Interview with Sara GruenApril, 2015
Sara Gruen: It's been about four years since I got the notion. My youngest son got very ill, and that took up at least a year and a half. He's OK now. But it was hard for me when I was able to turn back to it, to get my concentration back. It took all of my willpower and every bit of personal strength I had. I had some real crises of the soul. Am I going to pay back my advance and give up on this because I don't know if I can write it? Or no, I'm just going to have to write it. Having a sick child usurps everything. He had a very aggressive bone tumor. I did not let that child out of my reach because he was so fragile. When the crisis was passed, it was like getting off some God-awful roller coaster, and life can go back to normal, but you've sort of forgotten how to do that. I went off with Renee Rosen, an author and good friend of mine, on a writing retreat for a weekend, and that's when we both decided that we were going to do it. I don't know where I found that strength, honestly, but I'm so glad now, because if I had given up and given back the advance, I would have felt like a complete failure.
GR: That's such an emotional ride for this book.
SG: I have never been more scared. I feel like the luckiest woman on the entire earth.
GR: It's not often you read a WWII novel set in Scotland. How did that time and setting take shape for you?
SG: I was procrastinating in my office one day, and I stumbled across an article online about some declassified documents on government secrecy. One of the files contained a letter from Scotland Yard that was written in 1938 and stated they believed the monster existed. I went to Urquhart castle when I was 12, and it is just the best castle ever. It's ruined and fabulous and on a promontory and embodies all the splendor and majesty of nature. It can be romantic and moody, or it can kill you. I thought, "OK, my favorite castle in the world, plus the monster, I can't resist." I spent five weeks in total [in the Scottish Highlands]. It's got a lot of war history. The D-Day landings were practiced there. The modern-day Commando came into being when the highly elite Allied fighters went there to train. And also, the blitzes in London—to mix it up, the Nazis would send the planes from Norway down the Glen, so that is what was going on during the two air raids in the book.
I thought the war adds a certain level of volatility that is great in a novel, because anything could happen, and you want to have a sense of danger and tension all the way up from micro to macro. My initial idea was that it would involve a Scotland Yard detective, but that didn't ever pan out in my head. So I just went there.
GR: You didn't have a story line before you got there?
SG: I got the story idea on one of the last days of my trip, when I was walking around Urquhart castle and the only two people there were my guide and me. I was looking around, trying to get ideas for the book, and all of a sudden we were standing at the water gate. And there's something about being between the stones of the place—there's a real presence. It's almost supernatural. Because so much history happened right there where your feet are standing. That was when all the fragments that were floating in my brain and all the details that I wanted to work in and that I thought were interesting—all of those actually took shape at that moment. I sent my guide back to my car (and I hope I wasn't very rude, but he was very nice about it), and I spent the rest of the afternoon stomping around and dictating into my cell phone, because the ideas—there was no way I could write them down, so I just turned my phone on and started talking.
GR: That must have felt so good.
SG: Oh, it is a rush. I actually get goosebumps thinking about it. That's the moment you wait for. I can't sit down and come up with a story. I have to wait until my muse comes back from her Florida retirement home when she feels like visiting me—it has to come to me, so it's a really wonderful thing when it does.
GR: There was a connection to the supernatural world in this book.
SG: Yes, there is a touch of the mystical in it. That is one of the reasons why the monster was so appealing to me, because I have never done that in any of my work. And when you're standing at the edge of the Loch, even the most skeptical among us might feel a twinge of doubt, because there is something about the physical presence. The Loch is an incredibly unique piece of water. It's so deep; it could hold ten times the number of people on earth; it contains more water than any of the other freshwater bodies of water in the UK combined; it also experiences a slight tidal pool, which is not supposed to happen in freshwater. And because of the depth and quick drop-off, it's prone to optical illusion. It appears as though the water underneath the surface is traveling a different direction than on top of it. These are things that could lead to monster sightings, because you might see a wake where there isn't one, but as you stand there, you kind of want to see it.
GR: Goodreads member Chris Holmes-Forshee asks, "It's interesting that you've chosen a title with 'water' in it again. Is there something about the water that inspires you to incorporate it into your writing?"
Water for Elephants was Jacob's Ladder, but that turned out to be the name of a movie about heroin addicts. I didn't have a title for this book, so my publicist, agent, her assistant, my husband, my best friends—we were all brainstorming and going back and forth for days. We were down to the wire and went through hundreds of titles. I don't remember who came up with At the Water's Edge, and it didn't occur to me until weeks later, when somebody else pointed it out that it had the word water in it. So no, not on purpose.
GR: But I did read that you do love the water and are a scuba diver.
SG: Oh, definitely. Any time we have a vacation, we are headed for the water.
GR: At the Water's Edge is about the main character, Maddie's, awakening in so many ways, which doesn't happen until she leaves her life as she knows it.
