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Writing is serious avocation for earthquake engineer Michel Bruneau

Michel Bruneau, professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, has written three books. Photo: Douglas Levere

By MICHAEL ANDREI

Published December 5, 2016

“I love to write stories that I would like to read.”
Michel Bruneau, professor
Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering

“It’s not a sudden thing … for me, it started in grade school.”

“When one of my teachers gave out an assignment, ‘write anything you want, one page,’ everybody came back with just that. I turned in seven pages,” says Michel Bruneau.

A professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Bruneau says he has always been writing.

“I have been writing fiction as far back as I can remember — silly stuff in grade school, Edgar Allen Poe-inspired horror fantasies and a bunch of other things in high school, and even a 100-page novella when I was about 18.”

In 1997, Bruneau’s first book was published: “Inhumanity – Eleven Short Stories that Insult Intelligence.”

“I was still living in Canada, working at the University of Ottawa, so the book was written in French,” he says. “In those short stories, unusual characters chase solutions to situations confronting — and confounding — them, down to unusual falls.

“I got positive Radio Canada interviews out of it, so I felt encouraged a bit. The worst thing you can do to writers is encourage them, right?”

At the time, Bruneau already had begun work on his first novel written in English.

An expert on seismic evaluation and retrofit of steel bridges, buildings and masonry infrastructure, Bruneau came to UB in 1998 as deputy director of the university’s Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER).

“The thing that got me started on the novel, “Shaken Allegiances,” was that everybody kept asking me questions on two topics,” Bruneau says. “The first one was earthquakes. You know: ‘You are an earthquake engineer? Can we have earthquakes here? How big? What happens when they strike? How safe are we?’

“Earthquakes seem to fascinate people,” he says. “Even at parties, when some people discover you are an earthquake engineer, they are curious; they want to know more about earthquakes. Especially if they have experienced one.”

Another subject that kept coming up when Bruneau traveled outside of Canada — before he joined the UB faculty — was the Quebec secessionist movement.

“At conferences, when people learned that I was from Quebec City, they wanted to know about why Quebec wanted to secede from Canada — particularly a few years ago when the topic captured the news, even outside of Canada.

“So I got the crazy idea at the time of mixing both subjects in a novel.”

“Shaken Allegiances” takes place 48 hours after a devastating earthquake in Montreal and two weeks before a referendum on Quebec’s secession from Canada.

“The earthquake itself serves as a metaphor for the bigger disaster of human nature. Everybody is pulling the situation — the chaos, the rescue, the ideology — to their own political advantage,” Bruneau says.

“I remember during an interview on the book with Radio Canada that the host remarked: ‘Everybody in your book is a disreputable character.’

“I replied, ‘Well, that is true to a certain extent. You can’t write a story where everyone is bad, but there are a fair number of dubious characters in there.’ I wanted to present a cynical view of human folly, while also being entertaining.” 

“Shaken Allegiances” won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for Fiction in 2010 and received the George Winter Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2011.

The book took Bruneau 10 years to complete.

“During the period of time when I was working on it, I was deputy director, then director, of the earthquake center at UB. It was a pretty intense workload,” he recalls.

“You try to find time here, find time there. There is a pull to get back to it, to work on it, but unless you are a full-time writer, you take what you can.”

Which often means, he says, working in bits and pieces.

Still, this led to his second novel, “The Emancipating Death of a Boring Engineer,” published in 2012.

Bruneau recounts the story: “An engineer who dedicated his life to his career finds himself with only six months to live. Looking back, he realizes that perhaps he should have done things differently.

“So he decides to reconcile with his ex-wife, whom he hasn’t seen in 10 years. He does this through a series of letters. The first one is read to her during his funeral arrangements — his last wishes — which start with a request that his casket be filled with 2005 Saint-Émilion, which is an exceptional and expensive French red wine.

“Now on an unconventional journey — a treasure hunt of sorts — she is guided by a guy she thought she knew, but doesn’t recognize. She re-discovers her husband, albeit posthumously.”

Bruneau explains that each author finds his or her own inspirations. “For me, I love to write stories that I would like to read.

“You can’t control inspiration. You really can’t control where it comes from. And that sometimes leads to what people call ‘the blank-page syndrome,’ he says.

“I have never had that happen, but I know that if you try too hard to control inspiration, you may end up there. You want to write something on ‘X’ and ‘X’ doesn’t come.”

Bruneau says he had begun writing his third novel, but the process was interrupted by other ideas.

“I was 100 pages through writing a new novel, but everything that was coming to my mind was about a completely different story,” Bruneau says. “So I shelved the one I was working on and just went in that other direction. Maybe I will go back to that unfinished novel someday, but when your creative muse speaks, you listen.”

This gave birth to “My Author is Dead,” his third novel, published last September.

“It can be described as a satire. Or dystopian fiction. It can be read purely as entertainment, but it is also deeper than that,” he says.

“You can say that it’s a book that can’t be pigeonholed.”

Bruneau says he has received good feedback and reviews from colleagues around the country and the world — “and even from people I’ve never met before. It’s unpredictable, it’s random, but it is most enjoyable because if you are writing novels, you want people to read them. So getting feedback is fantastic.

“But, fundamentally,” he says, “you write for yourself first — before anybody else. If people like it, great! Mind you, it is logical that people who share your tastes would enjoy reading your stories.”

Writing a novel is like travelling without a road map, Bruneau notes. You need a sense of where you want to go, but you may change directions or you may even change plans.

“But that is the whole point,” he says. “The underlying message and the mood are set at the beginning, but then it carries you through discoveries and surprises along the way.    

“By the time you are finished — whenever that may be — the novel must be able to stand on its own. It has to have a good plot, a solid story arc, coherence, legs and, perhaps most importantly, you have to be pleased with the outcome.”

More information about Bruneau's novels can be found here.