Julie Buntin on Her Rebellious Youth and the Writing of Lorrie Moore
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and this is But That’s Another Story. I have a confession to make: sometimes, when I’m reading a really great book, I can get a little carried away. A few summers ago, I was staying at a friend’s beach house for the weekend and found myself beyond obsessed with a novel called As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann.
I remember flipping page after page as my skin burnt to a crisp. I knew I should go in for more sunscreen, but I just couldn’t stop reading. When I finished, I wandered around in a daze, almost unable to speak. I needed to give someone else this feeling, so I passed the book on to a friend who was also there that weekend. I told him to let me know if he loved it as much as I did. He didn’t.
The next time I saw him, he said he was 50 pages in but didn’t think he was going to read any further. The historic detail, the violence, passion, and gloom—everything I loved about it, he hated. Anyone who knows me knows how much I believe in freedom of expression. But even I have my limits—and talking trash about books I love is one of them. If I give you one of my favorite books and you hate it, that’s fine. Just don’t tell me about it. My favorite books are like my friends—if you don’t like them, just don’t hang out with them. But don’t try to tell me why. And just for the record… he was totally wrong. Everyone else I’ve recommended read it has loved it as much as I do. And recently, I got to talking about loving books that other people just don’t get with today’s guest.
Julie Buntin: My name is Julie Buntin and I’m the author of Marlena and director of writing programs at Catapult.
WS: Marlena was published last year to rave reviews — it was Julie Buntin’s first novel, and it tackles one of her favorite subjects: teenagehood. Marlena is the story of Cat, who moves to rural Michigan as a teenager and develops a friendship with Marlena, who lives just next door. The bond between the girls is intense and immediate, and so is the trouble they find themselves getting into. And while the book and the characters are fictional, they share some biographical details with the author.
JB: I grew up in Northern Michigan, about 20 minutes from the Mackinac Bridge, which connects the Lower Peninsula to the Upper Peninsula. Pretty small town, with like a sex shop and a trout fishery and a bar and a church, and really nothing else.
JB: I was also in band as a kid. I started playing the saxophone in fifth grade because my fifth grade teacher gave me hers and I went through the whole band track. So yeah, I was pretty serious about that. I played the saxophone in marching band, pep band, and jazz band. That was something I really wanted to sort of take forward and then just let die. As I got older.
WS: Wow. The saxophone.
WS: Julie was a big reader from the time she was a little kid. But even early on, she had a little bit of a rebellious streak.
JB: My mom had a collection of books that were hidden in her closet, in the bedroom, which were sexy romances. Definitely read all of those, including the Clan of the Cave Bear books, which I must have read multiple times as like a preadolescent.
WS: Those were those Jean Auel sagas.
JB: Uh huh. Yep, totally.
JB: Lots of very, very steamy… I was totally not allowed to read them. I definitely read them all.
WS: And they’re prehistoric, right?
JB: Yeah, they’re actually like very historically rich stories in addition to also being sexy. I remember too, very vividly, my mom had Angela’s Ashes when that came out and it was a huge book that everyone was reading. And I was definitely not allowed to read Angela’s Ashes. So what I would do is whenever she left, I would just sneak it from where it was hidden and read as much as I could read before she got home and then put it back very carefully and then take it back out and read a little bit more.
WS: When Julie wasn’t reading, she was hanging out with her best friend, doing the kind of things kids usually do. Making up imaginary games. Playing outside. Oh, and occasionally lighting things on fire.
JB: My friend went through this phase where she was really interested in lighting things on fire. And I have very vivid memories of sneaking out of her house during the day. We were fifth or sixth graders and sitting in her backyard and lighting little sticks on fire and trying to build these little fires. These kinds of little ways of breaking the rules that we thought were really transgressive as small children. There was also this park near her house where we would sometimes go, sometimes at night and we would walk around. This was in late middle school. But yeah, I mean…a lot of talking about boys. You know, very normal, this sort of ephemera of teenage and adolescent girlhood was very to my experience.
JB: Kind of moving out of middle school and into high school, I definitely went through a period of rule breaking, I would say. I made really close friends with a few girls who were a little bit faster than my friends from middle school. And that meant drinking and partying and skipping school, skipping band, which would always leave me in this very turbulent state because I sort of loved it, but I also realized it was very uncool to play the alto saxophone. That was a tough realization in ninth grade.
WS: And more and more, Julie found herself exploring beyond the band room.
