Interview: Julie Buntin
Julie Buntin’s debut novel Marlena is now out in paperback. A wonderful example of a novel told in the first-person voice, Marlena is about a short-lived friendship between two teenage girls and how that friendship haunts the narrator years later. Marlena was named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Publishers Weekly, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Vogue, Nylon, Ibooks, Kirkus Reviews, Esquire, and The Washington Post.
We had the great opportunity to speak with Julie Buntin in person about the process of writing her first novel and about specific elements of craft. We also learned about some exciting programs in development at Catapult, where Julie is the Director of Writing Programs, and we talked about the difficulty of balancing a writing life with the ever-present need to make a living.
CRAFT: Marlena’s opening is striking on a craft level for several reasons: first, there’s no withholding. We learn right away what happens to Marlena. And second, the use of the present tense serves to put us in the moment, in that car, to really be part of the relationship between Cat and Marlena from the start. Can you talk a little bit about both of those elements and how they evolved?
Julie Buntin: I did think a lot about withholding and how I was going to give away information in this story. From the initial impulse to write this book, it was really obvious and important and clear to me that this was a story about grief, and when you’re grieving someone, you just have to live with it. It’s always there.
I wanted to create suspense even within the framework of knowing that Marlena is going to die, that the train is barreling down the track. That felt like a more honest exploration of grief than the more narratively suspenseful choice, which would have been to withhold that information from the reader until it actually happens in the story. Also, too, as a reader, I feel a little betrayed by novels that are told retrospectively, in first-person, and that develop suspense via a secret the narrator is keeping. If the narrator is remembering the story, they know what happens. If strategically withheld information is a novel’s entire suspense mechanism, I tend to feel that it’s a little bit of a cop-out on the writer’s part. I wanted to write an intimate book, a book that feels like a confession, like something shared in a moment of great closeness, and so I needed to be totally upfront with the reader, and try to build suspense in other ways—via Cat struggling to figure out why and how what happened, interrogating her own memories to uncover a deeper truth.
And in terms of the opening scene being written in present tense, I wanted to evoke an atmosphere, to capture some of the out of control wildness that Cat is both afraid of and longs for, a part of herself she’s moved away from but still misses. I wanted to really make the reader experience and connect to that moment, partly because I was worried about making sure they were invested. You essentially know what the whole story is in the first chapter. So what are some other ways to provide suspense? Can I make the language suspenseful? Can I make the scene suspenseful in itself? Can I generate other questions in the narrative that the reader will want to follow through to the end of the book?
C: Right. And then I think it does become more about their relationship. When you see them in the car together, you see their relationship and then the rest of the book is showing you how they got to that place and how their friendship was formed.
JB: Yes, thank you for saying that! Revealing upfront that Marlena died puts a different emphasis on what the story is about. So this could have been a novel about a girl who died in a sad way, a novel that built up to that moment, and it would have still touched on some of the same themes—but in order for it to be a story about the intensity of an adolescent friendship and how those friendships determine who we become and why they’re so hard to shake, it needed to be about the girls and not about this question of Marlena’s death.
C: Marlena consists of two storylines: a present and a past. How did you determine this structure and was it there from the first draft?
JB: The two storylines were not there from the beginning. The book was always told in retrospect by a woman in her early thirties at a turning point in her own life, looking back at this friendship that was formative. I had this idea that I wanted to capture how formative and vibrant that time is, and to make that clear, I would leave Cat’s present as mystery. Just this retrospective voice with a few moments of “here is where I am now” but not fully developed scenes—more just a tone.
Then, I sold the book to my wonderful editor, Sarah Bowlin, who’s no longer an editor at Henry Holt. (She’s now an agent and in every interview I do, I plug her because she’s an incredible editor. Writers looking for agents, query Sarah.) Sarah asked me a lot of questions. Though none of her questions asked this specifically, what they all added up to was a bigger question I think I’d been reluctant to face, because I didn’t exactly know the answer. Why is Cat telling this story now? I realized that if I could answer that question, make that really clear, then I could address all of Sarah’s questions at once, as well as this nagging sense I’d missed something as a writer, that I hadn’t done the full work of making this story feel absolutely necessary, like it had to be written. And the answer came out as I developed the narrative present, and thought more deeply about who Cat is in the moment of telling the story.
