Sara Gruen almost ran away from her Depression-era circus
Sara Gruen keeps her cat's ashes in an urn behind her desk and donates a portion of her book royalties to animal charities. It's not terribly surprising, then, that one of the most memorable characters in this animal lover's new novel is a pachyderm named Rosie.
"I've always been a complete sucker for animals," says Gruen, whose novel Water for Elephants has garnered considerable buzz for its offbeat story of a Depression-era traveling circus. "I didn't realize that maybe other people weren't until recently. I've always been 'Feed the wild ones, tame the stray ones.' "
Gruen's own menagerie—which she shares with her husband and three young sons—includes four cats, a dog, a horse and goats. Gruen spoke with BookPage recently from her home in an environmental community north of Chicago, where the residents live in energy-efficient homes and share an organic farm and a charter school.
It was in this bucolic setting that Gruen started writing her third novel (following Riding Lessons and Flying Changes) after intensive research that included several family visits to circus shows. But Water for Elephants almost didn't happen: Distraction after distraction kept Gruen from finishing the book, including the usual family illnesses and a technical-writing project that dragged on for four months.
"I found it very difficult to get back into the characters," she recalls. "I almost gave it up."
Gruen laughs as she explains the sensory-deprivation method she finally employed to buckle down and finish the book—she moved her desk to a walk-in closet, covered the window, turned off the phones and wore earplugs.
"I hope to never have to do that again!" she says.
The result was worth the struggle. Water for Elephants is the remarkable, captivating story of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a 1930s traveling circus fighting to stay solvent during the Great Depression.
Gruen brings to life a fascinating, nearly forgotten world of big tops and bearded ladies, in a time when the circus coming to town was a rare treat for those suffering through one of the bleakest chapters in our nation's history.
The story is also a bittersweet statement on growing old in moder[Thu Jul 31 19:52:41 2014] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. n America. Jacob Jankowski, who is either 90 or 93 years old (he's not entirely sure anymore), whiles away his days in a nursing home, missing his wife and his life. His children and grandchildren come to visit, but he finds it increasingly difficult to keep them all straight. When a traveling circus sets up in the parking lot next to his residence, his shaky mind is transported back to his days as the Benzini circus veterinarian.
After young Jacob's parents die in a car accident, he abandons his veterinary studies at Cornell and hops a Benzini train. He is soon taking care of a host of big cats, monkeys and horses, and spending his nights with the circus crew drinking bottles of the foulest bootleg imaginable.
Jacob is quickly captivated by Marlena, the lovely but
married star of the Benzini show. Her husband August is a dashing, vicious man who trains (and often beats) the circus animals. Rosie, the prized elephant that the Benzini show bought from a failed competitor, is often at the wrong end of August's wrath. Eventually, so is Jacob.
Gruen was one day away from starting a new novel on an entirely different topic when she read a newspaper feature about famed circus photographer Edward J. Kelty. In the years after World War I, Kelty followed circuses around the country, capturing mesmerizing images of sword swallowers, giants and midgets.
Gruen saw Kelty's work and thought, "Wow! I could put a novel in that." She set aside her other project and began researching the unique community of circus workers.
"I wanted to preserve a snapshot of that very extreme culture, because it's gone," she says.
The book is stuffed with authentic, largely forgotten details about life during the Depression. Gruen writes about a grizzled circus worker named Camel suffering from "Jake Leg." The condition afflicted tens of thousands of people who drank a Jamaican ginger extract during Prohibition, not knowing that it could cause paralysis.
Getting the historical details right was painstaking work, but Gruen found she had no trouble capturing the nuances of Jacob, a crotchety nonagenarian.
"He was the one who was just there," she says. "I think it scared my husband. I just turned on the tap and there's this cantankerous old man."
"It was much more difficult to write the historical chapters," she says. "You know, was there running water in a 1930s train car? I would finish those chapters with my tongue hanging out. Then I'd reach the safety of Jacob's nursing home."
