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Interview with Sara Gruen - Author of Water for Elephants

Sara Gruen Interview - July 28, 2006

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Sara Gruen

Sara Gruen - © Terence W. Bailey

Sara Gruen has published three novels, Riding Lessons, Flying Changes and Water for Elephants. In this interview, Gruen discusses Water for Elephants, her love for animals and a little about her family and personal passions.

ERIN C. MILLER: I loved the book, so I’m excited to talk about it with you. Tell us how you came up with the idea for Water for Elephants.

SARA GRUEN: I was actually looking through the newspaper and I saw a photograph–a vintage circus photograph–and that was really pretty much it. I ordered the book of photographs and next thing I knew I was researching it and there we are.

ECM: How long did you spend researching circuses?

SARA GRUEN: Four and a half months. I took four research trips and got a whole bunch of books and watched documentaries on the depression itself because I didn’t know much about the depression either.

ECM: At what point in your research did the story begin to take shape?

SARA GRUEN: I was seeing all sorts of things that I knew I really wanted to incorporate, like redlighting, which is the practice of throwing somebody off the back of a moving train when you don’t want them working for you anymore, and the pickled hippo–just all of these completely outrageous things. But I don’t think I really had a story until I started writing because I don’t like to write from an outline. So, I always know what the crisis of the book is going to be, but I don’t know how I’m going to get there and I don’t know how I’m going to get out of it.

ECM: So how do you make that move in your writing process from a body of research to a story?

SARA GRUEN: I stare at the screen (laugh). I pick some music...I guess I figure out what the crisis of the book is going to be and then I sit down and I get my first scene. But once I have my first scene I really just have to keep going. My method is I spend an hour and a half sort of revving up every morning and I’ll read what I wrote the day before and maybe do a little revising of it, and then just keep going. I just read that last tiny little bit until I feel like I can continue.

ECM: I read something about a walk-in closet?

SARA GRUEN: (laugh) Well, um, I wrote the first half of the book without any problems, but I had two fairly long interruptions. The first, my horse got very sick and I sat outside her stall for nine weeks. Then she actually stepped on my foot and crushed it afterwards, so I was out for nine weeks. That was the first interruption. I was out for 18 weeks. So I wrote the first half of the book and then I took what was supposed to be a short three or four week technical writing contract, and it stretched into four months. I was doing 10 and 11-hour days, and it was a fairly complicated SQL server database thing. When I finished it, I was really having a lot of trouble getting my head back into the book and getting my characters and my plotlines back. So, I was shopping on ebay a lot and I painted my family room five times and I actually sorted my rubberbands by size. I’m a slob so this was a real cry for help. So I asked my husband to move my desk into our walk-in closet because I knew I either had to get serious about finishing the book or else just give up on it. And I covered over the window and I wore headphones. I think I was three and a half months in the closet before I finally finished. Of course, if I did it now I would have to rip the wireless card out of my laptop, but at the time I didn’t have one, so it meant I was unwired.

ECM: So, how long from when you saw that newspaper article to when you finished the book? How long start to finish?

SARA GRUEN: I think roughly a year.

ECM: Even with interruptions, that was pretty quick.

SARA GRUEN: The writing itself for me usually takes four or five months with a book. For this one it took slightly longer, but not very much, just because of the historical detail. So, if you count it all up I think it was pretty close to a year.

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