Friday, August 19, 2011

Interview with Arlaina Tibensky

I am really excited to interview my friend and debut novelist, Arlaina Tibensky. Her amazing YA debut, AND THEN THINGS FALL APART (Simon Pulse) tells how “Sylvia Plath and an old typewriter usher a reluctant virgin through the worst summer of her freaking life.” I LOVED this book! Keek, the MC, is so real and I did not want to leave her when I closed the book. Arlaina also curates the Pen Parentis Literary Salon at the Libertine Library in NYC. After her interview, I know you'll want to find out even more about Arlaina, so be sure to visit her blog: and follow her quirky thoughts on Twitter. Look for @ArlainaT.

Let's begin!

If you were serving one of your characters his or her ideal meal, what would it be and why?

There is actually a lot of food in AND THEN THINGS FALL APART. Keek’s boyfriend Matt roasts a chicken, they make a potato curry together, and eat flourless chocolate cake at the Art Institute. And of course, there is the cavalcade of recipes from The Bell Jar including steak tartare, avocado with a grape jelly sauce, and artfully broiled SPAM on tomato halves. Egg salad sandwiches, mayonnaise from the jar, cold lasagna. Keek’s parents own a restaurant so there’s tons of talk about Chicago hot dogs, pizza, and rainbow Italian ice.

Throughout the book, Keek really would like to be a vegetarian. She is also adventurous and well read and I assume she would want something a little exotic along the lines of Spanish Pumpkin and Bean soup (without the ham) with a huge loaf of French bread and a side of mayonnaise. That or maybe a spicy Thai green curry with coconut milk and a large iced Thai coffee (the bright orange kind) at that little place off Clark Street with the swinging lanterns in the outdoor garden downtown with her best friend Nic.

Mmm...sounds great! And since you're so in tune with your characters, I'm sure you wouldn't mind having them over for dinner. So Let’s say a couple of your characters are raiding your fridge right now, what are they most likely to eat? Are they disappointed or excited about what they find?

Oh my fridge. Right now it is full of food and delights from Trader Joe’s. Its contents would make everyone happy. Keek’s wrestler boyfriend Matt and his pal Earl the Squirrel would surely stand there with the doors wide open, letting all the cold air out, drinking whole milk straight from the gallon and eating fingers of string cheeses by the fistful. Keek would appreciate the organic frozen quinoa with squash and soybean succotash. Keek’s mom would no doubt enjoy the white wine in the back on the top shelf and her dad could make himself a quick turkey sandwich.

Your fridge and my fridge would be great friends! I LOVE Trader Joe's. Let's see if our spices are a match too. What are three must-have foods/seasonings in your kitchen?

    1. Garlic

    2. Cumin

    3. Hot sauce (preferably Melinda’s or Cholula- the one with the wooden top)

Nice! Garlic, FTW! I'm sure those spices come in handy when you need to serve something quick and easy too. What's your go-to-meal when you're short on time?

This is going to sound a little gross but it is really good. Ready? Brown an onion in some butter with a little garlic. Add a teaspoon of curry powder, a little Garam Masala, a pinch of cinnamon and a teaspoon of ginger and cook it a little in the butter and onions. Then take 2/3 of a jar of a really good marinara sauce and dump it in along with two cans of drained chickpeas and a handful of fresh or a couple cubes of frozen cilantro. Toss in a couple handfuls of frozen peas and a ¼ cup of water and let it all simmer for about 10 minutes and serve it over rice with a lime wedge and hot sauce on the side…

We love it! And it seriously takes 15 minutes even with the rice if you use Jasmine (not brown. Brown takes 45 minutes and is quite a commitment.).

Oooh, I'll have to try that! Let's switch gears a little now and focus on your book again. Your book as food, that is. If your book were a menu item, describe the restaurant that would serve it.

I think my book would be best served by that really great Taco Truck by that cool little park in Sunnyside Queens. Keek is always on the go, in her brain, and she is not pretentious and appreciates authenticity and truth and integrity above all. And what is more authentic, true, unpretentious and integrity-filled than the best taco truck in the world? And you can put as many and kinds of sauces on as you want! Keek is a sucker for choice.

Speaking of Keek, I think she'll be a great fit for the next question. As writers, we're always looking for inspiration. Can you tell us about a time when food inspired your writing or a book inspired your cooking.

I once took a writing workshop with Lorrie Moore when I was at the University of Wisconsin and for the last class she asked everyone to bring in something to eat that was in one of our stories. It was hilarious! There was pizza and nuts and cheese but everyone had something. Food is elemental. Even zombie books are full of brains! Food is a great way to build empathy for a character and evoke all the senses for a scene. In And Then Things Fall Apart, Keek is obsessed with The Bell Jar-- which is full of food! There’s the ptomaine poisoned crabmeat salad, caviar, avocados, elaborate lunches with quivering domes of aspic. There’s a huge scene at the asylum cafeteria featuring institutional food like green beans and Salisbury steak. I found the food in the Bell Jar so… weird. So 1950’s stunted and odd. It really grounded the book, more than anything for me, in a very specific time and place and inspired me to compare a modern day teen’s life with a 1950’s teen and then…I worked all that in to And Then Things Fall Apart.

The food in AND THEN THINGS FALL APARTS really grounded the book for me too. I loved how it played into Keek's daily life, and I had wanted to try the recipes too.

I'm bummed this interview is rapping up. But maybe it's for the best because I'm thinking of raiding my fridge right now and it's late. So to put everything together—the book and the food—here is your last question.

If you were marooned on an island and Pots & Pens granted your wish for only one book and one food, what would you choose?

One book? How cruel! I want to be a smartass and make it like, a collected works of something or other but I have only read one book my whole life twice and it was Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. I feel like there are too many books in the world and not enough time to read them all so reading a book more than once is a real extravagance- for me anyway. There are always these people who read like, The Great Gatsby once a year or like, Ulysses every Bloomsday but I’m not really one of those people. What I’m trying to say is, it would probably be Geek Love.

For food all I need is chips and salsa. And really great and authentic, and I mean from Mexico, tortilla chips and salsa. This is what I eat. It is my favorite food. When I am happy, sad, nervous, in love, depressed and/or buzzed on wine, this is all I crave.

Can't go wrong with chips and salsa. Especially if the salsa is spicy! Arlaina, thanks again for joining us. Before you leave, can you share a favorite recipe?

I am a soup person. I love soup, I love making soup and once the leaves go even a little brownish I’m making chili and soup and bisques and etc. THIS soup by Willams- Sonoma is amazing and a little complicated and I love that there is pumpkin in it! It’s great and Spanish and I love it.


  1. Off to make some Thai tea. I love soup with pumpkin, okay anything with pumpkin. :)

  2. That avocado with grape jelly always stuck with me from The Bell Jar! I'm very much looking forward to reading AND THEN THINGS FALL APART.

  3. Oops, wrong comment, but this soup sounds AMAZING! and so does the book!

  4. Great interview! It's been ages since I read The Bell Jar, but I remember parts of it very well - can't wait to read And Then Things Fall Apart as well!