Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Friday, May 12, 2006

On the Shelf with Sara Gruen

Sara Gruen's wonderful new novel,Water For Elephants,is only her third book which is hard to believe since she writes like a seasoned pro at the top of her game. Her earlier novels dealt with the world of horse racing and her love of animals has lead her to add to her own family with three kids such companions as five cats,two goats and a horse and dog all within an environmental community north of Chicago.

She also donates to a number of animal charities that are listed at her website(linked in the title above)and she was kind enough to grant me this interview before embarking on her book tour,which will begin at next week's BEA where she'll be appearing at the Algonquin booth for signings. Here's what we said to each other:

1)What inspired you to write a story set in the world of 1930s traveling circues?

I was literally a day away from starting a completely different novel when I opened the newspaper and saw a fantastic panoramic photograph of a Depression-era circus. It was part of a feature article on the photographer Edward J. Kelty, who followed train circuses during the 1920s and 30s and whose custom-built camera was capable of producing negatives that were 12 x 24 inches. I couldn't tear my eyes away from
the picture, which was called "Congress of Freaks," and immediately ordered a book of his photographs. Shortly thereafter I ordered a second book of vintage circus photographs, these ones by the photographer Frederick W. Glasier. By the time I'd looked through them, there was no going back.

2)Was it your idea to add vintage photos to many of the chapters in Water For Elephants?

Yes! The book was inspired by a photograph, and because there are so many wonderful and evocative images, it was really important to me to include them. It was also fun to try to match up the pictures with the chapters so that they reflect the contents, and sometimes even contain foreshadowing. I spent months tracking down the owners of the pictures and securing the rights, but it was definitely worth it. They were a
part of my vision of this book.

3)You donate some of the proceeds from your writings to various animal charities-if you had to pick just one of them to recommend to a friend,which one would it be?

I really couldn't choose. Live & Let Live Farm, Proud Spirit Sanctuary,
and SARA Sanctuary are run by amazing individuals who really do
dedicate their lives to saving these animals. But the large rescues are also
responsible for many saved lives, and sometimes have a better network
for coordinating emergency efforts. That's why I support a mixture of
types. I'm afraid I make a bad Solomon!

4)On your website,there's a picture of a walk-in closet that you use as your writer's office. How did that come about?

The writing experience was really intense and because of the number of details I had to keep straight I felt like I always had sixteen balls in the air. I also had several long interruptions while writing "Water for Elephants", and after the final one I was having a really hard time getting back into it. I almost abandoned it, but my critique partner talked me out of it. That's when I had my husband move my desk into our walk-in closet, covered over the window, and wore noise-reduction headphones. I spent several months in that closet, and when I emerged with a finished book I was so exhausted I really had no idea whether it was any good at all.

5)Will there be a follow-up book to your earlier novels,Riding Lessons and Flying Changes?

There may well be. We're certainly talking about it.

6)What are some of your favorite books and/or films?

I live under a rock as far as movies go--we have three kids and we never quite seem to get around to hiring a babysitter, so the movies I see tend to be of the Chicken Little variety. As for books, I have very eclectic tastes: the ones I've read most recently are The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Sun Also Rises, Niagara Falls All Over Again, Bel Canto, Horse Heaven, Marley & Me, The Kite Runner, and I'm about to start Animals In Translation. I also just read a bound copy of an
amazing new novel that's coming out in February 2007. It's called FINN,
by Jon Clinch, and it's coming out with Random House. Watch for it--it's incredible.

7)If Water For Elephants were to be made into a movie,who would you like to play the leading characters?

Ah, see, if I saw more movies I'd have an answer for that! :-P

My thanks to Sara for this interview and if you'd like to see her on tour,just check her website for dates and places near you. If I was casting the movie version of Water For Elephants,my picks for the leads would be Alexis Beidel,Tobey Maguire and Paul Giamatti as August. Hopefully Hollywood will take a look at Sara's books and see the greatness that would work so well onscreen as it does on the page. Even if they don't,Water For Elephants should be on top on everyone's To Read List this summer and be noted as one of the best books of the year.

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