Anna Bruno and I lived in the same town for four years—both attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, though at different times— but we didn’t meet until we became new mothers anticipating the publication of our novels along with the arrival of little ones. Apparently, books and babies come in pairs.
Her debut novel, Ordinary Hazards, is narrated by a mother named Emma, who spends one night at a bar meditating on the disintegration of her marriage and family.
The Final Final is a cozy bar with a jukebox, a pool table, and a room full of people who want to forget whatever happened that day. There, Emma finds comfort in the steady hand of the longtime bartender, her friend’s ten-year-old daughter who draws ponies in a dark booth, idle conversation with her ex’s friends, and memories of her marriage before it fell apart.
As Emma struggles to balance her success in the business world with small-town family life, this bar becomes not only a “home away from home,” but a place where she goes to remember what her home used to be, before she left her marriage to live in a small apartment with her beloved dog.
As I read this moving and bold novel, I found myself wishing I too could return to the past. One before our children and before the pandemic, where Anna and I could get a drink together, without having to sneak in conversation about our forthcoming novels between talk of nap schedules and milestones.
While Zoom doesn’t have quite the intimacy of the dark booths at IC Ugly’s, a favorite Iowa City haunt that inspired The Final Final, we were still able to briefly show off our now-two-year-old children before settling in for a hearty discussion about the pressure that women face to be “likeable,” the luck of “breaking out,” Tolstoy, and more.
— Maria Kuznetsova for Guernica
Guernica: In your essay for LitHub, “Can Dogs Make Us Better Writers?” you wrote about how dogs make us more human. It reminded me of something my husband’s film school teacher always said, which was that if you want to make a character more sympathetic, give them a dog.
And in a way, it’s true—Emma felt her most human to me when she was describing her love for Addie. How were you able to show so much love for a creature who can’t speak?
Anna Bruno: What a brilliant trick! It’s true that people with dogs are more likeable, both in fiction and in real life. But you can’t simply give a character a dog, the character must deeply love the dog. And for me, one of the eternal questions of fiction is how you show love while avoiding sentimentality.
Dogs are sometimes quirky—Maria Semple writes great dogs and gives them funny names like Ice Cream. But the dogs that move me in fiction are the loyal ones. Several readers have told me that Addie is their favorite character in the book, and I totally respect that.
Writing Addie was easy for one reason: She’s the only character in the novel who is directly ripped from real life. I didn’t even bother to change her name, but my dog doesn’t mind. Addie is a herding dog, so her purpose in life is to keep the herd together. Her presence intensifies the human bonds in the novel, because Addie wants the family to be together. In the end, this is what dogs give us—a feeling of belonging, a sense of home, and the enduring comfort of an unbreakable bond.
Also, because dogs can’t talk, they never say anything rude or annoying, so readers can’t quibble about their likeability.
Guernica: We both wrote about women from privileged backgrounds who drink a lot, and a certain amount of blowback comes with that. What does the idea of the “likeable” female protagonist mean to you? Was that something you were thinking about or writing against with Emma?
Bruno: For all the reasons Addie is so likeable, Emma is not. She’s privileged, judgmental, and occasionally mean. She drinks too much, and she can be crass. Throughout the writing process, I had an inkling that my narrator might rub some people the wrong way, but I didn’t think about it too much. For one thing, I always liked Emma. She’s a strong woman: funny, insightful, and ambitious. She’s also in a dark place when she tells this story, so I was willing to indulge her, and I assumed readers would be too.
Some readers love Emma, some come to love her by the end of the novel, and some despise her. No surprise there, but I do think she gets tougher treatment than a man would. As readers (and as people in the world), we should ask ourselves why we sometimes direct vitriol at women while we let men skate by with endearing foibles.
Guernica: The same can be said about how women and men are judged differently as parents. I loved when Emma said, “…if you’re a man, all you have to do is not do a few things and Congratulations! Dad of the year! Being a good mom requires perfection, in public and private, without end.”
Bruno: In an ideal world, we would have more empathy for all types of characters. A character can come from a privileged background and still experience an immense amount of pain. A woman can act out as a result of that pain, and be propelled by a series of factors, layered and complex. We ought to give her a chance and listen to her story. In some ways, this is the point of the novel.
But wishing for empathy doesn’t make readers like Emma more. As a writer, I still need to get comfortable with this reality. I need to be OK with readers taking her down. If readers don’t like a character, that’s their prerogative. They will miss the opportunity to know her, and I think Emma has something to offer when you get to know her.
Guernica: And I know plenty of people did love Emma as much as I did! When you’re writing a female protagonist, there’s a sense that people are going to find something to criticize about her, no matter what. She can’t be too ambitious. She can’t drink too much or fool around. But then you start to wonder, what can she do to still be an interesting character?
Bruno: The flip side is that readers also don’t like women who are too traditional in their roles. Women can’t win in literature. It’s no different from other forms of public life.
The important thing is that writers love their characters. Because I love Emma, I can write her—I have the right to put her on the page—and I can explore her interior life.
