This year was bracketed by both joy and terror. I watched, scared, as people I love grew, learned, succeeded at various things—including me. What did it mean? Writing for years, coming close to getting published once before, then suddenly finding my book out in the world, cherished and loved by strangers who became friendly readers—and why now? Of all times, when our country is literally being burned down? And when, on a daily basis, I fear for our lives? All year, in response, I held on tight to books I love, remembering not only specific words, but the moments of real comfort I found in these books. Cherishing these.
Beloved, by Toni Morrison, a book I read in high school when it was first published, always one I “mean to” return to but found myself too dazzled and silenced by—this year was the year that, in my studio cabin at MacDowell Colony, I sat and read the book without interruption, making extensive notes on structure and strategy. Embracing the past to let it go. Sixty million and more. For the first time, reading Morrison’s hallowed words, I was delighted to find that I understood the book’s structuring, the unfolding, building of tension in specific scenes. For the first time I dared to hope that I would write a book, a real book, that could matter.
Citizen, by Claudia Rankine, completely woke me up to poetry. What had I been doing, all this time? In high school too, I’d been lucky enough to be part of the Academy of American Poets workshop. I’d written poetry, “always” written it, I thought. Then stopped. This year, I couldn’t remember why, and so the poems came out, got revised, but not with any kind of condescending withering. “Citizen” taught me all too well—there’s already a world ready to hate. We must honor ourselves. I read Rankine’s bold, intellectually rigorous, extremely serious and vivid words and felt like she was saying to me, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you don’t know what you know.” All the poems I published this year (19! And counting, including this one that received a Joy Harjo prize, and this one in THE SAME MAG where Maggie Smith published her poems (!), and THIS ONE where Natalie Diaz published poetry—and this essay I wrote even before reading all of Citizen this year, and being awakened to poetry again, in general, by the conflagration of hatred and terror that we are living through, somehow.
All my writing, engagement with any words and rhythms, had as its backdrop the feeling of being supported by poems by women and people of color, all the time. All year, while writing, I also “ate up” poetry quietly and gratefully—like Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith, which made me realize that I, too, was radiant from “panic” about the state of current affairs, like cold, lovely splashes of Maggie Smith’s Good Bones, which made me too shy to say hi to her when I saw her and she smiled back at AWP, and like surreptitious “sips” of My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz, which made me question the simplistic dreams I’d had as a medical student of “volunteering on the rez,” realizing on a visceral level how there is SO MUCH MORE to it, to any kind of engagement with a brutalized and marginalized community when you “happen to have” services they need, through “accidents” of history (that are not really accidents, a la Marianne Moore, another poet I reread this year, loving her words and hating myself for how deeply ingrained her words are in my mind given that she was a person who supported Indian boarding schools for children. The poet who wrote “Marriage” was never who I dreamed she’d be).
My anger had to find some quarter, I suppose. Who could’ve guessed that it would be turned into appreciative laughter so easily? That I’d be so susceptible to charm? But it did and I was: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, even for the title story alone, which I read and then hugged tightly to myself like a puffy jacket I’d been coveting (reminiscent of another puffy jacket, from another great story, by Sana Krasikov talking about post-Soviet Russian consumerism in One More Year, also brilliant and another book that I reread this year).
