Interview with Sara Gruen

Posted by Goodreads on September 6, 2010
Sara Gruen's novels plumb the weird and wonderful ways humans and animals connect. Her first two books, Riding Lessons and Flying Changes, explored the unique bond between horses and riders. Water for Elephants stampeded through best-seller lists with a Depression-era story about a traveling circus and its menagerie of performing animals—including an ornery elephant named Rosie who only understands Polish. A feature film starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson is on the way. For her latest project, Gruen won rare visitor privileges at Great Ape Trust, a research facility where she observed the rich social life and impressive linguistic abilities of endangered bonobo apes. In Ape House, bonobos are kidnapped from a language lab and end up on a reality television show. Gruen talks about bonobo tea parties and bemoans how she thinks humans are developing the attention span of hamsters.

Goodreads: When did you first become interested in writing a novel about human-ape interaction?

Sara Gruen: I've been following the progress of Koko the gorilla since 1980 and have always been fascinated by the concept of human-ape discourse. Right before I went on tour for Water for Elephants, my mother sent me an e-mail with a link to the Great Ape Trust, and after I spent a few days poking around at their site, I decided that I had to feature these amazing beings in my next book. Part of it was the language and cognition studies going on at the Trust, and part of it was this amazing species of great ape that I'd never heard of before.

GR: For your research, you spent lots of quality time with bonobos at Great Ape Trust. Can you describe some of the relationships you formed with apes?

SG: I met Kanzi first. He's very outgoing and always willing to show off what he knows. Mostly he wants to play chase without actually running, so he picks two people (usually women) and orders them to chase each other in front of him. It's kind of like Ape Baywatch! He also shows off his keyboarding skills and converses on his lexigram board and asks for treats for his visitors (bonobos are very generous).

I met Panbanisha next, and although she is arguably more language-competent than her brother, she is much more shy. (Although their lexigram boards contain almost 400 symbols, they understand many more spoken words.) I already knew through research that she didn't like cats, but she did like dogs, and also that she had two sons (one has since passed on), so I brought pictures of my dogs and my own kids as icebreakers, hoping she would want to speak to me. I showed her the dogs, and she didn't respond. Then I showed her the kids (who were much younger and all in a bubble bath), and she went to her lexigram board and said, "Babies washing bubbles." Because bonobo culture is matriarchal and infants enjoy such high status on the social hierarchy, being a mother gave me instant status. The day after I left, she said to one of the scientists, "Where's Sara? Build her nest. When's she coming back?"

I sent the whole family a fruit-of-the-month club so they'd be reminded of me on a regular basis, but I needn't have worried. They have great memories. Since then I have had a tea party with Panbanisha in the forest with tea that she brewed and cookies she selected, and generally just spent excellent girl time with her (we did our hair and makeup together). I've run back and forth for Kanzi many, many times and played tickle chase with Maisha and Nyota, the adolescent male bonobos, and they are better than any personal trainer. They will absolutely wear you out!

GR: Goodreads member Janelle asks, "Do bonobos understand fiction and stories? Do they (or could they) write? Would you consider sharing your work with them?"

SG: In a very real sense they are already reading: The lexigrams on their board are symbols for spoken words, and Panbanisha has been known to write lexigrams on the floor in chalk. In the spring I took my manuscript with me on my visit, and when Panbanisha and I were having our tea party, I read some of the beginning to her, and she and Dr. Sue had a conversation about what the differences were between good visitors and bad visitors. Panbanisha knows the book is dedicated to her and pointed to her name on the page. The bonobos actually saw the book cover before I did! They absolutely understand when something is fiction: Panbanisha is fond of horror movies and Kanzi cannot stand them, while Maisha prefers Spiderman.

GR: The bonobos in Ape House are exploited by humans, even appearing on a reality TV show. What did you want to explore about our culture's fascination with reality TV?

SG: Reality TV and the culture of tabloid journalism boil down to voyeurism, and nobody would be interested in "celebutantes" if they stopped behaving badly. Take Kim Kardashian, for example. She's the daughter of one of O.J. Simpson's Dream Team lawyers. She started out as somebody's stylist, became friends with Paris Hilton, released a sex tape, and now she is a celebrity. The world of Twitter and Facebook and gossip blogs has provided us with instant access to information about these people and fosters a false sense of intimacy with them, all while letting us maintain enough distance to tut-tut about their bad behavior. Gossip replaces real news. If an Olson twin changes her hair color, it's likely to get more press than the damage the oil spill is doing to the Gulf. We are turning ourselves into a society with the attention span of hamsters.

GR: Goodreads member Christy asks, "As an animal lover, your books so far have incorporated an animal theme, which brings to light the love we should have for animals. Do you see all of your books being animal based?"

SG: Probably. I don't necessarily set out to write about animals, but since I surround myself with them in real life (I have two dogs, four cats, two horses, and a goat) it seems natural to include them in my fictional worlds. After all, I do spend eight hours a day in there!

GR: Is there a certain animal you'd like to get to know better and write about next?