This kind of goes back to what I was saying before about first person narrators. I’m interested in the metafictional artifice that’s inherent to first person narration— I wanted to make it fairly literal for Cat. She’s telling this right now because someone appeared in her life and brought back all of these memories, and also she’s reached a place in her relationship to drinking where she’s about to hurt myself, possibly, and she needs to make a change. I wanted it to be super urgent, for multiple reasons. I think I hoped all those things together would help regenerate some of the suspense that is taken away when you find out Marlena is dead within the first page.
When I began exploring the present scenes, it led to a structural overhaul. I cut at least 40,000 words from the book; when I sold it, it was 110,000 words, and it’s published as 79,000 words or thereabouts. So I took out about 40,000 but I wrote in a bunch of new stuff. I really feel as though it’s a different book. I wrote one book, and I sold that, and then I wrote a second novel using the bones of the first one— it really feels like two distinct novels in my imagination.
C: That makes sense to me, that it was written separately, because there is a difference between the scenes in the present moment and those in the past.
JB: I always wanted the present scenes to feel a little numb in comparison to the past, and I wanted a distinct contrast between the atmospheres of those different sections, even though Cat’s voice is the same throughout. One way to do that was to make the present moment scenes pretty short and imagistic. Just enough to give you a sense of Cat now.
C: When you wrote your first draft, did you write linearly, from beginning to end, or did you write scenes separately and then string them together?
JB: I wrote it pretty linearly. It’s a cliché but writing this book really did teach me how to write. I had no idea how to do it until I wrote this book, and now I still don’t really feel like I know how to do it, but I do feel like an expert in writing Marlena, though I have no idea how to write another book. I wrote Marlena straight through and went back and did a good deal of refining the language and revising as I went.
The only thing I ever wrote out of order was the opening scene. When I hit that scene, it just felt like the beginning, even though it happened toward the end in terms of chronology. So I pulled it out and stuck it at the front—that happened in an early draft before the major changes. Everything else was written in order.
There are a lot of sad things in the book. You can say it’s about a girl who dies in a tragic way or you can say it’s a coming-of-age story or you can say it’s about alcoholism or addiction, and it’s about all those things, but it’s also not a firework-y kind of novel. Not a ton of stuff happens in it, in terms of big plot twists or anything like that, so piecing it together in a way that would have some narrative momentum did require scene work— tweaking and heightening, or cutting things away—after I had worked out the beats of the story.
C: For me, the use of the first-person POV is so integral to this novel. Cat’s personality emerges through her actions and her thoughts, but so much of what we know about Cat is from her voice, how we so thoroughly inhabit who she is. Did you know you wanted to write a first person POV from the start or did you experiment with different POVs before settling on this one?
JB: Cat’s voice always was the book. It’s the reason the book exists. In a lot of ways, her voice sounds very like mine. I don’t know how to describe it. It was almost like throwing my own voice: she describes things like I do, though her personality is very different from mine. But I think that’s a first book hack: because she talks like me, because she’s from a similar place, because she’s a displaced Midwesterner and thinks about money all the time, it was pretty easy to access her voice and heighten it and tune it to fit this novel.
I had written in third person POV before this, but when I starting writing in this voice so close to my own, I felt really free and I felt confident, in a way I don’t always feel in third person. I know what this voice is like, I know what its idiosyncracies are, I know how this voice feels about stuff, the music of it. It helped me to do the work of writing the book because the voice was less of a mountain to climb. I could focus on the other problems.
C: Using the first-person voice means that you must take on the persona of the protagonist as you write. Can you talk a little about the process of separating yourself, the writer, from a character in the novel? Was that a difficult process?
JB: Yes, it was hard, especially because our voices are already close. She’s a little older than me, and that helped me get some space from her—she has this passivity I find very frustrating, that was also essential to the plot. Sometimes writing as her, and employing some of my own verbal tics, I felt suffocated by her. She bothered me. I often didn’t agree with her choices, but had to distinguish between her choices—which were choices in the interest of the story—and the choices I would have made in her situation.
C: Writing as a teenager or a child is one of the more challenging POVs because we’ve all been there. It can so easily become cliché. How did you avoid that pitfall?
