At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen


An Exclusive Interview with Sara Gruen
Author of At the Water’s Edge: A Novel (Spiegel & Grau, 31 March 2015)

Columnist Anna Roins

Maddie Hyde and her husband Ellis have been cast out of Philadelphia’s polite society from notoriety and bitter disappointment. Together they cross the Atlantic during WWII submarine warfare to a remote Scottish village with the hope of redeeming themselves and the family name.  Their success depends on whether they can overcome the monsters that surround them.

At the Waters Edge
by Sara Gruen

Buy this Book

At the Water’s Edge is the new novel from Sara Gruen, bestselling author of Water for Elephants, named the 2007 Book Sense Book of the Year and that was turned into a major Hollywood film.

“Unique in its setting and scope, this impeccably researched historical fiction is full of the gorgeous prose I’ve come to expect from this author.”—Jodi Picoult

(Interview transcribed from a telephone recording)

“. . . with At the Water’s Edge I really loved it, because I was able to go and immerse myself in the physicality of it . . .”

AUTHORLINK: Thank you so much for your time today to discuss At the Water’s Edge! It’s a superb book, and I thoroughly enjoyed researching you as an author! 

GRUEN: You’re very welcome! Thank you.

AUTHORLINK: You take researching for your books seriously. For At the Water’s Edge you spent five weeks in the Scottish Highlands; you scoured the archives at the Inverness Courier; interviewed people who lived through the war, researched the 1st Special Service Brigade and even tried to persuade the local authorities to throw you into the loch! You also roamed the Urquhart Castle (that made such an impression when you were twelve) and explored WWII ruins that still contained undetonated bombs! It was all worth it in the end because At the Water’s Edge transports the reader to another time and place.

Do you believe research ensures the fictive dream flows effortlessly to the reader? How has the research been different for each book in comparison?

GRUEN: I think they’re as unique as the subject matter, because for Water for Elephants (Algonquin Books, 9 April 2007,) for example, the type of circus I was writing about bit the dust in 1953. Circuses that travel by train and perform under canvas no longer exists. There are still trained circuses, but they perform in arenas, and there are circuses that perform under canvas, but they travel by RV. So I was relying on archives, and interviewing really elderly people. But mostly I was working with written material.

So with At the Water’s Edge I really loved it, because I was able to go and immerse myself in the physicality of it and also, just being there and absorbing the language, the culture, the folklore. The research is probably one of my very favorite parts. I think of it as an analogy to my tech writing days when I could write for a while and when that part of my brain would be tired, I’d switch to debugging or coding for a while. That gave me twice as long to work using different parts of my brain. And so I can switch back and forth from the writing to the research, and in this case I really loved the research!

An idea comes to me, and if it’s something that I think is really fascinating and I would not mind being immersed into it for around three years, and also if I think it’s something or somewhere the public would find interesting and would like to be transported to, then I’m all over it! For that reason, you will never see me setting a book in Sudbury, Ontario, in the middle of winter!

AUTHORLINK: Terrific! I guess if you’re interested in the subject matter, it’s a delight to research, and it’s not in any way hard to be motivated.

GRUEN: Exactly. When I find something that fascinates me, it’s pure joy. It’s a perk of the job that I get to go and learn about something completely new and really, really dig deep. It’s amazing that I can do this for a living.

“I like to have subplots and characters, in this case all of whom have their own personal monsters . . . “

AUTHORLINK: Excellent. You once referred to the Loch Ness Monster looming in the background of the story, as ‘’metaphoric for sort of the obvious things like Hitler, and of course what happened to some of the characters…’’ as well as the demons we carry within us and how we face them. This layering of themes adds a lot of texture to your story. Do you feel by employing this method, the book delivers more of an emotional punch if you have it cased in different levels?

GRUEN: Oh I would hope so. I try never to have a straight chronology of this person doing this and that all the way through. I like to have subplots and characters, in this case all of whom have their own personal monsters, and have separate storylines. I try to time it so they reach a crisis at the same time – and that’s part of the juggling work of the writing. It’s very difficult to do that during a single draft, so at a certain point I’ll realize that I have to go back and pull certain threads up so they are at the same point as the others and unravel at the same time.

