Those Teenage Years When Everything Is New and Death Is Just Around the Corner
Julie Buntin on the power of formative female friendships, diverging paths, and writing about small town angst
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Julie Buntin’s debut novel, Marlena, is about loss, addiction, and teenage friendship. After Cat’s parents divorce, she has to leave her fancy private school behind and move with her mom and brother to a small town in rural northern Michigan. Enter Marlena, the beautiful, musically gifted girl-next-door with a creepy dad and an affinity for pills. Cat and Marlena’s relationship grows more intimate and dangerous as Marlena introduces Cat to a series of firsts, until inevitably — as the reader knows from the very first page — Marlena drowns in six inches of icy river water. Decades later, the sudden appearance of Marlena’s brother, Sal, forces Cat to revisit the ghost of her old friend, whose influence and mysterious death continue to plague Cat’s life.
While living in New York City last summer, I took advantage of its vast literary scene by attending as many readings as possible. One night, I stumbled into Bo’s Kitchen & Bar Room for a #YeahYouWrite event, where I met Buntin. I knew who she was. We have friends in common, and I had heard that her debut novel was outstanding. I had also heard that Buntin was incredibly kind and outgoing, so I felt comfortable approaching her to introduce myself, and I’m so glad I did — all the rumors were true.
When I arrived back in LA, a copy of Marlena was on my doorstep. I read it without pause, entranced by Buntin’s glorious prose and this toxic teenage friendship that felt real and relatable enough to be my own memory. When my editor asked me six months later to interview Buntin, I practically leapt out of my seat to phone her at home in Brooklyn to talk to her about girls, drugs, and Marlena.
Andrea Arnold: In my mind, Cat and Marlena’s friendship was so probable and genuine that I couldn’t help wondering if they stemmed from a real life relationship. How did you come to the story?
Julie Buntin: This is always a tricky question to answer. Cat isn’t me, Marlena isn’t based off of someone I know — they’re fictional characters. At the same time, it would be silly not to acknowledge the fact that I have had many formative female friendships just as intense as Cat and Marlena’s relationship, and in that sense I was writing from experience. I did also lose a friend in my early twenties. She was a very different person than Marlena, from a very different background, but she had been on a dangerous path with substances for a long time. Her death changed how I thought about our time together as teenagers, the stuff we got up to. She died when we were in our twenties, long after we had already grown apart. Writing about some of these subjects — intense friendship, substance abuse, teenage recklessness — felt more urgent after losing her.
Arnold: The world of the novel encapsulates a series of firsts for Cat — first kiss, first sex, first cigarette. What makes this time in our lives fascinating to read about or why do you like to write about teenagers?
Buntin: Teenagers are very smart people who often make very bad decisions. A fifteen-year old girl, a seventeen-year old girl — they can be so perceptive. They can sniff out an insecurity in a heartbeat, or offer up a very sharp judgement that has some basis in truth, but so often those judgments and observations are lacking in the nuance and empathy that comes with adulthood. They’re smart but they don’t have wisdom, or an awareness of consequence. I find the hubris of thinking you know everything really fascinating. Cat and Marlena think they understand their parents, right, that they can see them for who they really are, that they have this terrific insight. What they observe might have some basis in truth, a certain accuracy, but they’re not really fully able to interpret those observations, to understand the how and why. The space between the observation and the interpretation, the kid and the adult, an experience as it’s lived and an experience from the perspective of adulthood — that’s writerly catnip for me.
Also, those teenage years are such a potent time. In the book, Cat talks about how some people grow up and don’t think about their teenage years at all while others think about them all the time. But we all had those experiences with firsts — it’s fun to write about them (and read about them, I hope) because they’re so charged, so big, so vivid. I also wanted to track the lineage between the teenager who decides to kiss the boy or make a terrible choice or experiment with alcohol and the adult that teenager becomes — how close are those two versions? How far? What do they have to do with each other?
