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Smoke & Mirrors with Arlaina Tibensky

Interview by Lyndsie Manusos (Read the Story) June 20, 2022

Arlaina Tibensky

Arlaina Tibensky

To start, I love how this piece’s beginning and ending images are of the pelican. When first writing this story, did you know the pelican was going to be the anchor to the story, or was it more organic?

I loved this pelican! A wonderful writer I admire, Robin Black, kept posting a photo of this one-footed pelican from her vacation on Facebook. My amazing and beloved mom died unexpectedly in the beginning of 2020, right at the start of the pandemic, and I hadn’t written a thing since. Desperate, I found a Poets and Writers prompt using the great Laura Gilpin poem, “The Two-Headed Calf,” urging a connection between a character and a rare animal, and how could I not use that Facebook pelican? Once I got started, this piece just fell out of me whole.

This story is filled with metaphors and lists of stuff. Food, clothing, and other miscellany. And it’s brilliant the work these items do for this story, especially after the gut-wrenching line, “… all the objects that had surrounded me my whole life, fuzzed with mold, reeking of mildew. Nothing salvageable.” Can you describe the choice to use these items? How do items and metaphor play in your overall work?

This is fiction, but I did have to go through what my mother left behind. If I close my eyes right now, I can rattle off the thousands of things, from Tarzan books to sake sets from Japan, that are now in the ether. I tried to choose things that held meaning in the story and for me personally. I’m working on a series of micro fictions now about memorable estate sales in New Jersey. I have a thing for miscellany. Items and metaphors are always a gateway to talking about the things you can’t touch and taste- emotions.

And to piggyback on the previous question, there is so much color to this story! The speedboat color, the red velvet cake—it’s all described in this deeply vivid and emotional Technicolor. Can you describe your inspiration for using color in this piece?

The narrator’s inner landscape is a monochrome, joyless, deadened place. Even the pelican is mostly brown and gray. Pops of color keep her in the here and now, her life isn’t over. Being alive is still vibrant, weird, and wonderful.

This story does so much heavy lifting at once. Each time I read it, I am in awe of each working cog. For example, even with the story focusing on this interaction with the pelican, there is so much movement, from place to place (Publix, the Airbnb, the mother’s basement, etc.) and item to item. How do you balance movement and sense of place in flash fiction?

Thanks. Loss and grief affect everyone differently. How it’s been affecting me is a constant surprise. It hasn’t ruined me, which is the biggest thrill. I wanted to write something that reflected that. I mean, how do you make a story about grief fun? Exciting? Unusual and even sexy? It can’t just be a woman crying on a pelican’s shoulder. I really tried to keep things lively—move forward, go a little back, go for a little swim, maul a cake. She’s moving through it, literally and figuratively.

Finally—because I cannot stop thinking about cake now from this story—what is your favorite cake and why?

Red velvet is all about the drama, but my favorite cake, when I eat cake, is a dark chocolate and raspberry layer cake with whipped cream frosting. It is the most delicious of all the cakes. I also adore a good pineapple upside down cake, which was actually my mom’s favorite. Who am I kidding? Life is short. I eat cake all the time, with a fork.

About the Author

Arlaina Tibensky’s writing has appeared in One Story, One Teen Story, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the New York Times, and elsewhere and has been anthologized in New Stories from the Midwest 2018. Her YA novel about a girl obsessed with Sylvia Plath, And Things Fall Apart, was a Junior Library Guild Selection. She is working on a new novel.

About the Interviewer

Lyndsie Manusos’s work has appeared in Okay Donkey, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Passages North, Moon City Review, and other publications. She lives in Indianapolis with her family and writes for Book Riot and Publishers Weekly.

This interview appeared in Issue Seventy-Six of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy-Six
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