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The Sara Gruen Most Spectacular Show on Earth

Joshilyn Jackson likens the voice of Water for Elephants to John Irving's. The story is that kind of character-driven juggernaut.* Set a good block of time aside and dive in.

Sara GruenChapter one drops you into small town, bygone America — not some ivied New England hamlet but, instead, the train of a traveling circus during the Great Depression. Sara Gruen hitches her driving plot to the fate of an orphan boy, and off you go.

Either Jacob Jankowski is ninety or ninety-three. He can't remember, and he keeps forgetting to ask the nurse what year it is. Seven decades ago, Jacob lost his parents, dropped out of Cornell, and joined the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Now he's afraid he's losing his mind.

Selected by independent booksellers as the #1 Book Sense pick for June, Water for Elephants is "lovely and mesmerizing" (Kirkus Reviews), "an enchanting escapist fairy tale" (the New York Times Book Review), and a "delightful gem springing from a fascinating footnote to history that absolutely deserved to be mined" (Denver Post).

Dave: Is it true that you'd never been to a circus before starting your research for Water for Elephants?

Sara Gruen: It's true. I had no history whatsoever. No interest, no connection to anyone associated with the circus. I grew up in northern Ontario. I don't know if they didn't come up that far or if I just never went, but if I did go it made such a little impression on me that I didn't remember it.

Dave: What wound up being your favorite act?

Gruen: In the end, the Liberty Horses.

Dave: Describe exactly what they do.

Gruen: A person, usually a beautiful woman, comes out with a group of twelve horses typically, sometimes all white, sometimes black and white. She stands and makes signals with whips in the air, and she talks to them, and they obey her.

I have a horse, and I think it's very cool that they can get horses doing that with no restraint and no halter.

Dave: Marlena is that woman in Water for Elephants.

Gruen: Yes, and in fact I modeled her act after ones I had watched.

Dave: You explain in a note after the final chapter that many of the details in the novel were drawn from real life, or what passes for it in existing records. For instance, one of the strangest: the scared lion hiding under a sink.

Gruen: It's true.

Dave: And Rosie was based on a real elephant?

Gruen: Several elephants, yes. There was actually an elephant that would pull her stake out of the ground to go and steal lemonade, and then she'd go back and put her stake back in the ground and look innocent while they blamed the roustabouts.

Dave: You couldn't have started your research expecting to find enough real-life stories to fill out the novel. Or did you?

Gruen: No. I had entirely thought that I would make it all up, and of course the main thrust of the story is my own, but there were too many of these wacky anecdotes to not try and fit them in. Then to be able to say afterward, "Yes, this really happened."

Dave: In your research, did you talk to circus fans?

Gruen: I did, and they led to the portal of the circus folk, who were harder to reach. They have a rather reclusive society because various people are coming after them. It took me months and months to make contact with them, but when I did the real stories began to come out.

Dave: What exactly do you mean by people "coming after them"?

Gruen: PETA, for the use of animals in the circus. Also, I don't know if there's an organized group coming after them for the use of freaks in sideshows, but they've had enough contact with that type of group that they don't give out contact information easily.

Dave: How did you first make contact?

Gruen: I was looking for the rights to photos in the book, so I was finding people who had circus archives. And of course they had connections. But it was a lot of give and take before they realized I wasn't planted by somebody else to come after them.

I actually got the phone number of a guy who owns a sideshow. He keeps human heads in his house. It took me four months to get up the nerve to call this guy, but when I did he was really sweet and helpful. They're shrunken heads; he doesn't just go off and behead people. But yes, he has a collection of shrunken heads.

Dave: One of my favorite details in the book, having nothing to do with the circus, describes the boys in the hobo jungle: when they sleep, they take off their shoes but tie them to their feet. How did you educate yourself in Depression-era America?

Gruen: I wasn't quite sure at first that this was the era I'd set the story in. A circus photo set me off on the path of the novel, but then I got on a sidetrack about hobos and I realized that something like eighty percent of them were under twenty-one. You think about hobos and you imagine middle-aged, dirty men by the side of the track, but no, they were kids.

That was the book I was considering for a little while, so I read a couple books about hobo jungles and homeless kids traveling by train. It was just one of the details. There's definitely a novel in there somewhere. I may not write it, but I might.

Dave: So much happens on the train or just off the train. It's the book's main setting.

