By Leslie Lindsay
A story of two girls–both teenagers–in northern Michigan fighting for their freedom, their passions, and utlimately–their lives.
MARLENA is one of those rare gems that feels like the entire dome of humidity that is summer is suffocating you. It’s like peeking inside a 16-year old’s journal and reading all of her dark, intimate thoughts, some that are sharply perceptive, and others that are the general wanderings of someone who doesn’t quite know where she’s going. This is where Julie Buntin’s writing excels; in fact, some may be entirely foiled into believing MARLENA is a memoir; it is not.
Told from a single POV—Cat’s—and Marlena’s bestfriend and in alternating time periods, places (New York present-day and Silver Lake, Michigan about fifteen years earlier), it’s a rare glimpse into deep interiority, of growth and grief.
Cat and her mother and brother have relocated to northern Michigan after her parents divorce. It’s boring. Cat misses her old life where she attended a fancy prep school. She yearns for her father. And Marlena happens to be there. Two years older than Cat and riddled with her own insecurities and issues (pill-popping, alcohol, among others). Her father is pretty much a deadbeat and her mother, dead.
Marlena globs on to Cat, or perhaps it’s the other way around, but needless to say, the girls become inseparable. MARLENA pulls Cat into a litany of firsts: first drink, first kiss, first cigarette, first pill. It becomes insatiable. Cat needs more and more and more, but who is this Marlena, anyway?
Buntin’s skill is that she ‘gets’ screwed up teen girls. Reading MARLENA felt like a long, languid summer day filled with bubble gum lip gloss and the grit of cigarette smoke in your eyes.
Please join me in conversation with Julie Buntin on her debut.
Leslie Lindsay: Julie, it’s great to have you. I love the first line in MARLENA: “Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are.” I settled in and didn’t want to let go. That first chapter blew me away. It also inspired some of my own writing. What was your inspiration for MARLENA?
Julie Buntin: Thank you, Leslie! I love hearing that the first chapter inspired some of your writing – I know that feeling of reading something that gives you the itch to write, and in some ways, the books that did that for me were my biggest inspirations in writing my own novel. Novels like WHO WILL RUN THE FROG HOSPITAL? by Lorrie Moore, BELOVED by Toni Morrison, HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson, the poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Rita Dove, every single word Margaret Atwood has ever put down on paper. There was something about reading those formative books, how magically and perfectly they expressed feelings I had previously thought were inexpressible, that made me feel an urge to try to capture the world in language, too.
So that’s one answer to your question. Another answer is that I was inspired to write this particular story, about teenage girls and the terrible vulnerability of adolescence, the thrill and danger of it, the passion of early friendship, because my own teenage friendships were so volatile and so formative. When I was in my twenties, a friend from my teenage years passed away, and I found that there wasn’t a vocabulary or framework for that loss. I started thinking about adolescent friendships – the ones that flame up and define us, and so rarely last into adulthood. Why are they so important and so intense, especially between girls? How do they shape the women we become?
“At the center of Julie Buntin’s debut novel is the kind of coming-of-age friendship that goes beyond camaraderie, into a deeper bond that forges identity; it’s friendship as a creative act, a collaborative work of imagination. . .This generous, sensitive novel of true feeling. . . sweeps you up without too much explication, becoming both a painful exorcism and a devoted memorial to friends and selves who are gone.” –New York Times Book Review
L.L.: You write with such fearlessness and gritty, forthcoming details. What scares you about writing?
Julie Buntin: This is an interesting question. In a way, everything scares me about writing. When I do it, even when I’m making something up, I’m more present to my own mind than I am at any other time. In that way, regardless of whether I’m writing fact or fiction, I am putting my imagination fully out there. And when it’s out there, it can be judged – by me, or other readers. So with writing comes a lot of fear – fear of failure in a broad sense, but also the very specific and horrible fear of failing at translating my inner world into the right words, words that will appropriately render the story or scene or feeling I want so badly to convey. But intimacy and intensity doesn’t scare me in writing – I’m not scared of my characters, of their truths, as much as I’m scared I’ll fail them somehow by not being good enough to capture them as they are in mind. Does that sound sort of crazy? Talking about writing always makes writers sound a little crazy. To be honest, though, I think I’m more scared of not writing than anything else.
L.L.: The timeline and structure of MARLENA is unique in that you flip between present-day New York and past Silver Lake, Michigan. Was this a conscious decision on your part, or something that sort of grew organically?
