Being a Simon Pulse author means not just getting published by great people, but along with great people, too. One such person is Arlaina Tibensky, whose debut novel, And Then Things Fall Apart was just published in July.
Here’s some about it:
Keek and her boyfriend just had their Worst Fight Ever, her best friend heinously betrayed her, her parents are divorcing, and her mom’s across the country caring for her newborn cousin, who may or may not make it home from the hospital. To top it all off, Keek’s got the plague. (Well, the chicken pox.) Now she’s holed up at her grandmother’s technologically-barren house until further notice. Not quite the summer vacation Keek had in mind.
With only an old typewriter and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar for solace and guidance, Keek’s alone with her swirling thoughts. But one thing’s clear through her feverish haze—she’s got to figure out why things went wrong so she can put them right.
I had a chance to ask Arlaina a few questions about her book, her life, and of course chicken pox. Here’s what she said!
TEM: And Then Things Fall Apart is your first novel, but certainly not your first bit of writing. How was writing this different from other things you’ve done?
AT: I’d written a slew (yes a slew!) of short stories and an adult novel that was entirely too bizarre and creepy for public consumption. In a way, And Then Things Fall Apart was exactly like all the things I’d ever written that were any good- first person, teen protagonist, coming of age narrative arc. But the physical writing of And Then Things Fall Apart had a velocity all its own that seemed bigger than me. Also what was so different about the And Then Things Fall Apart process was that it was, er, a process. I worked with Annette Pollert, my amazing editor, to really chisel a full fledged novel from my manuscript. And this is going to sound psychotic, but I really feel that Keek inhabited me in a way no other character had before. She was in my head in a deep and enduring way for a very very long time. It was like I was- and I’m not even kidding- like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost channeling her at my keyboard all hopped up on Nespresso.
TEM: Sylvia Plath—and her book, The Bell Jar—of course, play large and important roles in And Then Things Fall Apart. About reading Sylvia’s masterpiece, your narrator, Keek, says “It cheers me up. It emboldens me. It helps me interpret my own life experiences so that I start to believe that I am—if not wise, then at least more capable of handling my screwed-up life. That I’m not alone.”
This pretty well sums up how, I think, a lot of people (especially teenage girls) feel about The Bell Jar, as well. But my million-dollar question is, WHY do you think that is, especially so many years later?
AT: The Bell Jar, when it was published, was not marketed as nor conceived of as a “Young Adult” novel. Sure, Plath was trying to make some money by selling a novel (versus her poetry), but she was going to do it as a serious writer and assumed the work would be taken somewhat seriously by the publishing and reading community. I think teen readers of The Bell Jar feel that and respect it. I know that I did.
And you know, The Bell Jar deals with some intense and insane (and not in a good way) stuff. Suicide, first love, artistic disappointment, the gilded cage of being female in the 1950s. I just read this amazing article in Poetry Magazine that Amy Reed forward to me (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/article/242402) that talked about how The Bell Jar is also about a woman’s journey to becoming a writer. Which is the subtext of almost every chapter. So it’s timeless appeal to literate, artsy, serious teen girls seems like a total no-brainer.
TEM: Appropriately, Keek writes poetry (sometimes inspired by Sylvia’s own poems). Was there ever a point at which you debated not including poems at all? How do you feel about them, and their place in And Then Things Fall Apart?
AT: Poetry was always in the book. At first it was a way for me to kind of make fun of the self absorbed navel gazing teen poetry teens love to write. But as I moved forward with it, I began to take Keek’s literary exploration more seriously. Even the cringe worthy bad poems belong to Keek. And I love Keek. My favorite poems in the book are the wardrobe haikus and the one about raindrops and Sunday and avocados. I wanted new ways to make Keek seem as open and vulnerable as possible- dare I say as REAL as possible. Revealing her poetry seemed like an elegant and fun way to do that.
TEM: Keek learns that people are more than they seem throughout this book, (including herself). Can you talk a little about the difficulty, and importance, of learning that lesson?
