"The story of two girls and the wild year that will cost one her life and define the other's for decades," so begins Julie Buntin's riveting debut novel Marlena. While the cryptic tease in the book's jacket may lead readers to believe they're about to dive into a thrilling mystery novel about a troubled Michigan teenager's death, the truth of Marlena turns out to be something much more complex. It's a story about attempting to make sense of a loss that simply does not make sense, as well as how we can only really understand what's happened to us in our youth once we have some distance from it.
"There are answers to who we are in our past," Buntin told Helen Little during an episode of The Public Library Podcast. "I wanted to write about that." The result is Marlena, which tells the story of a thirty-something named Cat who is forced to reexamine the year she was a 15-year-old girl in rural Michigan. Cat, a lonely and introverted teen, befriends her slightly older and faster neighbor Marlena. From the outset of the novel, readers know that Marlena will die by the end of the story. Just like Cat, though, we're drawn into Marlena's orbit despite all the warning signs that danger inevitably lies ahead.
The narrative bounces back between Cat's somewhat lackluster adult life and her dynamic, exciting year with the manic, drug-addicted Marlena. "I needed all that psychic matter that Cat had between the ages of 15 and thirty-something to be able to ask the questions I wanted to ask about memory and time," Buntin said of her choice to bounce back and forth between the two timelines. "Just having that voice coming from an adult place wasn't doing enough of that work for me. I needed Cat to be in another space for it to ricochet off that Michigan storyline in some ways to kind of amplify the contrast between Cat's static life as an adult and the vibrant potency and intensity of how it was when she was a girl."
It's an intensely emotional story and as a result the writing process ended up taking a physical toll on the young author, especially because she wrote from an "emotionally honest" place. During her final revision of Marlena, Buntin revealed she became slightly obsessed with her work. She wrote every morning before work, only to come home at night and work on it some more. She described herself during this time as being "sort of physically unwell. I didn't exercise. I didn't have any kind of social life." She became very connected to her characters, as well, during this time and had a hard time letting bad things happen to them in the story.
That type of dedication and sacrifice helps writers get their work published. Buntin, who teaches fiction at Marymount Manhattan College, said that the biggest difference between published and unpublished writers is that published writers have written a book until the end. "If you haven't written a book all the way to the end, you can't publish a book." Buntin said of the one thing aspiring writers need to know. "So you have to stick to it and be committed to that vision."
If you haven't read Marlena yet, what are you waiting for? For those of you who have read this captivating story and are dying to know if Buntin is planning on releasing another novel, we have some great news for you. While she couldn't give us too many details, Buntin revealed she is working on a new book and that it takes place at a boarding school. We'll be counting down the days until we can read this one.