Stephanie Danler: A Coming-to–New York Story With a Culinary Twist

In fall 2014, the New York Times published a story with the headline “Waitress Is One of Many New Writers with Big Book Deals.” The article centered on Stephanie Danler, 32, a server at the New York restaurant Buvette who had secured a book deal with Knopf after she told Peter Gethers—a senior vice president and editor at large at Penguin Random House, and a patron of Buvette—about her novel.

Melissa Flashman, Danler’s agent, calls this the “Lana Turner–at-the-soda-shop version of the story.” Danler, who received her M.F.A. from the New School, describes her meeting at Knopf as “electric.” In particular she recalls Claudia Herr, a Knopf editor who worked closely on the book, connecting to the novel’s Jamesian elements. “I thought, yes, you are perfect!” Danler says.

Sweetbitter (Knopf, May), which draws heavily on Danler’s eight years of experience in the New York restaurant industry, does indeed contain shades of James’s The Portrait of a Lady. The protagonist, Tess, a waitress at an upscale Manhattan restaurant, is an Isabel Archer–like figure—young, impressionable, curious, ambitious—while the two other main characters, an aunt-like figure and a male love interest, call to mind Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond. Danler, who grew up in Long Beach, Calif., says she wanted to write about “becoming a woman, making mistakes, and navigating a world that will never present itself to you clearly.”

Herr says Danler captures the “overwhelming sensation of being young and new to a big city—the enchantment of it, the terror of it, the brutality of it, the exquisite beauty of it.” Her culinary knowledge shines through, too. “The food writing is knockout. It’s beautiful. And it makes you hungry.” Gethers calls the book “generation defining,” saying it “conjured up such a vivid memory and sense experience of not knowing quite where you were going to go, but being desperately hungry to go there.”

Danler, who harbored ambitions of publishing a novel throughout her years of working in restaurants, calls Sweetbitter “a dream come true.” But she hasn’t closed the door on the restaurant business just yet. “That world is so luscious and intense and chaotic and scary,” she says. “I would not be surprised if I went back to it.”

Guillermo Erades: A Diplomat's Ode to Turn-of-21st-century Russia

When most writers seek out quiet places to work, they apply to artist residences in the countryside or rent cabins on lakes. When Guillermo Erades, who’s spent much of his career in international relations, wanted to start writing his first novel, Back to Moscow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May), in 2012, he took a two-year diplomatic posting in a high-security compound in Baghdad. “Life in Baghdad for a diplomat is quite restricted,” he explains. “Come the weekend you have nowhere to go. In the evenings you have nowhere to go. I thought it would be the perfect setting to focus on my writing.”

Erades, 40, from Málaga, Spain, was correct in his prediction: by the spring of 2014, after less than two years, he had a complete manuscript. The novel draws on his life in Moscow—where he had his first job with the European Union—in his 20s. “I wanted to write an ode to Moscow. I happened to live there at a special time.” It was the turn of the 21st century, the beginning of the Putin years, when, he says, “there was a lot of fun and adventure and a Wild West feeling.”

Mitzi Angel, who acquired the novel for FSG before moving to Faber and Faber, in the U.K., says the book “displays an awareness of the way political forces make themselves felt in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people.” John Knight, an associate editor at FSG who worked on Back to Moscow, compares it to The Possessed (FSG, 2010), Elif Batuman’s nonfiction work dealing with Russian literature. “This book fits well into this ongoing impulse to examine what it’s like to be writing about this strange place,” he says.

Central to writing Back to Moscow, Erades says, was the desire “to write a love story between a main character and a city. Moscow has marked me as a person and given me a lot in my life. I thought I’d pay it back with a book.”

Kaitlyn Greenidge: Eschewing Easy Answers on Race

For many years before and during the process of writing her debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman (Algonquin, Mar.), Kaitlyn Greenidge, 34, worked as a historical interpreter and researcher for the Boston African American National Historical Site (in the city where she grew up) and the Weeksville Heritage Center in New York, where she lives now. The job consisted of “talking to people from all walks of life about black history in America,” she says, and it sensitized her to the clichéd thinking that marks many conversations about race.

