The interview is supposed to be with Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants. Instead the person on the other end of the phone line is a fellow named Bob.
Ah. It’s her husband; he says Sara has retreated to her office, about a three-minute drive from their home in Grayslake, Ill. Call her there, he says. When she picks up, Gruen explains it’s the hardwood floor sanding that has driven her out.
“They’re in pretty bad shape,” Gruen says. “We’ve got three kids, plus two dogs, and I’ve overwatered some plants on occasion and la la. It’s hard to know who to blame.”
Well, there’s nothing like a raucous household. And Gruen’s Water for Elephants has a similarly rambunctious atmosphere. In it, 90-something Jacob Jankowski recalls his life with a circus, which he joined when he was 21. The people and places he sees with Benzini Brothers are vivid, visceral, even raw. His job as handler for the menagerie is cause for some aching insights into human/animal interactions and the nature of cruelty.
Gruen, ensconced in her office, safe from all that floor-sanding noise, discussed the book recently.
Your narrator is very engaging. One of the things that’s heartbreaking is the way he’s treated in the nursing home. He’s condescended to, isn’t he? The staff makes assumptions about him, including an apparent belief that he’s mentally compromised, which he’s not.
For me the parallel was Jacob as an old man being treated in the same manner as his former charges in the menagerie when he was a young man. He is cleaned, fed and set out on display every day, basically, with more or less no say in what happens in his life, no choices in what he does from day to day.
Obviously it’s a comment on how humans sometimes treat animals—very badly.
And how we treat each other, how we treat the elderly, how we treat anyone we view as other, and by that I mean a very wide range of other. The circus folk in my book and in that culture did look down on rubes. Rubes were not them; rubes were the outsiders. ... I really wasn’t trying to make any definitive statements, but I was trying to make people look at all these things. The book has romantic love in it, but it’s about love in all its forms—between people and animals, between family members chosen and biological.
You actually did some of your research on elephants at the Kansas City Zoo, right?
By sheer dumb luck. I’m friends with someone who is married to one of the ex-elephant handlers at the zoo. So my husband and I went and stayed the weekend with them and sat outside the elephant enclosure for three days and took notes. His name is Mark Kabak; his wife, Carrie Kabak, is also a novelist and a very good writer. I asked Mark how an elephant would react if she were scared of someone, mad at someone—various contexts.
Did you observe an angry or frightened elephant?
I didn’t ever see an elephant who was mad or scared, but I did see happiness and joy. Mark hadn’t been an elephant keeper in 20 years at that point, but some of the females who are there to this day had been there during his tenure. One of them in particular, named Penny—he called to her, and she came to the edge of the enclosure, as close as she could to us. And she purred! It was the coolest thing.
Research has suggested very strongly that animals seek out pleasure, just as we do.
Of course they do!
But so many people are still trying to emphasize a huge emotional divide between people and animals.
Well, they’re idiots. I dare someone to look into the eyes of my dog and tell me she doesn’t feel.
Have you always loved animals?
Yeah, I think it’s genetic. I didn’t realize I was different from some other people until the interviews with regard to this book. People started saying, “Well, have you always been this way, are your parents like this?” I would say, “Like what? Isn’t everybody like this?” My father is not an animal lover, in fact, but my mother is exactly like me. I just love them; they bring joy to me. I can’t say no to a furry thing.
What kind of animals did you have growing up?
I had a dog and a cat only, growing up, because my dad didn’t like animals particularly. But then later I had gerbils and budgies. When I moved out and was on my own—well, now I have three goats, a horse, two dogs and three cats. And my stepdaughter is a veterinarian and works at various shelters, so the number is variable.
One pleasing thing about your book is that it’s structurally accomplished, which is a particular feat here because you have two worlds: Jacob as an old man revealing his current life, but also his distant past. You connect the dots brilliantly. But wasn’t it difficult at times to write it that way?
The book nearly killed me. Not because of that, strangely; I knew the structure going in, and whenever I felt the momentum was getting too wound up in the 1931 scenes, I would switch to a present-day scene. It was very organic that way.
But I do have a tough time keeping my fictional and real worlds separate. A lot of people ask me, “Are you your characters?” No, it’s the other way around! The seepage happens from my fictional world into my real world. With Water for Elephants, for example, there came a time when I knew I had to kill a couple of people I really loved, and it took me three days to work up to it. I was really, really grumpy. Eventually my husband said would you just do it already? I killed them the next day. I moved on, but there’s definitely seepage because I spend eight hours a day in that fictional world, then I have to come out of it and be in this world for the evening. It’s more difficult than I thought it might be.
I suppose everyone has asked you what you think of circuses. So what’s your take? From reading the book, I imagine you have a dark view and that the scenes of cruelty were tough to write.
Oh, terribly. In the scenes where I was writing bad stuff happening to Rosie, I had to take myself outside of the tent. I told it from the point of view of someone with his ear pressed to the tent. I just couldn’t be in there. And several times I had to stand back and remind myself this was a fictional elephant.
I didn’t glorify the circus, and I didn’t demonize the circus—I told it as it was.
The prologue from Gruen’s book is quite arresting, thus this single excerpt from the book:
Thunderous applause exploded from the big top, and the band slid seamlessly into the Gounod waltz. I turned instinctively toward the menagerie because this was the cue for the elephant act. Marlena was either preparing to mount or was already sitting on Rosie’s head.
“I’ve got to go,” I said.
“Sit,” said Grady. “Eat. If you’re thinking of clearing out, it may be a while before you see food again.”
That moment, the music screeched to a halt. There was an ungodly collision of brass, reed, and percussion—trombones and piccolos skidded into cacophony, a tuba farted, and the hollow clang of a cymbal wavered out of the big top, over our heads and into oblivion.
Grady froze, crouched over his burger with his pinkies extended and lips spread wide.
I looked from side to side. No one moved a muscle—all eyes were directed at the big top. A few wisps of hay swirled lazily across the hard dirt.
“What is it? What’s going on?” I said.
“Shh,” Grady hissed.
The band started up again, playing “Stars and Stripes Forever.” ... Grady tossed his food onto the table and leapt up, knocking over the bench.
“What? What is it?” I yelled, because he was already running away from me.
“The Disaster March!” he screamed over his shoulder.
I jerked around to the fry cook, who was ripping off his apron. “What the hell’s he talking about?”
“The Disaster March,” he said, wrestling the apron over his head. “Means something’s gone bad—real bad.”
“Could be anything—fire in the big top, stampede, whatever. Aw sweet Jesus. The poor rubes probably don’t even know it yet.” He ducked under the hinged door and took off.
Chaos—candy butchers vaulting over counters, workmen staggering out from under tent flaps, roustabouts racing headlong across the lot. Anyone and everyone associated with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth barreled toward the big top.
Diamond Joe passed me at the human equivalent of a full gallop. “Jacob—it’s the menagerie,” he screamed. “The animals are loose. Go, go, go!”
THE SARA GRUEN FILE
Born: Vancouver, British Columbia.
Current home: Grayslake, in northern Illinois near the Wisconsin line.
Family: Husband, Bob Gruen, and three children.
Education: Bachelor’s in English, Carleton University, Ottawa.
Other jobs she’s done besides writing: “Schlepping doughnuts,” law firm research assistant, direct-mail campaign writer, technical writer.
Previous books: Riding Lessons and Flying Changes.
Next book: Apehouse, a novel.
For more on author Sara Gruen, go to www.saragruen.com.