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.