What’s today? A random Tuesday. But wait! It’s a wonderful Tuesday because this is the day Arlaina Tibensky’s debut novel comes out. And Then Things Fall Apart is a book some of you may remember if you were there in the audience, as I was, at the NYC Teen Author Festival this spring when Arlaina read a hilarious, angst-ridden taste of it. If you were there, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you weren’t? I’m sharing an interview with the author today—and giving away a signed copy of her book—so you can get a taste, too.
First, here’s a little bit about And Then Things Fall Apart:
Keek’s life was totally perfect.
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.
First the interview! Then—if you want to win this book—check the bottom of this post for a chance to win a signed copy.
I’ll start off by telling my blog readers that the first time I encountered you and your book was at the NYC Teen Author Festival this past spring, when you were up on stage during the debut authors reading. You read an excerpt from And Then Things Fall Apart (Simon Pulse, 7/26/11) that was biting, hysterical, filled with angst, and that absolutely charmed the whole auditorium. After hearing you read, I stalked you online, discovered we went to the same MFA program (Columbia University, in fiction, though we just missed each other), and then I went ballistic all over Twitter saying how much I adored your writing and was very, very excited to get to meet you. That’s what happens when I fall in deep and lasting love with someone’s voice. (I hope no one reading this is scared of me now.) So, where did the voice for your narrator, Keek, come from? Was she a little like you as a teenager? Do you have any tips or secrets for building a strong and memorable first-person voice for a character, one that jumps off the page like Keek’s does?
Thanks so much for being so enthusiastic about And Then Things Fall Apart! I’m so glad we connected because I’m a huge fan of Imaginary Girls and here we are now gabbing away like old pals! What was the question? Right. Voice. Keek’s voice is totally me and totally NOT me at all. At the exact same time. Before I sat down to write this book I made an elaborate playlist—not just of songs that I was obsessed with in high school, but songs that made me feel like my best, strongest, up-yours self. I mean, not just the Cure and Adam Ant but also songs from the musical Cabaret, Beethoven, and Peggy Lee, etc. I wanted her to sound like me as a teenager but also a better, stronger, more-synapses-popping version of myself as a teenager. I was also really into listening to this guided meditation before I sat down to write. It was all about opening up the creative part of your brain, and opening to receive, and clearing your mind to let creative thoughts take over. I think what that really did was give myself permission to really listen to the story I wanted to tell. And once that happened… Keek was free and clear to enter my brain and take over. (I hope no one reading this is scared of ME now!) So is that advice? I dunno. Getting your own brain out of the way is a great way to let other voices in.
Your novel is about the summer everything goes utterly wrong for Keek, not to mention that she’s quarantined away from the world with the chicken pox, and for solace she immerses herself in a book I remember loving myself when I was young: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (though, when I was a teenager, my poet of choice was Anne Sexton). What about Sylvia Plath inspired this story? Do you remember the first time you read The Bell Jar?
I don’t remember the first time I read The Bell Jar, but I do remember the first time I read The Catcher in the Rye and then Plath’s poems in Ariel. They happened within weeks of each other. I read The Catcher in the Rye in one day. The momentum and strength of the voice just smeared me on toast and I had never felt so connected to a fictional character before. The poems in Ariel are brutal, cruel and beautiful. Together, those books had a huge personal and artistic impact on me. The Bell Jar was also a favorite and as a device for And Then Things Fall Apart, there was much more to work with than the poems because Esther and Keek are both teenagers and the situations were very grounded in a more precise time of life. I also knew the kind of reader I wanted to attract to my book… and I wanted the cool, artsy, badass girls who love Sylvia Plath to be friends with Keek.
I seem to recall you saying that the first draft of And Then Things Fall Apart (which originally had a different title) was far shorter than the final book turned out to be and that much of the work of expanding the story happened after the book sold to Simon Pulse, in revision. Can you talk a bit about the writing process, and what was there from the start and what grew from the story as you were writing? Did anything surprising come out along the way?
Wow! What a process! When my editor explained to me that I needed to DOUBLE my page count, I freaked out. She had suggestions on places that needed more and aspects of Keek’s journey where I could really add tons more. My editor was fantastic and really gave me free rein to explore. In the first draft, I was afraid of talking about sex too much. In the second draft—you couldn’t shut Keek up about tarantulas and penises and bras flung on the floor. The grandma emerged as a real force in the book on revision, which was a fun surprise. As I wrote more, everything that was already on the page seemed to feed effortlessly into the next theme and idea. It was all there already, it just needed to be written and my editor knew that WAY before I did!
