Saying What Shouldn’t Be Said: A Conversation with Julie Buntin

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Julie Buntin is from northern Michigan. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, O, The Oprah Magazine, Slate, Electric Literatureand One Teen Story, among other publications. She teaches fiction at Marymount Manhattan College and is the director of writing programs at Catapult. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Marlena, Buntin’s debut novel, is a book about the kinds of friendships we tend to forget about as we grow older: those obsessive, cavernous, headlong connections that are both gentle and cruel, nurturing and painful. The narrator, Cat, now an adult, looks back on the premature death of a friend she made when she was fifteen, when the girls were neighbors in rural Michigan.

Buntin and I corresponded through email about what it took to create Marlena, her writing habits, and how in social contexts she always feels that “shred of resistance,” even when she’s having a decent time.

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The Rumpus: So, I’d like to start off by saying how much I enjoyed reading Marlena. Where did you begin with the project?

Julie Buntin: In late 2010 and into spring 2011, I wrote the first sixty pages or so of what would eventually become Marlena, in a very different form. I was in an MFA program at the time, and working in earnest on another novel. Because I was working on something else, those sixty pages sat dormant for a while, probably longer than a year—I would occasionally chip away at them, or add something, but for the most part I was thinking about something else. I didn’t start working on Marlena for real until my thesis semester at grad school in 2013. I brought my “serious” novel, about 150 pages of titled fragments, almost a collection of prose poems, to my first meeting with Lorrie Moore, my advisor and one of my favorite writers. I also brought what I had of what would become Marlena. She looked at both projects and was like, this one (the titled fragments novel) has zero plot. She encouraged me to work on Marlena, and after that I picked up a lot of steam—I think I had a finished draft a little less than two years later, though I essentially rewrote it after it sold in summer 2015.

Rumpus: Do you think it helps to have less pressure on the material as you begin writing something? And did Lorrie Moore give you any advice as you continued writing, regarding plot? 

Buntin: In my case, it did. When I started this book, I never imagined that it would become my first novel. I thought I was just playing around. But it took on urgency as I wrote. Even when it wasn’t my primary project, I kept coming back to it. I had to let go of some destructive thoughts—my fear that writing about teenage girls wasn’t serious, for one—before I could commit fully. Which makes me want to shake myself, now. Writing about teenage girls is the most serious thing in the world. But it is helpful to write without pressure, without thinking about publishing—I think it might be hard to fully disappear into the writing if you’re worrying about how it will be received.

As I remember it, Lorrie mostly shared her impressions of my work, rather than direct advice. We had a conversation once about looking to the classics—I was reading David Copperfield that semester—and borrowing plots, sort of fitting your stories around a classic foundation. I didn’t exactly do that, but I still think it’s good advice.

Rumpus: How did you go about accessing memories from when you were in high school? I guess I’m wondering if you developed certain patterns or habits that helped you explore this friendship, and also that particular feeling of being in high school and insecure and changing so quickly?

Buntin: I am not sure I developed any habits or patterns to help me tap into those old feelings, but it might have helped that I was twenty-three when I first started sketching Cat and Marlena’s friendship. At that age, I knew absolutely nothing about adulthood or being fixed in your identity—what I did know is that I was deeply homesick for northern Michigan, and I had just enough distance from my high school years to begin to be able to write about that time without being completely clouded by the experience of living it. In some ways, at twenty-three, and even twenty-four, twenty-five, being a teenage girl was the only thing I felt truly qualified to write about. In the novel I am working on now, there’s a bigger cast, some teenagers, some adults—the adults are more interesting this time around. I did sometimes have to remind myself to lean into Cat and Marlena making bad decisions while writing Marlena—I’d start a scene and be like, ugh, don’t do that, why would you do that, but of course, as a teenager, you so often do precisely the worst thing for yourself. I wanted to capture that impulse, to describe it, even though I often wanted to protect my characters from themselves.

Rumpus: Like when they decide to have a party at the beautiful house Cat and her mom clean? We know that won’t end well…

Buntin: Yeah, exactly. I kept thinking about how much more open to experiences I was as a teenager—teenagers mostly say yes, I think, and adults mostly say no.

Rumpus: I’ve read your article in the Atlantic about your friend from high school, who passed away. I’m wondering how close Marlena is to her? And, Cat, the narrator, to you? The details are different, of course—how Marlena and your friend passed away, for one—but I also don’t want to assume this novel is just completely based on your friendship.

