Hello Friends!!! I am excited to share with you all a spoiler free Q & A with Anna Bruno author of Ordinary Hazards. Recently I have been focused on those expected gender roles of men and women and their likability in fiction. I have come to want more from the characters when it comes to those expected gender roles. Anna has done just that. She has created a strong female character here with Emma who spends a night at a bar reflecting on the breakup of her marriage with Lucas and her past and present. The women she used to be and the women she is. Emma is a character you will either like or dislike. She drinks too much and is judgmental, ambitious, nasty at times and acts out because of her pain. She is also insightful as she questions and reflects on the roles of women and mothers, privilege, class and her success. She is not easy to connect to because she is challenges that tunnel vision we sometimes as readers have with characters in fiction. However as the story develops we start to see just how relatable she is with those ordinary hazards of life that are universal to us all.
Brenda: What inspired you to write Ordinary Hazards? What came first for you the idea of the story, Emma’s character or the setting to the story?
Anna: From the first word, I knew the story would take place in a bar over a single night. When I’m in a public place, especially an intimate one, I am aware that the people who surround me all have stories. People are always falling in love or out of love. They may be in immense pain, or simply stuck in the doldrums of everyday life. They are constantly making the small decisions that propel their lives forward. I wanted to give the reader an opportunity to be a fly on the wall—to learn the gritty details about a woman who would otherwise just be another person at the bar.
Brenda: The story takes place over one night and each chapter is an hour starting at 5:00 pm. Why did you decide to write the story this way?
Anna: The decision to limit the present story line to one night at the bar focused the plot on a singular chain of events. Of course, when a constraint is imposed, something is always lost or impossible. Lucas, for example, is not at the bar because he can’t be. As the night slowly spirals out of control, Emma’s memories allow for limitless exploration of the people in her life, their intertwined histories, as well as her feelings of complicity and guilt.
Brenda: I love the setting here with The Final, Final bar and it took on a character in itself and it brought some tension to the story with the regulars in the bar. You stayed away from stereotypes and gave them depth that added to the tension of the story.
How important was the setting to you and how did you go about creating the setting and the regulars in the bar? Were any based on real-life people you know or met?
Anna: Before we had two babies, my husband and I used to hang around the bar with general contractors and electricians. We have a good friend who works for a family drywall business, one who works at a diner, and another who owns a storied pizza joint down the block.
In my writing, an essential aspect is an exploration of what each character does for work. I’ve always wanted to read books about people with jobs that are more representative of what people actually do. Even minor characters like the random guy who buys Emma a drink, have jobs. Emma recalls that he delivers medical equipment in New York and New Jersey.
The bar itself is based on a few spots. I really wanted to capture the intimacy of a small-town bar (as opposed to big-city bars, which seem more anonymous). Here, in Iowa City, we had a little townie bar called IC Ugly’s (now defunct). It was populated almost exclusively by regulars, a handful of mostly middle-aged men. University students rarely crossed the threshold. It was an oasis.
Brenda: I have been focusing on those expected gender roles of men and women and unlikeability in characters. I thought Emma was a good representation of both. She questions gender roles, likeability in men and women, class privilege, her success.
“It’s a man’s prerogative to be liked. Women are sometimes respected, sometimes admired, sometimes adored, but they aren’t liked, not really”
How did you go about creating that side of Emma and why was important to you to create a character like Emma? Did you think about her likability while you were writing her character or the other characters?
Anna: I love this question. Female likeability is absolutely something writers and readers should talk about. I recently discussed it with Maria Kuznetsova for Guernica Magazine: https://www.guernicamag.com/anna-brun….
I set out to write a female character who is strong and ambitious. Between Emma and Lucas, she is the breadwinner and he takes on much of the domestic responsibility. I consider myself a feminist, and for me, that means living in a world where the roles men and women take on are more fluid and better tied to their skills and ambition
Brenda: Emma reflects on her past and the regulars in the bar and you weave the past with the present and as the story progresses we learn why Emma sits at the bar and drinks. Emma says
“There are two of me: the woman I am and the woman I used to be.”
Did you know or plot who the two women Emma was before you started writing the story? How did you go about weaving in the past with the present? Did you know and plot her past or present first and then weave it in the story or did you create the story as you were writing it?
Anna: When I set out to write this novel over the course of a single night at the bar, the chief question became: “Why is Emma here?” To answer that question, I had to explore her history. I discovered more and more about her layered life–her childhood, her relationship with her father, her love for Lucas–through the writing process.
Once I knew Emma, the writing challenge became about piecing the narrative together. This happened mostly in revision. The transitions between past and present, which culminate in a climax where the storylines dovetail, were largely the product of many late drafts. I hope the reader experiences these transitions as seamless, or maybe doesn’t notice them at all.
Brenda: I have also been questioning if authors are able to write the stories they want to write or if they are writing stories publisher think will sell or what readers expect. Often that comes down to the characters and what readers expect from them. In our groups, we often talk about connecting to the characters and relating to them. That is different for many readers.
Did you have any struggles with writing the story and characters you wanted to write? Do you feel you wrote the story you wanted to write or what you thought readers would like?
Anna: Maybe this is the reason debut novels are so exciting…I wrote Ordinary Hazards without a deep understanding of the publication process, and my chief concern was the story I wanted to write (needed to write). There is a certain authenticity or even purity in writing a book from the heart without concern for the marketplace.
I have to admit, the experience of writing my next novel is quite different. Now I’ve seen how agents, publishers, booksellers, the media, and readers respond. I can’t stop thinking about all of these constituents. I think the end result will be a less contemplative book but one with more mystery. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. We shall see.
Brenda: I love the title and how that plays into the story. How did you come up with the title?
Anna: The title was pulled from a line in the book (p. 195). It’s a central theme in the book–the idea that you can worry all you want but you’ll never predict the thing that will destroy you. I love the pleasure of reading a novel and coming across the title, buried somewhere deep. It always gives me a chance to stop and consider what the book is all about.
Brenda: What would you like readers to get out of your book? Is there anything else you would like us to know?
Anna: I hope readers give Emma a chance, even if they don’t immediately love her. It’s an intimate novel, told in the first person, and it offers the opportunity to really get lost in someone else’s life. Regarding what messages someone might take away–that’s entirely up to individual readers.
Brenda: Are you working on anything you can share with us
Anna: I’m working on a novel about four friends. After experiencing a tragedy at their Catholic prep school, they go to college and move away, but never fully move on. The novel explores the mystery of the tragic event while confronting what it means to be raised Catholic and whether their parents’ faith is still a possibility for a group of kids raised in the eighties and nineties.