Water for Elephants: A Novel
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
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.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
"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
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
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.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
"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."
"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."
"Do you miss Canada? Do those cold plains call to you?"
"Oh, yes. Definitely. I've been back recently and I'm going at the end of this month to do a reading and actually go and talk to some guys at York University about the Bonobo apes. I've adopted ten infant Bonobos at the Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary in the Congo. I hope my book can raise enough awareness to help keep them from extinction. I'm so looking forward to getting into this next novel. The research is going to be incredibly fascinating. I actually hope to be able to come away from this talking about the time I spoke with an ape."
Algonquin Books, 2006, 23.95, 331 pages