Arnold: I saw Cat as a good girl who is lonely and sad and gets lured into Marlena’s web. Is that true, or other than geography, what intertwines their souls?
Buntin: I don’t think of Cat as a good girl. I think of her as a scared girl. Cat wants to be liked so much. She doesn’t know who she is — it takes the force of Marlena’s personality to get Cat to begin to develop her own sense of self. Compared to Marlena she is more stereotypically well-behaved, but then, I don’t see Marlena as a bad girl either. In some ways, I think Cat’s moral radar is more confused than Marlena’s — Marlena has a problem, and her problem directs the choices that she makes, especially the dangerous and self-destructive ones. But, especially at first, Cat doesn’t have much inner direction; she’s very susceptible to peer pressure, and Marlena is the person who helps Cat begin to be able to define her own boundaries, even as Marlena pushes them.
It’s interesting that teenage friendships are so often based on circumstance. You’re usually friends with the people you grow up with and who live nearby. In terms of what connects them, beyond that, I think that with each other, Cat and Marlena experience that exhilarating sense of looking out at the world from the same vantage point. And Marlena’s music made Cat see her as somebody with a big destiny. When she sees that in Marlena, it’s intoxicating. Marlena, I think, is drawn to the fact that with Cat she can be a blank slate.
Arnold: That idea of childhood friendships being circumstantial made this book so relatable. I’m still close with lots of girls from home. I was just talking about that with one friend from like first grade. We met because of circumstance and still hang now because we both moved to LA. I’m lucky — it could’ve turned out badly!
Buntin: Right! The accumulation of time becomes a kind of glue in friendships. I have friends like that too. That was something Cat and Marlena didn’t have. They aren’t constricted by the other knowing their past. When they meet, they get to decide who they are for each other — what kind of friendship they’ll have, who will play what role — in that way, best friendship is always a collaboration in the act of telling a shared story. I wanted to write about how girls make and mythologize those stories, and I needed Cat and Marlena to be strangers, for there to be an element of the random in their meeting, in order to really explore that.
“Best friendship is always a collaboration in the act of telling a shared story. I wanted to write about how girls make and mythologize those stories…”
Arnold: Socioeconomic distinctions are important in the novel. Cat’s life is comfortable until her parents divorce. Afterwards, Cat’s mom cleans houses, and one night the girls break into her client’s mansion and throw a party. How would these girls have been different people had they lived in that house instead?
Buntin: I think some elements of being a teenager are universal — the intensity of those firsts, the passionate friendships, the insecurity and yearning — but this would be a different story if both girls had more money. Cat was comfortable when her parents were married in the sense that they were getting by, but it was still a paycheck to paycheck existence. That’s why the divorce wreaks such financial havoc. If this were about wealthy people, maybe they would have had more supervision in the form of hired help or a stay-at-home parent, I don’t really know. Certainly, neither girl would be living with the immense anxiety that permeates life when you’re not sure where the money is going to come from, whether it’s going to come at all. There might not be as much chaos and instability in the background. A more concrete sense of opportunity. I think it’s hard as a teenager in a small town, when you don’t have any money and you’re not sure what’s going to come next and no one is telling you to go to college, to think about the future, to say, I’m going to live for this next thing, instead of just in the moment, because as a teenager everything in your body is screaming now now now. If you’re the kid in the mansion, maybe you have more faith in later. Cat and Marlena think about the future in a fantasy way, but I don’t know if Marlena especially believes in her gut that she actually has a shot at a better life, which corresponds to the kinds of choices she makes in the novel.
Arnold: The reason I ask maybe is because I also grew up in the Midwest but on the opposite side of the tracks as Marlena, yet I felt like I knew that girl, like she went to my high school. I wasn’t friends with her, but she was there. The main question I had while reading your novel was: how could this girl or any struggling with fucked up families surrounded by hardcore drugs and abusive men and circumstances out of her control survive it?