Gruen: The whole of a circus worker's social life happened on a moving train. When they were off, they were setting up or they were performing or they were tearing down, so everything happened while they were moving.

Once they collected your quarter, they did their act, and then they got out. You were leaving by the front end of the tent, and they were hauling the benches out by the back end — they're done, they're finished, they want to get on the train.

Dave: You mentioned the photo that gave you the idea for a novel about the circus, but how did you decide to incorporate Jacob's story from the Bible?

Gruen: I can't remember the exact moment of genesis, but this is one of the things I've always liked about literature: the layers. Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel, for instance, has that whole layer in it. It's a long tradition in English literature. It won't detract from the story if you don't know it's there, but I thought it would be a fun thing to play up for people who recognized it.

Dave: The writing wasn't without its challenges. To finish the book, you shut yourself in a closet.

Gruen: I had a couple very long interruptions with this book. The first one lasted eighteen weeks. After that, I crashed out the first half of the book. Then someone from my tech writing days called me and said, "We have a short, three- or four-week contract. Do you want to do it?" Sure. Easy money, right?

That turned into four months of ten- and eleven-hour days, writing about SQL server databases and XML data files, really serious stuff. I was burned out, and I was having a lot of trouble getting my head back into the characters. I'd left the book at a point where I had something like sixteen plot threads up in the air. I was shopping on eBay and checking my email obsessively, finding a million reasons not to write. That was why the closet.

Dave: You wouldn't know it from the number of books that get published these days, but the Internet must be the world's greatest procrastination tool. As a writer, you're already sitting there in front of your computer...

Gruen: If I ever end up back in my closet, I'm going to have to rip the wireless card out of my laptop. I didn't have one at the time, which is why the whole thing worked. But yes, absolutely: the wireless card has to come out. I'll probably have to send it to work with my husband every day and get it back to check my email when he comes home.

Dave: Back in those tech writing days, before you wrote Riding Lessons, did you aspire to write fiction?

Gruen: Totally. I studied English literature because I wanted to write. I had been writing since I was about seven. My first novel filled three exercise books; an imaginary horse shows up in the backyard, and a girl finds him and rides off and jumps fences. It's always been what I wanted to do.

I graduated, and I had an English degree. What are you going to do with an English degree? I went into tech writing. I liked it — it was fine — but my husband and I had always talked about me retiring early to try writing fiction, to see if it worked.

I was writing for a statistical software company, and I got laid off. I was putting my resume together, and my husband said, "Do you want to try it now?" I said, "Can we?" So he said, "Let's give it two years or two books, and if it doesn't work, go back to tech writing."

Two books it took. I've been hanging on since.

Dave: Two books — so you wrote an adult novel before Riding Lessons?

Gruen: I wrote what I call "my drawer book."

Dave: Which no one is ever going to see.

Gruen: My husband threatens that if I die he's going to try to sell it. If I don't, no one's ever going to see it.

Dave: That's reason to live, right there.

Gruen: Yes. Also, it's been cannibalized to the point where I don't think it's publishable.

I wrote Riding Lessons, and then I wrote Water for Elephants. My editor saw it, and I think was quite baffled because it was quite different. She turned it down. But in the very same email, she asked for a sequel to Riding Lessons, which was doing well. So I wrote Flying Changes after Water for Elephants, but Flying Changes came out first.

Dave: I've been asking people lately: If you were going to set up your own personal hall of fame for writers from each decade of life, who'd get in there? Who's been important?

Gruen: I'm probably the outlier here because I was a fan of Victorian novels as a teenager.

Dave: That's fine. It's the Sara Gruen hall of fame.

Gruen: Okay, so it was the Victorians. Then D. H. Lawrence in my twenties and a bunch of Canadian authors. Who wrote The Black Madonna? [Editor's note: Doris Lessing.] That was one I really liked. Margaret Atwood is certainly in my hall of fame. And Yann Martel.

I recently reread The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I'm rediscovering Hemingway. It's all cyclical, probably the same people every decade, but new ones get added all along.

Dave: What were your first clues that Water for Elephants might reach a lot of people?