To finish revisions on the novel that my agent will (I hope) submit to publishers in 2019, I read (what else?) This Year You Write Your Novel, by Walter Mosley, and it is true that “luck favors the prepared mind” because, reader, I MET him in person at the Texas Book Fest not long after I read and took notes on that book, including 1) at least “touch” your novel for one and a half hours per day, even if all you do is read and reread what you have, just touch it so it doesn’t become foreign to you and 2) get the complete draft done. Just get it done. Tell the story. (Worry about “telling it slant” later). Then I MET WALTER MOSLEY! And so, I could honestly tell him, before I fled our 90-second “meeting,” “I adore you.” Upstairs in the building that Moseley was walking out of it, I said the same thing (again meaning each syllable, probably almost too fervently) to Alexander Chee, FACE TO FACE OVER HUEVOS RANCHEROS. His book Edinburgh that I’d read last year was as masterful and moving as How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, which capped for me the trend in reading I realized I was pursuing, of reading a novel, then tracking down writing advice from its author, then devouring the essays by that author… about writing. Following this thread I read everything I could find on the Internet (and attended her talks too! Including at AWP) by Min Jin Lee—both Pachinko (for the first time, crying at the sad parts by a swimming pool where children thought the crying was from their ruthless splashing of me, and my paperback) and Free Food for Millionaires, which I also read for its immensely skillful plot structure, engrossing, yet unfolding at a stately 19th-century pace, though without any didactic digressions. (I eagerly, EAGERLY await Min’s book of essays about writing which, if not already in the works, I SO HOPE will now be in the works. Hint, hint.)
Naturally (I felt) Lee’s use of the omniscient third had to lead me to novels like Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy (whose prologue long ago inspired me to write this story in White Dancing Elephants, featured recently at Electric Lit). I loved Hardy, of course, and also dipped into Wuthering Heights again, on a long plane ride where sniffling was assumed to be something everyone was doing (and hiding), because of the dry air and so on (and dipped into it mainly because of the brilliant, hilarious, melancholy evocation of the book I’d heard read out loud in a piece at Sewanee Writer’s Workshop, by Shanti Shekaran, whose novel Lucky Boy I read once, utterly loved but couldn’t bear to read again, for how close it came to uncovering my own feelings about infertility and miscarriage, and how it described such heartache around attachment and loss and parenting, I just couldn’t bear it. But no 19th-century novel made as indelible an impression on me as Henry James’s Washington Square, which I listened to twice all the way through, driving to and from work, in the Librivox version beautifully narrated by “Dawn”, one of the many tireless readers who make these free audio books a widely accessible resource.
Perhaps it’s because, like the heroine Catherine’s father, I am a doctor too, but I felt so keenly for nearly everyone in this book (except of course the hapless Morris, whom Catherine never would have expected a thing from, had she not been so blinded and burdened by the painful, enmeshed, guilty, tormented relationship with her father). The perfect, Victorian-era “snark” of how the book sets up the cruel events that lead Catherine to lose her mother, implying just enough that the doctor-father was too detached, and simply didn’t act fast enough, to save his own wife and son from death– I felt the devastating wound of it, of how much people expect from doctors, yet how little compassion is extended to us when, like every other human being on this earth, we suffer loss. We grieve. We feel the limits of what humans can control, and what we can’t.
Strangely, though, the essay collections I read were not by doctors. Nor were the novels, though I did read an interview I really enjoyed, with gifted novelist and fellow psychiatrist Daniel Mason in The New York Times, for how the tone of the interviewer SO COMPLETELY ERASED any people of color or women from the identity “psychiatrist” so breathlessly parsed therein.
(Um, NYT dude whose name I think I had trouble pronouncing, no offense—not all psychiatrists are cishet white upper middle class males preoccupied with “affective containment” as an ultimate goal. That very limited, exclusionary, anti-public health/private pay vision of psychiatry pretty much ended in the ’70s. What we have now are “recovery communities” and “neurodivergence,” in case you didn’t realize. Like, psychiatrists who are women of color who can get down with The Collected Schizophrenias as forthcoming by Esme Waijun Wang, for instance, or who can clearly express compassion and caring for patients with eating disorders as detailed by writers with these conditions like Kathryn Harrison in The Mother Knot. Thanks for understanding, dude. No doubt.)
Instead, in reading as in life, I pursued a kind of lightness, an attitude, insouciance, coupled with breathtaking honesty, shrewdness. One might put all these book covers in a Twitter post and caption it MOOD. Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else, and Melissa Febos’s Abandon Me (yes, if she comes to AWP, I’ll get shy and girl-crush-struck and run away from her too, I don’t doubt it). Morgan Jerkins’s This Will Be My Undoing. As a Rhodes Scholar, my voice caught in my throat reading her account of being “instructed” on how, as a woman of color, she could “assimilate” into various white elite spaces her intelligence and drive had helped her gain access to. She cut close to the bone.
