30: Stephanie Danler
Stephanie Danler talks confessional women writers, writing a female Bildungsroman, the boundaries of "comfortable" narratives about woman, and the productive and destructive capacity of romantic partnerships.
Stephanie Danler is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School, and is the author of the critically acclaimed and nationwide best-selling novel, Sweetbitter.
This interview was conducted on March 14, 2017 by Bindu Bansinath.
BINDU: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
STEPHANIE: I love that question. It’s very hard for me to find one that hasn’t been asked before, but that is it. [laughs] My experience of girlhood was predictably related to books. I spent a lot of time identifying with characters, and now I see that they were mostly male characters. It’s something I thought a lot about when I was writing Sweetbitter because my favorite book that I held on to—I read it too young, but I continued to reread it—was Catcher in the Rye. I read it in fourth grade. I was ten or eleven. I spent so many years thinking that I was Holden Caulfield, and when I was writing Sweetbitter, I was so aware that this was a feminine version. The same goes with The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, a book that’s had a profound influence on Sweetbitter, considering I stole the plot completely from it. But also this experience of reading when I was fairly young...I think I read that book when I was around fourteen, and identifying so closely with Isabel Archer, [I came] to realize there’s a distance there, just by the fact that she was written by a man. We were not inside her head with her neuroses, her anxieties, and her particular lens through which she views the world.
My girlhood imagination was very Gothic. I was drawn to Edgar Allan Poe, who is one of the first writers that I remember trying to mimic with my own writing. As adolescence kicked in (but I still consider it girlhood), I was very drawn to angst, and to women who suffered. Whether it was Sylvia Plath, who had a profound effect on me, or Zelda Fitzgerald, or Virginia Woolf, who came later. She won’t quite make it into girlhood. But I was sort of consumed by this idea of the tragic female artist.
BINDU: Were you conscious of the shift that took place from admiring male authors to admiring female authors? Besides imitation and writing, how else do you think these influences manifested in your daily life?
STEPHANIE: I was conscious of it. I’ve always studied literature, and as the canon was so predominantly male, I began to seek out female writers quite early, especially female poets, who are really important to me—Dorothy Parker, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I do think that when you are a girl, and you feel that you have some sort of unique sensitivity to the world, or you feel that you might be writer, or that you start to feel [a desire] for role models. Right now we live in a beautiful time of female writers, but in school, I wasn’t getting who I was looking for. I wasn’t getting the Henry James of that was a woman. Edith Wharton wasn’t being taught. So I was very conscious that I was seeking out kindred souls. Mostly through poetry—which is still true now—but that started [when I was] around eleven to thirteen, this intense love of poetry.
I feel that women have a special capacity for fandom. It’s something I experience now. [When] women fall in love with a piece of work, it’s very common for them to say they’re obsessed. I just think they invest more of themselves. They’ll be enthusiastic about their interests and passions in a way that, even though I have seen tons of male fans, [men] don’t have. [Men] don’t have the same sort of rabid need for intimacy with the art they’re consuming.
That was definitely me. When you asked about how [the predominance of male authors] affected my personal life, there’s something about reading books by certain authors when you’re a little bit too young, and not quite understanding how to consume the work. I wonder what my adolescence would have been like if I hadn’t gone into it reading Sylvia Plath’s diaries backwards and forwards, or so closely identifying with the volatility that is often romanticized about these artists.
BINDU: I’m interested in what you said earlier, that as a young girl, you were drawn to the figure of the tragic female artist. You’re speaking now about Sylvia Plath. Do you think it would have been different for you had you first read her at another moment than within girlhood?
STEPHANIE: I think that Confessionalism impresses young women especially because of the impulse to [keep a] diary. We associate the diary as a confessional, feminine form of writing. To see Confessionalism done well through Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, I find that they [can become] a gateway drug for young girls—diarists—who are actually aspiring writers. Later I came to read Anaïs Nin or Colette, and other more famous journal-keepers, so to speak. But at that point, the poems seem like a distillation of this impulse that I felt daily, which was to tell my experience. To tell what it felt like to me, and to not obstruct it, and to not turn it into The Waste Land, but to keep it on the body. This is me talking as a fully formed woman... I guess I can finally call myself a woman, I’m thirty-three. But my impression reading [female confessional writers] at that age was that these were words from the body, and that that style of writing was something we traditionally associate with women.
