Sara Gruen Author of Water for Elephants Interview

Sara Gruen Interview - July 28, 2006

Sara Gruen
Sara Gruen - © Terence W. Bailey.

Sara Gruen has published three novels, Riding Lessons, Flying Changes and Water for Elephants. In this interview, Gruen discusses Water for Elephants, her love for animals and a little about her family and personal passions.

ERIN C. MILLER: I loved the book, so I’m excited to talk about it with you. Tell us how you came up with the idea for Water for Elephants.

SARA GRUEN: I was actually looking through the newspaper and I saw a photograph–a vintage circus photograph–and that was really pretty much it. I ordered the book of photographs and next thing I knew I was researching it and there we are.

ECM: How long did you spend researching circuses?

SARA GRUEN: Four and a half months. I took four research trips and got a whole bunch of books and watched documentaries on the depression itself because I didn’t know much about the depression either.

ECM: At what point in your research did the story begin to take shape?

SARA GRUEN: I was seeing all sorts of things that I knew I really wanted to incorporate, like redlighting, which is the practice of throwing somebody off the back of a moving train when you don’t want them working for you anymore, and the pickled hippo–just all of these completely outrageous things. But I don’t think I really had a story until I started writing because I don’t like to write from an outline. So, I always know what the crisis of the book is going to be, but I don’t know how I’m going to get there and I don’t know how I’m going to get out of it.

ECM: So how do you make that move in your writing process from a body of research to a story?

SARA GRUEN: I stare at the screen (laugh). I pick some music...I guess I figure out what the crisis of the book is going to be and then I sit down and I get my first scene. But once I have my first scene I really just have to keep going. My method is I spend an hour and a half sort of revving up every morning and I’ll read what I wrote the day before and maybe do a little revising of it, and then just keep going. I just read that last tiny little bit until I feel like I can continue.

ECM: I read something about a walk-in closet?

SARA GRUEN: (laugh) Well, um, I wrote the first half of the book without any problems, but I had two fairly long interruptions. The first, my horse got very sick and I sat outside her stall for nine weeks. Then she actually stepped on my foot and crushed it afterwards, so I was out for nine weeks. That was the first interruption. I was out for 18 weeks. So I wrote the first half of the book and then I took what was supposed to be a short three or four week technical writing contract, and it stretched into four months. I was doing 10 and 11-hour days, and it was a fairly complicated SQL server database thing. When I finished it, I was really having a lot of trouble getting my head back into the book and getting my characters and my plotlines back. So, I was shopping on ebay a lot and I painted my family room five times and I actually sorted my rubberbands by size. I’m a slob so this was a real cry for help. So I asked my husband to move my desk into our walk-in closet because I knew I either had to get serious about finishing the book or else just give up on it.

And I covered over the window and I wore headphones. I think I was three and a half months in the closet before I finally finished. Of course, if I did it now I would have to rip the wireless card out of my laptop, but at the time I didn’t have one, so it meant I was unwired.

ECM: So, how long from when you saw that newspaper article to when you finished the book? How long start to finish?

SARA GRUEN: I think roughly a year.

ECM: Even with interruptions, that was pretty quick.

SARA GRUEN: The writing itself for me usually takes four or five months with a book. For this one it took slightly longer, but not very much, just because of the historical detail. So, if you count it all up I think it was pretty close to a year.

ECM: I have a lot of experience in retirement communities, so I was especially moved by the descriptions of Jacob’s life as an older adult. Did that portion of the story come from any personal experiences with older people? How did you decide to include him at 90 or 93 rather than just writing about a circus during the Great Depression?

SARA GRUEN: There were a few reasons for wanting to include him, but basically we have a lot of longevity on both sides of my family, but we don’t actually have anybody in a home. But I think this frightened my husband a little bit. I seem to have 93-year-old men on tap. But he was just there when I wanted to write the story and I started thinking about how I was going to end it. I realized I would be leaving this character, if I didn’t include the older Jacob, I would be leaving this character right on the cusp of World War II and us not knowing what happened to him or his family. So, I didn’t want to do that. I think that was one of my main driving factors. And really, there was this old guy in my head just wanting to talk. So I let him.

ECM: Well, I loved those parts of the book just as much as the circus parts.

SARA GRUEN: Oh thanks. I reached those with relief because in the circus portions I had to keep so many details straight and when I got to the nursing home I knew what things were made out of. I didn’t have to double-check every single detail.

ECM: Animals have been important characters in all your novels, and I noticed on your Web site that you donate a portion of the royalties from your books to animal related charities. Have you always been an animal lover?

SARA GRUEN: Yeah, and I don’t think I realized I was any different from anybody else until really pretty much the start of this book tour when people started asking me that. And I was thinking, “Yes, I have, isn’t everybody like this?” And I think maybe now I realized I’m a little bit further over the edge of the spectrum in the animal-loving department.

ECM: Who was your first pet?

SARA GRUEN: My first pet was a Maltese named Molly but she coincided with Alice the cat. So I had Molly and Alice for a long time and then we had fish and Annie and all my other childhood dogs up until the point when I started getting my own pets.

ECM: And tell us about some of your current pets.

SARA GRUEN: My dogs are Ladybug and Reba. They are nine years old and they’re funny because they are littermates but one of them looks like a Chow and one of them looks like Old Yeller, so I have no idea what kind of dogs are in there. They are nine and we got them from a Texas sanctuary a year and a half ago, so they spent seven years there. So, they are extremely grateful to have a home. They are just the most loving dogs you can imagine. And we have 17-year-old Katie the cat. And Mouse who is six. And Fritz is our most recent cat addition, and he’s also nine years old and he was rescued from a house that had more than 100 cats, and his ears were so badly infected for so many years that we had to have his ear canals resectioned. So his ears stuck up at different angles and he always looked like he was angry even though he wasn’t. And actually we could never get the second ear to clear up, so we got a CT scan done and they discovered he had a growth in his middle ear, so he had to have that ear basically closed up.