Then to cap off the year, I read and took a lot of notes on story collections to help finish revisions on my second story collection, which only exists because it turns out I’m a writer literally with manuscripts in a drawer that I take out and revise and don’t send out anywhere for years (and not any of the stories that belong to this second collection were written recently, though excerpts were featured recently here and here). The jewels among the several collections that I read include (in addition to Friday Black, above, which I just read out of love, and not for work)—Florida, by Lauren Groff, reading again and again the particular story of a woman writer obsessed enough with researching her novel to have to go to France; anxious enough to take her children with, literally dragging them, making them walk in rain and cold, making them speak French, forcing them, making them, almost crying from the effort of trying to hold the structure together while staying dreamy enough to actually sit down and write. Sigh.
Also read, and studied (again, after reading the first story while in high school too—“The Chinese Lobster” when it first came out in The New Yorker) the whole collection by A.S. Byatt, so stunning: The Matisse Stories, and timely too—dipping into #MeToo themes as well as fundamental questions about “who gets to make art” which then took me, on a pleasurable digression, to Claire Messud’s thrillingly good, extremely entertaining, admittedly shrill book The Woman Upstairs, which I liked but I think was secretly wishing would talk more about the racism that a Middle Eastern family might experience in the Republic of Cambridge, MA (yes, even there). I got back to the stories, though, delightedly wading through Everyday People, the anthology edited by Jenn Baker and one that includes a detailed bibliography of works by women and nonbinary authors of color in the back.
All in all, the year of reading made me a little less afraid. Not really less afraid of our political futures. No. But less afraid of losing hold of what and whom I love. Much less afraid of forgetting any of what is most vital to me. Maybe memories do define who we are—a recent interesting and long thread of Twitter, and something I contemplated while reading a lot of press coverage about the fascinating Amazon Prime original with Julia Roberts, Homecoming (which draws directly from PTSD research and prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD, modalities I’m trained in administering).
I also thought more about trauma and memories while reading Marlena for the first time, to interview Julie Buntin here—and thought about my family’s memories, coming to terms with my younger brother’s autism and disabilities, when I read (and wept with real gratitude) over Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success and how it represented a level of acceptance and love of a child with differences that I’d always wished myself and those I knew could feel and demonstrate more clearly, more spontaneously, without such hard effort and constant education of ourselves, to understand my brother’s perspective, to hear his voice. It may be true that our memories somehow define us—but I prefer to think that books are loving and beloved carriers of our memories, trigger the ones we need to remember the most, stimulate the memories that heal us.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
For readers who haven’t already discovered Julie Buntin’s Marlena, this visceral, gripping novel combines humanity with a thrilling edge. We watch as Marlena descends into addiction, but rather than being allowed to simply be voyeurs, we’re forced to face our own complicity in the vulnerability of girls—all girls, not just the reckless ones.
I was lucky enough to catch Julie during her paperback tour, and over a few weeks of emailing, we had the following conversation.
The Millions: One of the (many) gorgeously vivid, telling images of the book, for me, came near the end, when the narrator, Cat, goes back to one of the places she frequented as a teen and finds this: “A poster on the leftmost wall of a girl bent over, holding her ass apart, her face hanging down between her ankles, a cigarette burn in the middle of each cheek.”
As a psychiatrist, one aspect of the book I really appreciated and want to make sure gets the recognition it deserves is how skillfully and artfully you weave together the twin themes of trauma and addiction. It’s estimated that nearly 80 percent of people with PTSD, either from “civilian” causes (such as childhood sexual abuse and rape) or “military” (from combat exposure), suffer from some form of addiction, the most common of which is nicotine dependence and heavy smoking, with up to half of PTSD patients in some cohorts reporting some degree of opioid abuse (most commonly prescription). We know also that the endogenous opioid system (endorphin, dynorphin) is engaged during the formation of traumatic memories. So at this point in the history of neuroscience, we actually know a lot about the science that links trauma with addiction [for readers particularly interested in this, I recommend Neurobiology of Addiction, by George Koob, a genius scientist at the NIH].