When Greenidge began the novel in 2008, while in CUNY Hunter’s M.F.A. program, she sought a means of addressing race that “avoided the pat discussions that usually happen.” One example of such a pat discussion she gives is when someone asks, “Why are we even talking about [race]? People are all the same. Let’s not think about power, or anything like that.”

The resulting novel is a multigenerational story about a black family, the Freemans, who take part in a scientific experiment in which they attempt to teach sign language to a chimpanzee named Charlie in a mostly white town in Massachusetts in 1990.

Carrie Howland, Greenidge’s agent, says the book addresses the ways in which “language limits us, and how we move past that,” adding that Greenidge’s attention to language makes the book “so powerful, but also so accessible.” Andra Miller, a senior editor at Algonquin who worked on the book, says Greenidge “didn’t write a book just because she’s a supremely talented writer and wanted to put down a story; she actually had something to say.” Miller adds, “Ideally, when an author keeps his or her eye on that target, you end up with something really special.”

Garth Greenwell: A Novel of Consciousness Sheds Light on Gay Life in Bulgaria

In 2009, Garth Greenwell, the author of What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Jan.), moved to Bulgaria to teach at the American College of Sofia. Greenwell, who is 37 and grew up in Louisville, Ky., has an M.F.A. in poetry from Washington University and did graduate coursework in English literature at Harvard. A chief component of his transition to life in Sofia, and to the Bulgarian language, was a feeling of nonfluency: “I liked the experience of living between languages,” he says.

At the same time, certain features of life in Sofia struck Greenwell as surprisingly familiar. “The LGBT-rights situation in Bulgaria when I was there felt pretty similar to the LGBT-rights situation in Kentucky in the early and mid-’90s, when I was coming of age,” he says. “The kinds of communities that gay people formed—especially cruising communities—were exactly the communities I came into a gay identity within.”

What Belongs to You—which is an expansion of a novella, called Mitko, that Greenwell published with Miami University Press in 2011—concerns an American teacher who enters into a transactional romance with a handsome and enigmatic Bulgarian male hustler. Greenwell, who also has an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, says novels that deal frankly with gay life in Bulgaria are rare, if not unprecedented. “I did feel this weird awareness of the fact that, even though my book is written by a foreigner, and it’s told by a narrator who’s constantly aware of his foreignness, it is a book about gay life in Bulgaria, and it’s a book that has explicit sex in it, and it’s the first book to do that.”

Mitzi Angel, who acquired the book, commends Greenwell’s ability to “track the minutest shifts in consciousness,” comparing his work to that of European writers such as Bernhard and Sebald. Anna Stein, Greenwell’s agent, says the novel is remarkable in part for being “not plot driven and yet unputdownable.”

Christopher Richards, an associate editor at FSG who worked on the book, says, “For a while we had coming-out novels, the early work of Edmund White. And then we had the era of the AIDS novel, dealing with a community that was sick. There’s sometimes the question, with the legalization of gay marriage, ‘What’s next?’ This feels to me very much like a novel about desire in this moment.” He adds, “I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating when I say to my colleagues, ‘This is an author who is truly a next step in the tradition of the great gay writers of the last hundred years.’”

Amy Gustine: Looking Outside for Inspiration

Contemporary fiction has been marked by a turn toward the autobiographical, with some of the most widely discussed books of the past few years—among them, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy—straddling the fiction-memoir line. But Amy Gustine, the author of the story collection You Should Pity Us Instead (Sarabande, Feb.), finds writing directly from personal experience confining. “I like to deliberately step out of anything that’s autobiographical,” she says. “I like to find the core in a person’s experience—an imagined person’s experience—that reflects something I can relate to.”

Gustine, 45, lives with her family in Toledo, Ohio. She received her M.F.A. from Bowling Green in 2002, and for years afterward she worked on a slew of interrelated narratives inspired by stories of her great-grandparents, who came to America from Poland and Hungary. “[Their] stories always interested me. I feel that they capture the most compelling and heartrending experiences people can have,” she says.