Basically for me it feels like creating a tartan, or a plaid that I have to go, like, ‘Oh well the green has dropped. I have to pull that up to match the red’ and so I have to go back and make sure my storylines are all rising to a crescendo at more or less the same rate. They may be at a different point in the crescendo or maybe at a lower or a higher point, but they all have to be in motion at once.

AUTHORLINK: Wow, that sounds like you must have a bit of synaesthesia. Do you draw story arcs for every level to get them to meet up?

GRUEN: No, it’s something I think of, it’s not a visual thing for me but certainly it’s there in my head. So I find that when I am really into a book I can’t take a whole weekend off, I can only take a day off. If I’m away from the story for more than two days then the sixteen balls I’ve been juggling, a few of them at least, feel like they’re in danger of falling. So I can take a day off but I can’t have my brain away from it longer than that. There is the character arc, there is the story arc, I don’t map it out visually, it’s just there in my head.

AUTHORLINK: Great, impressive. The main character of At the Water’s Edge, is Maddie, a richly complex women raised in American high society. She spent her childhood under the control of a narcissistic mother and a disinterested father. The other two main characters, Ellis, and Hank befriended her because she seemed like such a novelty. She had never done anything other than what people had told her to do until she arrived in Scotland. While she experienced the heavy reality of war, the artificial barriers of social class dissolved and she formed friendships with two women, in particular, Anna, and Meg. Around that time, she began to notice cracks in her façade, and she had to face truths about her life she had never examined before and somehow find the courage to move forward.

You described her emotional development with such eloquence! It was so deftly done. She was such a believable character – like someone one knew intimately. It was such a pleasure to read this woman’s development and how she came full circle by the end of the book. You must be a real observer of the natural behavior of people. Or was she based on someone that you know?

GRUEN: All of my characters are kind of crazy quilts because I’m set to record all the time. My step-daughter gave me a t-shirt for Christmas a few years ago that says, ‘Careful or you’ll end up in my novel.’ People laugh at it, but it’s true! (laughs) I’m an awful eavesdropper at restaurants or if I’m on the bus or a plane, then I’m listening! (laughs) And I find inspiration everywhere. Some of the snippets of conversation, you have no idea what it’s about, but you know that the people’s hearts are breaking and it’s poignant and it’s a real moment in their lives. And I’m always dying to know what happened and what led up to it but I can only do that in my imagination. So I record those and I go home and write them down.

And for Maddie it was a bit of a balancing act because I wanted her at the very beginning of the book to seem a bit spoiled with a laissez-faire attitude and sort of, ‘everything’s a joke’. I wanted everyone to lump her together with Ellis and Hank and for the differences between them to come out later. But I couldn’t have it happen too much later because having an unsympathetic character carrying a book is not really going to work!

And so I’m very grateful that you said that. It means that I got the balance right. I changed her as soon as I could start changing her and I think that the important thing to remember is that she really had no choices. She had no money of her own. She had no place to go to if she left Ellis. Other than standing underneath a street corner, she had no choice but to go along with this.

“I really just enjoy being able to write for a living.”

AUTHORLINK: That’s great. On a bit of a personal note, who was the first person that made you believe you were good at writing?

GRUEN: Gosh, that’s um. I don’t know. Someone who believed I was good? Well, I wanted to write since I knew it was a ‘thing’. When I knew you could write, I wanted to write. I was writing little picture books and actually binding them. I think I sent one to a publisher and got a very nice letter back, rejection of course, but you know, when I was seven! My brother and I, we watched an hour of television a week so we saved that for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and the rest of the time we entertained ourselves. We had a great, huge collection of stuffed animals and we created ‘Bear World.’ We retreated there, just the two of us. We had a weekly newspaper, wrote books and we illustrated them and we bound them. And now they’re in somebody’s attic and I really hope somebody finds them and gives them to me some day.

