The Rumpus Book Club chats with Julie Buntin about her debut novel, Marlena, the writers and books that influenced it, tackling addiction with compassion, and the magic of teenage girls.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Gabrielle Bell, Samantha Irby, Achy Obejas, Danzy Senna, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi Julie! Welcome to our very old-school book club chat room. You are here 🙂
Julie: Hooray! Thank you so much for having me. I love how retro this is.
Marisa: It looks like it’s just us right now, but let’s get started and hopefully some members will join shortly.
Julie: Sounds good!
Marisa: So, I’m always fascinated by and curious about epigraphs. Can you talk a little about the Le Guin quote that prefaces the book? How/why did you come to choose it?
Julie: Yeah sure—first, I love that book, and even though on the surface, a work of sci-fi might seem to have little in common with Marlena, I feel it’s an influence. It’s a beautiful story of, among other things, an unlikely friendship, and it also has a lot to say about the process of storytelling and truth, the relationship between those two things. Marlena, for me, is a book that’s about telling a story—how impossible and beautiful it is to try to get to the truth of our own stories, via memory or the act of writing them down. That epigraph speaks to that, I think, or I hope.
Marisa: That’s a great answer, and yes, I read the “larger purpose” of Marlena as being about how we tell the stories of our life.
Julie: Yeah, I was definitely thinking about that a lot as I wrote—what do the stories we tell ourselves about our pasts have to do with who we become? How important are they?
Marisa: And can I just say how much I loved this book? It was equal parts extraordinary literary craft and thriller-ish pure fun. I don’t know if I’ve ever read something that can do both of those things so well! How long did it take you to write the book? The language is precise and exquisite; it reads like a book that was stitched together carefully. Was it always going to be a novel?
Julie: AW thank you Marisa. I love to hear that—I am a big reader of pretty much everything, from more literary stuff to pure thrillers, so I would hope the book carries echoes of both. I first starting writing about these characters in early 2011 or thereabouts, though I didn’t start working on the novel seriously until probably 2013. Once I did really begin to focus on it, I think it was probably two more years before I finished. This is a long answer to your question, but I guess I’d say about four years, in earnest, but I revise in kind of a weird way—I don’t fiddle with the draft on the page until I’m really happy with it. So most of my revision process once I had a full draft involved printing the mss out and retyping it, so I could mess with the language/rewrite the sentences as I went. That’s maybe why it feels careful? I “rewrote” it many, many times.
Marisa: I think that as an editor, I could sense that. But I don’t think it reads that way; the experience of reading it was effortless. I read in chunks, because I have a two-year-old and I read everything on The Rumpus, but Marlena was easy (even though I kept stopping to write down quotes. SO MANY quotes).
Marisa: Rural Michigan—its landscape and people and weather—is almost a character in this story. How much of that is drawn from your own experience growing up in Michigan? Did you visit Michigan while working on the book?
Julie: I probably visited Michigan once or twice in the early stages, when my family was still living there. They’ve since moved away. The landscape is largely drawn from my own experience, but I moved away from Michigan the summer before I turned eighteen. So to say drawn from experience, really means drawn from memory, so I wouldn’t say it’s a totally reliable portrait of the place—it is authentic to Cat though, as a narrator, in the sense that she’s remembering her home too. That’s one of the reasons I changed location names, etc.—I didn’t want to have to be “true” to that landscape, but I did want to evoke it, or at least evoke a representation of it that was a blend of my memory (as the writer) and Cat’s memory, as a character with her own experiences of the place that are different than mine. But some of the details are very lived-in—the way the town feels, how it swells in the summer, etc.
Ann B: How did you go about researching tweaker culture?
Marisa: That’s a great question, Ann! Literally next question on my list. Julie, you’ve shared that you lost a friend (who Marlena is not based on, if I recall correctly, but perhaps a little bit inspired by)—did this drive you to write about the subject? And yes, tell us about the research/was there research?