JB: Growing up, my bedroom window opened right onto the land basically. Like there was no jumping out or anything like that. So if I wanted to leave at night, I could just open my window and walk out. Which I did. All the time. Really probably more nights than I stayed home. And when I look back on that kind of really wild period of time in my life where I would have done anything, like I don’t even want to get into all the things that I did. It shames me to think about it. I had no sense of risk. I didn’t believe in consequences. I thought I was really brave and I was sort of desperate for everything to feel really big.
WS: Do you feel during those years you felt any shame, or is that something that’s entirely in retrospect?
JB: I think I did. I think I did feel shame. I mean, it’s like a ball rolling down the hill. When I started kind of acting out, things that had never been true for me started becoming true. My grades weren’t as good. My mom and I were always fighting. I wasn’t getting along with my siblings. I didn’t really feel connected to my old friends. And as those things got worse, like your connection to trying to fix them sort of goes away. Right? What’s the point in trying to fix your bad grade if you already have a bad grade? You know what I mean? I think I had lost some of that, so I think that shame did kind of creep in there in a serious way. But how do you correct?
JB: Kind of the only class I was sort of doing well in at all with any semblance of real connecting to the subject matter was English.
WS: Encouraged by her English teacher and her mom, Julie applied to a boarding school focused on the arts that was about two hours away. She applied for creative writing, thinking she’d transfer to a music major, and wrote a story for her application the day before it was due.
JB: And of all things, I got in, with my weird grades and really spotty record. I got in. I got a really generous scholarship, and then I found myself in this entirely different world, sort of plucked from this pretty dangerous situation I had gotten myself into and dunked into a world of great privilege. But I mean, it completely changed my life. People around me who knew they were not only going to college but going to Ivy League colleges. People whose families were celebrities. It was just beyond anything that I can imagine and I didn’t even fully correct there. I was pretty rebellious at boarding school.
JB: I would smoke cigarettes standing on the toilet, in my dorm through the vent above the toilet and then I would rub myself with dryer sheets. I would sneak out at six in the morning. I drank sometimes. I wasn’t a model student. But I did discover creative writing and really start to see it as something that maybe I had a knack for from all that childhood reading. And also started to see it as like a road out of my past, in a sense. Like a road out of Michigan and a road into a different kind of future.
WS: Julie Buntin had just started at a boarding school a few hours from her home in northern Michigan, leaving behind her friends and family and most of the trouble she was getting into. But one thing she took with her was her love of reading, and soon, she encountered a book that made her think differently about what literature could be.
JB: It happened when I went to boarding school in my junior year, and I think if I really push into the memory that it was a friend of mine from school who was way more sophisticated than me and much more serious of a literary reader who was reading Lorrie Moore’s short stories and said, read her. And then I read the stories and found this novel.
WS: That novel was Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? I’m going to say that again—Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?
JB: Even when I tell people about it sometimes as being a really important book for me, they’re like, what’s it called? Who will run the what?
WS: The book tells the story of Barrie, a woman visiting Paris with her husband and looking back on her life—and the memories of her childhood, especially the time spent with her best friend, Sils.
JB: It reads almost more like a song kind of — it has the cadences of a song and the narrative momentum of a song more so than your standard novel, I think.
JB: I do remember when I first read it—really vividly—the way that sometimes your surroundings are stamped into the experience of reading a book. And I took it with me on one of those mornings when I woke up at 6am, as soon as the dorms were unlocked and the alarms went off, to the beach and I sat on the picnic table overlooking the lake there, and I smoked a cigarette and read this book while the sun was coming up and I was like, this is incredible and not like anything I’ve ever read, and also, it’s for me. It’s for girls like me.
JB: It felt like it was speaking so much to my experience being a girl in the world. It was very transformative and also I feel like gave me permission to write and to think about that kind of story as being valid.
WS: Julie finished out boarding school and went on to college with the intention of becoming a writer, then went on to get her MFA at NYU. And early on, she saw a familiar book on the syllabus for one of her classes: Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?.
JB: I was really excited. I knew it was on this, I knew it was coming up, we were assigned to read it, and I was like, this is great. We’re going to read and talk about one of my favorite books, one of these formative novels. One of the novels that makes me want to write novels. So I go into the classroom and it’s a seminar. It’s a small group of 15 people, probably half male, half female. I don’t think that anybody really had read it before but we were given a short story that Lorrie Moore published in The New Yorker called “Paris,” which is essentially extracts from Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? but it’s just the adulthood extracts. And my professor — and I started to see where this was going and I got a sinking feeling as the class went on — went on to argue that “Paris” was the real art, that was the real work, that was the masterpiece, that was the achievement. And that Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? was an example of what happens when you try to make a short story that should be just a short story a novel.
