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Water for Elephants: A Novel


Ninety-three year old Jacob Jankowski remembers himself tossed by fate onto a rickety train that is the home to the Benzini Brothers circus in the early years of the Great Depression. It is both a salvation and a hell. The show's main attractions are Marlena and her Arabian horses, and Rosie, a precocious elephant. Jacob becomes enamored of both. Unfortunately, Marlena is married to a mercurial circus boss, and the elephant appears endangered because it's hopeless as a performer.


"With a showman's expert timing, [Gruen] saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale." -- New York Times Book Review

"Lively with historical detail and unexpected turns.... [A] delightful gem springing from a fascinating footnote to history that absolutely deserved to be mined." -- Denver Post

"One of the many pleasures of this novel is the opportunity to enter a bizarrely coded and private world with its own laws, superstitions and vocabulary....The pleasures of that world were so compelling, so detailed and vivid, that I couldn't bear to be torn away from it for a single minute." -- Chicago Tribune


Sara Gruen is the author of two previous novels: Riding Lessons and Flying Changes: A Novel. She and her husband and three children live in Illinois.


"Is it true that you keep your late cat's ashes in an urn near you?" "Max, yeah, he's in an urn behind my desk."

"So you've always been very involved with animals."

"Mmm." Sara Gruen's voice is melodic and quick. "We have three cats at the moment, two dogs, two goats and a horse."

"Quite a menagerie. Has that been true all your life?"

"When I was growing up my dad didn't like animals very much so we were limited to one cat and one dog. But as soon as I got off on my own, yeah."

"I'm told you got desperate while writing

Elephants and moved your desk into a closet, disconnected the phone and plugged your ears to try and get away from outside influences."

"Yeah, I had already painted the family room five times. I went from white trim to green, to what I thought was going to be brown but turned out purple, then a faux finish, then sort of dark black, and then I went back to white. The windows, I think, are never going to open again."

"All this to avoid..."

"To avoid writing, yes. I also did not have a door between me and the children. Eventually I unilaterally declared the living room my office and we built doors. So now I can lock the kids out. If the Oriental screen is across the French doors then they know they have to go and ask Daddy instead."

"Your first two novels were published by HarperCollins: Riding Lessons and Flying Changes, acquired by Carrie Feron. Both books star a horsewoman who, as a teenager, had ambitions to compete in the Olympics but suffered a terrible riding accident. She returns to the family horse farm 20 years later with her daughter and has to deal with her past troubles and some new ones. In your second book her daughter develops Olympic ambitions as well and this is difficult for the heroine. Competitive riding is a dangerous sport and she fears for her daughter's safety. It was successful, that first book, yes?"

"It did well; it made a bestseller list, USA Today. I would have said it was, but

Water for Elephants..." She laughs, clearly delighted.

"You write with such clarity and simplicity, and it's so penetrating. Water for Elephants was acquired and edited by Chuck Adams for Algonquin Book, and has really done well. It's in a 14th printing with 225,000 copies in print, and made all the bestseller lists, including number 7 on The New York Times. Perhaps even more telling is that 178 Amazon customers gave it personal rave reviews; that's got to be a record. Is it true that the novel was inspired by a photograph you saw in the Chicago Tribune?"

"Yes, it accompanied an article about a photographer named Edward J. Kelty. He followed traveling circuses in the 1920s and '30s. He built his own camera that could take negatives that were 12 by 24 inches, so you can imagine the level of detail. He took enormous panoramic shots of the entire Big Top, all the employees of the Ringling Brothers, and you could see just every spangle, every sequin."

"Did you know a lot about circuses before you got into this project?"

"I had never been to a circus before. I had no interest, no connection. None. It was completely this picture. I had been planning on starting another novel the next day and I was sitting with my cup of tea and just started stabbing the photograph with my finger, exclaiming, 'There's a novel in that!' And my husband was groaning, 'Oh, no.' Because we had just done research for this other book. I just couldn't rip my eyes off the photo, and immediately ordered Kelty's [pictorial book]."

"Were you surprised at how closed a community a circus was, how gypsylike and also marginal and tough?"

"Yeah, and I obviously chose to go with a seedier show than I could have, but I thought this would make for better tension."

"So this one photograph launched you on months of research in Ringling Brothers archives in Sarasota, Florida; Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin; at the elephant house in the Kansas City Zoo; and searching out retired clowns and carnival operators everywhere. What did you find out in the Kansas City Zoo?"

"By sheer dumb luck one of my writer friends is married to an ex-elephant handler who worked at the KC Zoo until he was gored by one of the elephants. I just wanted to sit outside the enclosure and watch them, to see how they move and get the body language down right. So we went there and Mark called to Penny, one of the elephants he'd known, and she remembered him and came over and purred, and that was really neat."

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royceveneuter March 6, 2011 @ 7:13 p.m.

I was moved by reading this novel four years ago, and I'm reading it again, in greater depth, now, in preparation for the upcoming film adaptation.

It is a novel that subtly dramatizes many character and plot and theme hooks that mesmerize the reader and seduce him or her into totally suspending all disbelief and becoming an involved spectator in this story.


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