Against the Damsels in Distress: Sarah Bruni on “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”

I first saw parts of Sarah Bruni’s novel The Night Gwen Stacy Died back in 2006. Those pages contained the germ of what would later become Sarah’s first book: a young woman bored in small-town Iowa, listening to French language tapes in a convenience store and seeking existential advice from a taxidermied coyote at a natural history museum. Enter the mysterious Camel smoker calling himself Peter Parker, “a boy with a gun” as Bruni puts it, and an offer of escape to Chicago, and you have the beginnings of a story — one that has grown from a short story, to a novella, to a full-length novel. The Night Gwen Stacy Died is evidence of what it investigates: the consuming power of narrative.  When I was asked to tag a writer in this chain interview, I immediately wondered what Sarah’s responses would be. I can’t wait to fall back under her book’s spell when it is published this July.

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What is the working title of the book?

The Night Gwen Stacy Died

Where did the idea come from for the book?

A character appeared in a short story I wrote in 2006 donning the name Peter Parker (after Spider-Man), and I wasn’t sure what to make of him; I was never a comic book reader. In the story’s climax, he addressed my protagonist with the name of Spider-Man’s first dead love, Gwen Stacy, and my protagonist—a young woman who also had never read comic books—for some reason went along with it. She agreed to allow him to kidnap her from their home in Iowa and drive to Chicago, taking on the identity of a dead comic book character she knows almost nothing about.  No one could understand why my protagonist, who otherwise seemed like a pretty normal young woman, would go along with this. Ultimately, I think I stuck with their story as long as I did to better understand this impulse myself.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a novel that borrows its title from a comic book.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Now would be a good time to admit that I don’t own a television or know very many famous actors’ names. Occasionally while writing, I thought of the scene in Buffalo ’66 when Vincent Gallo and Christina Ricci are in the bowling alley photo booth, and Gallo’s character demands that Ricci’s character acts like they’re in love and “spanning time” together. But that probably has more to do with the fact that the plot of the film also features a kidnapping than anything intrinsic to Gallo and Ricci as actors circa 1998—well, besides their hair. They both have the perfect hair in this film to play my characters.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Lonely runaway criminal lovers steal a story, try to survive it.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I spent three and a half years writing an unpublished collection of short stories, a few of which told the story that inspired the novel. I took a break. Then I spent another two and a half years writing the novel manuscript.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Growing up I probably read too many stories of runaways and reinventions. When I started the short story in 2006, I was slowly falling out of love with someone who had been a comic book reader, and I was intimidated and impressed by the cult status of such stories. I read the first decade of Spider-Man comics firsthand after understanding the short story was going to grow into something larger, and I became more interested in the way the stories we admire and obsess over as children script our expectations as adults. The last year of writing brought a heightened awareness to the fact of my being a woman writing a novel that borrows from a genre largely inhabited and written by men. It became impossible to tell this story without feeling a responsibility to better understand the agency of my female protagonist, a kind of exercise in writing against the damsels in distress and dead girlfriends that populate a significant body of literature.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There are packs of rogue coyotes wandering the city of Chicago, two consensual kidnappings, dreams that predict the future, a gun hidden in an underwear drawer, a healthy dose of Midwestern loneliness, a love story.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

The book will be published July 2, 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

My tagged writer for next week is:

Anton DiSclafani

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