Julie Buntin on the Joys and Tragedies of Teenage Girlhood
The Author of Marlena in Conversation with Bethanne Patrick
Two girls converge in a rural wood—and one won’t make it out again. Fifteen-year-old Cat comes to Silver Lake with her mother, who is looking for a fresh start. Cat finds her own fresh start in 17-year-old Marlena, who lives in a nearby barn with her elusive father and much-younger brother. Cat and Marlena quickly become partners in crime.
Like these characters in her startling and compassionate debut novel Marlena, Julie Buntin is from northern Michigan. She teaches writing at Marymount Manhattan College and is the director of writing programs at Catapult. Buntin lives in Brooklyn, and spoke to me by telephone from her home there about drugs, fast girls, beauty as currency, and resilience.
Bethanne Patrick: Before we talk about your characters, let’s talk about meth and the place it holds in America, especially in the America of your novel, where hopelessness seems to multiply faster than anything manufactured.
Julie Buntin: Growing up in Northern Michigan, meth was the drug we were all warned about, the one that lurked on the periphery, the one that would eat you alive. What makes meth really frightening is that it’s something people can make themselves. It’s this terrifying experiment, a substance that’s cheap and relatively easy to conjure from scratch, using materials anyone can access—that’s one of the things that makes it so destructive, especially when you think about teenagers getting a hold of it. Even Marlena, who isn’t afraid of using other drugs, or afraid of hurting herself in general, is afraid of meth. Unlike pills, it’s so explicitly something that will harm you—that felt resonant to me, in writing a story about addiction set in the Midwest.
BP: Of course, hopelessness touches the lives of everyone, not just those who fall prey to meth addiction. It touches Cat and her mother and her brother, too.
JB: Right—I think that has something to do with place, for each of the characters in the book, to varying degrees. The area where the book is set (the upper part of lower Michigan) is really lovely in a lot of ways—a close-knit small town, a solid high school, tons of natural beauty—but at the same time, there’s a lot of economic disparity. Both between the summer people and the locals, and, within the community of year-rounders, between the locals who work in the hospital or the schools, and the ones whose jobs are tied more directly to the tourist and service industry, the seasonal jobs. The fact of existing in one kind of life while spending so much time face to face with the kind of money you can’t really fathom—I think that can breed a certain kind of hopelessness. There’s also the weather, this constant oppressive winter, the euphoric summer that comes and goes in a flash.
BP: The part of Michigan where these girls live is a fallow place. Is leaving, getting away, the only solution?
JB: That area is fallow for them, definitely, but for many others—again, the summer people, many of the locals who could never imagine living anywhere else—it’s a dream place. For Cat’s mom, who decides to move there over anywhere else, it has that small-town allure, even if the reality is different than she imagines (jobs can be hard to come by in small towns). I think for Cat and Marlena, especially as teenagers, it does feel like leaving is the only answer. That’s probably true for teenagers in small towns everywhere, that feeling like you’d do anything to escape, like you’re trapped.
I grew up near Petoskey and I babysat for “summer people” when I was growing up; I both envied and resented them a little bit, those people who came and enjoyed the best parts of the year but didn’t have to endure the worst of winter. And at the same time, the very fact of their presence gave the place this special atmosphere—verified it as a something rare and wonderful, which anyone could see just by looking out the window. So even though I wanted to leave, I had a deep love for home at the same time, I still do. But yeah, for anyone who wants to transcend their circumstances and have access to a culture that’s more diverse, different experiences, leaving, if only for a little while, feels like the best solution.
BP: Speaking of different: How is Cat and Marlena’s teenaged adventuring different from their friends’? How is it similar?
JB: That’s one question I had as I started the book, that was kind of haunting me. When does adolescent risk-taking go too far? What are the repercussions? What effect do they have on the rest of your life? For Marlena, those repercussions are very clear: She doesn’t survive. She is really looking into the eye of self-destruction; she’s reached the point when thrill is replaced by need. Who is culpable? Obviously Cat isn’t, but at the same time, she’s involved. She misses so many warning signs intentionally because she doesn’t really want to face what’s going on with her friend; other things she simply can’t see, because she’s too young, too naïve. So for me, it was never really a story about normal teenage adventuring, girls taking risks and breaking rules, that rite of passage stuff—it was an investigation of a moment that’s so real for so many girls, when that behavior takes a darker turn. It’s about the lies that they tell or don’t tell. American culture, for a long time, has put bad girls on a pedestal, I think—there’s this idea that being a “fast” girl is attractive and alluring, but of course, it’s also dangerous. When girls fall into these roles, what really happens to them?
BP: What spurred you to write this novel?
JB: The honest answer is that while the events in the story did not happen, and the characters are not based on real people, I did have a friend who passed away when we were both in our early twenties from complications related to substance abuse. I do think that the act of writing this book was to a certain degree an attempt to make sense of a loss that still feels incomprehensible to me. My sister is also struggling with addiction that tracks back to when she was a young teenager. I have had my own tricky relationship to drugs and alcohol, and yet, I’ve never truly stepped outside of the normal zone into that darker place. Why and how can that be so? How could all of our stories have been different? I don’t know quite know how to articulate it, but I wondered if there was a dangerous friction to being a girl—young, beautiful, promising, certain of your invincibility—and coming up against the limit of your everyday life in a specific kind of small-town, rural environment. I wanted to really investigate what happens at the toxic intersections between beauty and fearlessness, boredom or lack of opportunity and access to drugs.
BP: Young women’s friendships can be incredibly complicated. Why do you think that is? Why is it so for Cat and Marlena?