Only two of those stories made it into the You Should Pity Us Instead, but even in her less autobiographical narratives Gustine pursues questions of family and belonging. “Half-Life,” the collection’s closing story, centers on a young woman navigating adulthood after growing up in foster care. Gustine had no personal connection to the foster care system, but she had read about the aging-out process and was struck by “how astoundingly lonely and difficult it must be to turn 18 and be on your own. Most of us don’t get cut loose quite that brutally.” Writing unfamiliar characters and settings, Gustine says, “expands you as a writer, because you’ve made that leap into a situation and a mind that isn’t yours.”

Kristen Miller, an editor at Sarabande who worked on the book, praises the generosity Gustine shows her characters. “Every perspective is given space to develop in its own right,” she says. Sarabande’s editor-in-chief, Sarah Gorham, who acquired the collection in 2014, adds that she was impressed by Gustine’s sheer range. Reading the collection, she says, “made me wonder if [Gustine] spent all day watching people; not everyone can get a character this quickly and thoroughly.”

Yaa Gyasi: Tracing the Effects of Slavery Across Centuries

In 2009, while an undergraduate at Stanford, Yaa Gyasi traveled to Ghana, where she was born and lived until age three. She’d received a fellowship from Stanford to conduct research for a novel, but the idea she’d had in mind wasn’t panning out. A friend who was visiting her in Ghana asked her to go with him to the city of Cape Coast, to see the Cape Coast Castle, a grand and sinister-looking building that once served as a hub of the transatlantic slave trade. “I immediately knew this was the place my book would center around,” Gyasi says.

Homegoing (Knopf, June), which Gyasi continued working on while studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop a few years later, centers on two half-sisters living in Ghana in the 18th century, one of whom is sold into slavery. The book spans three centuries and touches on the American Civil War, the Great Migration, and life in 20th-century Harlem.

Eric Simonoff, Gyasi’s agent, says he was struck by “the ambition of the work” and Gyasi’s “strong and clear sense of what she was trying to accomplish, both narratively and thematically.” Jordan Pavlin, vice president and executive editor at Knopf, says the book “felt ferociously relevant.” She paraphrases a character in the book by saying, “When you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing?” And “when you’re reading the novel,” Pavlin says, “what you feel is, this story.”

Indeed, Gyasi, 26, says Homegoing is “the book I would have wanted to read when I was having these questions about racial identity in America.” In writing the book, she says, she endeavored to create “something that took into account not just the beginnings of slavery, but also where it has led us, in a way that makes it clear to see that everything that’s happening today is the product of a series of moments in history.”

Idra Novey: A Translator Draws on Noir to Pursue Questions of Language

We often think of the translator as a background figure—a ghostly presence or mere accessory to the original author of a given work. But Idra Novey, a poet and teacher who has translated several works by Spanish- and Portuguese-language authors, including the late Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, believes “a translator also has a spirit and a presence of her own.” Part of her motivation for writing Ways to Disappear (Little, Brown, Feb.), which tells of a translator on a quest to find the missing Brazilian author whose work she’s translating, was to show just that. “The translators who I know are definitely not appendages,” says Novey, 37, who grew up in western Pennsylvania. “They’re adventurous, international, incredible people. I didn’t come across any novels that showed how fascinating translators are in and of themselves.”

Adventurous, international, and incredible might be good words to describe Ways to Disappear, which sees its translator-heroine, Emma, traveling to Rio de Janeiro and countenancing her missing author’s online gambling addiction, becoming entangled with the author’s two children, and attempting to fend off the demands of a violent loan shark. Novey infuses the text with elements of magical realism and Brazilian noir, but its central concern—about the intimacy and devotion involved in translation, and in writing in general—is one that’s preoccupied Novey for years. “The questions you have to ask yourself as a translator are really just beautiful questions to ask as a human being,” she says.

PJ Mark, Novey’s agent, calls the book “madcap and hilarious” and a “love letter to the translator,” adding that it takes a “global perspective.” “American readers have a very limited engagement with translators, whereas international readers understand the value more clearly,” he says. Ben George, a senior editor at Little, Brown who worked on the book, says the novel’s light tone belies the “emotional wallop it packs later on.” He adds: “It’s exciting to see Idra be able to infuse the novel with her history as a poet and a translator. She’s dwelling on the idea of what translation means.”