BINDU: Speaking of these very formative female influences, what’s so wonderful to me about Sweetbitter is that it’s a distinctly female Bildungsroman. It sits at the intersection of so much—city life, food, sexuality, poetry. I love how you pair the arc of female development with these very rich, sensory elements. Can you speak more about this?
STEPHANIE: The greatest influence on the book as a whole, the form and the content, is poetry. I think that its form reflects itself as a series of exposed moments as opposed to a more traditional narrative that will lead you up to a moment and away from a moment, often with reflection. My concern was with illuminating that moment as directly and intensely as possible, and then feeling free to drop it with sort of an elliptical connection to the next scene, and let the reader do the work. That is one of many ways that poetry works for me. And as far as the content, Tess’ voice is not my voice. I write nonfiction as well, and the voice is a lot harder and a touch more analytical and wizened, because [Tess] is an experiment in the kind of voice that we associate with Romantic poetry, which is one that is pensive, but gives over easily to joy and to melancholy. I spoke about Keats many times with [the book character] Simone. Emily Dickinson is in the book as well, and that’s on purpose. Emily Dickinson wouldn’t consider herself a Romantic, but I do. That’s her character. She’s someone who I see as a poet-soul, so to speak. It’s a word I often give to people who may or may not be artists, but who have this way, this hypersensitivity to the world, and this sort of lust and curiosity about it. I call them poet-souls.
BINDU: You said Tess’ voice is not your voice. I think this is a trend that is wrongfully assigned to female writers, but often people assume that if something written is wonderfully invented, then it must be autobiographical. Have you experienced any of this, and if so, how do you deal with that?
STEPHANIE: That goes back to what I was talking about. For so long, the mode in which women wrote was the diary. Women were letter-writers and diarists, and they were not fiction writers or storytellers in the same manner. That association, however ancient it is, is still present. I will say, to be fair, I get asked a lot of veiled sexist questions, and the autobiographical one is one of them, but it is also something that happens to men as well. Your first novel is often taken to be autobiographical, as if you have not developed the sense or the life experience with which to write outside yourself. That was true of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and myself and Emma Cline as well. Not to parallel those. People are searching for your life in your debut work. That’s a really old tradition. However, I do see women asked that question more often now.
BINDU: If autobiography is one of the veiled sexist questions, what are the others you encounter, and how do you deal with them?
STEPHANIE: Questions about money. I don’t see male authors getting asked [those]. I was talking recently with Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. Her book The Nest came out last year. She was telling me that she told people before every interview: you can’t ask me about my advance. That’s not [a question] that men are suffering from. I remember it was mentioned in every single piece covering Garth Risk Hallberg for City on Fire, but no one ever really asked him about it directly. I don’t know if that’s categorically true, but people seem so surprised that women are commanding large advances on their novels, when it’s still de facto less than book deals by male authors.
Early on, I was asked about the way I look, and whether I thought that had anything to do with getting published, which is such an insulting question. No one asks it anymore. I was doing press before the book was out, which is a hard time to do press because no one has anything to talk about except for your book deal. I often feel reduced to my work experience as a waitress, rather than a life of loving literature, pursuing it monomaniacally, and never really wanting to do anything else. I got into restaurants because I wanted to write, and I ended up loving restaurants. I just think I’m often reduced to my résumé. There’s a number of ways in which you can be made to feel lucky, and it can cause you to forget how hard you worked, or your lifetime of studying a craft, or the sacrifices that you made to put yourself in a position to publish a book.
BINDU: I read about how you were at The New School and how you waitressed while doing that to support yourself. I’ve read articles about you in which people call your experience getting published by a regular at [the restaurant] Buvette “a fairytale.” That was to reductive to read as a label on what was no doubt years of work.
STEPHANIE: I emphasize the work and the study and the risks that I took to put myself in a position to get a book deal. At the time, the press focused so much on the overnight sensation [angle], as if I had flung my manuscript across the table. It’s funny that you mention fairytales. I think a lot about that, especially when it comes to the media and women. The fairytale is our most comfortable female character arc. Good girl is innocent. Good girl gets into danger. Good girl is rescued by a man at the end. The way the story of my publication made it seem like Peter rescued me while I was waiting tables, and did not focus on the eleven meetings that I took with my agent and different publishers.
