Julie Buntin’s debut novel, Marlena, speaks straight to readers from its first line: “Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are.” What narrator Cat can’t forget is her yearlong best-friendship, at age 15, with Marlena: a girl her opposite in some ways, but with whom she instantly, deeply bonds. Buntin’s emotionally vivid portrayal of their friendship—beautiful, complicated, tragic, and of singular importance for all that will follow it in Cat’s life—is in a class of its own.
Over email, Buntin shared her connection to her novel’s dramatic setting, the challenges of letting her characters make bad choices, and the importance of greedy reading.
ANNIE BOSTROM: In the first few pages of the book, readers find out that Marlena drowned almost 20 years ago, and Cat is now living in New York. (And, of course, we know who the book is named for.) At what point did you know that this would be readers’ doorway to the girls’ story?
JULIE BUNTIN: I’ve always been immune to the concept of spoilers—the idea that a story might be ruined by finding out what happens in advance is something that I almost can’t quite understand. Hearing about a plot point or twist is very different than experiencing it in the context of a story, and besides, in the stories I love the most what happens is always secondary to how it does, or how what happens is told. Marlena isn’t a thriller. It’s not a murder mystery. Suspense isn’t its primary concern. For me, it’s a coming of age story about grief and addiction and memory, and so the doorway into the novel was always Marlena’s death. The story moves backward and forward from there, but that’s at the center, and so it seemed the most natural and authentic place to start.
The northern Michigan setting is so important to the book. It’s almost like another character. What’s your connection to it?
The easy answer is that I grew up in northern Michigan. I left for college, like Cat, but I am homesick for Michigan every day. Does that sound like an exaggeration? It’s not. It’s an impossibly beautiful place, with a lot of contradictions—I grew up in a resort town that doubles in size in the summer, a place known for both its skiing and its beaches. As a teenager, I could recognize how special it was but felt desperately that I wanted to escape, that the region was a trap—your standard small town feelings, and ones that Cat and Marlena definitely share. But as an adult, I feel nothing but longing for home, which is really a longing for the past—I think setting the book in that landscape was partially a selfish way for me to return to it, to spend a lot of time there. I also found those contradictions really interesting, in a fictional sense—there’s a tension built into the very fact of the place.
I love what grown-up Cat says, remembering a time when she desperately wanted to talk to Marlena after overhearing a fight between her parents. “When does that kind of deep feeling just stop? Where does it go? At fifteen the world ended over and over again. To be so young is a kind of self-violence. No foresight, an inflated sense of wisdom, and yet you’re still responsible for your mistakes.” Or maybe Cat realized this then, at 15. When do you think she did?
One thing that fascinates me about teenagers is how smart they are. I honestly think 15 year old girls are among the canniest, most emotionally perceptive people around—but they don’t always know what their own intelligence means, the full nuance of say, an observation about another person. They’re smart as hell, but they’re not quite wise. So a lot of those moments in the book, where Cat has these insights—I think of them as things she recognized on some level as a teenager, but that now, as an adult, have taken a different depth and texture. It’s like when you’re having an important moment and you think to yourself, I’m going to remember this forever—later, when you remember thinking how you’d remember it, the memory’s colors are more or less intense, depending on how you’ve changed since then. You know more about why that moment mattered, or why you thought it did–you also know how it fits into your life from this new vantage point. So those thoughts exist in both phases of Cat’s life, but with different connotations depending on where she’s standing.
Stories are of recurring importance in Cat’s life. Of the one we’re now reading, she says: “Sometimes I wonder how I’d tell this if I didn’t have so many books rattling around inside me.” Is this a feeling you relate to?
Yes, definitely. I have been a greedy, all-consuming reader since I can remember. Everything I write is in conversation with the books I’ve loved, the books I’ve hated, the books that haunt me.
Was it easy to let Marlena and Cat behave dangerously? Did you worry for them?
Sometimes I think this was the hardest part of writing Marlena. They’re difficult girls, but I loved them both, and the deeper I got into the book, the more I wanted to protect them from their own bad choices. But I kept reminding myself what it feels like to be a teenager, how for so many the default, when presented with something new and scary, is to say yes instead of no (no is my normal mode now). The teen years are probably the only age when it’s easier to choose risk, instead of comfort or safety, especially when friends are involved. Part of what I wanted to explore in writing the novel was the reverberations these risks, taken when we’re too young to really understand their full dimensions, can have on an entire life. Not in a cautionary sense, but as a way of articulating something about growing up.
Your husband is a writer, too. Do you share a workspace?
He is, and we do, in the sense that we both write at home—our apartment is a railroad-style Brooklyn floor-through, essentially a large studio divided by french doors. He writes at his desk in the bedroom, and I write in the dining room, sitting in a computer chair I’ve rolled up to the window side of the kitchen table. It looks weird when guests come over, but it’s close to the coffee pot.
Marlena comes out tomorrow. As of right now, what’s the best thing about having written it?
Questions like these. Comments and notes and tweets from readers. Getting to hold the hardcover in my hands, and slide it onto the shelf, like a real book. That it’s a real book! That will never stop being one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.