Julie: Hey Ann! Thanks for coming. I asked a lot of questions. Questions of people I knew had experience, including a family member. And I also did some reading. Methland and Dreamland were both helpful books for me.
Julie: While this story is very much a novel, and the events did not happen/are not based on reality, I don’t think I would have written this book if I hadn’t had the experience of losing a friend to complications related to substance abuse, and also, I have a family member who is an addict.
Marisa: That’s really interesting to me personally. I grew up with a cocaine addict father (who OD’d a few years ago. It’s hard to make me feel compassion for addicts. But you did.
Julie: I felt a great sense of urgency after my friend died, and as I watched my family member (I’m not sharing the details not to be coy, but because it’s an ongoing thing) struggle with similar problems. I kept thinking, what is it about adolescence that draws some girls onto this dangerous path? Or not adolescence, exactly, because it’s not just that. But what’s the attraction in self-destruction? Where is the line? How do you know when someone has crossed it?
Marisa: Did you ever have a version of the story where Marlena didn’t die? Or was that where you started from? Was there ever a version where you concretely explained her death?
Julie: Yeah, it’s really hard. And I think that’s something readers struggle with too—like, an addict is not a likable character.
Marisa: But somehow, Marlena is likable, both through Cat’s eyes and also on her own. I felt sympathy and empathy for her. And even for Ryder. I can’t say the same for Bolt or Marlena’s dad, though.
Ann B: I’ve been reading so many unlikeable main characters lately. I actually found Marlena refreshing.
Marisa: Can you talk a little about the unnamed girl in the library? What purpose(s), in your mind, does she serve for the story and for Cat? I have my own ideas, but I’m curious to hear your intentions with regard to the character.
Julie: To answer your question, Marisa, about Marlena’s death—the book always started and ended where it did. I wanted to write about substance abuse, and I don’t think a concrete explanation of Marlena’s death, even if it might have been more satisfying for some readers, would have been an accurate or honest depiction of what that so often feels like. There are always questions, lies, things hidden, things you’ll never know. Especially when you’re young, as Cat is when it happens, and miss so much—maybe because you’re self-absorbed, or maybe because the addict has become such a good liar. And because this book is largely about grief, too—through the lens of that friendship—the death was always the beginning of the story. It’s the train barreling down the tracks—it’s the thing Cat can’t escape, that she knows is coming. It also would have felt disingenuous to me in a first person narrated novel to withhold that information from the reader—if Cat is telling the story, she comes to it with what she knows. It’s not about how Marlena died, it’s about the way that’s impacted Cat’s life.
Ann—thanks for saying that. I never thought about Marlena as unlikeable as I was writing, though I have heard from other people that they find her hard to take. And Cat, too, for that matter.
And Marisa, as for the girl in the library—I thought of her, in this story of different women dealing with substance abuse, as another version of how things might go. You might survive, and you might become Cat, right, functioning sort of, but not quite. Or you might not survive. Or you might end up in that in-between place, like the girl in the library. Not functioning, not dead. But lost. Those aren’t the only three paths, of course, but I wanted Cat to bump up against another possible version of that story…
Marisa: Do you think Cat gets to a place of understanding that? I hope she does.
Julie: I do! I think of the ending as a happy ending. Cat, in reclaiming the story, in trying to see it and her role in it for what it is, in saying this is what happened to me—that’s an act of empowerment. It’s more ownership than she’s ever taken before. She’s writing it down—and in writing it down, she has clarity, she might be able to move on. I don’t have like, a vision for where she winds up, but I think of it is hopeful—though I definitely wanted to leave it open to other interpretations.
Lynda: I agree, Ann. I found Marlena to be refreshing too. Despite knowing her outcome, I was cheering for her, my heart broke for her. I felt like she was a victim of circumstances going down the only path she knew.
Marisa: Yes, Lynda! It even felt like sometimes Marlena tried to break the cycle, but couldn’t quite get there. And she was intelligent, and had more awareness of what was going on than a teenager might (or than Cat seemed to). It was heartbreaking, and rendered lovingly.