BINDU: It’s frustrating the process was framed that way.
STEPHANIE: It’s natural, though. Once you’re attuned to it, you can see the stories that people are comfortable with about women and the stories that they’re not comfortable with.
BINDU: When I think of the “good girl” and the traditional fairytale arc, I know people have had a strong reaction to the ending of Sweetbitter because of Tess’ choices. But I think that’s very revealing of readers going in with the inaccurate assumption of a “good girl” and the choices she can and cannot make.
STEPHANIE: She is trying to subvert what we think of as the female coming-of-age. She’s trying to mimic real life as much as possible, which is a series of micro-movements towards “growth.” Let’s leave gender out of this for a second. We desire catharsis so badly with narrative. We often want to see a distinct change from person A to person B; we need to have a transformation, and whatever trauma happens between A and B needs to be healed by the end of [the novel]. That in no way reflects how any of us grow up. As a human, there is no state of catharsis, or even closure, most of the time. It was really important to me that she not have this epiphany at the end, even within herself. What she does is she takes back a little of her voice, she takes a little ownership of herself, and she creates her first boundary with people. But that’s it. As far as choices that she makes at the end of the book, we are really uncomfortable putting girls into morally ambiguous territory, or thinking that they can be self-destructive and not have something wrong with them. Tess is not a drug addict, or a trauma survivor that we know about. I refused to explain the condition of her present with her past. You can’t justify what she does, but that’s important, because she has autonomy for the first time in her life, and that means she has to take full responsibility for her actions. That’s a place of power, even though it’s very scary.
BINDU: It struck me while reading, how focused in the present the novel is. I’d read previously about the narrative choice of you not wanting to give Tess backstory. The small bit of backstory we do get in the beginning is that her mother left early on in her life. It’s just a few lines, but it got me thinking about maternity in the book as a whole, especially with regard to Tess and [the older female server] Simone. In Simone we get a creative and a destructive take on mothering: early on, she guides Tess, but later disillusions her. Can you talk more about constructing this relationship?
STEPHANIE: Originally, when I sold Sweetbitter to Knopf, there was no backstory. Absolutely no mention. When I was taking meetings, it was important to me that I not be told that I needed to add it, which many [publishers] would say off the bat. “This novel’s great, we just need to add a little backstory and change the ending.” And I’d think, this isn’t the same vision, and that’s fine. These are incredible publishers, and that book would have been really good too. Knopf didn’t force my hand with that at all, but when I was into this new draft of the novel, I knew that Tess didn’t have a mother, and it informed so much of the relationship between Tess and Simone that it felt only fair to give that information. I added this note about Tess not having a mother because I realized later that unconsciously this book was about the search for family. I knew that I wanted her to be an orphan, but I didn’t understand maybe the weight that restaurant-as-family had for me personally, and it was coming into the novel all over the place. I think that family can be incredibly toxic and supportive at the same time. I think that learning to make boundaries with family is the key to surviving, in my experience. I think that realizing the damage of your parents is one of the great disappointments in life, but it also can be a moment of freedom. So when Tess does become disappointed with Simone, it was really important to me that it happen naturally, that the readers see Simone as this flawless, statuesque authority, and slowly cracks begin to appear. Then by the end of the novel, she’s tragic. She’s trapped, and approaching middle age, and has no skill set. As Tess’ knowledge grows, she surpasses Simone in so many ways. But Tess’ ability to make a boundary with her, losing that maternal bond, is what sets her free. And I think that can often be the case.
BINDU: In addition to a maternal relationship, the relationship Tess and Simone have exemplifies one I think a lot of younger women want, which is one of professional mentorship. Whatever field it’s in, I find one of the critical prerequisites of a mentoring relationship is, do we see ourselves in each other? And I wonder if this kind of productive connection is also an inherently dangerous one.
STEPHANIE: I think if you go back to that drive that informed my childhood— I wanted a mentor in literature—and I was very attracted to these women writers. I think that at a point, overidentifying with them not only is dangerous because you can learn to fetishize mental illness or alcoholism, but it’s also dangerous because you are limiting your voice, which is something that Tess experiences. If she were to stay under Simone, or keep identifying with her, or keep worshipping her, she would never grow into what her own voice will be.
