"And afterward," I prompt, "you connected with another elephant at Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin."
"I had the story of Mark's getting gored freshly in my head, so when they said I could go in and actually meet an elephant, I stood at her shoulder and was shaking. I was scared to touch her. I mean, she was eleven feet tall. I gave her a pat and said, 'Thank you!' and went away. On a later visit, I was handed a bucket of peanuts. The handler opened the enclosure, I went in, and he closed the door behind me. And there I was, alone with this African elephant and a bucket of peanuts. She was as baffled as I was. But she turned out to be such an affectionate love bug that I lost all fear of her. And at the end she gave me a sock puppet with her trunk and was really sweet."
"Another photograph that sort of caught your attention was of Thomas Alva Edison, trying to sell electrocution as the most humane means of execution. Except, by way of demonstration, he was electrocuting a rogue elephant in Coney Island."
"I didn't see it. I don't want to see it. After I learned what this man did, I get so sick going into my children's school and seeing him listed as an American hero."
"Another bit of research produced a scene in the book of a circus fat lady's burial."
"Yes, they laid her out (in real life as well) in the hippo wagon, using it as a hearse, and paid all the circus people to dress up and mourn, promising a few dollars to whoever put on the best show of grieving. This was a way of gathering a crowd for the matinee."
"I had never heard of redlighting before reading your book."
"I was sitting in Sarasota in their reading room just taking notes, thinking, 'This is crazy. I can't believe someone could fire someone else by throwing them off the back of a moving train.'"
"Yeah, and if they landed badly, they were dead," I point out.
"Well, yes. The reason it's called redlighting is because -- if they like you -- they throw you off while the train slows to pass by a railway yard. You can see the red light of the yard and find your way back to town. A courtesy, if you will. But if they don't like you...."
"And all this culminated in you picking for your novel a male narrator who is 93."
Sara laughs. "I wanted to flex my writing muscles a bit, yeah. I was a little worried that I was getting pigeonholed as a women's fiction writer. And so I thought, what's the thing I can do" -- she laughs again -- "that can guarantee nobody will look at this as women's fiction."
"Did you study writing? Did you always want to be a writer?"
"I never studied writing. I studied literature but as a reader. And yes, I always did."
"This was in the Midwest?"
"No, I'm Canadian, from Ottawa mostly. I was there for ten years and went to Carleton University. I spent most of my life in Ontario. I finished school (what are you going to do with an English degree?) and wangled my way into a job writing online manuals and help systems, and I documented everything from statistical software to data mapping. Then I moved to the States for a tech writing job and met my husband. Two years later they laid me off, so I decided to write novels."
"How did you and your husband wind up in what is described as an 'environmentalist community' north of Chicago?"
"He had known about it and, when we got together, we went looking for a house. We investigated the community and decided, 'wow, this is paradise.' It has stables, a school, and its own organic farm."
"Are you required to work on it?"
"You're supposed to, yes."
"I understand the houses are energy efficient?"
"Our house is one of the first ones built; they became more energy efficient as they went. We have some leaky windows but once we get those fixed..."
"And it's a community, it's not a commune."
"Right, a community."
"Did your children grow up there?"
"One was one and the other was five when I moved from Canada. So, yes, this is where they grew up."
"Will they have dual citizenship?"
"Yeah, they do. So do I."
"And your next book is going to star animals as well."
"Bonobo apes, yes, a family group. It's going to be set in the present day."
"You wrote an 11-page letter to your agent, Emma Sweeney, and she used it to sell your fourth and fifth books. She actually held an auction based on those 11 descriptive pages. (It ended Monday, Oct. 30.) How did she break the news to you about how it went?"
"She called me and asked if I was sitting down."
"And informed you that it (and the following book) had gone to Cindy Spiegel at Spiegel & Grau, part of Random House, Inc., arguably the top editor in the industry. She was the highest bidder at 5.1 million dollars. Did you have any idea of what was coming?"
"And were you sitting down?"
"I was and I'm glad, because to be honest I think I lost all feeling in my limbs at that moment."
"How is this stunning news going to change your life? What did your husband say, what did your kids say? "
"The kids don't know anything and I don't want them to know anything. I don't know if this is the reaction I would have guessed I'd have, but my thought right now is that I don't want anything to change. I want to put it away and not touch it. I want to pretend that it's not there. I think the way to keep my head about it is to sort of carry on as normal."