So he’s still got a cosmetic ear, but it’s just skin all the way over where there used to be an ear. He’s pretty funny looking. But he’s really sweet and he’s happy now at least.

ECM: And you have horses?

SARA GRUEN: Well, right, I have horse. I have one horse and two goats. My horse’s name is Tia and Pepper is my goat and Ferdinand is my accident goat because a farmer moved across the road from our goat pen and they brought a goat with them, but they didn’t have a goat pen yet. And their goat was a buck, and by the time I noticed, Pepper was pregnant, so now I have Ferdinand.

ECM: Your Web site says you live in an environmentalist community. What does that mean?

SARA GRUEN: Our houses are 60% more energy efficient than other houses. And I think we have 680 something acres and there are four hundred some families, but we all live on fairly small, personal lots so that we have a lot of common area and restored wetlands. We share an organic farm and we have a charter school and some of our neighbors have prairie grass instead of lawns. We would have as well, except our house was already built when we moved in and it has a lawn. But that eliminates the need for spraying and using chemicals on your lawn. All you have to do is burn it off once a year and it is sort of knee-deep wildflowers. It looks really great.


SARA GRUEN: Well, there are various. The one in Texas where I got my two dogs is called SARA, and they take any type of animal. Because my first two books were horse specific I used to support largely horse charities. But I have branched out. So, there’s SARA. There’s also the United Pegasus Foundation, which helps find homes for off track thoroughbreds and also the foals which are the result of hormone replacement therapy, which of course is made from pregnant mare’s urine. They help find homes for those babies so they don’t end up going to slaughter. Live and Let Live Farm in New Hampshire–they take pretty much all creatures who need help, but they also have mostly horses at this point. There’s the Nokota Horse Conservancy – there is a very, very rare breed of horse that actually traces its lineage from the horses used for Sitting Bull. They are breeding those. They have the last purebred and foundation mares of that breed and are trying to build it up again, and are in desperate need of help.

So, there’s quite a number of them and they are listed on my Web site.

ECM: How has your family reacted to your success as a writer? Are your children old enough to read your books?

SARA GRUEN: (laughing) No! When they’re 44 they can read them...My kids are 5, 8 and 12, so the 5-year-old doesn’t understand anything that’s going on. It’s just what Mommy does. The 8-year-old, every time I go to a book signing he thinks that I’m writing a new book. But the 12-year-old, he gets it mostly, and he’s really pleased. He is really happy and proud and he writes his own stories now.

ECM: Where in Canada are you originally from?

SARA GRUEN: From Ottawa. I was born in Vancouver and then I grew up partly in London, Ontario, but then I went to University in Ottawa and I stayed there for 10 years afterward.

ECM: Do you ever see yourself moving back to Canada?

SARA GRUEN: Yeah, it could happen.

ECM: What do you think is the biggest difference between living in America and living in Canada?

SARA GRUEN: Oh boy. (pause) Health care.

ECM: On your Web site you say your dream is “to spend your life facedown in the ocean, coming up just long enough to eat a piece of fish, write a chapter, and go back in the water. How did you fall in love with the ocean?

SARA GRUEN: Well, I was born in Vancouver, so I’ve always been near the ocean, but I think it was when I started scuba diving that I really fell in love with the ocean. My husband and I scuba dive and snorkel. I just love it. It’s just what I enjoy most. So my dream, of course, is to live by the sea, somewhere where it is actually warm enough to go in the sea.

ECM: Any beach trips this summer or too busy promoting the book?

SARA GRUEN: Too busy promoting the book. I’m actually going to Vancouver for a cousin’s wedding, but the water is too cold there for me.

ECM: Any chance this love of the ocean will show up in a future novel?

SARA GRUEN: The book I abandoned to begin writing Water for Elephants was actually set in Hawaii and had dolphins and scuba diving in it. I tried to pick it up after Water for Elephants and ended up on a completely different track altogether. I may still write it. I haven’t decided if it died on the vine or just hasn’t gelled yet, so I’ll still throw the idea around once in a while and see what happens.

ECM: What are you working on now?

SARA GRUEN: Well, at the moment I’m working on the tour, but as soon as I get home I’m going to start on something about Bonobo apes, which are also known as pygmy chimpanzees. Or they used to be. They are now considered one of the four great apes in their own right and DNA-wise, they’re even more closely related to us than regular chimpanzees. It should be fun! They are really adept at learning American sign language, so for part of my research I’m really hoping I'll finally get to meet Koko–the gorilla who knows American sign language and who I have been following for 22 years. And maybe get up to the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa and maybe see their signing Bonobos as well.

ECM: What are some of your favorite books?

SARA GRUEN: I read a great, wide swath of authors. I don’t pick any particular person, but Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken is wonderful, Life of Pi–of course, The Kite Runner. I just reread The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway. So, I jump around a lot.

ECM: Movie recommendations?

SARA GRUEN: We have three kids, so the last movie I saw was Chicken Little. (laughing) So, I’m not really in a position to say.

ECM: What kind of music do you listen to?

SARA GRUEN: Again, it’s all over the map. I listen to everything from Fleetwood Mac to Gordon Lightfoot to Radiohead. It’s all over the place. It really depends on what kind of mood what I’m writing needs to be.

ECM: Any words to live by?

SARA GRUEN: (laughing) I don’t know...just go for it.