Gruen: It was at the Winter Institute in January. They'd asked me to come to this thing. There were tables set up around the room, writers sitting with their ARCs [Advance Reading Copies]. We ran out of ARCs in five minutes. We just got swarmed. And I was not prepared for this. I was overwhelmed. Then I went home, and I was in my silent pod again for a few months. I was still really getting a handle on it. It's such a cutthroat business that I'm almost too superstitious to believe any of it, still.

Dave: The frame of Jacob as a ninety-something-year-old man grounds some of the crazier stuff going on in his past. Reviews of all your books praise the way you handle older characters.

Gruen: I like to write flawed characters. I take a warts-and-all approach to everyone. People, for some reason, are more forgiving of my older, warty characters, but my thirty- and forty-year-old characters are just as warty if you look at them closely. Annemarie, in the Riding Lessons series, certainly — it's my intention that people will feel like throttling her on occasion.

Dave: What do you see as the differences between your books? Somehow the binding creates a different impression, mass market versus hardcover, but in terms of structure or the way you plotted them out, what strikes you as different?

Gruen: I think you struck it on the head: a large part of it is the binding. People come to a mass market paperback with certain expectations. Even as you're reading, that colors your experience. But when Riding Lessons sold at auction, all of the other publishers, the other bidders, were going to do it as a hardcover.

The obvious differences between Water for Elephants and the other two books is that Water for Elephants is historical and it's from a male point of view. Other than that, they're not as different as they initially appear. They all deal with dark subject matter, and I've thrown a lot of literary references into the earlier two books as well.

Dave: How do you approach plot? Do you outline and work out the shape of the story in detail before you write, or do you leave that until revision afterwards?

Gruen: For Water for Elephants, which was the first historical thing I've written, I did all the research ahead of time. I needed to feel that I knew the subject matter in and out.

I hate outlining. I hate outlines, hate them, hate them.

I usually know what the crisis of the book is going to be, though I don't know how I'm going to get there. I try to make it bad enough that I don't know how I'm going to get out of it. When I get there, I have to get out of it. I just get myself geared up, and I write every day and see what happens.

Dave: Have you ridden horses competitively?

Gruen: At a very low level.

Dave: Do you still?

Gruen: No. I have a horse, but she's just a big pet.

Dave: There's quite a bit in the Annemarie books about the risk of injury in riding, not to mention actual injuries.

Gruen: They're very big animals. I've been riding since I was seven, and when I started out at the riding schools they were always telling you the proper way to do things. Never kneel by a horse; you always crouch by a horse, so that you can get out of the way quickly.

I've always been an absolute stickler for safety. The one time I lapsed, my horse had foundered. She was very sick for nine weeks. I was there every day, looking at the bottom of her hoof, waiting for the red line to disappear. One day I wore sandals to the stable. Because she wasn't moving, she was sick. So I picked up her foot, and I was looking at the bottom of it when one of my sons, the younger one, screamed something from across the stable — and I set my horse's foot down on top of my own. This is a thousand-pound animal. My foot was just crushed. It was a devastating injury.

You're dealing with wonderful — and usually cooperative — animals, but they are big. An elephant weighs six tons. An elephant can lean on you in love and still leave a grease spot. It's actually the most dangerous job in the United States, elephant handler, more dangerous than deep-sea fishing, just because of the size.

Dave: Did you get up close and personal to elephants in your research?

Gruen: At the Kansas City Zoo, I observed the elephants with their ex-handler for a couple days, taking notes on body language and behavior. I got into the habit of walking up to elephant handlers at the circus and saying, "Hi. I'm writing a book. May I meet your elephant?" I got lucky twice.

The first time was right after I'd been out with this elephant handler at the Kansas City Zoo, who had been gored by an elephant. He took a tusk through the thigh, one through the rib cage, which just missed everything vital, and another through his upper arm. So I still had that in mind. I was standing beside this huge thing with his amber eye staring down at me. The guy said, "Go ahead. You can touch her." I was shaking, but I touched her. I said, "Okay, I'm done now."

Several months later, I met the second one. It was one of these little circuses that throws a tent up and says "Free tickets!" And then it's twenty-dollar popcorn. I snuck out of the big top because it was small and pretty cheesy, but during the show I asked to meet the elephant; the handler gave me a bucket of peanuts and stuck me in an enclosure with this thing. He shut the gate. I was alone with this African elephant. I was looking at her, and she was looking at me like, This is not part of the usual repertoire. So I fed her the peanuts. By the end of it, she was such a love bug. I was hugging her and kissing her, posing for photos. She gave me a kiss, a big, sock puppet, mushy elephant kiss with the end of her trunk. It was really memorable.