Buntin: If you asked me to tell you a true story about myself, and I told you a series of details and events that you later found out were not the real circumstances of my life, you would probably feel betrayed, like I had lied to you. My friend was a real person; her life was infinitely richer and more complicated than anything I could fictionalize. Biographically, she has little in common with Marlena—aside from dying too young. Even the circumstances of Cat and Marlena’s friendship—its duration, their age difference, that they’re neighbors, the particular makeup of their families, their essential dynamic—not only are those things entirely fictional, I feel that overlaying their story onto mine and my friend’s is reductive—both to my friend, who can no longer speak for herself, and to me as a writer. There’s this presumption of autobiography, which sometimes feels a little gendered to me, when women write in the first person—and in this case, because I have written publicly about the loss of a formative friend from adolescence, I’ve noticed it at every turn, from my publisher to close friends from adulthood, who eye the drink in my hand a different way, having read Marlena. There’s something natural about the desire to link reality to fiction, and I respect the question, especially considering the glaring similarities between my story and Cat’s—but I wonder what it is about us as readers that requires a precise accounting of what’s true and what isn’t in the novels we read. In short: the story I wrote isn’t true; the plot is not based in reality. But the feelings certainly have their roots in my own experience, even if the container is different—the desire to escape a place, the weird thrill of self-destruction, the all-consuming nature of friendship as a girl, the fragility of selfhood when you’re a teenager, that stomach-churning combination of humiliation and ego. I was trying to render those emotions as honestly as possible, and this story was the best way I could think of to do it.

Rumpus: What an excellent, honest answer to a fairly annoying question.

Buntin: Definitely not an annoying question! It’s something I always find myself wondering, too. I’m fascinated by why it’s so compelling to trace the link between fiction and an author’s life. Maybe it’s a way of justifying how a novel, a made-up world, can feel so real. A way of explaining the magic, or something.

Rumpus: Why do you think this gendered response to novels by female authors exists? Are there other situations in which you’ve gotten the feeling that the response to your work—or even more broadly, to you as a person—has been affected by your gender?

Buntin: Well, the presumption of autobiography exists for male writers, too—especially with debuts, especially those written in first person. So maybe it’s not that so much that’s gendered as it is the casual dismissal of work by female writers that appears to be, or is interpreted as, autobiographical. Female writers are processing their trauma while male writers are transforming their experience into an articulation of the human condition. A lot of writers are pushing back against these outdated and toxic ideas about art and who gets to make it and how who makes what is received, but these ideas still influence our knee-jerk reactions.

And maybe it’s less intimidating to assume that a writer is drawing from life, instead of drawing from talent or hard work or divine inspiration or whatever else you want to call where books come from. I wonder if it’s a way of undermining your competition. There was this whole freak-out over Elena Ferrante—before her identity was revealed, everyone just assumed that the Neapolitan trilogy has so much emotional power because it is based on lived experiences. It sucks that we had to find out through an egregious violation of her privacy, but I was happy to learn that she came from very different place than the narrator—the reveal underscored the writing’s distance from the writer’s life.

I remember when I was a kid, realizing that in school, in band, wherever, women compete with everyone—whereas men compete with each other. It bothered me a lot when I was working on my MFA. I hated the sense I got, that the men in my classes didn’t consider me a threat. Most of them saw us on different tracks.

I’m getting away from the question a little bit. I would hope people who like my book like it because of how it works as a book, not because they feel they’re getting some intimate look into my life. Like many women, I spend a lot of time, especially at my job, trying to make sure everyone around me is comfortable and happy. But in my writing, I couldn’t care less about comfort. I’m more interested in saying things that shouldn’t be said, in what discomfort—for the characters, for the reader—reveals about who we are. (I’d argue, everything.) It’s an odd experience, publishing this book, partly because it means taking public responsibility for a story that sets out to make the reader feel a wide range of things, many of them “bad.” I am not a man, but I imagine that someone who hasn’t spent their entire life subtly trying to accommodate the people around them might have an easier time publishing a book with dark and difficult subject matter.

Rumpus: The guilt that Cat felt at the role she played in the death of her friend seems to be the driving force behind her need to write about Marlena. You write in the Atlantic piece:

At the height of our friendship I matched her drink for drink, inhale for inhale. If I’d had a little less luck, or she’d had a little more—how would this story go? In my memory, yes, I’m the sidekick, yes, she was the one always egging us to take one more step into the shadows, where we could really get hurt. But wasn’t I holding her hand, encouraging her with my willingness to follow?”

