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An Interview with Tara Yellen

Tara Yellen‘s funny, sharp debut novel, After Hours at the Almost Home, published by Unbridled Books this month, follows the fortunes of the waiters, waitresses, and bartenders at a Denver bar during the hectic night of the Broncos’ 1999 Super Bowl win, when a seasoned waitress doesn’t show up for her shift. Yellen was born in Fort Collins, grew up in New York, and returned to Colorado to earn a master’s degree in Creative Writing from CU, where I met her ten years ago. Yellen went on to earn an MFA from Virginia, and currently lives in the Washington, D.C. area. She says that as she’s been revising her novel, over the years she’s worked many jobs, including stints as a “nanny, teacher, tutor, freelance writer and editor, and, of course a bartender and waitress.” I recently interviewed Yellen via email about why she chose to set her novel in Denver, how the book evolved, and how waiting tables can inspire fiction.

New West: Of the many places you’ve lived, why did you decide to set your first novel in Denver?

Tara Yellen: I didn’t decide. I was living in Denver, finishing up at the writing program at CU Boulder, when the story came to me. The location just felt right—for the events, for the characters. It was probably a good thing that the book ended up taking me so long to finish. The bulk of my revisions took place after I’d moved away from Colorado. I was sad to leave (and still think I might move back), but for writing, distance always helps.

Colorado has always been a part of me—I was born in Fort Collins and returned to Colorado through the years, to hike, and, a few times, to live. And CU was really where my writing began to come together. I remember when Lucia Berlin, my thesis advisor, took me into her office and told me to “cut the cute.” I fought tears all the way home, but the next week or so I wrote my first publishable story. It was a turning point.

NW: I have to ask if the Almost Home is based on a real Denver bar. From your descriptions and the location, it reminded me of the Cherry Cricket, which is kind of an anomaly in a posh neighborhood.

TY: There’s some Cherry Cricket in the Almost home, definitely. But it was Legends (now, the Milwaukee Street Tavern) that sparked it. I was working there at the time—and also at the Vesta Dipping Grill in LoDo, quite a contrast—and one night, at Legends, one of the other server/bartenders didn’t show up for her shift. It sparked something. That weekend, I wrote about 300 pages.

Still, The Almost Home isn’t Legends. It’s not any one place—though there are certainly bits and pieces of all the places I’ve worked at in there, at least in spirit.

NW: There have been several good recent books set in bars, such as J.R. Moehringer’s memoir The Tender Bar, and Rebecca Barry’s short story collection Later, At The Bar. Do you have a favorite story or book set in a bar? Why do you think bars make for good settings?

TY: I’ve been avoiding any restaurant books and movies. I was afraid I’d want to steal something—or, worse, that I’d discover I was “copying” something without realizing it. I’m eager to catch up on now, though maybe I’m still a bit apprehensive.

Bars are, I think, wonderful, dark, fertile settings. People go to bars to let go or escape—or to find some thrill. Or connection. Guards come down. There’s a lot of disappointment. And, of course, drinking. And not just for the customers.

I think one reason that people read is to be transported—to enter into a world, whether it be new or familiar. This was the world I inhabited for many years, backstage at the bar, and it was a pleasure to recreate it.

NW: How did After Hours at the Almost Home evolve? When did you begin it, and did you have this structure in mind from the outset?

TY: So, it took me a weekend to write and about 8 years to revise and get out there. Of the 300 hundred pages I probably kept about four, line for line. But it’s the same book. The beginning and end are almost exactly how they were when I first wrote it. I knew it would take place in one night in a restaurant, I knew it would be a hectic night, one that was important to different people for different reasons. And I knew that the bartender, at the beginning, would take off. The heart of it, and the characters, are basically the same.

NW: For most of the novel, it seemed like the story was divided equally between all the characters, but for me at the end it began to shift toward being mostly the story of Lily, the fourteen-year-old whose waitress mom makes her wait at the bar all night. Did you intend this? Do you find that people try to pick a “main character” out of your cast?

TY: Lily sort of steals the show, doesn’t she? I didn’t intend for that to happen, but I love that it does. For me she’s the thread of hope. People do ask which character is the main one. It could be JJ, because she’s the entrance. Maybe Marna because she leaves. And sure, Lily steals it. For a very short while, before Unbridled, I was with Doubleday—in the end, though, they wanted it all from one point of view. I was totally open to revision, but this was always an ensemble piece. If anything, the bar itself is the main character.

NW: One aspect of the book I found interesting is that none of the employees seems to be in charge. Although some of them have more seniority, it doesn’t seem like anyone is orchestrating things or guiding the new hire, JJ. And yet everyone still does their jobs, even though they’re not monitored. Why did you choose to have the atmosphere at the Almost Home like this?

TY: Funny: I never really thought of that. This particular world, this particular bar was just the one that materialized for me. But now that you mention it, it probably needed to be that way. I guess it sort of mirrors a larger issue–that these people are untethered and yet stuck. In the bar, in their lives. Something keeps them there.

NW: Did you have to watch tapes of the Broncos’ Super Bowl wins repeatedly to capture the details? At the end of the book, you thanked several bars where you worked—did you actually work as a waitress or bartender during a Super Bowl?

TY: I have, indeed, worked Super Bowls and other various hectic sports nights. I’ve worked in all sorts of places, including sports bars. As a student at Indiana University, I remember waiting tables during Final Four games and being hungover the next day—not because I’d been drinking, but because I was dehydrated from running around for ten hours straight, schlepping pitchers and trays of shots. We were so busy, we didn’t have time to drink water. Which was sort of helpful because we didn’t have time for bathroom breaks either.

I watched my share of Broncos replays, but I was also lucky in that a wonderful writer friend, Scott Handy, who was my boyfriend at the time, as well as a sportswriter and editor, helped me with research.

NW: How many years did you spend working in bars or restaurants? Did you have the intent to write about the experience as you were living it, or did the idea come later, after you’d hung up your apron?

TY: About 15 years, on and off. My first job was at a bakery and coffee shop when I was 15, in Brighton, NY. I ran it myself on Sundays and had a lot of trouble not eating all the tarts. My last restaurant job was running the lounge at a Bavarian-Schwabian restaurant in Charlottesville, VA.

I always thought there was great material in my jobs—and I think I always hoped I’d find a way to use it, but it wasn’t a conscious decision.

NW: Is it easier to find time to write when you are waitressing or when you’re teaching? How do you make time to write these days?

TY: For me, I need a job where I’m active. And where I have a flexible schedule. I can’t sit at a desk all day and then try to write.

Waiting tables and bartending was great for because I was able to keep moving (both physically, and come to think of it, geographically—I could live anywhere). It paid the bills, it allowed me to write at odd hours, and it was social.

These days, I still keep my schedule flexible so I can write, though my restaurant days are over. I’m doing piecemeal work—freelance writing and editing, online teaching, and babysitting, the last of which keeps me very active. It also gives me a fresh lens on life, hanging out with a three-year-old.

NW: How did your book deal come about?

TY: It took a long time. I thought I was home free once I landed an agent. But during the time it took from signing to signing, my agent had two children—and not twins. Editors kept saying they loved it, but didn’t think they could sell it. And, the truth was, I didn’t think it was quite “there” yet, myself. Alice, my agent, was a huge help. She’s an amazing reader and, in addition to believing in me, her feedback helped me (finally) shape the book into what it is now.

When I landed with Unbridled, it just felt great right away. My editor, Greg Michalson is brilliant—and I don’t say that lightly. And we shared a similar vision for the book.

NW: What are you working on now?

TY: It’s too much in progress to really talk about.

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