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Powell’s Q&A: Sara Gruen

Describe your latest book.
Ape House is about a family of language-competent bonobo apes who are kidnapped from their home and mysteriously reappear a few months later as the stars of a reality TV show being filmed in a remote town in New Mexico.

Their main caretaker at the Great Ape Language Lab, Isabel Duncan, has an easier time relating to animals than she does to other humans. And she's not alone. We live in a world full of the faux intimacy that reality television and sites like Facebook have created. We have all this very superficial contact with and information about other people, and yet all this increased information has made it more difficult to form actual relationships. Isabel does not know how to connect. But all that changes when an explosion rocks the lab and her ape family is taken from her. She's set on a collision course with the human race, mostly in the form of a very married journalist who sees her ape family's abduction as the story of a lifetime.

I structured Ape House like a thriller I like plot twists and forward motionI structured Ape House like a thriller — I like plot twists and forward motion — but I used that structure to explore the themes of what it means to be family, how we relate to each other in society, sexuality and the social strictures surrounding it, the phenomena of tabloid journalism and reality TV and what these indicate about our culture, and I transposed these elements against the culture of the peaceful, egalitarian, and extremely amorous bonobo ape. For many years, people have argued that since violence, murder, and warfare are part of chimpanzee society, they are also hardwired into us. The recently discovered and relatively unknown bonobo is as closely related to us as chimpanzees, and provides humans with a very different model for behavior, one that encompasses empathy, sharing, and an abhorrence for violence.

Essentially, it calls into question our assumptions about what it means to be human.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I went to Hemingway House in Key West for four years in a row with the sole purpose of getting the cats hammered. I bought tons of catnip (they sell it in the gift shop), and got the cats so stoned they were lolling about on the lawn letting the other visitors rub their tummies (and occasionally administering a chomp, because, as every cat person knows, a tummy rub can go bad). I really want a Hemingway cat.

What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
They're comfy and they're gorgeous and they're completely flat and they go with everything and I want to be buried in them.

What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
Black truffle butter. It is a staple in my house.

Why do you write?
Because I can't not.

Fahrenheit, Celsius, or Kelvin?
Celsius! It just makes sense. Zero is the freezing point of water, one hundred is the boiling point.

Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
If we're traveling together? Authors. Those book festivals can get pretty crazy.

On a clear and cold day, do you typically get outside into the sunshine or stay inside where it's warm?
I stay in where it's warm! I'm great at the après ski thing, although I guess technically you're supposed to actually ski first. I blame it on being Canadian. I'm finished with winter.

Do you read blogs? What are some of your favorites?
My absolute favorite, and the only one I check every day, is Joshilyn Jackson's Faster than Kudzu. She has a wicked sense of humor. I also love The Adventures of Comma Boy.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
All of the above, although I've never had all of them at the same time — I always felt that having budgies and cats at the same time was inviting tragedy, especially since my budgies always had the run of the place. I had one particularly dim budgie that liked to dive-bomb into the dishwater. Don't worry. I always got him out.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Here are five books I've forced into my husband's hands the second I finished them. These are sock-you-in-the-guts books. If you are prone to skipping prologues, epilogues, or footnotes, DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!!

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

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Sara Gruen is the author of the #1 bestselling novel Water for Elephants, as well as the bestseller Riding Lessons and Flying Changes. She shares her North Carolina home with her own version of a blended family: a husband, three children, four cats, two dogs, two horses, and a goat. In order to write her latest novel, Ape House, Gruen studied linguistics and a system of lexigrams so that she could communicate directly with the bonobos living at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa. She now considers them to be part of her extended family, and, according to the bonobos, the feeling is mutual.

Books mentioned in this post

Sara Gruen is the author of Ape House

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