A previous novel I wrote, which I did not sell, had some really unlikeable women in it. They were young women working in public relations. And, you know, they behaved badly. I wrote that novel more intellectually—it wasn’t written from the heart like Ordinary Hazards, which I wrote with this feeling of love for all the characters. At the time, I was getting married myself and starting a family. And I think readers can feel that—they may not know it’s what they are sensing but it’s there in a subterranean way.
Guernica: What about that other novel—what did you learn from the process of writing something that didn’t sell?
Bruno: This may be my ego talking, but more than anything the experience of not selling a novel really drove home the idea that it’s all about luck and timing. That novel didn’t make it to the right people in the right moment.
Ordinary Hazards is a better book—I hope every book I ever write is better than the last—but writers should acknowledge that many great novels don’t sell and many bad novels do. Luck must have something to do with it. Sometimes writers make their own luck and some writers lack the access to do so, but at the end of the day, it’s still luck.
Guernica: I also wrote an earlier novel that didn’t sell (a book about Chernobyl written years before the TV show got so popular!), and I think when people ask what you gained from that process, they want to hear that you learned a lot about writing, and honed your craft, and were able to bring some of that energy into your new project, and that none of that hard work was wasted.
And while all of that is true, the process makes you more cynical as well, realizing that it might have worked out under different circumstances. It reminds me of Emma’s bestselling economics book, The Breakout Effect, which is about what makes certain people find success.
Bruno: Oh yes, Emma’s insight is that “It’s not who you are that makes you a leader. It’s the story about who you are.” In her view, storytelling is a learned skill. Later, when she modifies her hypothesis, “…the story and the person are one and the same…,” her book sells to millions.
Cynically, one could read this as an act of manipulation—tell the right story and you can engineer success. But at the end of the day, we tell the stories that we are compelled to tell. They make us who we are as surely as we make them what they are. When Emma finally reflects on her own story, she says, “There’s something there though, in the telling of it, a profit of some kind, perhaps of the kind that cannot be quantified.” We may or may not profit financially from our stories, but there is always value in telling them.
A while ago, I read an interview with Lionel Shriver, where she spoke about the books she wrote before her huge breakout novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Basically, she said her other books were great too—the breakout novel was not better, it just happened to find the right cultural moment. Some books are timeless, of course, but sometimes authors hit the media jackpot as a result of some preoccupation at a particular moment.
Writers can’t control any of this. All we can do is try to write the best books we can, and try to get them out into the world. I’m very happy that Ordinary Hazards exists in the world, and that it’s my debut. Because I wrote it out of love, I’ll always be proud of it.
Guernica: Can you say more about how you envision the book as a love story between Emma and Lucas? I definitely felt the love between them, but I would say it was somewhat unusual, in a good way.
Bruno: Emma is always running away from something until she meets Lucas. In him, she finds a home—figuratively, but also literally a house on Catherine Street. Their relationship is unlikely because they come from different backgrounds. Emma writes a best-selling business book and manages a hedge fund, whereas Lucas hangs drywall for a living and chooses to stay in his small town. But, he understands happiness in a way Emma never could, and he gives her a taste of it.
Ordinary Hazards explores what it means to live a good life—not just a happy life but also a life worth living. Which for me, is one of the essential questions that fiction can answer. It’s likely the reason why I write. Tolstoy, of course, was a master of this question, which is why Ivan Ilych is always popping up in conversations between Emma and Lucas.
Guernica: Ivan Ilych—speaking of male characters with ambition who may not be likeable! Can you talk about how The Death of Ivan Ilych was on your mind as you wrote?
Bruno: I almost forgot I’m being interviewed by a Tolstoy expert!
Guernica: I’m hardly an expert, but I will say that he briefly wrote from the point of view of Levin’s dog in Anna Karenina.
Bruno: No kidding! I hadn’t read The Death of Ivan Ilych since college, but when I started writing Emma’s character, the book became so prominent in my mind. It came over me like a wave. That’s the power of Tolstoy for you.
There’s this moment in the novella when Ivan Ilych sees himself in his wife and daughter, all that for which he had lived. For me, it’s one of the most intense moments in literature. To look at your family and feel such regret. It’s unimaginably sad. Over the course of the night at the bar, Emma takes a hard look at her family, and at herself, and I think it’s her family who makes her want to live again. She’s in pain, as Ivan is in pain, but for her, it’s worth it. It’s worth all the pain.
Guernica: Ivan Ilych is only in his mid-forties when he dies, but that’s pretty much old age in Russia in the 1880s. Though Emma is perfectly healthy and narrating her story from her thirty-fifth birthday, you also get this sense that she’s looking back on her life like someone from her deathbed.
She says, “There are two of me: the woman I am and the woman I used to be…The problem is not that I live in the past, the before; the problem is that I live in the present, the after.” She’s aware of everything she’s lost, that she will never get back the life she had with Lucas and their son, Lionel. It’s kind of like a deathbed book, in that way, except in the end, she realizes she’s not on her deathbed. She can have a second act.
Bruno: In a way, she’s dying in that bar, so I guess it is a deathbed book. But there’s hope for Emma, I promise!
Guernica: A love story about a woman dying in a bar! Who could resist that?