Sarah Bruni on her love of writing and her first novel, “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”
Sarah Bruni is a Chicago-area native who earned a B.A. in Literature from the University of Iowa in 2002. Years later she was accepted into the MFA creative writing program at Washington University in St. Louis, where she earned an MFA in 2007. In addition to teaching creative writing in St. Louis, Bruni has volunteered as a writing and English tutor. Her first novel is The Night Gwen Stacy Died, and it is published by Mariner Books (a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Nicholas Yanes: Like superheroes (and villains), all writers have an origin story. What’s yours? Specifically, when did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Sarah Bruni: Writing is the only thing I’ve consistently wanted to do since I was a child. I was an extremely introverted kid, so making up interior worlds where I felt I could take risks and exhibit control was always a way I spent a lot of my time. When I was a teenager, I read constantly, so dedicating myself to the same types of pursuits as an adult just made sense.
Yanes: Though you were not part of The Iowa Writers Workshop, Iowa City as a whole is still known as a writing community and city of literature. Do you feel being at the University of Iowa helped shaped your approach to writing and literature? If so, how?
Bruni: Absolutely. I studied English at Iowa, where I had a lot of freedom designing my degree to mirror my interests. I’m grateful to have studied with people there doing such fascinating work: Tom Simmons, David Wittenberg, Rob Latham, Thom Swiss, Dee Morris. I also took summer courses at the Workshop with James Alan McPherson and Marilynne Robinson. But more so than any academic experience, Iowa City is just such a great city for writing, period. I spent as much time in local establishments like the Tobacco Bowl and the Fox Head or George’s as I did in any classroom, and probably learned as much about writing in these places too.
I worked many odd jobs in Iowa City, one of which was as a part-time gas station attendant on the Coralville strip—where I spent my mornings behind the counter talking to people—an experience that informed the setting of the novel. Also, I haven’t lived in another city with an independent bookstore I’ve felt as strongly about as Prairie Lights. I have memories of silently following bookseller Paul Ingram around the store while he talked up every new thing on the shelves and filled my arms with books.
Yanes: You didn’t go into an MFA program immediately after undergrad. So what was your motivation for going back to school to pursue a formal writing education? How do you think going into an MFA program helped your writing?
Bruni: I was the sort of person who would have been very comfortable not taking a break from school at all, but I think I recognized that I didn’t have strong enough work to get myself into an MFA program straight out of undergrad. I also feel there’s something to be said for living outside of an academic environment for a while. Existing day-to-day in a community that organizes itself around a university is not representative of the rest of the world. I worked unrelated jobs in Chicago for three years, in a café and in an optometrist’s office, and I always wrote on the side. During my MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis, I was given financial support for two years and had little responsibility aside from my own writing and some light teaching. It was such a rare gift to have the opportunity to focus myself exclusively on writing. I also studied with some amazing writers and peers, who had a huge influence on the work I was producing.
Yanes: With your first novel behind you, what advice would you give to people who want to become professional writers? Were there strategies for getting an agent or writing a query letter you wish someone would have told you years ago?
Bruni: I think the best advice I can think of is not to fear being alone with one’s work. My agent, Susan Golomb, was among the first few I queried. I spent an entire summer drafting query letters, researching the agents I most wanted to approach, and polishing my manuscript. I contacted a handful of agents with a collection of short stories (which eventually grew into this novel). In retrospect, I was very anxious to secure an agent right out of grad school, as if to legitimize myself as a writer in some way—I panicked on the heels of graduating and was looking for validation. I’m very glad we ended up working together, but I also think I might have spent more time writing on my own before starting to think about publishing a book. I worked with my agent revising my short story collection into a novel for three years before we sold it.
Yanes: Now on to The Night Gwen Stacy Died. How would you summarize it?
Bruni: The novel is a runaway love story shared between two outcasts, a young woman working in an Iowa gas station impatient for her life to begin, and a taxi driver who calls himself Peter Parker and starts to make her over in the image of Spider-Man’s first dead love, Gwen Stacy. The two fake a kidnapping and flee to Chicago together where they try to survive their borrowed identities. It’s a book about how the stories we read inform and create us. It’s also a book about Midwestern adolescence and loneliness.
