Reading, writing, and restaurant love (a conversation with Tara Yellen)

Yesterday, I shared a bit about the mother/daughter dialogue sparked by Tara Yellen's gritty and gorgeous debut novel, After Hours at the Almost Home. The story unfolds behind the scenes at a restaurant on Super Bowl Sunday, and the characters proved way too close for comfort at times. (Publishers Weekly calls the plot "as intricate as a Greek tragedy.") I asked Tara to visit with us about the backstory on the book, her process, and of course, what she's reading...

First of all, how are you? First novel. Big world. How’s that working out? What have you loved and hated about the process so far?
I'm great. Good god, I can't complain--I've wanted to write a book from the time I was five. Now I can hold it in my hands. (I'm so excited, I almost want to chew on it.) As for the process, it's been exciting and scary... a bit unreal... I had no idea that, once I'd written it, it would take so long to become a book. I wrote it in a weekend and it took about 8 years to revise and get it out there.

Probably the most difficult part of this for me was to revise with editors--I was with DoubleDay for a short time before Unbridled--to hear what needed to be changed, and yet still retain my own hold on the book. I had to find my own ways to answer their problems with the manuscript. I remember a story that John Casey told me about finishing one of his novels. His editor read the manuscript and said it was way too long, that John needed to cut it. So John went back and revised--and the new version turned out to be even longer. But he sent it to the editor, who read it and said, "Exactly. That's what I was talking about! Perfect."

So it's a tricky thing--to retain what you want and still get it out there, turn it into something that will be bought and sold.

I was fortunate to end up at Unbridled Books--Greg Michalson is an incredible editor and we are very much in sync. Still, I'm forever grateful for the struggles I went through in trying to revise for Doubleday. I learned a great deal. The book is so much better because of it.

My daughter and I shared a lot of interesting discourse about After Hours at the Almost Home; it kept coming up in conversation for weeks. I’m curious to know if you thought about the kitchen table, book club, driving down the road dialogue that would be sparked by the book. What are your hopes for the substance of those conversations?
So great to hear. No, I didn't think at all about what discourse might be sparked from what I was writing (didn't dare dream of it), not at all at the time--but if that's the end result, I couldn't be happier. I'm thrilled with any kind of discussion that might arise (I have a few friends who now are worried about the cleanliness of restaurant kitchens now... I remind them that I eat out and am still just fine). But there are certainly a number of issues that I'm left with, in the wake of writing this, after spending time with these characters--because really, when I write, it feels more like I'm discovering people and things that already exist, just chipping away to get at the truth, to see what really happened.

I think a lot about Lily, and how it is my hope that she will find her way "out." I think about how the adults around her have let her down. I love (thought not necessarily like) every one of these characters, but I'm not sure I can forgive them for that. I spent a year helping to run a mentoring program for middle-school girls, and I was amazed at the impact a caring, listening adult can have on a kid. Turning your back on a child also has impact. Someone should have stepped in for Lily. Maybe Keith. Colleen certainly isn't capable. But someone.

There's also the matter of being stuck--in a job, in a place, in a life--I wonder a lot what is it that makes us feel trapped and yet keeps us clinging.

Did that factor into the choices you made while writing/revising the manuscript? And if so, at what point?
The writing and revising, again, felt more like I was trying to chip away and get at what was really there to begin with. The novel I ended up with is amazingly, satisfyingly close to what I was trying for that first weekend I wrote it. The beginning and end of the book are almost exactly the same as they were back then--and the heart of it is the same. The revising was a battle to get it right, to figure out what was said, how it was said, the events, and the general rhythm of events.

I don’t want to drop any spoilers, but a certain plot bomb toward the end of the book is going to be a deal breaker for a lot of readers. You did something which you must know is going to make some people want to hurl the book against the wall. Was that a tough choice or did you know from the beginning that you were taking those two characters to that place and moment?
I wanted to hurl the manuscript myself. It wasn't a choice--I didn't know from the beginning it was going to happen, not exactly, though I certainly felt something coming. A teacher of mine once told me that experience of writing, when going well, should feel very much like the experience of reading--that same sense of discovery. I like that and find it true. I was surprised (and angry) too.

Best line in the book: “Don’t ever trust restaurant love.” I’m seeing it on the movie poster. Care to expand on that?
Thanks! (I'm laughing. And almost allowing myself to see that movie poster, also....) I think Keith explains it better than I could, when he says it's all about proximity and talks about rats in a cage. It's crass and simplified, but I do think there's something about the atmosphere of restaurant work that fosters a quick closeness. It's social, there's food, there's alcohol (and drugs), and you have a bunch of people (who might not have ever met otherwise), hungry, like we all are, for love, slammed together in close quarters, working as a team. There's a fast intimacy--which also leads to fast falling-outs.

So where do you go from here? What are you working on and how much thought have you given to the arc of your career?
In terms of thinking about a career: I'm still where I was at five: I'm amazed by books--these entire universes-- and want to write them. I also love to teach, and am currently teaching online classes for Gotham Writers Workshop. Eventually, I think I'll look for a full time faculty position, but for now I'm focusing on writing my next book. It's still too "in progress" to discuss, but I can say that this one is a first person narrative.

Long ago I decided to go the starving artist route, and I'm fine with it for now (though there are a handful of bill collectors out there who are probably significantly less fine with it). I'm happy doing piecemeal work that allows me time and energy to write--teaching, editing, babysitting. I'm grateful to be out in the world, (hopefully) collecting new stories, seeing new things. I'm amazed, for instance, by what I learn from seeing life through the lens of a 3-yr-old...

Last but all important question: Read any good books lately?
I'm actually reading Alice in Wonderland for the first time. Again, this whole first-novel-coming-out experience has been strange and wonderful.... It's a little disorienting to have it finally come true, actually real, and so, since I already feel a bit "down the rabbit hole," I figure I might as well settle in and stay for a while....

Author photo by Margaret Allen

Comments

Enjoyed the interview. Thanks for joining us here at BtO, Tara. The book sounds great!
elengreywriter said…
Okay. I have to read this book. Interesting interview. And now I'm all caught up. Great thinking posts.