Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants

by Sara Gruen
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An exclusive Authorlink interview with Sara Gruen
Author of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS (Algonquin) 

by Ellen Birkett Morris

June 2007

Sara Gruen was a day away from starting another novel when she saw an article in the Chicago Tribune on Edward J. Kelty, a photographer who followed traveling circuses in the 1920s and 1930s.

The photograph that accompanied the article, one of his Congress of Freaks series, was so compelling that Gruen set aside her earlier idea and began working on the novel that would become WATER FOR ELEPHANTS.

In the story, an elderly man named Jacob recalls his days of traveling with the circus taking care of the animals and the intrigue and romance that resulted from becoming part of the group.

“There wasn’t a lot that couldn’t happen in that setting."

“I found the circus setting captivating. There wasn’t a lot that couldn’t happen in that setting,” said Gruen. Thus began four and a half months of research gathering the telling details and sometimes true incidents that helped the world of the traveling circus come to life on the page. One such phenomena was red-lighting, the practice of throwing members of the troupe who were seen as ill or troublemakers off the moving train at night. Gruen noted that circuses ceased traveling by train in 1956.

She began her research by joining several Yahoo Groups of circus modelers, people who build scale models of 1920 circuses. She visited the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota Florida, Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and the Kansas City Zoo accompanied by a former elephant handler.

"In the book, I didn’t glorify the circus, but neither did I vilify it."

Eventually, she made contact with actual circus performers, a group known for being reclusive. “I offered to send them copies of the manuscript and did. In the book, I didn’t glorify the circus, but neither did I vilify it. I think they saw that and appreciated it,” said Gruen.

Her research yielded several fascinating true anecdotes, which she included in the book. One was the story of the lion and dishwasher who wedged themselves under a sink, both too terrified of the other to move.

The animals in Gruen’s books seem to have personalities of their own and become central figures in her stories. In WATER FOR ELEPHANTS the elephant Rosie plays a central role in the narrative. Her novels RIDING LESSONS and FLYING CHANGES dealt with horses and family relationships.

"I try to make the animals characters in their own right.

“I try to make the animals characters in their own right,” said Gruen.

She points out that “my life is filled with animals so my stories are filled with them.”

She lives with her husband in an environmentalist community and has three children, two dogs, three cats, three goats, and a horse. Gruen’s decision to write full time came after she was laid off from a technical writing job and decided to give herself two years or two books to replace her salary as a technical writer. Her gamble paid off.

"I had a terrible time getting back into that world. I almost gave up the book"

While the book is a seamless read, its creation was not without several challenges. Gruen was ready to start writing the book when her horse foundered. She spent nine weeks sitting with the horse and another nine weeks recovering from the horse stepping on her foot. She started writing and had completed half of the book when she took what was supposed to be a short break to complete a technical writing project. The job took four months and left her feeling disconnected from the novel.

“I had a terrible time getting back into that world. I almost gave up the book,” said Gruen. Instead, she ended up literally closeting herself away to avoid distractions and reconnect with her characters.

Gruen covered her windows, turned off the telephone, cut off her internet connection, donned noise reduction headphones, and began working in a closet.

“I was in the closet for almost four months. It was terrifically exhausting. I staggered out of the closet like a zombie, “said Gruen.

"I can’t be brought back to this world during the process or I have to start over."

She described her process of immersing herself in her work as an hour and a half during which she looks at scenes from the day before as a way to enter a portal to another world.

“I can’t be brought back to this world during the process or I have to start over,” she explained.

Gruen works without an outline. Instead she charts the characters journeys through the story using colored lines on a white board. She eschews character profiles because she doesn’t like writing something that she won’t be using directly in the book.

“The word count is what really keeps me going. I shoot for 2,000 words a day minimum. It makes 100,000 words seem doable because I am doing it in little chunks,” Gruen observed. When she feels blocked she reads Stephen Kings ON WRITING.

Gruen, who has a BA in English, said that she not taken a creative writing class, but has benefited greatly from reading the works of good writers. However, she doesn’t read when she is drafting a novel to avoid voice creep.

Gruen said she spent four to six months writing the first draft of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, working eight hours a day. She suggested that new writers to find a good critique partner and be cautious when joining a critique group.

“If you are looking for an online critique group lurk, and if you like what you see make contact with members over private e-mail to find someone that you connect with,” advised Gruen.

"Critiques have been helpful in my weaving things together better."

The only person who reads her first drafts is her husband, a professor of literature and former editor at Houghton Mifflin. “Critiques have been helpful in my weaving things together better and making aspects of the story more believable.”

Gruen’s third agent Emma Sweeney has sold all of her books.

“Having had three agents is not that unusual. It is scary to make a change, but better to be comfortable with your agent,” she noted.

She described the relationship as like a marriage, where you want someone you are comfortable with and can communicate with easily.

Algonquin acquired the book at auction. Gruen’s editor there is Chuck Adams, who asked her to add a paragraph and make a few small changes to the manuscript.

Editors have so much on their plates that they are looking for something that is ready to go. “Your agent will help you get it that way,” said Gruen.

Her advice to new authors is to expect some degree of rejection. “There are a lot of nos to get to yes, but all it takes is one yes.

". . . if you wait for inspiration to strike you’ll never write a novel."

Also, if you wait for inspiration to strike you’ll never write a novel. You can edit anything but a blank page.”

Her next project is a book that explores human/ape communication.

“What I like best about this job is that you can write about anything that interests you,” observed Gruen.

Sara Gruen lives in Northern Illinois with her husband, three children, two dogs, three cats, three goats, and horse in an environmentalist community. Her next novel, APE HOUSE, will be out in the summer of 2008.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.