Some of the history included in the book—such as Jake Leg and the rampant abuse of circus animals and workers—is haunting, but Gruen doesn't flinch from that reality.
In one of the book's many poignant moments, Jacob discovers why the elephant Rosie is so seemingly ill-suited for circus life, leading to her many beatings at the hands of August. In her author's note, Gruen makes clear that such abuse is historically accurate. A 1930s elephant named Topsy killed her trainer after he fed her a lit cigarette.
"Topsy's owners at Coney Island's Luna Park decided to turn her execution into a public spectacle," Gruen writes. "But the announcement that they were going to hang her met with uproar—after all, wasn't hanging a cruel and unusual punishment?"
The elephant was electrocuted in front of 1,500 spectators.
Sad? Absolutely. But if anything, discovering such stories while writing Water for Elephants only intensified Gruen's devotion to animals.
"I came into this project loving elephants, but now I'm absolutely besotted," Gruen laughs.
Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington. Copyright 2006 BookPage Reviews.
BookPage Reviews 2011 April
A beloved novel hits the big screen
The bright, infectiously enthusiastic Sara Gruen couldnâ€™t be further from the seedy circus subculture portrayed in Water for Elephants, her blockbuster novel thatâ€™s getting the Hollywood treatment in an eagerly anticipated new movie.
The story of Jacob Jankowski, an orphaned veterinary student who runs away with the circus and falls in love with sequined star Marlena, thrums with tension and violence, and odd unexpected moments of kindness and unsentimental love, too. The bookâ€™s scope and bittersweet atmosphere made it a natural for a feature film adaptation, and the project landed a top-notch cast, including stars Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. The movie opens in theaters around the world on April 22.
Water for Elephants, which has sold more than 4 million copies to date, was a surprise hit by a little-known author when it was first published in 2006. As excitement for the movie builds, sales of the book are skyrocketing once again, with more than 800,000 copies shipped by publisher Algonquin within the last month.
â€śIt was a very visual experience to write,â€ť Gruen says of the novel. â€śStrangely, it felt like I was watching a movie. I get to a place where I donâ€™t feel like Iâ€™m creating, but recording and capturing it. Iâ€™m smelling and hearing all of these things. I feel physically there.â€ť
Â â€śIf Iâ€™m going to spend eight hours a day in a fictional world, I would like to have an animal there as well.â€ť
â€śMy biggest fear as a writer is boring my readers,â€ť Gruen says. â€śOne of my philosophies as a novelist is to ratchet up the tension wherever possible.â€ť
The storyis packed with tension and contrasts, from the central love story of Jacob and the married Marlena and their deep connection with abused circus animals, to the camaraderie of a desperate band of strangers doing dirty and often undignified and difficult circus work.
â€śIt was a very fraught time,â€ť Gruen says of the early 20th-century traveling circuses. Both humans and animals were pushed to their limits to sell more tickets and line the pockets of the circus owners. The story features a pachyderm heroine named Rosie and other nameless and victimized animals that act as a kind of wordless Greek chorus to the events happening under the canvas.Growing up in Canada, Gruen hadnâ€™t even been to a circus before researching the book, but its details feel utterly authentic, especially the human-animal interactions.
â€śAnimals play such an important role in my real world,â€ť says Gruen, who is active in rescue efforts and lives with horses, dogs, cats and other creaturesâ€”along with her husband and childrenâ€”in North Carolina. â€śIf Iâ€™m going to spend eight hours a day in a fictional world, I would like to have an animal there as well.â€ť
Despite the sometimes ugly history of circus animals, Gruen made sure that their filmic counterparts were treated well when she signed the movie contract. A stampede and other crucial scenes were produced with a green screen in the film, Gruen says, and she made sure that American Humane Society guidelines were followed on set. She insisted that no apes were used, since they suffer the most from being used in the entertainment industry, according to Gruen (whose most recent novel, Ape House, portrays a fictional ape laboratory).