SG: She's sleepwalking. This whole period up until she gets to Scotland, she's never done anything but be what other people need her to be. And so getting to Scotland, [and] seeing the stark reality that the war is, is a reality check for her. She begins to have hints to see the cracks in her façade, and it eventually shatters, in the Humpty Dumpty sense of you cannot unknow it, you cannot unsee it. At that point, she has to face the truth. What she ends up doing, and what the good thing and the right thing to do is, she turns to face it and embrace the future with open arms.
GR: She doesn't have any female friends until she gets to Scotland. What is it about those female friendships that are so important for Maddie?
SG: Maddie has never had anybody. But she's craved it. So when she meets these women who have no pretense, and they don't view her as a superior, when these artificial barriers of social class are dissolved, Maddie finds herself realizing that these are actually friends. They're doing little things before she even realizes it that clue her in—like bringing her a hot water bottle. She would do anything to protect these friendships. She finds this out concurrent to finding out what Ellis [her husband] is and what the whole marriage is about, so she's not going to give this up because Ellis wants it. She's through with that.
GR: Goodreads member Melissa asks why you chose to move away from the animal-centric stories, and do you plan on going back?
SG: Well, there is a dog. And there's a mythical animal. But the story that comes to me, I have to be true to it, and this one did not involve an animal in a pivotal role. The monster is sort of pivotal, but I am ambiguous about it, and it is representative of many things, mostly internal monsters. There are all these internal monsters that each of us face, and it's how we deal with those that defines us as people. But I can pretty much guarantee that all my books will have animals in them.
GR: Congratulations on the Broadway musical adaptation for Water for Elephants. Do you have any thoughts about where the big musical numbers would go?
SG: That's my first real assignment! I'm very excited to be thought of for that. I'm going to come up with what I think the big moments are and see what they come up with for how to execute them, because I think that it could be really amazing. The thing just gets more and more surreal. It's a dream I didn't even know I had.
GR: Tell us about your writing process.
SG: When I'm in my writing zone, the sound of someone breathing or chewing makes me want to kill them. So finally now I have an office with a door. I go in, lock my door, and pull the curtains—because there are glass doors—and everybody in the family knows that if the curtains are closed, don't knock on the door unless the house is on fire or you've got a leg hanging off by a thread. To get from this world to the world I'm writing about, I have to be almost in a meditative state.
GR: How do you get to that mental space?
SG: I check my email, check Facebook or whatever, get another cup of tea, lock the doors, close the curtains, and then I shut down everything else, open my files, and once I've got the beginning of the book down, I go back to the beginning of what I wrote the day before and use that to ramp up. By the time I get through that once or twice, I'm usually ready to continue to move on, and I'm there. Then I just write forward. Every once in a while I take stock of the whole thing and make sure I'm not dropping threads. At some point I feel like I have 16 balls in the air, and if I turn around, they're going to fall. When I'm in the middle of this, I can take one day off, but if I take two days off, then I'm too far removed from it to do that kind of juggling, so I have to be very strict. It's pretty tense. It's almost a fight to the death between me and my novels, and I'm never sure which one of us is going to make it. So far it's been me.
SG: Life of Pi. I also really loved The Corrections. It took me three times to get into it, but I thought it was brilliant. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is rocket fuel prose. Heap House, that's YA, I just loved. It's by Edward Carey, and he's Elizabeth McCracken's husband, and [her] Niagara Falls All Over Again, I absolutely couldn't put down.
GR: What are you reading now?
SG: Nothing yet. I had a bunch of advance reading copies piling up, so I have to go through those first. Then I'm going to take a month or two and just read, read, read.
GR: Since you write about historical fiction, Goodreads member Candace asks, "Have you ever felt like you were born in the wrong era?"
SG: No. I'm glad I was born in this era because I was very prone to illness as a kid. If I hadn't been born in the age of antibiotics, I wouldn't have made it past a year. The other funny thing is that when we think of ourselves as being born in another era—take Downton Abbey, for example—we never think of ourselves as the Annas or the Daisys of the world. We think of ourselves as the Lady Marys. So with my luck, I would have been the Daisys. Modern medicine, the vaccinations, central heating—all good things.
GR: I read that you can stand on your head and also stand on a cantering horse. What other secret skills do you have?
SG: One of my really close friends is a chef, and I make better hollandaise sauce than he does, and he's the first to admit it. I've taken up knitting. I'm on a hat kick—if you write novels for a living, hats are instant gratification. Having something done that you can look at and say, "Wow I did that," in two or three days is just wonderful.
Interview by Lauren Rubin for Goodreads. Lauren is a journalist, teacher, and mom who lives in New York City. She is a former staff reporter for The New York Daily News and currently works for the City University of New York.
Would you like to contribute author interviews to Goodreads? Contact us.