Yanes: How did the creation of this story first get started? Did you originally plan it as a novel or as a short story?
Bruni: I wrote a short story in 2006 from the perspective of a young woman working in an Iowa gas station. A character who called himself Peter Parker just sort of installed himself in my story and began referring to my protagonist by the name of one of Spider-Man’s girlfriends. I was surprised that she went along with this. I enjoyed writing the story, but I was working on a full collection at the time and didn’t intend to invest any further time in developing this odd agreement. When I was unable to find a publisher for my collection in 2009, several of the editors who passed on the collection thought I should consider revising this story as a novel. I resisted this for a while; I had to find my own way to reenter the project with enthusiasm for it.
Bruni: Definitely. When I realized that this project was going to grow into a novel, I read the first ten years of Spider-Man comic books, and that helped me understand my Peter character in a way I really hadn’t while writing the short story. I was reading CD-ROM scans of original comic book pages, with 1960s and ’70s advertisements and readers’ letters, so I felt like I was opening a time capsule each time.
In this way, I was able to put myself in the mindset of a lonely kid who used these stories as a kind of lifeline, and I could better imagine how his adulthood might be changed by such a reading experience. Then, of course, the longer one spends writing a manuscript the more its central preoccupations can shift to mirror one’s own. When I read it now, the book strikes me as a more feminist novel than anything I was consciously aware of constructing when I first became interested in telling this story.
Yanes: When I first heard of your novel and learned that it deploys references to comic books, I immediately thought of Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. What was your inspiration for using imagery from Spider-Man’s history?
Bruni: The Fortress of Solitude is a great novel, but I can’t claim it was an inspiration for my own. In fact, though I’d read some of Lethem’s other work much earlier, I only read this one after finishing my book. Since I was never a comic book reader, my process of writing in reference to Spider-Man is quite different from many books that explore similar thematic content. I did not set out to write a book about Spider-Man. I feel that the story chose me rather than the other way around, since I was largely unfamiliar with Spider-Man lore when the Peter Parker character asserted his presence in my story. It became something I had to research in order to know what to make of his presence. The longer I spent writing, the more I came to feel this is a book about formative reading experiences and the way they shape and inform our identities, who we become as adults, the way we project stories onto our expectations for our own lives and onto the people we love.
Yanes: In addition to Gwen Stacy being Spider-Man’s/Peter Parker’s first love interest, she is also known as an example of “Women in Refrigerators.” In short, “Women in Refrigerators” are typically female characters who are killed off so that male characters have a reason to fight a villain and have emotional baggage that can be overcome. Thematically, how did the death of Gwen Stacy resonate with the vision you had with your story?
Bruni: As a woman reading comic books for the first time as an adult, I was exceedingly aware of the fact that women don’t typically fare very well in these stories. Once I understood Gwen Stacy’s grim destiny and function as a cultural icon, I was interested in how my protagonist Sheila’s interpretation of the Gwen Stacy character might complicate or challenge this tradition. The version of Gwen Stacy that Sheila goes on to imagine for herself is very different from the Gwen Stacy that Peter imagines for her, which in turn is very different from Marvel’s version. I was fascinated by the idea of Sheila performing the role of the superhero’s girlfriend (whom she knows nothing about firsthand) to see how the dissonance between her and Peter’s distinct impressions might inspire tension between them. By the time Sheila finally gets her hands on the comic book “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” in which her namesake meets her fate, she’s shocked by the passivity of Stacy’s character; she finally rejects her borrowed identity and must confront herself without it.
Yanes: What are your long term goals for The Night Gwen Stacy Died? Would you like to see it adapted into a film?
Bruni: I’m not sure that I know a writer who wouldn’t like to see her novel adapted into a medium that can reach a far larger audience than most books ever will. But it’s not a conscious goal I have for it. I spent a long time with these characters, and certainly I can say I’m ready for them to exist independently of me, for others to bring their own thoughts and interpretations to them. My main goal is just to see this book find its readers.
Yanes: Outside of The Night Gwen Stacy Died, what are some of your future goals for your writing career?
Bruni: I’m starting to gather fragments for a new novel project, but this is an idea that’s still very much in its infancy. My goals haven’t changed much since I started writing; I hope to continue to find the means and time to keep doing it.