Arlaina Tibensky is the world’s oldest teenager, and the author of the young adult novel And Then Things Fall Apart. Some of her short stories have appeared in One Story, The Madison Review, and Inkwell. A recent New York Foundation for the Arts grant recipient, she lives in New York City with her husband and sons and face paints in her spare time.
Could you tell us five random facts about yourself?
1) I once had a cat named Nigel.
2) I went gorilla tracking with my mother when I was 16 years old.
3) I have had red hair, black hair, brown hair, blond hair and pink hair.
4) I will put Sriacha chili sauce on anything. Seriously. Anything.
5) I love graphic novels and alternative Manga.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a writer.
“Journey” makes it sound so fancy and emotional. I have always read. I have always written. I’ve always been into words and books. Writing was inevitable.
What has surprised you about writing and publishing?
I’m always shocked at how small a world it is, and how most everyone I’ve met in publishing is so – as they say in publishing – “lovely.” But really, it’s true!
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author?
I once had someone describe a never-published novel of mine as “vile and disgusting.” Vile. AND disgusting. It brought out passionate feelings I guess…
What has been the best compliment you’ve received?
I’m such a sucker for anything that even hints at the idea of “the writing is gorgeous” because writing is, funnily enough, extremely important to me.
Where’s your favorite place to write?
I like a good café to create new pages and my home office to pull it all together and edit.
What is one thing you wish you’d known when you sat down to write your novel?
How long it would take! And how much work! And how it would try your soul! Karen Russell said that writing a novel is like climbing Mount Everest and discovering your own bones on the way up. That feeling? Totally surprised me.
How do you approach writing villains or antagonists?
I think to write a good villain you have to love them and not think of them as the bad guy. They have their reasons for being so horrible. If you empathize you can make them come alive and really challenge your protagonist in ways that thrill.
How do you construct the world and tonal environment of your story?
I connect my mind with my hands and type. Usually if something is really working it ends up looking, in my mind, like a real place I have been to but altered slightly. I’m just reporting really, on what I see in my head.
Which is easier to write: The first line or the last line?
Oh God. The first the first the first. I don’t start a book until I know what the end image is going to be and then I write toward it for 275 pages. But then you get to the end and the first line doesn’t make much sense now. So, you tweak it for weeks and weeks and then your editor usually has a much better idea anyway.
What is your favorite chapter or scene you’ve written recently?
I’m working on something that takes place in a bar in the rain and it cracks me up and terrifies me at the same time. And I love my main character so much that everything she does in this scene is jaw-droppingly amazing to me… And that’s all I can say.
Do you have things you need in order to write (i.e. coffee, cupcakes, music)?
I like coffee, a lot. But really, anything warm in a cup I can curl my fingers around every five minutes will do. There’s something about a warm thing waiting for me that makes me feel less lonely writing. Without the mug I feel like I’m in outer space.
What are you working on now?
A novel, a short story, and some fun personal essays.
Bonus Question! Would you rather be a book or a computer?
I don’t even know what that means but my guts say: book.
About ‘And Then Things Fall Apart’:
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 make them right.
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