Author Sarah Bruni’s debut novel The Night Gwen Stacy Died isn’t a novelization of the 1973 classic Spider-Man comics arc of the same name. It’s not even a Spider-Man story, well, not in a conventional sense. The book is a coming-of-age story that features an off-beat love story between an Iowan girl who dreams of escaping to Paris and a young man who calls himself Peter Parker. Bruni talked to EW about renegotiating the role of Spider-Man’s first love, and those real coyotes taking over Chicago.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you choose explore Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy’s story over the stories of other superheroes? Why Peter Parker? Why Spider-Man?
SARAH BRUNI: It’s interesting how it found its way into the novel. I was not a big comic book reader growing up, which people often assume I was because it’s such a particular story. But, I was writing a short story a number of years ago, and I had friends that were comic book readers. I feel like I was peripherally aware of the Spider-Man/Gwen Stacy story. I had a character that just showed up in and referred to himself as Peter Parker. I was intrigued by why a character would appropriate this role, but I didn’t really know much about the role myself. So a couple years later, when I realized that this story would grow into a novel, I ended up going back into the actual comic books and read the first ten years or so of Spider-Man comics firsthand. The more that I got into the story, the more that I got interested in this idea of the first dead love of this superhero who doesn’t really have much agency. And she kind of, from the start, has a very certain fate. So, I became interested in the idea of having my female protagonist decide to play along with this role without really understanding its terms, but having a different understanding of what the role is than even the way that it’s written.
When going through the lexicon of the Spider-Man comics, how did you perceive Gwen Stacy? Did you wonder who she really was?
Yeah, I definitely wondered who she was. For anyone that’s not very initiated into the larger story of Spider-Man, you only hear about Mary Jane. I wasn’t aware of her, aside from mentions from friends, without really taking a looking at the comics myself. She’s an interesting character because she’s very intelligent in her own right. She’s sort of a science nerd along with Peter Parker as he’s growing up. But she’s also very beautiful, and she’s this pin-up blonde, and she’s very vulnerable. So there’s various things that make her a strong character, but, in the end, it’s not enough for her to be a character that carries the story. She has to be sacrificed by the end of it in order for Spider-Man’s own role in the story to be carried forth. I was interested in going back and taking a closer look at that and interrogating the way that comic book heroes’ girlfriends and these supporting characters are viewed in popular culture. But then also looking at it as a woman and as a writer and someone that was interested in taking a look at it from the female perspective.
What’s your take on The Amazing Spider-Man and that film’s depiction of Gwen Stacy?
It was interesting. I’m going to be very curious to see the one that comes out next summer because, of course, the last one that came out last summer ends at sort of a cliffhanger. So, I’m curious to see whether or not Gwen Stacy will actually meet her true fate as she does in the comic books or not because, of course, a lot of the writers are taking liberties with a lot of the details from the actual Spider-Man comic books. For example, in the movie, Parker’s identity as Spider-Man is revealed to Gwen Stacy pretty much right away, which is not the case in the comic books. But I had a lot of fun watching it, just in the same way that I had a lot of fun reading it. It’s a story that I’m playing with, and so it’s always fun to see other representations and interpretations of the story based on other writers’ interest.
You decided to set the story in the Midwest and then the characters run off to Chicago, as opposed to New York, where Spider-Man is set. Why not New York City?
I think Chicago came before the Spider-Man/Gwen Stacy story for me. I’m from the Midwest, so for me I was really interested in a particular kind of adolescence that has a sort of escapism to it. I think a lot of us that grow up in the Midwest and a lot of adolescents everywhere read stories as a means of escaping and as a means of trying to read ourselves into different stories and different realities for ourselves. I wanted to start in a place that was smaller than Chicago. I wanted to start a little more removed, but I liked this idea of Chicago being the metropolis to which the characters are escaping because you’re still in the Midwest so everything is relative.
Was Chicago that fantastical metropolis for you growing up in the Midwest?