Yet one of the strengths of your novel is how all that history, all the science and statistics, are so effectively submerged and seen through an adolescent perspective that absolutely knows “something is wrong” but not exactly what. In that way the book reminded me of Emma Donoghue’s Room, where the 5-year-old boy’s view makes clear how disturbed the situation is without ever getting “clinical” and removing the reader from the visceral experiences that he’s going through.
That poster—the brutally degraded young woman, senselessly violated with those painful cigarette burns but posing for a picture, allowing herself to be consumed—that in one image tells so much about the story of trauma and addiction and how they’re linked, how Marlena’s most self-abasing moments reflect such a complex mix of the symptoms of PTSD (self-blame, cognitive distortions, risk-taking/recklessness, suicidality, hopelessness, hypervigilance) and her ongoing craving to use.
What did you already know about addiction and trauma before writing the book, and what do you feel like you learned, and how did you learn it? Are there experiences from writing the book that you feel could be useful for emerging writers? What do you think are some of the key differences between writing about addiction in the memoir vs. novel mode? Did you intend, as I felt, that Marlena has so much more self-knowledge than she is sharing with the (younger) narrator Cat—and yet there’s something really avoidant in this “best friendship” for Marlena?
Julie Buntin: Most of what I knew about addiction and trauma prior to writing the book came from lived experience—by which I mean not necessarily experiences I’d had firsthand, but ones I’d witnessed. I have a family member, a young woman, who struggles with addiction, and her relationship to drugs and alcohol does seem intertwined with the fact that, even though she is blessed in many ways, her life has also had an outsize number of losses, including a central one that seems to have infected her worldview in a destructive way.
As I wrote the book, focusing in on Marlena’s character, I was always asking myself what felt true. I’m not sure if this will be useful to emerging writers, but it was useful to me; what feels true for your character isn’t always going to be the thing you want to write. Especially when Cat and Marlena start drifting apart near the end—I knew that was the authentic thing, considering the seriousness of Marlena’s addiction, but I hated writing it. And thank you for your observation that the friendship is avoidant for Marlena—I think that is absolutely right. She gets so close to Cat in part because Cat isn’t going to call her out, isn’t going to challenge her outright, and Cat’s someone she can fool into thinking she’s OK. But then, when Cat starts to figure it out, Marlena retreats inward.
TM: Did you, as you were writing the novel, think about “heroin chic” and any problems of glamorizing addiction and its aftermath? The one consequence presented as a discrete event is Marlena’s (sudden) death—but even that has so much brilliant shadowing around it (in particular the brief scene where Cat sees her looking like a scarecrow, a “meth-head,” skeletal and even her beautiful hair ugly). Other consequences seem more pervasive, subtle, expressed through mood shifts in the narrator, like the wistfulness you conveyed so beautifully as Cat compares what she’s doing in Silver Lake with what her school friend Haesung would’ve done, or the letter Cat writes to her absent father. There’s no question that we feel the negatives of addiction. And yet these kinds of sentences convey the thrill as well: “It’s not a question. I love this wildness. I crave it.”
Did you consciously think about or set up this ambivalence, to have “drug glamour” in there along with devastation?
JB: I thought a lot about the danger of glamorizing addiction while writing this, especially because I hoped that the book might be read by older teenagers. It was constantly on my mind, and while I had no interest in writing a cautionary tale, either, if the balance doesn’t tilt more toward cautionary tale then I’ve failed myself a little bit. I had to walk a careful line in the narrative—I needed to show all the ways this lifestyle could be intoxicating, how it might suck a girl like Cat in, and then slowly reveal the way those choices add up to a trap that nobody is going to want to find themselves in—and furthermore, a trap that extends past the teenage years and into adulthood. One of the ways of doing that, narratively, was to make Cat, herself, an addict.