But I always wrote and I tried to write my first novel either at ten or eleven and it was a one and a half school note-book so not much novel length but, you know, so I was always doing this. I did half a performance degree in violin, but I had always wanted to write and study literature, so the second I had an excuse I swapped majors. Nobody’s sure what they want to do for a living at that point, you know, I mean I wanted to write fiction, but nobody just comes out of school and writes novels and it works. You have to do other stuff first I think.

But my father said, when I was trying to figure out what I could do for a living with my English degree, he said, ‘’Well, you write really well and it’s not something that a lot of people can do and that’s something you should concentrate on.’’ And so I actually did turn that into my first job out of university. I was working as a, not a legal secretary exactly but more of a research assistant at a First Nations law firm called Nahwegahbow Jones Hawkins and that was a whole lot of mouthful to learn to answer the phone! I would do research and write papers and things for them. Then my lawyer left the firm and I ended up being a legal secretary which wasn’t as much fun and so I started looking for other work and I ended up doing a brief stint as a speech writer for a cabinet minister in Canada but it was a contract position with sort of three months at a time. So I was sending out resume, after resume, after resume. I mean, literally thousands to high-tech firms in Ottawa which is sort of Silicon Valley North. Finally, I badgered my way into a job and I felt very grateful because I was in fact writing for a living.

I love writing so much I think I could have been, you know, a copy writer at, what is that firm called that ‘Elaine’ from Seinfeld used to work for J. Peterman Catalog? I could write colorful umbrella copy (laughs)! But I really just enjoy being able to write for a living. I probably would have been a perfectly contented tech writer to this day if I hadn’t been laid off. I would have tried fiction when I was secure enough to retire and to take a shot at it, but it wasn’t until I got laid off that my husband and I really took a look at it. He really took a look at it and crunched the numbers before he even came up to me with the proposition, ‘’Look, do you wanna try this?’’

So my father recognised that I could write, but I think it was my husband who definitely, held hands with me and jumped off the cliff because, we have three children, and we designed our life as a double-income family and so we decided ‘two years or two books’ or until I could replace my salary as a tech writer. As it turns out it was almost exactly two books and two years! So we just kept on going.

AUTHORLINK: Well, he sounds lovely!

GRUEN: He is. I just couldn’t do it without him. And there’s a reason that every book but one, is dedicated to him (laughs).

AUTHORLINK: Do you think paying attention to genre distinctions, which can be argued are largely arbitrary in the first place, will only serve to limit a work? Or do they have their purpose, in your opinion?

GRUEN: I hate them. I hate them! And it sticks in my craw whenever anybody says it’s historical fiction or women’s lit. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s just a personal pet-peeve but I don’t like being pigeonholed and so, no. You know, Water for Elephants almost never saw the light of day. People were interested and my agent held an auction but fifteen minutes before the auction ended every publisher but one, had dropped out. It was one of the worst fifteen minutes of my life. Finally, Algonquin came in with a bid. I mean, it came that close to never seeing the light of day. I think the problem was that nobody knew what it was! When I’m writing, I don’t think in terms of genre.  I’m thinking of story. If the setting happens to be in the past, well if somebody wants to call that historical fiction that’s fine. I will admit that what I’m writing is fiction but that’s as far as I’m willing to pigeon hole myself.

I will happily accept literary fiction and I will happily accept commercial fiction because I think the only difference is in the number of sales (laughs), but anything beyond that and I bristle. I mean, I understand that’s part of human nature, people want to know where to stick me in the Filofax of their brain.

AUTHORLINK: Yes. Was the first draft very different from the last? Do you have someone that edits your work?

GRUEN: Oh yes, very, very much so! You can quote me by the way, but as Hemingway said, the first draft is shit! It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing when you finish your first draft! Because then you have something to work with. But that’s when the real work begins.

AUTHORLINK: And do you have somebody that edits your work or do you do all of the editing process?