Julie Buntin: It was a decision that arose during the revision process. I always knew that this story would be narrated by Cat looking back from adulthood – I was very interested in exploring the relationship between memory, imagination, and truth, and in trying to capture how friendships that are so brief, that happen when we’re so young, can resonate through our entire lives. I also wanted to have access to an adult woman’s voice – I wanted all the psychic matter of the years between Cat at 15 and Cat in her early 30s to have a bearing on how she saw the world, how she interacted with her own memory of that time. Writing from a teenaged perspective wasn’t as compelling to me – I would have been limited to relaying events as they happened, which would have made the story really more plot-driven, more about the moments leading up to Marlena’s death (which couldn’t have been known by Cat in advance if it were told from a teenaged perspective) and less about grief, memory, time.
But it wasn’t until I was revising the book that the very deliberate back-and-forth structure emerged – in earlier drafts, the adult Cat’s observations and insights had been more twined into the teenaged narrative, less clearly pinned to time and place. The more I got to know Cat as a character, the more I realized how important her drinking was to the story, how that adjacent story in New York (which takes place over a relatively compact 48 hours or so) could be used to hopefully deepen and complicate the past narrative.
L.L.: There’s a theory that writers should imagine their ideal reader—age, sex, even give them a name—that becomes the person you’re writing for. Who would you say is your ultimate reader?
Julie Buntin: Women of all ages, starting from, maybe 13. I know there’s some heavy stuff in the book so I totally understand if parents were not down with kids under say 16 or 17 reading this novel, but I as I wrote it I hoped that it would strike a chord with any woman who has known that feeling of having a best friend. Of course I hope men like the book too, but when I pictured an ideal reader, I saw a girl about Marlena’s age, maybe a little older – in her twenties or so, trying to figure out who she wants to be, and how where she came from does and doesn’t define her.
L.L.: Shifting gears just a bit, I’m totally curious about publishing in literary journals, on-line and in print. I see you have a nice little collection from O, The Oprah Magazine to The Atlantic. What can you tell us about this process and how important is it?
Julie Buntin: I am very grateful to have been published in magazines and journals – so much of what I learned about writing I learned from being edited by places like One Teen Story, or even writing for women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan. That said, I’m not necessarily the best person to ask, but I’m not a diehard submitter to journals even though I love them and read them (and even used to work at a nonprofit – clmp.org – dedicated, in part, to supporting their work). I don’t write short stories, not really – I think I’ve written maybe two. I do love the essay form, and my work in that realm is very idea directed – I write an essay when I feel an urge to, and then I think about where to pitch or submit it. Sometimes it happens the other way around, where an editor will approach me. There are a lot of ways to sharpen your skills as a writer, and I genuinely believe writing for online venues and print magazines is a really smart way to learn how to write quickly and clearly and with a distinct voice. Sometimes I think I learned more from that process than from writing classes in college.
L.L. What’s on your summer ‘bucket list?’ It doesn’t have to be literary.
Julie Buntin: My husband’s debut novel, STEPHEN FLORIDA, just came out on June 6th, and we’re traveling to the Bay Area at the end of June to do some events at Green Apple Books and Point Reyes Bookstore. It’s been a very hectic spring, and I’m really hoping we can find an evening to eat some oysters and sit by some water and not touch our phones. Does that count as a bucket list thing?
L.L.: What’s next for you?
Julie Buntin: I’m working on a novel set at a boarding school with a section, right now at least, that’s narrated by a ghost. That’s all I can say about it for fear of disturbing the delicate, half-formed idea for the thing that’s buzzing around in my head – but I am really looking forward to (can I add this to my bucket list?) finding some time to really get to work on the story.
L.L.: What one question should I have asked, but didn’t?
Julie Buntin: Your questions were so good – thank you so much for reading the book so thoughtfully and for taking the time to talk to me about it. I can think of no question you should of asked, but I will take this opportunity to tell you about a few books I absolutely loved and am recommending to everyone. First, THE ANIMATORS – like MARLENA, it’s about two friends, but it’s also a rowdy and intelligent and super fun exploration of what it means to make art. I also loved the tender and so sweetly funny GOODBYE, VITAMIN, by the talented Rachel Khong, who is truly poised to be a household name. That book is forthcoming in July but you should preorder it now.
L.L.: Julie, it’s been a pleasure…and congratulations on such a dynamic debut.
Julie Buntin: Thank you, Leslie!
For more information about MARLENA, to connect with Julie Buntin via social media, or to purchase a copy of the book, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Julie Buntin is from northern Michigan. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, O, The Oprah Magazine, Slate, Electric Literature, and One Teen Story, among other publications. She teaches fiction writing at Marymount Manhattan College, and is the director of writing programs at Catapult. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these on-line sites.
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[Author and cover image retrieved from author’s website. Cover image of STEPHEN FLORIDA retrieved from Amazon, teen girls on porch retrieved from Teen Ink, teen girls at beach retrieved from Pinterest, no source noted, all on 6.13.17]