Buntin: It’s hard to think in those terms, but, yeah, I think so — I hope so. I think in a hypothetical or in a different story there is. One thing Cat’s struggling with, trying to discover in the process of telling this story, is if she can track the moment where things toggled from bad to really bad — which step was the one that went too far? What if a couple of things that didn’t even seem that consequential at the time had gone down differently? What if she told someone something? Asked for help? Stood up to Marlena? There are a ton of ways to try and intervene in real life, with real people — but that’s not what this book is about. Especially because Cat’s revisiting this year in memory, the consciousness of the novel is ever aware of the fact that Marlena won’t survive it. It’s the train barreling down the tracks and knowing that you can’t stop it from the very first page. That’s Cat’s story.
“What if a couple of things that didn’t even seem that consequential at the time had gone down differently? What if she told someone something? Asked for help?”
More personally, I’ve seen people struggling with addiction and watched it turn around. I’m also familiar with the point where you know that it might not. You hope and hope that it will but, I don’t know, I think that’s one of the difficult things about writing about addiction — how do you capture that horrible dawning feeling when you recognize, shit, this person is in way over their head? Or juggle the dual awareness, as a writer, of knowing just how much trouble a character is in, but writing a narrator who misses all the cues and is suddenly blindsided by the extent of an addiction, because she was naïve or self-absorbed or because the addict has become such a good liar? That happens so often in real life, that you both see and do not see what is going on — I know it from my own experiences with an addict in my family.
Arnold: Why was it important to show Cat as an adult living in New York looking back on her life? Why fluctuate from present to past and not just tell the story about the girls as teenagers?
Buntin: My answer to this goes back to when you asked why it’s fun to write about teenage girls. The fact that they are so sharp and perceptive but don’t have much wisdom is exactly why I wouldn’t want to write a novel about teenage girls from the perspective of a teenage girl. I wanted to be able to move between the past and present, to hold up each moment and let it refract off all the years that had passed, Cat’s sense of herself as an adult versus who she thought she’d be, etc. I needed that narrative distance in order to explore how memory changes the stories that we tell, how frustrating and impossible and beautiful it is to try and find the truth in our own pasts. Cat had to be telling this from the perspective of adulthood in order to do that — I needed that emotional range. Plus, aside from Sal’s reappearance in Cat’s life, the reason Cat is telling the story of that year is because she’s on a precipice with her drinking. To write the book I wanted to write about addiction, I had to go back to the problem that had been shadowing Cat since she was fifteen — her reliance on alcohol, which started the same year she met Marlena. It’s a life-defining year for that reason, too.
Arnold: So Cat is meant to be an unreliable narrator.
Buntin: Definitely. Cat, in telling this story, is trying to get to the truth of her own experience, but whether or not she can rely on her own impulses as a story teller, as a witness, to be objectively true — that’s something she’s wrestling with. A first person narrator is always unreliable, but I really wanted Cat to lean into that and say, I told you this, but I didn’t tell you this, to make the reader question what Cat’s motivations are in sharing certain things, what she might be hiding from herself, what she might not be ready to admit. For me, Marlena is about female friendship, definitely, and coming-of-age, but it’s just as much about memory — how we build our identities out of these stories from our pasts — and the act of telling. What changes during that process, what we can discover or reveal? What does it mean to take ownership over your own story?
Arnold: I saw the girls’ brothers, Jimmy and Sal, as the only male figures here that weren’t terrible people. This question is meant to be a little cheeky. Were you concerned about or did you think about what it would mean to portray most of the male characters in a book about female friendship as unlikable?
