Sara Gruen: From the Big Top to the Big Screen
With the film release of the best-selling book, Water for Elephants, right around the corner, SR’s Ashleigh Martinez recently caught up with author Sara Gruen to talk about her dazzling novel and its upcoming film release, her latest book, Ape House, and her efforts to give back to the animals who inspired her.
Perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that the woman who wrote Water for Elephants, Riding Lessons, and Ape House lives in a household that consists of one husband, three children, four cats, two dogs, two horses, and one goat. Or that her love for animals not only provided the inspiration for all of her novels, but also launched her into the international spotlight, where she gained attention and admiration for a captivating writing style that displays a genuine compassion for animals. Certainly it’s no surprise to Gruen. “I have always really loved animals and surrounded myself with them as much as possible,” she says. “So, it really grew organically out of that that they would appear in my books.” The one who would catapult her to fame, though, was a circus elephant named Rosie.
On Writing a New York Times Best Seller
After reading an article about Edward J. Kelty, a man who photographed circus acts and performers from the 1920s to ’40s, Gruen became entranced by the bizarre subculture of the Depression-era circus world. “I realized that this was a situation in which almost anything could happen believably and that is a fiction writer’s dream come true,” she says. Because a train circus had not performed in more than 50 years, Gruen had to dig deep and not rely solely on speaking with people to learn about the unique circus lifestyle and culture. “I had to try to get the experience through osmosis, by reading about it and looking at the photographs,” she says. Vintage circus photos scattered throughout the book allow readers to visualize the fascinating circus world while learning the story of Jacob Jankowski, a young man who finds himself working for The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth during the Great Depression. His love for animals earns him a friendship with Rosie the elephant and the affection of Marlena, the circus’ star performer and wife of a very temperamental animal trainer.
Although Gruen’s research took her to many interesting places, she says her most memorable experience while writing Water for Elephants involved overcoming a frustrating case of writer’s block.
“I had hit a wall,” she says. “Out of desperation, I moved my desk into my closet and staggered forth three and a half months later with a finished book. I wore noise-reduction headphones and covered over the window. It was like my sensory-deprivation pod.”
The isolation paid off, as Water for Elephants soon became a worldwide sensation and the inspiration for a major motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz. But these Hollywood A-listers weren’t the only ones to grace the silver screen.
On Getting in on the Action
This past summer, Gruen’s family joined her on one of the sets to participate in the filming of Water for Elephants. “I have a cameo in the movie and two of my kids made it into the trailer,” Gruen boasts with a chuckle. Seeing the characters and atmosphere she created being brought to life made a strong impact on Gruen. “When I was on the set and they drove me over the berm for the first time, and I saw the big top, all the other circus tents, and the menagerie, I was speechless,” she says. “It was something that was in my head only a few years ago, and there it was, real, well, ‘Hollywood real.’ But it was there, in the flesh.”
Despite all her success, Gruen remains humble and joins the throng of Water for Elephants fans who are eagerly awaiting the film’s release on April 22. “I am going to have to wear waterproof mascara when I go to the premiere because this is going to be a really incredible experience,” she says.
On Inspiration for Ape House
Soon after releasing Water for Elephants, Gruen learned about Great Ape Trust, a research facility in Des Moines, Iowa, and their latest developments in studying bonobos, an endangered species of language competent apes. She was, to say the least, intrigued. “I wanted to meet them and really wanted to do a book about them,” Gruen says. After completing a crash course in linguistics at York University in Toronto and spending countless afternoons with the bonobos at Great Ape Trust, Gruen released her fourth book last September. Ape House tells the story of a scientist and reporter who endeavor to rescue a group of bonobos that find themselves on the set of a tasteless reality show after being “liberated” from the language lab. Instead of sideshows and circus lifers, this time Gruen turned her attention to the freak show of tabloid magazines and reality television. “It seems impersonal,” she explains. “You get a false sense of intimacy with these people and ‘tehe’ behind your (screen) when their lives are crashing.” Researching for Ape House was quite the adventure for Gruen, who befriended many of the bonobos at Great Ape Trust.
On Getting to Know the Bonobos
While Gruen visited Panbanisha, Kanzi, and the other bonobos frequently, it took some time to build close relationships with them. “You can’t just walk in there and expect them to treat you like an old friend,” she says. Gruen insists that building a friendship with the bonobos is the same as building friendships with people—paying attention to what they are saying and how they are feeling and making an honest effort to stay in touch.
When asked to recall her favorite memory of her time there, Gruen doesn’t have to think twice. After all, she had the opportunity to have a tea party in the forest with a bonobo. “She [Panbanisha] had brewed the tea and picked out the cookies,” Gruen says. “She had heard that I was getting my makeup done and she wanted to have hers done as well.” According to Gruen, Panbanisha donned bright purple lipstick and had her hair brushed nicely for the party.
While enjoying the tea and cookies, Panbanisha used her lexigram board to hold a conversation with Gruen. “She asked me if I had had eggs for breakfast,” Gruen says. “Then told me that the Easter Bunny had hidden eggs in the forest recently, and she wished [he] would come back.”
The afternoon’s events had a profound effect on Gruen. “It was a crazy combination of ape and human culture,” she remembers. “We ate cookies and drank tea out of fine bone china and, at one point, Panbanisha went off into the forest and got me a branch to eat, which I did.”
Gruen’s efforts to connect with Panbanisha and the others paid off. Shortly after her visit, the bonobos planned to build Gruen a nest and asked when she would be coming back.
On Giving Back
There is no arguing the fact that animals have played a significant role in Gruen’s life and her writing. Now, she is taking it upon herself to give back and help animals in need by supporting animal rehabilitation and rescue foundations and facilities across the globe. Her experience while writing Ape House allowed her to learn more about The Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary, the only bonobo sanctuary in the world. “The only hope for bonobos is to keep a foothold in the wild for them,” she explains. “That is where I think the focus should be.”
The sanctuary, located in the Congo, raises orphaned bonobo babies whose mothers were victims of the bushmeat trade, and releases them into the wild. Gruen hopes that her work with the bonobos will raise awareness of the fact that these unique animals are near extinction. “The bonobos are critically endangered and if I can in any way help to bring some kind of attention to them, or even let people who didn’t know they existed before know about them, maybe there is still a chance to save them,” Gruen says. If anyone can do it, it’s probably the woman whose love for animals landed her four cats, two dogs, two horses, one goat, a New York Times Best Seller, and a highly anticipated, star-studded film.