Welcome to our newest blog series: Where Are They Now?
In this series, our editors interview past Literary Mama contributors to see what they’ve accomplished since publishing in LM and talk about their writing journeys.
This week, we interview Arlaina Tibensky. Arlaina has short fiction that has appeared in One Story, One Teen Story, Inkwell, The Madison Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among other publications. And Then Things Fall Apart, her novel for teens about a girl with late onset chicken pox obsessed with Sylvia Plath, was a Junior Library Guild selection.
Literary Mama: Literary Mama published your story, “Masks,” in our February 2019 issue. Where has your writing career taken you since?
Arlaina Tibensky: 2019 was a lifetime ago and it seems like my writing career has been shellacked in amber! Since then I revised a novel, bones to skin. I redid my home office which was actually huge because it made me take my writing more seriously. (I fixed the door latch so it actually closes. A miracle!) I’ve been teaching a lot, which I enjoy more than I ever thought I would. During the pandemic, I taught online classes, supported both my kids with remote learning, voted, learned how to order meat deliveries from the butcher, partnered with a writing colleague launch Write On! A support and accountability course for writers via Zoom, and was a juror for a writing grant, which was gratifying.
LM: Many of the submissions we receive center around pregnancy, postpartum, and new motherhood. As mothers we understand the hardships and emotional struggles that accompany this time of life. In contrast, your piece “Masks” focuses on a mother’s relationship with her teenage son. You’ve also published a YA novel, And Then Things Fall Apart, also exploring the teenage years. What draws you to write about this age group?
AT: Teenagers just live in the moment with no filter. They surprise me with their candor, openness and wisdom. I wrote “Masks” in a white hot moment. We had just left Washington Heights- the place we had and raised our kids in bliss- for New Jersey and I was traumatized. And then my older son was suddenly taller than me, and Trump was president, and I felt isolated and lost and didn’t know how to be in this strange new world. I felt a new and unique terror of parenthood. I wasn’t worried about simply keeping my children fed and content. I was worried about helping them navigate what was coming, surviving the apocalypse on our suburban doorstep. And then things got even worse. My fear wasn’t misplaced in the least.
LM: Do you feel as though the subject matter you’re drawn to write about changes with your experiences of Motherhood?
AT: Definitely! There is a lot of energy thrown at new mothers of babies. When you first become a parent you are kind of a newborn yourself- a new-born mother. Fourteen years later it’s not as new, or adorable. It’s more like your life. And you are even more intimate, if possible, with that person than when they first arrived. But now they have a moustache and swear like a sailor, and need your guidance in ways that are harder to implement than diapers, nap schedules, and educational teething toys. In fiction, I feel the mothers of teens disappear. But those mothers are on the precipice of something new, like a snake molting their skin, or a butterfly in their chrysalis. Those mothers are evolving in amazing ways. It’s GREAT material.
LM: Speaking of writing about mothering older children, you received the 2018 Sustainable Arts Foundation award for an excerpt from your novel in progress, Tonight’s Menu, about a newly-divorced mom and her weary, adult daughter on a Kenyan safari. Where did the inspiration come from for this novel, and is it still a project you’re focusing on?
AT: Yes, this is still a project I’m focusing on but wow, has it changed. It’s based on my own life, of course. When I was sixteen, my mother was newly divorced and in the middle of a pseudo-nervous breakdown, when she booked a budget safari to Kenya. The first ten drafts had six (SIX!) point of view characters and it was supposed to be about the effects of colonialism, and a meditation on Marriage and the brutality of Nature. (!?) The adult daughter in it was based on me… and the divorcee mother was a version of my adventurous mother. And then, my amazing and beloved mother passed away, in 2020. I was devastated (am still) and everything changed. Now, the mother in the novel isn’t based on my mother, she is a parody of me and guilt-ridden Gen Xers. The daughter is a passionate eighteen year old environmentalist. And now, it’s a comedy! And I’m much closer to a version that feels great, and is a better fit for our current world. I think my mom would love it.
LM: You’ve been passionate about uplifting new writers, from mentoring to offering workshops, and have specifically focused on writers who are parents with your involvement in co-founding the Pen Parentis Literary Salons. What do you feel is the responsibility of seasoned writers to help out emerging writers?
AT: Writers should support writers. That’s it. Experienced writers should see emerging and established writers as peers, respect them, and above all, be kind to them. The writing and publishing world is vicious enough all on its own.
LM: What can we expect to see from you in the future, and where can we read more of your work?
AT: Ah… the eternal question. I haven’t been trying to actively publish in a while. There will be pieces out in the world eventually. I’m still in chrysalis mode.