Buntin: [Laughs] No, I did not, but I love that question. I did not want to vilify men, I did not set out to do that, but I was interested in how you portray an absence of a male figure. You have to draw an outline so the reader is aware that that character is haunting the events that are happening in the book without him ever appearing on the page. Cat’s dad gets his scene with Cat, but I wanted to make the fact of his having left something that was always in her psyche, even when she wasn’t directly talking/thinking about it. That was a fun challenge. And I think of Jimmy and Liam as good guys essentially. They’re just not the story’s heart. The central relationships are between Cat and Marlena and Cat and her mom. Those other relationships had to be in a faded zone outside of the frame in order to amplify the female relationships. I am sure men can handle it.
Arnold: To me, Jimmy was the most tragic character because he had a chance to get out and didn’t take it.
Buntin: I think of him as somebody who has a lot of potential and just chokes, at least during the year the book is set. He decided he was going to take some time off and then just never got back on the right track after that. For some people, taking a gap year is a great idea, but for others it is a terrible sinkhole. He lost his inertia. He wound up in this new town and didn’t know what he was doing, but I love his character — he’s a sweet, intense guy, but he’s always a little bit of a mystery to Cat. He grows up to be just fine though — better than Cat in some ways.
Arnold: When exactly does this story take place? Would things have turned out differently for Marlena had she grown up today?
Buntin: Marlena and Cat are in high school circa 2006, during the rise of the opioid epidemic and at the moment when social media was still sort of a novelty, before it fully swallowed every teenager whole. Also just before the housing bubble bursts. All these things impact the story, their specific circumstances, but I didn’t put in any dates in the book — as a reader, I tend to find such markers distracting, and I wanted to create an impressionistic sense of time, for it to feel a little like everyone’s high school experience. The only deliberate timestamps in the book are references to technology that came out in 2005, 2006. Because it was also important to me that Cat be an adult as she’s looking back, that means the narrative present takes place a few years from now.
Maybe it would have turned out differently for Marlena if she had been in high school today — there’s certainly more of an awareness of the danger of pharmaceutical drugs. And I don’t think small towns are as isolated now — the Internet provides constant access, constant connection. Teenagers today know that there is a bigger world out there.
Arnold: You earned your MFA from NYU. Did you start the novel while you were there? What was it like workshopping it?
Buntin: I did start it while I was there, sort of, in the sense that I first wrote something with these two girls in it. I was in a novella writing class and I wrote like sixty pages, and not one of those sixty pages are in the book you read. But those pages were about Cat, Marlena, Ryder and Greg. I honestly don’t remember what it was like workshopping it. I think there was some debate over whether it was YA. I sat on those pages for a while, poking at them here and there, but I was working on another novel very seriously at the same time. The other novel was experimental and written in fragments and super autobiographical. It was not very good, and I hated writing it. Writing Marlena felt entirely different — it was immersive and compelling. I wanted to find out what happened to the girls. It was a relief to realize that the story that you want to write is probably the one you should be writing. After I committed to Marlena, it went quickly. I finished a full draft about a year after grad school, though I did a full-blown rewrite after it sold. I feel like I wrote two books — the book that I sold, and the book that is coming out.
Arnold: In addition to being a writer, you also work for Catapult.
Buntin: Yes, I direct the creative writing program — we host a robust series of workshops and master classes in our NYC offices, and also online. I’ve also edited a few books.
Arnold: How is the editing process different for you than for other editors since you are in the unique position of also being a novelist?
Buntin: I think editing has taught me to kick my own ass! [Laughs] And in a way that I really didn’t know how to do before. If you’re editing someone else’s work, and you are coming at it from a place of love, of wanting the book to be the best possible version of itself, the writer to reach their highest potential in every single sentence, and you don’t apply that same intensity to your own editing process, then you’re a hypocrite.
Arnold: What are you writing next?
Buntin: Right now, I’m trying to keep my head above water between all the book stuff and the regular pressures of my day job. It’s a little early to talk about the novel that I’m working on now, but I can say that it is set at a boarding school, with a bigger cast of characters, both teenagers and adults. The adult perspectives are more central to the narrative than the teen perspectives. It’s also not in first person, which feels really liberating after writing in Cat’s voice for years and years.