JB: It’s so hard. I think sometimes (maybe not exactly right now, because teenagers are having a moment) people forget that teenagers are smart. I think teenagers are the smartest people in the world. They don’t have the wisdom that comes with time and experience, but in exchange, they have this amazing ability to see things—that’s what makes them so passionate, I think, and also so scathing. I loved writing teenage dialogue, I could do that all day; it’s more fun than writing anything else.
I found it less difficult than other things. Like plot, for me, is hard. Connecting things, making somebody want to read on, that’s hard. Writing teenage voices, whether I was getting that right, did not keep me up at night.
C: One of the aspects of this novel that’s so appealing is that both Marlena and Cat—while being drawn so specifically and clearly—are also stand-ins for girls that we all knew in high school. And many of us were either Marlena or Cat, or some combination of both, and recognize the relationship between them. Did you think about that, the universality of these characters, as you were writing or is that something that happened after you were done?
JB: Thank you for asking this! It’s such a big part of adolescence, the experience of being told you are one kind of girl or another kind of girl, figuring out which role to play, wanting, maybe, to inhabit another one but feeling trapped in an identity imposed by how you look, where you’re from, who your parents are, superficial things that have nothing to do with who you really are. That’s part of the story of girlhood, as I understand it. The good girl/bad girl dichotomy is so pervasive in adolescence, and I wanted to explore how these “types” can influence behavior, can be damaging or freeing or both. It was important to me that the novel interacted meaningfully with that pressure. Marlena is the “bad” girl: she’s beautiful and fast and older and smokes, and Cat didn’t do any of those things until she met Marlena but then she suddenly does and, well, that’s a story we all know.
Except, what if the bad girl is in trouble? What if she’s an addict and no one sees she’s an addict because she’s so funny and pretty and seems like she has it all under control? And what if the good girl has no moral compass, is just a passive follower, will do anything that anyone wants her to? Is she really the good girl, even if she seems to be checking that box? Cat has no internal sense of right or wrong in the context of this story. To me, that’s not the typical good girl; she’s no hero. She just plays out that role in contrast to Marlena.
I remember, as a teenager, having this idea that a true friendship couldn’t contain two of the same kind of girl. When I was a teenager, my best friend was like “it’s so good I’m a blond, because otherwise we couldn’t be best friends.” That was a real thing that we thought! That came back to me while I was writing Cat and Marlena. Marlena takes care of her little brother; Cat grows up to become an alcoholic who’s indifferent to her husband and dealing with a lot of emptiness. These are characters who seem to inhabit these roles, but slide in and out of them, characters that reader will hopefully change their mind about as they progress through the story.
C: All of the characters are finely drawn, ones that we know well by the end of the book. Did you struggle with developing any of the characters who are less sympathetic or further outside of your scope?
JB: Rufi Thorpe, who wrote The Girls from Corona del Mar and Dear Fang, With Love, two novels that I really love, teaches at Catapult. In reviewing the resources for her novel-writing class, as part of my job, I learned so much about writing characters. She uses this E.M. Forster essay about round characters and flat characters. Not every character needs to be a round character for your novel to work. Sometimes you need flat characters. I knew who my flat characters were going to be. I wanted a certain flatness to Bolt, for example, the person Marlena gets drugs from, who is something of an antagonist.
I struggled the most with the male characters. Because I was writing from Cat’s adult perspective, but close to her memories of being fifteen, I had to capture that she doesn’t know anything about those male characters and that maybe, with time, she’s come to a different understanding about them. And that was hard, balancing everything she knows and sees about other people with their true selves. But it is another first person thing: at the end of the day, the most fully-realized character is the narrator because the narrator’s the one telling the story. And in that sense, everyone else is just subject to that voice.
C: I’ve only been to Michigan once, when I was a teenager, and yet I now feel that I know the place where Marlena is set. I can see the landscape and I can feel the cold. I felt that I was in Cat’s house and Marlena’s house and in that diner, waiting for Cat’s dad. Can you talk about how you went about creating such a strong sense of place in this novel? When you know a place as well as you do—as you grew up here—is it easier or harder to write about it?
JB: Yes, what made this process a little easier was that I was writing about essentially where I’m from, or a fictionalized version of that place. If there’s anything about this book that’s truly autobiographical, it’s that the longing that Cat feels for home. I feel that way all the time. But I don’t live in Michigan anymore, I may never live there again, and whatever I think that place is—it’s not really that anymore. I’m not depicting Michigan and what it’s truly like now. I’m writing a memory, a fictionalized nostalgia-addled portrait of a place that was deeply important to me and deeply important to the Cat. And the distance I have now, living in NYC, made that easier.
