On May 12th, at the 8th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating nine of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.
This week, we’re talking to Julie Buntin, author of One Teen Story Issue #13 “Phenomenon” and the novel Marlena.
Marlena tracks the brilliant, destructive force of a friendship between two girls in small-town Michigan. One half of the pair, Marlena, dies within a year of their first meeting, while the other half, Cat, grows up haunted by the time they shared. Buntin’s novel captures both the tiniest details of teenage angst and the broader bubble-about-to-burst tension of America during the mid-2000s. Her 2013 piece in One Teen Story, “Phenomenon,” is about a meteor shower; this novel, too, feels meteoric: vivid and fierce and compelling to its end.
Julia Phillips: Where were you when you found out Marlena was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
Julie Buntin: I was at work. I work for Catapult, an independent literary publisher and writing community, and in summer of 2015 we were a pretty small team—I think there were like, five or six of us in the office, tops. Everyone knew my book was out on submission—I was a wreck. After I talked to my agent and my new and official editor, I think I sort of blurted out to one of my colleagues that my book sold. (Clearly I am not a chill person.) My boss, the wonderful and brilliant Andy Hunter, somehow conjured a bottle of champagne and we all sat in the lounge area and drank it. A top ten life moment, for sure. Also: I love my job.
JP: Marlena is built around one all-consuming friendship between two teenage girls. In it, you write, “A best friend is a magic thing…For so many women, the process of becoming requires two.” Your story “Phenomenon” in One Teen Story focuses on the same thing: the extraordinary, destructive magic of best friendship. What about this dynamic makes it such fertile ground for fiction?
JB: This isn’t the most original answer, but what strikes me about best friendship, especially among teenage girls, is how much it has to do with the process of forming a self. So many adult women have a best friend from adolescence who to some small extent defines her still (even by virtue of what she has not become). I’m fascinated by the way girls disappear into each other at certain times and then harshly draw distinctions at others —and of course all the contradictory things that come along with those early romances, the love and jealousy and secret languages, the sense of being fully understood, how bitterly you can feel betrayed. Also, my friendships with women are the most important and defining relationships of my life. It’s helpful when you’re writing a novel to choose a subject that really matters to you—it keeps it interesting.
JP: Even beyond the story of these best friends, Marlena follows the rise of opioid addiction in America during the early 2000s. Marlena herself believes that “pills were okay because they originated with a doctor, and they weren’t meth…Meth was gross, Marlena said. For rednecks.” What motivated your choice of this particular time period and this epidemic of substance abuse?
JB: I am glad you asked this! The time period was really important to me—I set the teenage scenes circa 2006, which means the narrative present takes place some years from now, though I left out any deliberate time stamps. I wanted to write about the moment when opioids were becoming really commonplace, but many hadn’t quite recognized how dangerous they were. I also wanted to set the book just before the housing bubble burst in 2008—a time that was so tenuous financially for so many people. To speak to this somewhat obliquely, but honestly, I was also motivated by personal experiences with loved ones, and a desperation that came out of those experiences to understand, to make sense of what was happening through writing. And also I just felt like I hadn’t seen those stories—stories of girls, particularly, in real danger with substances—or read much that captures what it’s like to be drawn into that very toxic threat as a teenager. What happens to the burnouts? The kids you thought were bad news in high school? Or even just to the kid who goes in a little too deep, and makes a mistake or has an accident they can’t recover from? Those kids are everywhere, and we don’t see much of them in novels—maybe because they’re just not that likable or relatable.
JP: The novel takes place in Northern Michigan, which we see not only through its physical details—snow, woods, sheds—but also its economic details. Food stamps, child support payments, and hourly wages are crucial to Marlena. Why is it important to ground your novel in class?
JB: Novels that aren’t grounded in class really confuse me. Money and how much of it your characters have determines everything they do. The context you’re in right now, as you read this, has a lot to do with how much money you have in the bank, what your safety net is like. Trying to capture that aspect of life will always be a primary concern in my writing. Anything else would be dishonest, and even irresponsible.
JP: Marlena‘s narrator says, “Sometimes I wonder how I’d tell this if I didn’t have so many books rattling around inside me.” How do you think our reading and writing shape the way we tell the stories of our lives?
JB: Have you ever had the experience of reading a novel so immersive it makes you interpret your life differently? It’s natural to apply a narrative structure to experience; it helps make sense of things. I do think what we find sympathetic, what moves us in our reading, organically influences how we tell the stories of ourselves—how we want our stories to appear to others. That’s something Cat is aware of as she narrates, and even an impulse that she fights against, in an attempt to try to see the experience from every angle, to get as close to the impossible truth as she can.
JP: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story Debutante Ball?
JB: One of my other top ten moments as a writer is when I found out that One Teen Story was going to publish “Phenomenon.” I was also at work, this time at powerHouse Arena (a bookstore), and I remember locking myself in the staff bathroom and jumping up and down, I was so happy—it’s one of the first times I ever felt like I might actually have a shot at becoming a writer, with a book, answering questions like these. In other words, a writer people might read. I am so grateful to the One Story organization for making that possible for me and so many writers. That’s not really an answer. The answer is: everything. I am most looking forward to every single second of it.