SG: I've gone out on two expeditions on a wild dolphin research vessel and have been racking my brains trying to figure out how to make that work in a novel. I don't know if I can, because wild dolphins really just do their own thing, and I don't want to work with captive dolphins. Even so, there's a very high likelihood that I'll go back on the boat because swimming and observing dolphins that are there with you because they choose to be is one of life's more amazing experiences.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

SG: I start writing the second my kids leave for school and finish when they get home. I perch like a bird at my desk (knees up under my chin, sitting on my feet—I've even been caught doing this on a yoga ball!). It takes me about an hour and a half to go through what I consider my "creative portal," and once I'm there, I'm often good for 2,000 words. However, if I answer the phone or the door or talk to anyone, I need to spend that hour and a half again, so I've been known to hide behind the curtain from the mailman, etc. I once got so desperate, I moved my desk into my closet and finished a book in there.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

SG: I think there's too many to mention. I've been a book-a-holic for as long as I can remember. When I was 13, my father handed me a list of the books he thought I should read in order to be well-read, and I worked my way through them and kept going. I would love to do some kind of modern-day Canterbury Tales, and the Bible is a great source of story ideas and themes. And then there are books—like Life of Pi—that are so brilliant they intimidate me.

GR: Do you have any favorite books or authors? And what are you reading now?

SG: Ernest Hemingway, William Shakespeare, Margaret Atwood, the Brontës (except for their useless brother), Jonathan Franzen, Stephen King, Junot Díaz, Jodi Picoult, Yann Martel, E.F. Benson, Joshilyn Jackson, Karen Abbott, Charles Dickens, etc. My reading is all over the map, so there are too many to mention! My most recent book crush is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Díaz), and I've been thrusting it into the hands of everyone I know.

GR: Last but not least, we received tons of requests for this "very important" question: Have you met Robert Pattinson?

SG: I have met him! I met all the principals when I went out to see the tents when they were filming in Ventura, and then again when we were on the Fox lot for our cameos. They were all really charming and down to earth. I had no idea how hard actors work, but everyone was putting in 12-to-18-hour days. We felt hard done by our 6 a.m. call time until we heard that the hair and makeup people had been there since 2 a.m.!

Comments Showing 1-19 of 19 (19 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Cindy (new)

Cindy Wonderful interview! I can't wait to read "Ape House."

message 2: by Sue (new)

Sue This is a book worthy of our book group, Michelle!

message 3: by Shari (new)

Shari Stauch Looking so forward to seeing Sara Gruen at Malaprops in Asheville this Saturday night (Sep 11). Can't wait to read the new book... WFE remains one of my favorites...

message 4: by Linda (new)

Linda Cant wait to read it....hope it holds a candle to Water for elephants!!!!!

message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

The book sounds fascinating. I met Koko when she was a baby and have always been fascinated with animal communication.

message 6: by Rai (last edited Sep 13, 2010 04:06PM) (new)

Rai What a moving interview, just wonderful. As an animal lover & animal rights supporter, these kinds of things mean the world to me. Just knowing that there are people out there treating our non-human friends with the kindness, respect & compassion that they so richly deserve warms my heart. Reading about Sara's interactions with these intelligent & remarkable beings brought a tear to my eye & smile to my face & heart...

Truly excellent interview.


message 7: by Rai (new)

Rai Janet Ann wrote: "The book sounds fascinating. I met Koko when she was a baby and have always been fascinated with animal communication."

Wow, lucky you! Must have been amazing...
I agree, animal communication is absolutely fascinating. Finding ways to understand one another & bridge the gaps between us & our animal friends is one of the most beautiful things in life. It's so pure, there's no b.s., nothing false, just truth. How we treat them & interact with them tells them everything they need to know about our characters, who we are at the core. I'm never more at peace & happy than when I am respectfully connecting with an animal. Earning their trust & friendship is one of the best gifts life has to offer.

message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

I just saw your book featured somewhere else. Maybe it will become a best seller. Who knows? Perhaps you've help change the world in a good way by writing it.

message 9: by Maggie (new)

Maggie After reading this interview I can't wait to read Ape House - it sounds like it will be even better than Water for Elephants!

The Rainbow Zebra I can't wait to read "Ape House"--and a movie for WFE? *swoon* It is one of my favorite books ever. I have your other two books to read as well.

I definitely have an author crush on you, if you can't tell ;)

message 11: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Walters I bought the book yesterday while coming back from vacation---
Its great from the start!!!!
OUT of THE BOX wonderful!

Congrats ---Congrats ----Congrats to Sara Gruen!!!!

message 12: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Sara Gruen, you are wonderful. My entire book club is in love with your writing, and I can't wait till we read and discuss Ape House. Communicating with animals is one of life's greatest pleasures.

message 13: by Jean (new)

Jean Williams I loved "Water for Elephants", and I have been fascinated with bonobos for a long time. I can't wait to get "Ape House". I probably won't get off the couch until I'm done. Thank you for the interview. I feel like I now know Sara Gruen whom I had never heard of until I read "Water for Elephants."

message 14: by Kathy (new)

Kathy I am so excited to learn that Sara has written another book and can't wait to let my book club know about it. Am happy to hear that WFE is being made into a movie. I could hardly put the book down.

message 15: by [deleted user] (new)

I thought I'd get one of her books from the library, but they're all checked out. That must mean they're good.

message 16: by Lori (new)

Lori I just finished WFE and was struck with the odd desire to applaud -- can's say that's ever happened to me before! Very touching story. Will love seeing the movie, and I plan to read the rest of her books asap. She may move right on up next to Barbara Kingsolver on my author pedestal....

message 17: by Namer2007 (new)

Namer2007 الحارثي شي جميل

message 18: by Athira (new)

Athira (Reading on a Rainy Day) Now I really can't wait to read this book! It sounds amazing, and I would so love to meet Panbanisha.

message 19: by [deleted user] (new)

After reading this interview, I'm really sad I didn't take the chance to attend an author talk/meet & greet with her my college held last year.

back to top