Was there a conclusion you arrived at, by the end of working on this book? Did your feelings of guilt toward what happened to your friend change throughout the process?

Buntin: It’s interesting and challenging to consider how writing this novel influenced my actual emotional experience of losing a friend. One answer is simply: it did not. The characters in Marlena struggle with issues similar to the ones I faced in adolescence and young adulthood, but the differences between their stories and my own makes it impossible to collapse the conclusions reached by either party. Cat’s guilt takes a different shape than my guilt; she is consumed with retracing her steps during that year, both because it is a turning point in her life (the start of her relationship not just with Marlena, but with alcohol), and because she’s trying to discern whether a few choices, handled differently, might have resulted in a better outcome for both women. My guilt about my friend’s loss has more to do with losing touch, and not intervening in a situation that I knew, thanks to social media, had become dangerous.

But that’s not exactly honest, because at the same time that the novel’s events and characters are fictional, I was certainly channeling very real emotions, including a profound frustration and grief about the way substance abuse impacts women and girls. My younger sister is also struggling with drugs and alcohol, and she was in some dark places during the years I was writing Marlena—she was as much on my mind as my friend. There’s also the fact that I was totally immersed in writing about a woman who loses a friend in adolescence and grapples with that loss throughout her adulthood, at the same time that I was grappling with a parallel loss and living in fear for my sister’s life. Writing into and investigating those emotions perhaps, in a way, extended the normal grieving process. I wasn’t able to fully let go until I finished the book. So, I suppose, the process of writing the novel played a part in my reality that was to a certain degree cathartic. I continue to think of that as the most biographically “true” part of the book—that the act of writing, the experience of reading, can transform, or even save, a human being. That is true of my own life, and it is true of Cat’s.

Rumpus: Were there other novels you looked to in writing this one? I was thinking about Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (Lorrie Moore), Eileen (Otessa Mossfegh), and The Girls (Emma Cline) while reading.

Buntin: Eileen and The Girls came out after I was done with revisions for Marlena, and though I admire both novels, I hadn’t read either until very recently. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, on the other hand, was a definitely an influence—it’s one of my favorite books of all time, and I love how elegiac and compact and emotional it is, almost like a piece of music. A few non-novels in here, but an incomplete list of books that meant a lot to me while I worked on Marlena: Housekeeping and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson; Jane Eyre; the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Rita Dove (especially her adolescence poems); Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld; The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (most everything by Edith Wharton); I love Saul Bellow, from his stories to his novels, Herzog being perhaps my favorite, with its off the charts energy and unforgettable voice; Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee; The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard; My Antonia, for its beautiful and clever frame, the way it contextualizes a very precise window of time and gives it greater depth; We the Animals by Justin Torres; Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon; Margaret Atwood, especially The Blind Assassin, which helped me realize something about how every novel is about the process of writing a novel; Shirley Jackson and Sarah Waters and Tana French for tension; Zadie Smith for plot and elegance; and then there are the long novels, and though I can’t precisely trace how they influenced this book, but I was certainly reading a lot of them as I worked—Middlemarch, David Copperfield, Bleak House, The Man Who Loved Children, The Golden Notebook, The Savage Detectives, and 2666.

Oh, and Claire Messud and Elena Ferrante. I read both writers around the time I was rewriting—I love how emotion simmers right at the surface of their prose, like the skin that separates water from air. You have to kind of dive into it to read the book.

Rumpus: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is one of my favorite books, too. 

Buntin: It’s a book people feel strongly about—I’ve met many writers who are convinced it’s not as good as Lorrie’s short stories. (All straight white male writers, for what it’s worth.) And for every one of them, there are readers and writers like you and me, who consider it essential reading, one of those rare books that puts to words something you’ve always felt but could never name—maybe because it does so perfectly capture that precise feeling of looking back on and trying to make sense of a formative adolescent friendship. And for so many women, those friendships are really essential parts of their identities, even long after they’ve ended.

Rumpus: Do you read much nonfiction?

Buntin: I do! I love memoir and essays, narrative nonfiction. In the past couple of years, I’ve loved Dreamland, Eviction, Negroland, The Guardians, The Middlepause by Marina Benjamin… I also love novels that straddle fiction and nonfiction, like Jane Alison’s Nine Island (another Catapult title) and everything Rachel Cusk writes. I am not particularly loyal to any genre, or even divisions like literary, commercial, adult, YA, whatever. I just really like to read.

Rumpus: What helped you work on this book? What was difficult, or what made the writing more difficult? What made it easier?