I’ve often had people tell me very matter-of-factly that Cat drinks because she’s sad/guilty about what happened with Marlena, and while I never argue with that interpretation—certainly the narrative, structured as it is, argues that—I always find it very interesting that no one ever says, oh, of course Cat’s an alcoholic, because she started binge drinking frequently at 15 years old and her brain chemistry changed forever. I wanted both of those things to be at work at once, and for Cat’s trajectory, which on the surface seems great—upwardly mobile, at the very least—to be itself a warning about the danger of experimentation that goes too far. It’s not just your life that’s at stake, in terms of an early death, as in Marlena’s case; it’s also the possibility of living a life that’s not reliant upon a substance, that’s not in some way dimmed and hemmed in by dependency.
TM: So one of the other major symptoms of PTSD is “numbing” or “numbness.” Current science actually identifies a subgroup of PTSD patients who mainly are numbed out, who dissociate from current reality when remembering or reminded of their trauma, rather than showing more of a “fight or flight” response. I felt that the New York sections of the book told from Cat’s adult perspective so adeptly expressed what it is like to be numb in this way, and it made me think differently about what Cat and Marlena went through (including with various exploitative adult males). Can you talk about the craft challenges of writing a “numb” narrator? I’m thinking of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero (describing some of those scenes of drug use among a slightly younger cohort of adults in their early vs. late 20s) but also of Zadie Smith in The Autograph Man and even Aravind Adiga’s narrator in The White Tiger and Akhil Sharma’s narrator in An Obedient Father. All of these have numb narrators facing the aftermath, one could argue, of being complicit in one’s own traumatization. Numbness as a form of self-punishment but also involuntary. And numbness seems to become a force for delay, for waiting to move forward, for even blocking oneself from moving forward. A kind of semi-paralyzing spell that can only be broken by the person experiencing it and not externally by a therapist pointing it out.
How can you (how did you?) sustain an energetic and gripping narrative drive while writing a narrator who was experiencing a (very understandable) numbness? Did this challenge relate to what you said you did in 2015 (rewrite the novel substantially after it sold) and, to support other writers out there breathing hard from “editorial letters,” can you talk about your revision process and what that was like?
JB: Oh, I love this question, and I love that you used the word numb. Also, I wasn’t aware of that background on PTSD, though it relates so deeply to how I thought of Cat’s character. Certainly the experience of befriending Marlena, all of her experiences in Silver Lake, and then the sudden loss of Marlena all formed this hinge point in her life: She was one way before, and she would never be the same again after. That’s the kind of moment I’m fascinated by as a novelist—this periods when we become ourselves, for better or worse, the stories that change us forever.
When I was writing Cat as an adult, I was actively striving for numbness, which was challenging! You can never sacrifice your reader’s interest to achieve an effect, or I don’t believe you should, anyway, so I had to make those scenes in New York feel sort of muffled while being interesting and moving the story forward, which was genuinely hard. As you mention in your question, I did rewrite the novel after it sold, in an attempt to address some of my editor’s concerns—and as I worked through her comments, I kept coming up against a sort of larger question. We’re often, as writers, told that we need to know the answer to the question, “Why this story?” And I definitely knew why I was writing it—as I’ve discussed a little bit above. So the urgency and intensity were there, but there was something missing structurally. The question wasn’t just why this story, I realized—it was why this story, now? Why is Cat revisiting this at this precise moment in her life? And the answer actually was that numbness. She’s gotten everything—a whole new life, a better life than her mother and Jimmy, and yet why is she numb?
I thought I might be able to make it gripping and interesting by virtue of the contrast between the past sections and the present sections—the tonal dissonance, so to speak, might keep readers moving forward, wanting to know how Cat got to be quite like this. I also worked on varying the language, clipping it a little when Cat’s sober, and making it loose and blurry when she’s not. I also think there’s something inherently interesting, for better or for worse, about reading someone who is on the brink in their own life, and Cat really is, with her drinking. I hoped the reader would care enough about her, even if they didn’t exactly like her, to want to figure out whether she was going to pull through.