Dave: When you're not on tour, what contact do you have with animals?

Gruen: I have two dogs, three cats, two goats, and a horse — not to mention the three sons and a husband. As far as animals go, that's usually it, but I have, for some reason, a bird's nest on the front porch, and I often tape it off if the mailman or other people are ignoring my warnings to go around the back door. And if there's an orphaned anything in the neighborhood, or a stray cat, people know I'm the crazy cat lady. They come and get me.

Dave: How do the men in your house feel about this?

Gruen: My husband came with three ferrets, so he's a like-minded guy. He loves animals, and the kids all do. They think it's great. It's chaos in our house, but it's a fun kind of chaos.

Dave: Your bio says that you live in "an environmental community." What exactly does that entail? Is it an independent community or is it part of some larger network?

Gruen: It's completely independent. We sit on something like six hundred eighty acres. Four hundred-and-some families. We all have small lots, the idea being that there will be lots of open area. We share an organic farm. We have a charter school and a stable; that's where I keep my goats — not my horse, but my goats. And we're adjacent to a prairie conservancy, so we're active in restoring wetlands.

It's a really nice place. We have cross country ski trails and lakes. Our house was built when we moved in, so we actually have a lawn, but many of the people around us have prairie grass instead of lawn, which means there are no herbicides and pesticides, which is another good thing. We're also at the joining of two commuter rail lines, so people can walk to the train and commute an hour and ten minutes to Chicago and then come back without ever having set foot in a car.

Dave: In terms of infrastructure or compliance, how does that work? People must have to buy into certain concepts.

Gruen: You're only allowed to build certain models of houses. They're pre-chosen. They're sixty percent more efficient than houses of a comparable size in surrounding regions. That, right there: they're more expensive per square foot than other houses, so people who make a choice to buy into this community are doing so at some cost to themselves. People don't just decide to move in for the view.

Dave: You're originally from Vancouver?

Gruen: A long time ago. Right before I turned six, I moved to London, Ontario, and I went to university at Carleton in Ottawa. I was there for ten years as a tech writer. Seven years ago, I moved to the States.

Dave: Has your technical writing background helped, or has it been a hindrance?

Gruen: It was great training. For one thing, it taught me to sit down and write for eight hours a day. For another, it taught me not to take personally editorial comments. The first instructional project I gave to an editor ten years ago came back covered in red. I was practically in tears. It has to be a thousand times worse if it's a piece of fiction, but I don't take it personally anymore.

It also proved to me that I was able to produce a work of this size. And because I have been doing this sort of thing for so long, although I don't outline I think I have an inherent understanding of structure, where things should rise and fall. It's good training.

One thing: it's really freeing to be able to use adjectives again. In tech writing, they always want you to cut every word that doesn't belong. Every day, they're reminding you that every word costs forty cents to translate into each language. That took me all of two weeks to get over.

Dave: What's next?

Gruen: Bonobo apes.

Dave: Bonobo apes?

Gruen: Bonobo apes. I have this idea. It's not just percolating anymore, it's actually scraping around trying to get out, but I have to wait until I'm done with the tour because I need six or eight hours in a row to write. It takes me about an hour and a half to get from the real world into the fictional world. I need a pretty long, uninterrupted time. Until I'm done with the tour, the best I can do is take notes and scribble down ideas. I'll get to it in earnest in August.

Dave: What's the most interesting thing you've learned so far about Bonobo apes?

Gruen: They have a lot of sex, for one thing. Of all of the great apes, they're the most closely related, genetically speaking, to us. They're really lovely. They have wonderful social groups and interactions.

Sara Gruen visited Powell's City of Books on July 13, 2006.

* If John Irving had written Water for Elephants, the story would have filled at least two hundred additional pages. We'd have learned a great deal more about the narrator's youth, before his parents perished. And Irving's novel likely would have considered at some length the moral conundrum of animals in captivity, introducing an Ellen James Society for the menagerie, or the like. Meanwhile, he'd have us riding extended narrative digressions, whereas Gruen rarely goes even half a page without dialogue. But Gruen's voice, yes, undeniably there's more than a hint of Irving here, it's true. I had the same sense, myself.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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