Buntin: I am a binge writer, which makes my life difficult in general. I am not a daily chipper away-er—my husband is, and it’s something I envy about him, the methodical way, when he’s working on a book, that he can clock two hours a day until the thing is done. It’s very healthy.

I have bad writing habits. My day job is more than a day job, which contributes to the problem—I love my job, and it takes up most of my time and a lot of psychic space. So I write on the weekends, in blocks of time that can sometimes span eight, ten, twelve hours. If I am really cooking on a project—this magically happened with Marlena, during the rewriting phase—I will get up and write in the early morning for a few hours before work, poke at the Google doc on my phone throughout the day, and then put in a few more hours before going to bed, literally bookending my sleep with writing. That’s only been sustainable for me for a couple months at a time, though if I could write like that always I’d be a pretty happy person. When it happens I become kind of a monster, and forget to eat or, if there’s a bag of chips or something beside me, thoughtlessly eat the whole thing. Forget showering, responding to text messages, making and keeping plans—it’s wholly immersive, in an odd way, self-effacing (in that I forget I have a body), but mostly so remarkably selfish and egocentric that I sometimes feel a little ashamed when I come up for air.

It feels increasingly funny to me to talk about writing in terms of it being hard or easy—writing, in my experience, is a self-defined category, this deeply personal mental state, more like a place that I’m constantly trying to fight my way to than an activity. Once I’m there, it’s just writing. Getting there can be very challenging. Sometimes a scene is especially difficult, or you can’t find the music in a sentence or paragraph, and that’s frustrating, but in a sort of addictive way—to a certain degree, those knots throughout the process, the struggle to untangle them, kept me connected to the manuscript, even after a three or four-day writing break.

Rumpus: Could you talk about a knot you untangled that kept you involved in Marlena?

Buntin: As mentioned, I did a pretty dramatic rewrite on this novel, so when I think of the process of writing it, it’s split into two parts, almost as if I wrote two different novels. With the first draft, the question of what was going to happen, the desire to follow the characters to the end of their story was enough to keep me going. But after the book sold, while I was going over my editor’s notes, I became aware of a question that had been in the back of my mind all along. Why now? Why was Cat telling this story now? What was the trigger? It wasn’t enough, just that this story was important to her—it seemed like a major flaw, that I had no good answer to that question. I knew I couldn’t let the book be published without untangling that particular knot—and I also felt that untangling it would help me address some of my editor’s other questions.

In early drafts, Cat’s adult life was almost nonexistent—I’d withheld it, in order to underscore the potency of this adolescent experience, the most vivid and fully alive time of her life. But with the rewrite, I realized that the answer I was looking for had to come from Cat as an adult, from something concrete, in her present, that tripped her back. That thing took two forms—the appearance of Sal, whose story hadn’t felt fully fleshed out in the initial draft, and Cat’s increasingly dangerous relationship to alcohol. That year had been a pivot not just because of Marlena and what happened to her, but because it was when Cat started drinking. That discovery was the key to the book for me. It changed the structure and helped me pare Marlena down to its essentials. It made the book more difficult—certainly darker, uglier. But it felt true, in the novelistic sense.

Rumpus: I loved how we got to know Sal, Marlena’s little brother. His character was one of my favorites. How do you manage, on a day-to-day basis, to maintain friendships, to be a good partner, to keep your living space in order, to get outside and have fun, while still devoting what feels like enough time to writing? Do you put friendships, for instance, on the back burner and become known for always turning down social invitations or backing out of plans?

Buntin: My closest friends would probably say that I do have a reputation for backing out of plans—I’ve always been a little flakey when it comes to social stuff, and though there’s something gross about blaming it on being a writer, I think there’s a relationship between the drive to be alone and the process of writing. I’ve spent a lot of my twenties trying to correct this impulse, in an attempt to be a better and more reliable friend and partner. But I do feel a shred of resistance, in almost every social context, no matter how much fun I’m having—everything that’s not writing is not writing, and that awareness is my resting state. Still, there’s some part of me that feels guilty about putting writing first—over my job, my relationships—as if it’s self-indulgent. Or maybe I’m simply afraid. So much of my writing life is about trying to squash those negative internal voices, the competing pressures of my day-to-day, so that I can get down to doing the one thing that truly makes me feel fully engaged, free. I’m still figuring out how to find that balance.

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Author photograph © Nina Subin.


Maria Anderson is from Montana. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Big Lucks, and The Atlas Review. She is an editor at Essay Press. More from this author →