Lynda: Completely, Marisa. There were times when I felt like Marlena was the adult in the novel. She knew what was going on and tried to protect those around her. I also felt like she was trying to shield Cat from the darkness and had a deep love for those she cared about. I guess why it was heartbreaking that she died but also so real.
Marisa: Cat’s mom was perhaps my favorite character, too. As I got to the final third of the book, she really came to life for me.
Julie: I’m so glad to hear you both read it that way—I agree completely. Marlena is so young. Blaming her seems so strange to me—or any teenage addict for that matter.
Marisa: I also want to say how much I love that we are exclusively focusing on the female characters. In an interview with Electric Literature, Julie, you were asked about unlikable male characters. But this book really celebrates female friendship, even the ugly parts, and just sort of pushes the men to the side. It was wonderful in that way.
Julie: I loved that question from EL. I honestly didn’t even think about whether I was portraying male characters unfairly. This is probably TMI for this interview, but I grew up with a father even more absent than Cat’s—to me growing up was so defined by women, I don’t know, I think that must have just come out sort of in the writing in a way I wasn’t totally aware of. I don’t think of Ryder and Greg as bad though; they’re just dumb teenagers, dumb teenage boys, which is a different animal.
And Linda—yes! Marlena is definitely way more adult than perhaps she should be; I think those pressures were part of the life stress for her. She had to be in this role of responsibility with Sal, and even with Cat (because Cat is younger, more naive), even though she needed help.
Marisa: Yes! That totally comes through. Ryder and Greg felt like boys I knew (and maybe TMI, but yeah, dated) in high school and college.
Marisa: Julie, you’ve already listed Le Guin as an influence. Any other books that were influential for Marlena? What were you reading while you wrote?
Julie: Okay, influences—I love this question.
I think Housekeeping, by Marilynn Robinson, was an influence. The poetry of Rita Dove and Elizabeth Bishop. I love Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore, and I think in a lot of ways that was the book that gave me permission to write this one.
Marisa: I haven’t read that Moore book, but it’s going on my reading list now!
Julie: I love how elegiac Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is, how it feels like a piece of music, how nothing much happens in the sense that it mostly just follows two girls at the height of their teenage friendship, and how that nothing much has taken up so much psychic weight in the narrator’s life years later—how that’s the last time she felt fully alive, maybe, fully free.
Marisa: I really like that comment about permission, because you are writing about difficult subject matter and that’s something I struggle with (and maybe a reason I don’t write as much right now).
Julie: Marisa—it’s a beautiful book, I think you’ll love it.
Marisa: That sounds wonderful. There’s so much pressure to “write something meaningful” or whatever… And when you are steeped in wonderful writing, it almost feels like why even try to add your own voice?
Julie: I had to give myself that permission ultimately, but it helped, reading writers like Lorrie. And permission is such a funny thing—like we don’t need it. But I felt like I did, from someone. I felt like I needed someone to say, writing about teenage girls and how much they mean to each other, how those friendships shape your life, that’s meaningful literary work.
Marisa: To that point, has your work at Catapult affected your writing? You must read a ton, and you interact with so many writers putting together amazing workshops.
Julie: I think more so than my work with the creative writing program, the great privilege of editing a few other writers has taught me how to become a better self-editor, which I definitely applied to this book.
If you’ve just gotten done giving a writer who is amazingly talented a really killer line edit, you kind of how to apply that to your own stuff. I was able to kill my darlings like a maniac after I started editing for Catapult.
Marisa: As I was reading this, I kept thinking, here is a book that would make a phenomenal movie. Could you see Marlena being adapted for film? (Would you want it to be?)
Julie: It’s funny, my husband, who is also a writer, always says how he’d be thrilled if his book got adapted to film. I’m not so sure.