GRUEN: I have a critique group and there are three of us. Joshilyn Jackson and Karen Abbott, and we’ve been together from the very beginning. When we met and got started none of us were published and now we’re all New York Times best-sellers. That in itself says something about the power of having a supportive circle. And so we trade our manuscripts. Joshilyn writes fiction and Karen writes narrative non-fiction. It’s really kind of neat. They’re not nearly as different as you might think. Karen’s often read like a novel. They’re very in the moment and you’re not reading a dry-history thing. And so we trade, when we’re ready – I tend to hold my cards close to my chest – so I’ll wait till I have half of a draft ready and then I’ll send it out. They have very different strengths as critiquers, so I’ll get different feedback and I’ll work from that.

My husband is a first reader and he’s got a very, very good eye and my agent also reads but I don’t send it to my editor until I think, and my agent thinks, it’s completely done.

AUTHORLINK: That’s interesting! Are you working on another book right now?

GRUEN: I am! I haven’t actually started writing yet, I’m doing the research. So I just came back from my first research trip, which was really amazing.

“. . .eventually a scene will come to me and I’ll have my beginning and then I’ll keep going. “

AUTHORLINK: How wonderful.

GRUEN: So I have to let it stew for a while. I can do other things but the part of my brain that creates the story or even comes up with the idea is not the part of my brain that I can control. And so, while I’m doing other stuff like painting or wallpapering or in today’s case, making a chicken pot pie, I know it’s busy back there. It’s doing something fun. I can tell. I can tell if it’s not ‘on’ and I can tell that it’s on. So eventually a scene will come to me and I’ll have my beginning and then I’ll keep going. So it’s a strange thing because I do have to rely on it continuing to work. I don’t control it, but so far it hasn’t let me down.

AUTHORLINK: That sounds inspired. And on a final and personal note again, what advice would you give to your younger self? And where can you see yourself in five years’ time?

GRUEN: Hmmm advice to my younger self…Don’t be so hard on yourself! (laughs) Don’t be so hard on yourself! And believe that you can do it, you know? When I started fiction I had no idea what the odds were (of succeeding that is). Had I known I probably would never have done it. So…The odds are astronomically against you. I think in this case, ignorance is bliss! But then when I did find out, that, you know, one in a thousand people who write fiction for a living get to actually do it for a living, I thought, well, why shouldn’t that one person be me? I guess I would advise my younger self to try and believe in myself and also not be so hard on myself.

Where do I want to be in five years? Um, here! You know, I did a Proust Questionnaire for CBC and it was, ‘Do you have any regrets?’ And I had to think about that of course, because there are things I’ve done that haven’t been wonderful or that I’m embarrassed of or ashamed of and things that I think I would do differently but in fact, no, I wouldn’t because everything that I’ve done in my past has brought me to this husband, and these children and this career and this house and these animals. So no. No, I wouldn’t do anything differently.

AUTHORLINK: Oh that’s great. I’m really pleased for you. Thank you so much once again for your time Ms. Gruen! It was a real pleasure talking to you and we wish you every success with At the Water’s Edge and look forward to reading anything you have to offer in the future.

GRUEN: Oh you’re very welcome! Thank you!

About the Author:

Sara Gruen is the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Water for Elephants, Ape House, Riding Lessons, and Flying Changes. Her works have been translated into forty-three languages and have sold more than ten million copies worldwide. Water for Elephants was adapted into a major motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon, Rob Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz in 2011.

Sara Gruen’s awards include being the BookSense #1 pick for June 2006, the Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Fiction 2007, the Cosmo Fun Fearless Fiction Award 2007, the Book Browse Diamond Award Best Book 2006, the Great Lakes Book Award for Fiction 2007, the Midwest Booksellers’ Choice Award for fiction, the ALA/Alex Award 2007, the Carl Sandburg Award, 21st Century Fiction, 2007, and the Friends of American Literature Adult Fiction Award. Additionally, she was a 2006 Quill Award nominee for General Fiction, and a nominee for the Entertainment Weekly Best Novel of 2006. She also received a Doctorate of Humane Letters, Causa Honoris, from Wittenberg University.

You can find out more about Sara Gruen at,, and

About Anna Roins:

Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor in Sydney before she embarked on a career in writing eight years ago. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to articles on social and community issues and edited a number of books, websites, and dissertations. She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.

You can find out more about Anna Roins on and