We’ve talked about this before, privately, since we both started off writing literary fiction for adults and found ourselves—maybe not exactly planning it—but writing and loving writing YA. What drew you to writing a young adult novel and writing from a teenage perspective? Do you hope to keep on writing YA and do you ever think you’ll return to writing for adults?
First of all, I think there is this misconception that anyone who knows how to type and spell can write YA. That it is an easier and dumber version of real literature. But I assure you, not everyone can do it. I feel, at least for me, that it is a kind of gift. All the stories I had ever written that were any good were about teenagers. I feel very connected to that time in my life and feel that those teenaged years forged who I am as a person and writer. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t choose to write YA, YA chose me. I’m a writer who is writing YA right now. I’m sure I’ll write for “adults” one day… but I think when push comes to shove, I’m a writer. And this is what I’m into right now. And loving it!
About that MFA we both ended up getting… I won’t go into a whole thing about my own conflicted feelings about the MFA (ahem, student loans, ahem) and ask you to delve into yours, but is there anything you took away from your time in the Writing Division of Columbia University that found its way into the writing of this book? If you could go back to those early days when you were first deciding to do an MFA, would you do anything differently? I guess this is a question I ask myself often, but would you start off writing YA from the get-go?
I was young when I embarked on an MFA. I went into it with the simple idea of becoming a better writer. I didn’t know what I really wanted from the experience and underestimated the financial burden of those effing loans! If I could do it all over again I would have had a novel in mind before starting and I would have tried to find a school that would help fund the whole enterprise. When I was in school YA wasn’t the amazing genre it is today or I would have gone that route much, much (MUCH!) earlier. But I must say, I don’t regret the MFA. If anything, it kept me working and writing and ensured that I didn’t give up—I had too much riding on publishing emotionally and financially…
Rejection is hard to talk about, and it’s not always fun to sit and reminisce about the times we heard the word no. But I think it’s important for aspiring authors to see that sometimes many attempts go into publishing your first book, even if it looks floaty and sparkly and easy from the outside. Stories of perseverance always make me, personally, end up rooting even more for the author and much more excited to go out and buy her book. So, do you have a story of perseverance before And Then Things Fall Apart came to be that you’d want to share here?
The MS for And Then Things Fall Apart (all 125 pages of it) was basically pulled out of a slush pile because I kept poking the agent (the last one on the list of agents before I took a break and tried ANOTHER batch of 10) with a stick. I got very close with a handful of high-powered, established, and famous agents but no dice. And Then Things Started to Happen. But! One agent (who happens to be married to a YA hero of mine) rejected it because he didn’t “get” the voice. His wife (said YA hero) fell in love with Keek at the Teen Author Festival and kept going on and on about it over dinner! So what am I saying? It’s kind of a crap shoot all the way around but I do believe (and maybe this is a vestige of MFA-ness) good fiction finds a way out into the world. So. Write with passion and a critical eye and keep going until the universe gives you a sign… And don’t give up. I think most of publishing is an endurance test. The last one standing gets a book deal.
Here’s a short and simple question, since the previous six were so long: What kind of reader do you hope will find this book?
I think all writers are secretly writing for all the people out in the world who are, in all the important ways, JUST LIKE THEM. I want to reach the kind of readers who get my jokes, who understand where I’m coming from, because they are coming from there too. I just hope that a LOT of people pick it up (it makes a GREAT gift) and that the majority of them enjoy the book and one day, will be in line at the Whole Foods checkout reading the ingredients on the back of their organic cereal and think of Keek begrudgingly making cannibal cups in her grandma’s kitchen.
Thank you, Arlaina, for answering my questions in the crazed days leading up to your book launch… And Happy Pub Day!
And now for you… want to win a signed copy of AND THEN THINGS FALL APART? To enter, just leave a comment on this post. That’s it. Your comment can be anything. But this is US only, sorry!
(I’m closing this giveaway this Friday, July 29 at 9:00 p.m. EST and I’ll reveal the winner soon after!)