‘just dinner’?
It’s always just dinner! But what you have in this restaurant in particular are a group of over-educated, over-sensitive, highly creative people doing a job that is mostly mechanics. They are prone to want it to mean more, and it does. You’re not just an invisible hand dropping a plate on a table – there’s an exchange of energy between you and guests and your co-workers. When it’s done well, it’s an exchange that can create a community. And of course, with so many humans and their flawed logic and mixed motives, there’s bound to be constant drama.
6. New York feels like such an integral part of the book. How did you see your work fitting into a City literary tradition? Can you imagine this taking place anywhere else (e.g. London, Paris)?
The book can’t exist without the city. The scene of Tess crossing the bridge at the opening comes before she finds the restaurant – her drive wasn’t to find server work, it was just to land in New York City. I’ve been to a lot of places, and all cities have their energy, but the frenetic, adrenalized pace of New York is what I was trying to capture with the form of the novel. With Sweetbitter, I wanted to combine a city novel and a food novel, and it turned out that there was a lot of space there – it hadn’t really been done before.
7. Like Tess, you moved from the Midwest to New York City in 2006 and found work as a backwaiter at Union Square Café. To what extent is Tess’s experience reminiscent of your own?
I did drive from Ohio to New York City in June of 2006. But aside from some basic autobiographical facts that Tess begins with – her apartment in Williamsburg, her age, the year – she is her character. I’m from Los Angeles and had been working in restaurants since I was 15 years old. I moved to the city with friends and a boyfriend. The plot of Sweetbitter is completely made up, and inspired by Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, and Tess is made up as well – she had to interact with those characters that are composites of all the wonderful, crazy people I’ve worked with. That’s the freedom of fiction – I was never tied down by my own story.
8. The novel narrates one intense year of Tess’s restaurant training. If we were to get her perspective on it now, would there be a sense of nostalgia – or would it be more of a ‘thank God I never have to go through that again’ response?
Definitely nostalgia. I think the nostalgia is present by the end of the novel when she becomes aware that she will lose it – not her job, but her youth. That time she thought would go on forever but was actually just a moment. The hunger Tess has when she comes to the city isn’t for food, but for knowledge. She wants to be educated in experience. She doesn’t necessarily know yet what a good or bad experience is, she doesn’t know about consequences. But she does receive that education.
9. Who are some of your favourite writers? Who has inspired your prose style?
So many to chose from! For Sweetbitter I was in conversation with a few books, starting with Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, which is about Sappho. I was thinking a lot about Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, about MFK Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, about the female writers from the 70s that I’m obsessed with: Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, Joan Didion – they wrote such strange, piercing books, but their experimentation in form never overshadowed the content. As far as sentences go, all I can say is that I read a ton of poetry – more than anything else – and that I admire the way you can play with compression and expansion, with white space, with rhythm. I respect poetry too much to try to write it myself, but I want to hold myself to their standards with in my sentences.
10. What are you working on next?
Currently I’m working on the publication of Sweetbitter day and night – there are so many moving parts to getting a book into the world. I have a lot of notes for a second novel, and an idea, but I’m not ready. Essays and short pieces fit how my brain works right now – short, intense bursts of focus. After the voices of Sweetbitter die down, I’ll have some space for a new novel.
An American transplant to England, Rebecca is a full-time freelance editor and writer. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the US and UK, and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Read Rebecca’s review of Sweetbitter in our fiction section, click here.
Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter (Oneworld, 2016). 978-1780749150, 368 pp., hardback.
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