A week into April and the thaw has roused a cow dung smell that rises in a toxic steam from the gray cornfields surrounding the school. The sixth period bell rings and I stuff my Biology textbook into my backpack and meet Joey at her locker. This Friday, we’re going straight to her house. Normally we’d be on our way to Interstellar Mediums, our high school’s six-person astronomy club, but Joey convinced me to skip and, frankly, since she dropped out, it’s way less fun anyway. I know the rest of the gang’s going to be pissed when I don’t show, especially because tonight’s the peak of the Lyrids meteor shower—pretty much the club’s raison d’être. Joey and I are going to sneak out to watch from the Winter Sports Park instead, without a two-hour time limit and parental supervision.
Julie Buntin is from Northern Michigan. She received her MFA in fiction from NYU, where she was an adjunct instructor and the recipient of a Starworks Fellowship. Though her personal essays have appeared in The Sonora Review, Explosion-Proof, The Rumpus, and Cosmopolitan, this is her first published piece of fiction.
Q&A by Jennifer Sky
JS: “Phenomenon” is set in a small farming town in Northern Michigan just as the spring thaw is settling in: the smell of manure saturating the high school. Why did you choose this as your setting?
JB: I grew up in Petoskey, Michigan, a small town at the tip of the mitt that’s touristy in the summer and remote as hell in the winter. My elementary school, middle school, and high school were all right next to each other, encircled by a huge cornfield. With the first deep thaw, the halls reeked of manure. That was how we knew it was really, truly spring, and it always sparked a lot of giddy bad behavior. The setting is my hometown, from the Winter Sports Park to the bear hut. Everything I write takes place in Northern Michigan. I’m perpetually homesick.
JS: One of the lines from the story is, “Joey and me vs. everyone else in the world.” Our narrator and Joey grew up as best friends. Without revealing any plot points, do you think their friendship will survive after this night?
JB: I think their friendship will survive, but it will be forever changed. By the end of the story, the narrator knows that her and Joey’s differences will continue to separate them. They’ll never be as close as they were. They have secrets now—their lives have diverged.
JS: Did you sneak out of the house as a teen?
JB: Did I ever! I was a pretty rebellious teenager. My capacity to be afraid hadn’t kicked in yet. I had an entire secret life that happened on weekends between 12am and 6am.
JS: A meteor shower is heavily featured in the story, the girls are part of an astronomy club. What type of research did you do for this feature? Was sitting on a rooftop with a thermos of cocoa ever involved?
JB: This element was a late addition—it developed during the editing process. I did as little research as possible. Whenever I go to Michigan I’m struck by how saturated the night sky is with stars. Looking at them wallops me with nostalgia; mostly for the brave, stupid girl I was when I lived there, and my beautiful, brave, stupid friends. After researching the basic facts of meteors/meteor showers, most of my work involved letting myself linger in that feeling, remembering what it was like to run wild under that sky and how we always felt weirdly connected to it, like the universe was watching us.
JS: Your narrator and her best friend, Joey, are similar, but also different in a lot of ways. Would you say you’re more one than the other?
JB: I traded off being very like each of them at different points in my adolescence. Like Joey, I had terrible grades in Algebra. But my family situation was closer to the narrator’s, and I was also more of a sidekick than an instigator.
JS: One of the things I loved about “Phenomenon” is the voice and how it creates an immediate excitement, drawing the reader in, allowing us to feel the thrills and discomfort the narrator is experiencing. The way that Joey’s calves are like drumsticks as they run through a forest; the feeling of another person’s mom’s stare; how it hurts when your best friend is ignoring you for the attention of a boy. How did you do this?
JB: I wish I had an answer for this. But I’m not sure! I do know these girls. I know how they talk, and how they feel, and what they want. Writing in the narrator’s voice comes fairly easily—it’s like speaking a second language that you haven’t had a chance to use in a while. Once you warm up into it, it takes over your imagination.
JS: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
JB: In grad school I studied with Aleksandar Hemon, who loved to say: “It’s all shit until it isn’t.” What he meant was, you don’t get better with every class you take or story you write. It’s harder to quantify. Kind of like how you don’t get incrementally wiser as you age—it happens in waterfalls or trickles, depending on what you live through. As much as that thought sucks, it’s freeing at the same time. Hemon also taught me that writing is 95% cutting, rewriting, and cutting some more. If your first draft looks anything like your last draft, you’re probably doing it wrong. That was a game-changer.
JS: What are you working on now?
JB: I’m hip-deep in a novel about girls and loss and friendship, set in Northern Michigan. Not unlike “Phenomenon.”