Before her debut novel Sweetbitter became a best-seller and TV show, writer Stephanie Danler made headlines when she landed a six-figure, two-book deal with Knopf. Here, she discusses failing out of school, waiting tables at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe, and the loosely autobiographical book that altered the course of her life.
I've worked in restaurants since I was 15 years old, but I always wanted to be a writer. Growing up, I would mimic Edgar Allen Poe and write incredibly gothic, gory ghost stories that got me sent to the school psychiatrist. I remember reading my grandmother one about a girl who goes to a slumber party, gets taken over by an evil spirit, and kills herself. Afterward, she looked at me and said, “You’re a writer. Never stop writing."
My father was a crystal-meth addict and my mother was an alcoholic, so I was a rebellious teenager. I got rejected from every single college I applied to because I had so many Fs on my transcript. Eventually, I got off the waitlist at Kenyon, which is known for its writing program. I knew that New York was where you went if you wanted to write, so I lived there during the summers and worked at a Dean & DeLuca. I was 22 when I graduated, and I blindly interviewed at the 12 most popular restaurants listed in the Zagat guide. One of them was Union Square Cafe.
Getting hired by Danny Meyer was similar to being recognized as a novelist. He turned serving into a legitimate career—with benefits, paid vacation, and hourly raises. There were multiple people who had been there since 1985 and made over $100,000 a year. His philosophy was that the restaurant family comes first. Every single element of his business speaks to that, from the way he treats his employees to the way he feeds them. He believed that everything trickled down to the guests—if everyone wants to be here, it will fill the room. And it always did.
I worked at Union Square Cafe for a year and a half before I left to go to wine school. I wanted to own businesses and learn how to manage restaurants. By the time I was 25, I was running a beverage program for a small restaurant group. At 26, I became general manager. Then, right after my 29th birthday, my ex-husband and I were gearing up to open a wine bar, and I started to feel despair and longing. I thought my whole life would unfold and 10 years would pass before I could ever write a book. So I applied to graduate school. My marriage ended, I cut all ties with the businesses I helped build, and I risked everything. People thought I was crazy.
But at that point, I had the idea for Sweetbitter. I kept hiring women just like me, who had just moved to New York and were looking for a job to get on their feet. They started to stay out late at night and come in with darker circles under their eyes, but the first time they understood what wine they liked or were able to identify a smell or taste, they got better at their jobs. I thought that if I could make a coming-of-age story that was like Portrait of a Lady but written by a woman, and set in a restaurant. I could make something new and different. My whole experience in hospitality was about wine and tasting and education, learning to slow down and pay attention to the sensual details of life. I wanted to show that side of the industry.
I worked a server at Buvette to pay for school, and I would take notes all week, listening to people at the bar. Tuesdays were my creative days. I wrote for hours in my terrible, shitty sublet in Brooklyn. I didn't go for a run, I didn't go to the market, I didn’t do my laundry—I ordered takeout for every single meal and never left my house. I finished the book in two years. My last shift was a week after my 32nd birthday, and I waited on Jake Gyllenhaal. I remember hoping that one day I would see him on the other side.
When meetings with publishers started to pile up, I was shocked. I had never published before, and I knew no one. I thought they were out of their minds. But culturally, there was a hunger for women-driven material. It was 2016—we thought we were going to have a female president! All of the experiences in the book, even the ugly ones, are authentic to me at some point in my life, but nothing about the structure mimics my history at all. I was married for all of my twenties. The plot is invented, and all the characters are composites of the dozen restaurants I've worked in. I wanted to make something bigger than myself and my story. Most people can remember a time when they're waiting for their life to start, and it had actually already started. Certain situations change you and mold you into the person you’re going to become.
The book advance was life-changing because it allowed me to stop waiting tables. That was a huge gift. But I still write all the time. I hustle like every other artist. After the book came out, I toured for a year and visited every city, small and large. I said "yes" to absolutely every opportunity. I couldn't believe that so many people wanted to speak to me. Then, Hollywood approached me about a TV show, and I decided to take a stab at it.
Being around a twenty-something cast is so much different than writing about it in your thirties. Back then, I had a lot of anxiety about who I was going to be and what was going to happen. I was so short-sighted in such a blissful way and constantly craving new experiences. I think a woman comes into her full bloom in her thirties. You’re embarking on your most ambitious decade where you feel the power to create things, whether it’s children or art or work. You've learned the value of yourself through a very sticky decade. It’s bittersweet.
As told to Claire Stern.