Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants was named the 2007 Book Sense Book of the Year by the American Booksellers Association in the adult fiction category and landed on the New York Times bestseller list. The story follows Jacob Jankowski, both as an old man in a nursing home and as a young man aboard a Depression-era circus train, tangling with a frightening antagonist and drawn to his beautiful wife.
Gruen’s previous books are Riding Lessons and the sequel, Flying Changes, about a woman and her love of horses as she struggles with changes in her life and family. Her follow-up to Water for Elephants is Ape House, about a family of bonobo apes who are thrust into the limelight and irrevocably alter the lives of the people around them. Gruen lives with her husband, Bob, two dogs, three cats, two goats, a horse, and three boys in the South.
In the summer of 2007, novelist Kristina Riggle interviewed her for Literary Mama as the paperback of Water for Elephants hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list. This month, Literary Mama reprints that interview in conjunction with the release of the film Water for Elephants, starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz.
On making the switch from writing technical manuals to novels: It was a complete gamble. When I was fired from my tech writing job, my husband and I decided it was time I try to pursue my dream of writing fiction full time. We had an agreement: two novels or two years. If I hadn’t achieved any success within those parameters, I would return to tech writing. I wrote a novel that remains in a drawer, but then Riding Lessons sold at auction. I don’t miss tech writing at all!
On the challenges of balancing family life with writing: Luckily, I married the right man. He’s really involved with our children and home life and very supportive of my career. He was a senior director at a software company and now works as my manager. He even encouraged me to rent an apartment near our house that serves as my office. Never again will I write in a walk-in closet, as I did with Water for Elephants.
On writing in a walk-in closet: I needed a sensory deprivation pod. I had two long interruptions during the writing of Water for Elephants, and after the second one, I was having real trouble getting my head back into my characters and storyline. It was either take to the closet or give up the book — and I had a ton of money and time invested in the book at that point, so I took to the closet.
On writing in a peaceful, quiet apartment that might get lonely: It’s the only space in my life that stays neat after I clean it. It’s my girlie oasis. I have a wasabi-mint spa candle, flowers, sequined shower curtain, and white fluffy towels with creases. I walk in the door in the morning, breathe deeply, and feel sane. Plus, I bring my dogs.
On the easiest and the hardest parts of writing: Writing. And writing. I’m not trying to be trite, but when it’s going well, it feels like an ever-flowing fount; and when it’s going badly, it feels like pulling teeth. This is one of the reasons the office is so important to me. It removes me from most of the other things I could do other than writing — laundry, cleaning up cat yak, sorting junk mail, et cetera.
On writing novels that include characters who love animals, and animals with central roles: Animals have always been an integral part of my life, so it seemed natural to incorporate them into the lives of my characters. I think animals are every bit as complex and emotionally intelligent as human beings — often more so — and they make for fascinating protagonists.
On animals helping to reveal important traits in human characters: The animals are characters in and of themselves. The human characters do reveal things about themselves in the course of their interactions with the animal characters, but I don’t differentiate.
On Water for Elephants’ tremendous success and the moment she realized it was going to be such a breakout hit: I still don’t believe it. All of the clichés are true: it feels like I’ve won the lottery or been struck by lightning. This is a capricious business, so I try not to take anything for granted.
On the possibilities of achieving satisfaction and security after struggling to get published: It feels good knowing that my next two novels are under contract — I have stories I want to tell! — but again, I try not to think of them in terms of sustaining a certain level of success. I’m trying to remember why I wanted to write in the first place — for fun, not to be on any bestseller lists.
On writing in two different timelines and from a male point-of-view: It was strange. I seem to have a 93-year-old man on tap. Old Jacob’s voice came to me with surprising ease. Young Jacob was harder, mostly because of the research involved, but I loved every minute of it.
On special research for the book: I talked to several old-timers, who told me fantastic stories… the stranger the anecdote in the book, the more likely it’s true.
On the idea for her follow-up, Ape House: Someone sent me a link to bonobos and I was instantly hooked. Genetically, they’re the most like human beings — and not just because they’re obsessed with sex!
On whether her life has changed as a result of her publishing success: My day-to-day life hasn’t changed. I have three children and I still do a lot of laundry and clean up cat yak and other things that keep me grounded.
On “living the dream”: Right now, I just feel like I’m living on deadline!