AT: Learning that people are more than they seem is a lesson I learn every day. I think there is at least one disappointing moment in everyone’s life where the curtain is pulled back and the wizard is some jerk with an eyepatch. And then there’s the wonderful and amazing big reveal where the geek is the hero, the mom has a sense of humor, the jock bully likes to knit. Everyone is more than the sum of their parts and it takes a lifetime to embrace that. If you sort of figure it out in high school- you are so ahead of the game.
TEM: For a book that doesn’t have a lot of drama in it (well, I mean, no battles-to-the-death or zombie apocalypses or my-boyfriend-is-literally-not-human kinds of drama), there’s plenty of drama here. Can you talk a little about creating a book that keeps readers turning the page, without there being a ton of action and suspense?
AT: My agent called And Then Things Fall Apart the “Rear Window” of YA novels because like the guy in that movie (who is in a wheel chair with a broken leg) Keek never leaves the house. And it is a gripping and suspenseful movie (it’s Hitchcock after all). I’m no Alfred Hitchcock. Keeping And Then Things Fall Apart clicking along was challenging and my editor was really helpful with great suggestions. What’s so weird is that I love dialogue! I love action and suspense! And then I go out and write a book and choose this really impossible idea and form and create all these hoops to jump through. But all along I trusted my guts and this voice of Keek’s to keep all the balls in the air. And When Things Start to Lag… I write about tarantulas, penises, and funny nail polish names.
TEM: Keek’s grandma is, perhaps, my favorite character in the whole book. About her Keek types: “I still expect my mom to be, like, my capital-M Mom. But my grandma is a different type of mom to me. She can be the world’s oldest showgirl, she can be my best friend, she can be a life inspiration or a life warning, but whatever she is, she is connected to me in intense and unique ways.” Can you talk a little more about the unique intensity of grandmas?
AT: Both of my grandmas are still alive and they were, in their day (and today!) both fascinating and complex individuals. Grandmas are NOT your mom (or dad). They are like your mom without the judgmental responsibility and fear of parenting failure. They are your mom distilled into a sublime cocktail of her very best qualities minus all of her worst and most annoying ones. Grandmas know when to leave you alone and when to poke you with a stick. They are your champions. And it is so natural to them they don’t even make a big deal out of it. In a way I feel that I have more in common with my mom’s mom than I do with my own mother. We have the same body, same hair, same interests, similar talents. It’s weird.
AT: Terra, this may shock and surprise you but I actually had chicken pox when I was 15. And this occurred at the very same time I was taking a typing class in summer school. And I’m not even kidding. What is so crazy is I thought it was so random and odd to get chicken pox at 15 but it’s actually more common than I thought! AND there is a whole cadre of YA writers who had late onset chicken pox. What are the ODDS?!
TEM: And Then Things Fall Apart takes place in Chicago (a great city), while you yourself live in Manhattan (also a great city). Care to compare and contrast these two cities for us?
AT: I adore New York. It is my home. I have spent my whole life wanting to live here and write here and fall in love here and be a part of the whole swarming sparkling mess of it and I’m here and I love it! But. It is hard to live here. It is easier to live in Chicago, less expensive, less pretentious, roomier. Better food, more soulful culture. Crayons at every restaurant for the kids.
I am from Chicago and of Chicago and there is something Midwestern and real at the core of who I am that for certain has Chicago tattooed all over it. Chicago is a world class city that has my heart. New York has my body, my dreams, and big chunks of my brain.
Thanks so much for answering these questions, Arlaina, and for your book! Looking forward to seeing more from you, for certain!
Arlaina Tibensky is the world’s oldest teenager. She lives in NYC where she curates the Pen Parentis Literary Salon at the Libertine Library. Her debut YA novel AND THEN THINGS FALL APART, about how Sylvia Plath and an old typewriter usher a reluctant virgin through the worst summer of her freaking life is out with Simon & Schuster. Visit her at arlainatibensky.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter @ArlainaT.
Songs in my Head Upon Waking in the Last Week:
“This Sweet Love,” by James Yurell; “Dirty Laundry,” by the Eagles; “Laser Beam,” by Low; “Caleb’s Song,” by Billy McLaughlin; “Candy,” by El Perro Del Mar; “Black Water,” by the Doobie Brothers; “Love Shack,” by B-52s