JB: I think that when you’re 15-year-old girl still deciding how to tell the story of who you are, best friendship is actually a creative act. It can be very empowering. You can be free with your best friend in a way that you can’t be with anyone else—you test out who you want to be, define yourself in collaboration with her personality, her way of being in the world. It’s your first real romance. There’s something so charged about that intimacy. When’s the last time you had a sleepover with a friend that lasted a week and revolved around no special activity, took only the shape that your boredom decided to give it? I think those early relationships—which so rarely last into adulthood—do determine something essential about who we become.
When I was a teenager, my best friend told me I was aloof, and my whole group took that up for a little while. Even now, 15 years later, I think about that sometimes—I worry that a tossed off comment someone said when was in tenth grade is who I really am. These all-encompassing friendships are also often the first time you have a really meaningful relationship with someone who is not in your family. That’s really powerful. I don’t think you really get that again in your life, when you grow up there’s no time for that kind of epic bonding.
BP: Cat’s post-Marlena life hasn’t worked out the way she might have thought it would when she was getting ready to leave Silver Lake. Do you think that’s more a function of her friendship with Marlena, or of her relationship with her mother?
JB: It has and it hasn’t—in some ways, it’s exactly what she wanted. She’s got a good job, she and her husband are in a solid financial situation, she lives in her dream city—the problem for Cat is that it’s not enough, that the thing she left behind has some vivid kernel in it, something her comfortable life lacks. A lot of that has to do with her drinking, which is both a function of that early friendship—which was her introduction to drinking—and her relationship with her mother, who also has issues with alcohol. Cat started drinking when she was 15 in a big way—it’s chemical, your brain is affected, your body is affected, drinking regularly at that age changes your relationship to alcohol forever. So yes, she’s haunted by this friendship and the way it ended, and struggling with some dissonance just as a person who has experienced upward mobility, who is in a different position than her family members, but I don’t think Cat drinks only because she’s sad about this loss, or can’t move on from Marlena’s death—it’s not the full why. She drinks because over time, starting at 15, she developed a dependency—another reason why that year has so much psychic power for her. And I did want to explore how she and Marlena identify each other as “good” and “bad,” but how those roles morph and change. Is Cat, on her fourth martini, still the good girl? Was she ever?
BP: The two of them hold a kind of magic of possibility for each other. Which is why starting the book with Marlena’s death shocks the reader.
JB: That’s a great and beautiful way of putting it, your future is sitting there and the two of you can kind of decide on the possibilities together. But with time, as choices are made, those possibilities get smaller. Marlena’s death was always the story, so the choices were always moving the story to that point. I wasn’t writing a murder mystery; there was never going to be a twist. It’s a book about grief and about looking back and trying to figure out why you are who you are. I wanted Cat to be in full adulthood, with a question mark about whether or not she’s going to be OK. But in a story narrated in the first person, it would have been manipulative to withhold Marlena’s death—the event around which the story is structured—from the reader. And I personally almost always have an issue with novels that develop suspense via the narrator keeping a secret. Cat is saying, this is about my friend who died, but it’s not the story of why or how as much as it’s the story of Cat trying to figure out what it has meant to her, how this friendship and year steered her life. And then, in looking back, she still has hope, even though she knows what’s coming—I mean, anyone who has been in this kind of a situation always hopes that a person who is really struggling can turn it around, they can get better.
BP: You teach other writers. What can be taught, and what can’t be?
JB: I think about that question a lot. I kind of think when you do what I do you’re almost ethically required to do so; I don’t want to sell fool’s gold or snake oil, or whatever it’s called, like “Anyone can become a published novelist!”—because that’s not how it works, necessarily. I don’t know. A lot can be taught. But I will say, I guess if you’re not reading books, that’s something I can’t teach you. Serious reading has to be part of your experience of the world in a really profound way, it has to be a lifeline, it has to be like breathing, that’s the thing that can’t be taught. If you don’t feel that inclination, if you don’t try to apply stories to the world around you to figure out how to live, then how do are you going to write something?
BP: What is the landscape like these days for fiction writers? You’ve had your debut novel published, and that’s incredible—but is that also just great luck?
JB: I definitely think the novel is so healthy, but then, I live and breathe this stuff! At Catapult we are just a bunch of people looking for stories we love that we haven’t heard before, and when you spend every day thinking of writers and writing that way, truly excited about the possibility of reading something that might thrill you, something new, it’s kind of hard to believe that the novel is dying. There’s so much enthusiasm, there are a lot of people who love to read out there. Loving the work. But yeah, there’s definitely a lot of luck involved in the process of publishing. A lot of right place right time that can’t be replicated. That can be both discouraging, and also exhilarating—because all you can do, all you can control, is what you write, is writing what matters to you most.
BP: What was the hardest thing in writing this book for you?
JB: I know it’s a sad book, a dark book in a lot of ways, but I also think of the moments between the girls as joyful. It was joyful for me to write those scenes, the real aliveness that you feel when you do something dangerous as a teenager, the intoxication of recklessness. But hand in hand with that came the hardest aspect of writing this, because too much recklessness becomes a problem. So when things go from fun to ugly, that was hard, because I had to take the joy away from my characters. That was painful for me, I wanted for them to be ok, to stop, to put the drink down, to go to bed. But they wouldn’t, and so they don’t.
BP: What hasn’t anyone asked you about, yet?
JB: I do think of this book very much as a book about writing a book. Cat writes it down—she is staring her story down in an attempt to be free of it, to preserve it and also move forward. So the book is, in a lot of ways, about the act of telling, what it means to do that, and the power our stories have over us. Telling the truth, even if it’s an incomplete, elusive truth. As a way of saying, “This is who I am, and it’s ok.”