Gruen and her entire family have cameos in the movie. Her big moment comes when Robert Pattinson (as Jacob) brushes past her during a tense scene with a runaway circus animal. â€śIâ€™m the astonished woman watching an elephant [Rosie] steal produce!â€ť she says.
Grateful for her â€śonce in a lifetime experienceâ€ť of spending a few days on a Hollywood set, Gruen was also â€śabsolutely blown awayâ€ť by the â€śfabulousâ€ť script for the film, by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Richard LaGravenese.
â€śHe combined a few scenes and combined a few characters and it works,â€ť GruenÂ says. â€śThere are places where it veers away from the book, but then it comes back. Iâ€™m really excited to see it.â€ť
The filmmakers invited Gruen to see the tents of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth set at the end of the production. â€śWhen we drove up over the berm, and there was the Benzini Brothers, I was speechless,â€ť she says. â€śI still canâ€™t really describe itâ€”just knowing that it was all in my head five years ago . . . it was amazing.â€ť
Gruen and her family are attending the film premiere April 17 in New York City. â€śNobodyâ€™s going to be looking at the author, but Iâ€™ll be there,â€ť she says. â€śMy husband threatens to wear a 20-year-old suit, my oldest son wants to wear a gorilla suit, but meâ€”I want to look glamorous.â€ť
Gruen will have to gear up for the additional wave of popularity that the film will no doubt bring.
â€śItâ€™s still sinking in,â€ť she says of her runaway bestseller, a favorite of book clubs across the country. â€śI am absolutely flabbergasted. I have no idea why it resonated the way it did.â€ť
For a writer who estimated the chance of getting published at two percent but got a phenomenon instead, this traveling literary circus shows no sign of pulling up stakes and leaving the station any time soon.Â
ÂCopyright 2011 BookPage Reviews.
When his parents are killed in a traffic accident, Jacob Jankowski hops a train after walking out on his final exams at Cornell, where he had hoped to earn a veterinary degree. The train turns out to be a circus train, and since it's the Depression, when someone with a vet's skills can attach himself to a circus if he's lucky, Jacob soon finds himself involved with the animal acts--specifically with the beautiful young Marlena, the horse rider, and her husband, August. Jacob falls for Marlena immediately, and the ensuing triangle is at the center of this novel, which follows the circus across the states. Jacob learns the ins and outs of circus life, in this case under the rule of the treacherous Uncle Al, who cheats the workers and deals roughly with patrons who complain about blatant false advertising and rip-off exhibits. Jacob and Marlena are attracted to each other, but their relationship is fairly innocent until it becomes clear that August is not merely jealous but dangerously mentally deranged. Old-fashioned and endearing, this is an enjoyable, fast-paced story told by the older Jacob, now in his nineties in a nursing home. From the author of Riding Lessons ; recommended for all libraries.--Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. at Oneonta[Page 62]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
With its spotlight on elephants, Gruen's romantic page-turner hinges on the human-animal bonds that drove her debut and its sequel (Riding Lessons and Flying Changes )--but without the mass appeal that horses hold. The novel, told in flashback by nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski, recounts the wild and wonderful period he spent with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a traveling circus he joined during the Great Depression. When 23-year-old Jankowski learns that his parents have been killed in a car crash, leaving him penniless, he drops out of Cornell veterinary school and parlays his expertise with animals into a job with the circus, where he cares for a menagerie of exotic creatures, including an elephant who only responds to Polish commands. He also falls in love with Marlena, one of the show's star performers--a romance complicated by Marlena's husband, the unbalanced, sadistic circus boss who beats both his wife and the animals Jankowski cares for. Despite her often clichéd prose and the predictability of the story's ending, Gruen skillfully humanizes the midgets, drunks, rubes and freaks who populate her book. (May 26)[Page 47]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.