JB: It felt like I had been suckerpunched. It was this argument that all of the things about the book that had been so essential to me, which is basically just in between moments of girlhood were just left to be cut, left on the cutting table because… I didn’t really quite understand why. Because perhaps my instructor didn’t relate to them? Perhaps because teenage girls aren’t important for literary fiction? Was that the lesson? I’m still not sure what the lesson was.
JB: I think I realized how important it was to me in the moment when it was challenged in grad school. When it was presented to me as flawed, my eager-to-please, overcorrected from my rebellious teenager, very pretty studious self wanted to absorb that lesson as fact, wanted to be the good student and understand the teacher’s argument. But then in processing that and thinking about it later and thinking about it after the class and letting it sit with me, and a month later realizing how almost violating that conversation had felt. I think that’s really when I started to understand that. Why is this upsetting to me so much? And it’s because I feel exactly the opposite about this book. The kind of moments of girlhood aren’t boring dead weight on a story—they are the story. The whole point of this book is that that is more poignant and powerful and impactful than adulthood. That’s on the last page! There’s this amazing quote— it’s not really a spoilers because this isn’t that kind of book—but she says, “In all my life as a woman—which began soon after and not unrichly—I have never known such a moment.” Just talking about a moment singing with a group of girls as a teenager. That’s what the book is about!
JB: I’m still ashamed I didn’t argue. I just absorbed the lesson. I took it deep inside of me and actually was sort of working on Marlena at the time and wound up putting it aside. Not as a direct result of that class, though who really knows. I just wound up putting it aside at that point in grad school to work on something that I thought was more serious.
WS: But as Julie entered the final stretch of graduate school, a visiting professor encouraged her to pick Marlena back up. That visiting professor? Lorrie Moore.
JB: It was two semesters after I was supposed to have graduated, but I had taken an administrative job for extra money and I was teaching extra classes, so I was still hanging on in a weird way because I was getting paid. And I had not completed my thesis and I begged for the opportunity for her to be my thesis advisor. I’m sure I freaked her out the first time we met. I just basically went into her, probably cried. I think I was like, “You are everything to me.” But she became very instrumental because I wound up showing her two books in that initial meeting, or the beginnings of two, I can’t totally remember how much I showed her. But I showed her the serious novel that I worked on most of grad school, which was really obnoxious—it was titled Prose Poems, it was bad—and what would become Marlena. I had way less of what would become Marlena, and I remember her saying, this one, the Marlena one, has a plot and this other one doesn’t. So there’s really like no question what you should work on. And I completely changed my thesis plan and wound up getting maybe a hundred pages of Marlena done and then going on to rewrite it a million times, and it took many years after that to actually become anything worth anyone else’s time.
JB: I don’t know if I knew at the time that Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? would be so significant to me. When I look back on reading it for the first time, it’s charged with so much significance. It’s the whole thing. The smoking and the picnic table and the pink sky and the lake. This is a moment that will change how you think about the world and empower you to become the person that you… it’s really big. It feels very big. But I don’t know — I would also say that everything felt big to me at that time in my life, even if it was big in a bad way. Or as a teenager, everything was big. I felt everything so intensely, everything mattered, even when I was acting like it didn’t. I was just a raw wire, all the time. And that’s one of the reasons why I love to write about that period of life. It’s just so interesting to be so full of feeling and so alive to the world and also so wrong about everything. It’s just really a fascinating period.
JB: If I could go back and talk to 16-year-old Julie, I think I’d probably just tell her, “You’re going to be okay. Hey, you’re smart, you should probably try a little harder in school. You’re going to be okay. You’re going to get out of here. You’re not going to live in Michigan forever. You’re going to have a job. It’s going to be fine. You’re going to write the book. You can write things that you want to write. You don’t have to spend years pandering to some idea about what you think people will want from you.” That might have been a little bit of a shortcut, but yeah.
WS: But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino and Alex Abnos. Thanks to Julie Buntin and Sara Delozier. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes — it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at another story at Macmillan dot com. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks. I’m Will Schwalbe, thanks so much for listening.