Martin Seay: A Centuries-spanning Saga Long In the Making

In an interview with the New York Times, novelist Rachel Kushner described a fiction writer as someone who can “follow bold instincts of assimilation.” Such instincts would seem to be alive and well in Martin Seay, whose debut novel, The Mirror Thief (Melville House, May), unites three settings—Venice, Italy, in the 16th century; Venice Beach, Calif., in the 1950s; and a Venetian-themed casino in Las Vegas today—around one object: the mirror.

Seay, 44, was inspired to write the novel in 2002 while working at a bookstore in Washington, D.C., and taking a nondegree fiction-writing class at Johns Hopkins. For class, he’d been asked to “write a story in which someone tells a story in which someone tells a story.” At the bookstore, while mulling over the assignment, he came across Sabine Melchoir-Bonnet’s The Mirror, which tracks the cultural history of the mirror. The combination of the confounding writing prompt and Melchoir-Bonnet’s offbeat history led to a eureka moment. “Once I had the idea of Venice”—which is famous for its innovations in mirror technology—“it was pretty easy to go from there,” Seay says.

Easy, perhaps, but not exactly expeditious. Seay, who lives near Chicago, spent more than five years writing the book. It took even longer to publish it. Kent Wolf, Seay’s agent, first saw the manuscript in 2007 when he was working in-house at Harcourt. “It was bold, it was assured,” he says. “It didn’t read like a first novel.” But it didn’t sell. Wolf cites its length (almost 600 pages) and ambition. “Publishers don’t like to take chances, and this is a very special book.”

Wolf encountered the book a few years later while working as an agent. He sold the manuscript to Melville House in the spring of 2015. Dennis Johnson, the founder and publisher of Melville, describes the book as a “big, old-fashioned saga” and says: “By the time I saw it, I think everybody else in New York had seen it and missed it. That happens a lot. Some absolute gems slip through.”

Melville’s excitement about the novel has translated into a unique marketing campaign: the galley of the book is covered—on both covers and down the spine—with blurbs from booksellers. Upon seeing it for the first time, Seay was taken back to his own bookselling days. “If I’d gotten this galley while working at the bookstore, I would have been pretty excited to see it,” he says. “Even if I hadn’t written it.”

Hannah Tennant-Moore: A Trip to Sri Lanka Spurs a Meditation on Sexuality

In 2010, before starting her debut novel, Wreck and Order (Hogarth, Feb.), Hannah Tennant-Moore, then 27, spent two months backpacking around Sri Lanka. She’d recently completed her M.F.A. at Bennington College and had no major commitments—no regular job, no boyfriend. “I didn’t even have my cat yet,” she says. “I went there not knowing anybody. I felt displaced in this really magical way. I became sort of an organism of observation.”

As a Buddhist, Tennant-Moore was attracted to Sri Lanka’s religious culture. As a nonfiction writer with a focus on gender and sexuality, she was interested to see how women there navigated a largely patriarchal society. “I was struck by how hardworking the women tended to be, and how lazy the men tended to be,” she says. She met young girls who were wary of riding bikes for fear of breaking their hymens before their wedding nights. When Tennant-Moore began writing upon her return from Sri Lanka, she set out to document “the inequality of pleasure—the double standard in terms of the male and female enjoyment of sexuality.”

Wreck and Order centers on a young woman in her 20s, Elsie, who travels to a number of places, including Sri Lanka, Paris, and California, and carries on a number of (sometimes destructive) romances. Tennant-Moore, who grew up near Boston, had written a number of essays on women’s sexuality, for publications such as Dissent and n+1, but, in her novel, she wanted to “simply describe the feelings and sensations” that result from gender imbalances. “I didn’t feel like explaining facts that really got at the underlying issue, which is that it causes a lot of pain to young women who are excited about starting to become sexual beings. That pain was something I hadn’t come across.”

Alexis Washam, an executive editor at Hogarth, acquired the book in summer 2014. “What was really exciting to me about this book was how fearless it was,” she says. Tennant-Moore “is willing to go places that are a little uncomfortable, and that might strike some readers as difficult to swallow.” Washam adds that the book “serves as a challenge to some of the narratives of enlightenment, or narratives of sexual discovery, that cover familiar ground.”

Daniel Lefferts is a writer living in New York.