BINDU: Do you remember any moments of this necessary breaking away from the women writers you admired?
STEPHANIE: If we’re talking about the female artists that I really worshipped when I was young, a large part of what I worshipped about them was their refusal to live within what I call "the box," but what we might call heteronormative values. I loved their nomadic, polyamorous, chaotic, romantic existences. And I will say that it was very difficult for me personally to find. I was married for all of my twenties. I had a house. I was people’s bosses in restaurants. I met my ex-husband when I was twenty-two, and we were together until I was thirty, and I feel that during that time I stopped being able to identify completely with the women whose lives I admired. It appeared to me that my own life was increasingly settled and taking on permanence by the minute. As I came into my twenties and through college, I was admiring writers who also had this disregard for the norms. I’m thinking particularly of Susan Sontag and Renata Adler right now, but then I love Joan Didion and Elizabeth Hardwick, and they both had these long and incredibly productive marriages. I wasn’t able to find literary heroines who got married in their twenties and somehow still managed to produce this glorious first novel. I have mixed feelings about it. I want to say that there’s a way to be married and happy and stable and write, but I actually was not able to achieve it.
BINDU: The first time I read Sweetbitter, it really captured for me this moment of being young and single in New York in all its freedoms and uncertainties, but also a creative safety within that uncertainty and instability.
STEPHANIE: You always have material. Always.
BINDU: How do things square out with age and stability?
STEPHANIE: I think you’re not necessarily writing from life in the same way. Tess’ year in New York does not look like my year.
BINDU: Did you start the manuscript after your divorce?
STEPHANIE: I wouldn’t have had the courage to apply for school if I didn’t have emotional and structural support from my husband at the time. But shortly after I went back to school and started the book, our marriage fell apart very quickly, which is what I still am curious about. How do people do both? My life back then was not set up to both give an insane amount of attention to this book and to be a good partner. I wasn’t able to do both in that moment, but I have hope that it is possible. We’ll see. I know so many people who have these gorgeous marriages and raise children and own homes and still can access the dark parts of themselves, and the complicated parts of their lives. And I think that is the key, because at the end of the day, I don’t think that art is worth the life.
BINDU: How do you presently retain access to those parts of yourself?
STEPHANIE: I have gotten a lot better at it. And I spend a lot of time alone, and I feel like spending so much time in solitude gives you good practice at picking things up in yourself and setting them back down safely. Through my twenties, I obviously had not spent enough time alone to be comfortable with it, to recall the different parts of myself and to let them coexist. But I’ve been alone for a bit now and I think that is what ultimately, if I decide to become a partner, will make me a better partner.
BINDU: Do you think you’d prescribe a period of solitude to all young women?
STEPHANIE: I think it’s going to come for you, whether you instigate it or not. I was advised so many times to spend time alone. I was a serial monogamist. I had these two relationships, my college relationship and then my relationship with the man that I would marry. I remember hearing from women all the time that being alone through your twenties, being single, were pivotal experiences, and I was very defensive, because I didn’t think I was ever going to access them. So you can’t tell young women what their paths are, but if you can cultivate a good relationship with yourself while still being in a relationship, then yes. But cultivate a romantic relationship with yourself. I’m always telling women I know to take themselves out to dinner and to go on vacation alone. To be able to fill your own cup, so to speak. It came for me late, but it was not a hard transition. I found so much joy there.
BINDU: What do you think women in the world can do for each other presently?
STEPHANIE: I think that women are such gifted communicators, and in general, really sensitive observers. Most women I know are comfortable questioning themselves in a way that I don’t think men always are. Especially right now in our political climate—what women are writing right now, what we have seen with the Women’s March, and this wave of feminism—I don’t even know what wave we’re on— is this incredible communication. And the key to communication is empathy, which women are especially gifted at. It’s continuing to talk, and to write and expand. Not to talk and write to your same five friends who share the same opinion as you, but to put your voice out there. I feel like that’s the role. And maybe I feel like that because I’m a writer. But I know plenty of women who aren’t writers who have found their voices in this moment. And that will be the key for getting through these four years, if there’s a world left at the end of it.
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