To a certain extent, yes. I was born in the southern suburbs and grew up mostly in the western suburbs. I spent several years in the city off and on, but yeah, I think that there was definitely a sense of coming into the big city. I wanted to repeat that in the novel, and I also wanted to create a version of Chicago that was slightly more fantastical and exaggerated than it actually was to give it more of that larger-than-life quality.
The book contains multiple examples of the fantastical such as Peter’s premonitions and the ever-present coyotes. What was the inspiration for those elements of fantasy?
Well, so the coyotes, for example, are interesting to me because there is actually a coyote problem in Chicago. Apparently, coyotes are showing up all over the place. Most famously, one walked into a Quizno’s in 2007 and just hung out nearby while patrons started freaking out of course and running around and taking pictures of it with their cell phones. So, this is already really weird. I was really interested in the way that the natural world was reasserting itself in this way that the human population just had to deal with and become accustomed to. I wanted to use that in the novel and have it be a part of the Chicago that I’m portraying but make it slightly heightened and slightly stranger.
As far as Peter and Sheila’s own, either run-ins with the coyotes or their own fantastical elements, I guess because the novel was narrated from a close third person perspective, I was really interested in viewing how things work for each particular person and their own subject position. I don’t know that, for example when the coyotes are talking to Sheila at the end, I don’t know that they really are and I don’t know if that’s even really important, but in the moment when she’s there in the water, she hears them talking to her, so for her, it’s a very real thing. Whether anyone that’s observing that would have a different take is completely possible, but I think that’s the key for one that gets invested in the story, in the fate of a certain event that’s playing out, things can seem very real, depending on where you’re looking at the situation.
When you were writing, did you imagine an objective perspective of what is or isn’t reality? Did you have a larger outline of the events and then had different perceptions for Sheila and Peter, etc?
No, I don’t really write with outlines, and I don’t really think that I had a sense of the difference between what was really happening and what I saw happening for each character. I felt like when I got into each character’s perspective, I really wanted to make myself believe as much as I could as the writer, the things that they were experiencing to be true to them. I think I had a sense of where it was heading insofar as I knew there would be sort of this confrontation as to whether or not Gwen Stacy would die and the moment. But other than that, I was writing pretty blindly. I have a really hard time following outlines because I get very bored if I know where things are going. As a writer, I lose excitement in the actual process of discovery that writing is. I live sort of kept on my feet in the process.
Each part of the book is sectioned off with illustrations. Were you responsible for those as well?
No, I have been collaborating with an illustrator friend of mine, who is responsible for all of the illustrations within the novel. Those came about in a very interesting way while we started with just the spot illustrations as a way to call attention to the different characters whose sections alternate. There’s three people that are narrating from a third person close point of view in the novel. I didn’t want to use their names to call attention because, of course, each of them has several names that they go by. As the author I didn’t really want to weigh in on which name we should put, Sheila or Gwen, Peter or Seth, and so on. So, I was trying to come up with a way to signal them as speakers without using their actual names, so I started working with this illustrator, Sarah Ferone. She came up with the concept of using the spiderweb, the Eiffel Tower, and the coyote. The more that we saw how illustration is occupying the pieces, the more we became interested in it because, since the book borrows so much from the comic books, which also obviously are illustrated, we liked the idea of breaking the parts with just with a breath of fresh air of only visual material to break up the type and to prepare the reader for what was to come in an indirect way. We came up with three plates that separate the different sections of the book.
What works are you recommending to people lately?
I just finished Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, which was incredible. Claire Vaye Watson’s Battleborn, her collection of short stories I really loved. The last one, which won’t be coming out until September, is The Facades by Eric Lundgren. He is actually someone that I worked with as a reader, and he’s been a reader of my books for many years. He’s been working on this novel for quite a long time, and it’s also a novel that takes place in the Midwest and is just incredible. It takes a look at—I’m not going to do it justice. [Laughs.] Well I’m just going to recommend it without saying anything else.
The Night Gwen Stacy Died hits shelves July 2.
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