Marisa: I could see that, especially now knowing the real-life connections to the subject matter. And because it comes alive so fully on the page, a movie might spoil that. It’s almost like, it felt like a movie while I read it. I have my own ideas of what each character looks and sounds like. That doesn’t happen with every book I read, but definitely it very much did here.
Julie: I am glad that it felt visual to you—I hope that the language has that quality. I worry about things that probably a smart screenwriter would find a great solution to—but how do you capture the toggling in time? And how do you capture a voice? That said, it would be incredibly meaningful to see these two girls, who I have come to love so much, rendered in that way. So I guess my answer is that it would be cool, but I would also be nervous.
Julie: Yeah totally! It’s funny it’s like, my publisher sent me a cover at one point during that process with two girls on it, and their faces were very specific. I was like no, I’m sorry— they’re too specific. They will define Cat and Marlena, and that felt kind of unfair to the reader?
Marisa: Oooh, good call. I wouldn’t have wanted someone else’s idea of them at all.
Julie: They didn’t look like what I imagined, too, so I was definitely biased 🙂
Lynda: I work in publishing—covers are so tricky… we debate them all the time. It really can make or break a book. Glad the cover ended up in a text driven direction.
Lynda: I would love to see Marlena as a movie—or even as a short series.
Marisa: Lynda, I agree; I think if it was done well, it would be remarkable to watch. But if it wasn’t, it would be a damn shame.
Ann B: Ditto on the series. The landscape. The thriller aspect.
Julie: Thanks, Lynda. I do think it would be pretty special if the story got another life in that way. And one of the best things about working with a publisher is that what was once really solitary—the writing process—suddenly becomes this intense collaboration with a bunch of smart people who give the story new dimensions. That is awesome, and working on it as a film/TV show would have that element, too—so I’d definitely be down. It’s funny you guys are asking this because I think my agent just sent it around to some producers a couple days ago. We’ll see!
Marisa: I know people kind of hate to answer this question, but given that this was a debut novel and it’s amazing, what are you working on now? And here’s a follow-up: do you ever write in other forms? Or will the next project definitely be a novel?
Julie: I only write essays and novels. Am I allowed to say that? Maybe someday I’ll write a short story again but I seriously doubt it. When I left grad school I was so relieved that I’d never have to write anymore stories.
I am a pretty slow and painstaking writer—the whole typing out the piece from start to finish thing every time I do another draft keeps me moving at a snail’s pace—but I am working on another novel now. It’s set at a boarding school and I’m in the super early stages—no more than a few scenes and some notes. But I can say that it’s in third person, with more characters, and the primary character is an adult—though there are still teenage girls. I can’t get away from them for some reason.
Marisa: Teenage girls may be the most fascinating creatures ever, so I’m into it.
Lynda: There’s not much more fascinating/complex/in-depth etc. than the teenage girl. If you get her right like you have done, Julie, you hit the jackpot!
Marisa: We’re coming up to the end of our hour. Any other burning questions for Julie? And just one more from me: What are you reading right now? Anything forthcoming you are especially excited about?
Julie: The last book I loved was The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker—it’s also about female friendships, but these women are also animators and creative partners, so their relationship has that element. It’s so vibrant and alive and absorbing—page-turning and moving at the same time, and it asks a lot of important questions about what it means to tell someone else’s story, what their responsibility is to their material. Highly recommended.
Julie: Thank you Ann, Lynda, and Marisa! So fun to talk to you three. And so many thanks for reading Marlena so thoughtfully and for your questions—such a pleasure to talk to you about the book, and an honor to be read so closely.
Ann B: Loved The Animators. Of course, you would relate
Julie: Ann—it’s soooo good. Glad you liked it. too.
Lynda: Thank you! Looking forward to sharing Marlena with friends.
Julie: Thank you all again!
Ann B: Many thanks.
Marisa: Will add The Animators to my reading list, too! Thank you everyone for joining us, and Julie, thank you for answering our questions and for putting such a beautiful book out into the world!
Author photograph © Nina Subin.