If I lived there still, I imagine I might feel a pressure to represent Michigan faithfully on the page, and sometimes when you’re faithful to something, it’s not narratively interesting. It’s a blend of stuff— memories of the place, fiction about the place. I changed specific town and street names for that reason. If I hadn’t, I worried people from the region would be, like, wait that’s not where this is, I don’t even know what you’re talking about, that’s not that road, it’s not like this here. Your feelings about home are sharpened so much when you leave it; I wanted to capture that, a kind of landscape of memory, more than any specific place.
C: How long did you work on the book?
JB: The first thing I wrote with these girls in it was in 2012, in graduate school. But I was working more seriously on another novel at the time (I’ve since thrown that away), so for around two years or so after messing around with this story I didn’t work on it in any significant way. It took a nudge from my thesis advisor for me to really resurrect it. All told, maybe about six years, start to finish, but that work wasn’t steady.
C: What did you learn in the process that will help with your next book?
JB: I learned I can do it. I can write a novel. And I needed to learn that. So much of this process was about fear. I didn’t think I could do it, I didn’t think I was smart enough, I didn’t think I was talented enough, I didn’t think anybody cared. I didn’t have a lot of confidence. And I still sometimes don’t, but I do know that I can do it. I’ve always had a really intense working life, because I have always needed money, and I really internalized the idea that if I wasn’t writing every day, I wasn’t a real writer, and fake writers don’t finish novels. But I did it.
That was the biggest lesson. I also learned a lot about plot and structure; in grad school, that always seemed like the most boring part of telling a story, and now I think it’s the most interesting. Working in publishing has also changed my thinking on plot. You have to write something that people want to read: that’s a fundamental. The language alone, no matter how beautiful it is, it can’t be the only thing that’s working. And I learned that in the process of working on this novel.
C: When you were at NYU, did you focus on short stories or on novel writing? What do you think about the focus of MFA programs on the short story?
JB: I just kept turning things in that were part of novels and people would say, “This isn’t a story.” I never learned how to write a story, I never wanted to write a story. I’m not a short story writer. I tried to write one on assignment earlier this year and it was like banging myself against a wall (also I am sure that editor will never forgive me for stringing her along and then blowing it). Because MFA workshop is better suited to discussing short stories, in that way it wasn’t a great fit for me. That has definitely factored in to how I approach programming at Catapult. There’s a deep interest in novel writing, and we program to address that interest.
C: I’ve seen in interviews and on Twitter that you’ve struggled over the past year to write. Can you talk a little about this current moment and some suggestions for how to push through this?
JB: I’ve written a few things, nothing long. I love my job, it’s such a privilege every day. It’s just that the way the timing worked out, my professional life and my writing life both got more intense at the same moment. And I don’t want to give up either thing because I’ve worked really hard for both but, then again, it’s very difficult to be good at two things at once. I’m not sure I have a good answer for how to push through this. I am just hoping to be able to find the time, and if I find it, to really be able to give myself permission to write without feeling guilty that I’m not doing something for Catapult or like, exercising for once.
C: You’re the director of writing programs at Catapult, and you attract many top writers to teach classes. What are some of the classes and programs that you’re most excited about?
JB: I’m working on a novel program that will be officially announced in May. A one-year, deep dive, intensive program with accountability, built-in networking with agents and editors, one instructor for the whole year, and a small, talented cohort of students. I’m hoping this will launch in September. Think an MFA-level program. It’s to address the need we spoke about earlier, the need for creative writing programs to really help students figure out how to write novels. Grub Street has a great program that does this, and I definitely looked to their programming as a model. It will be open to folks who haven’t yet finished their books, but I want them to be pretty far along, and I hope that the course results in ten completed, sellable novels, that the program really facilitates people getting to the last page. So I’m really thrilled about that, but I’m also always working on our online program, trying to make it better for the students and for the teachers.
C: Thank you so much for your time! It was a pleasure speaking with you.
JULIE BUNTIN is from northern Michigan. Her debut novel, MARLENA, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, longlisted for The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and named a best book of 2017 by over thirteen venues, including The Washington Post, NPR, and Kirkus Reviews. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Vogue, The Ne