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Sara Gruen: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Sara Gruen wrote the madly popular 2006 novel Water for Elephants, which is being made into a movie. Now Sara has written another beast-based book: Ape House: A Novel, which features communicative and feisty bonobos—great apes akin to chimpanzees. In the story, the apes are at the center of a human drama involving story-hungry journalists and an attack on the ape lab that leaves the primates on the open market, resulting in a reality TV show.

Sara is currently working on a new book. When she's not writing bestsellers, she's championing for (and occasionally rescuing) animals.

I read you were inspired to start this book by your mom sending you a link to the great ape trust. What part of the book came to you next? Were you like, "Apes aaaand ..." porn stars/reality tv/vegans?

My writing process is so organic I can't really remember the order in which things came to me. I spend about an hour and a half in the morning getting into my "zone," and once I'm there I feel like I'm recording more than creating. More often than not, the characters turn around and do things that I'm not expecting.

What were some of your favorite memories from your visits to the ape trust?

Meeting the new baby, Teco, and my tea party in the forest with Panbanisha! There isn't anything on earth that can prepare you for the experience of conversing with an ape who segues from asking you what you ate for breakfast to requesting the return of the Easter bunny.

Having the bonobos star in a reality TV show, and describing human viewers' reactions was a great study in sociology. What do you think bonobos do better than humans?

Bonobos get along better. They seem more tolerant of each other than humans do.

One of the most emotional parts of the book for me was when Isabel visits the research facility that used apes in experiments. You'd built up such a compassionate, loving view of bonobos, so to read about the neglectful (and arguably abusive) lab was powerful. Have you visited a lab like the one in your book?

The section in which Isabel visits the biomedical lab was difficult to write because it is based on real experiments that have been carried out on great apes. I did not visit such a place—not only is it extremely difficult to gain entry, but I'm not sure I could have stood it. I am haunted just by knowing and having seen pictures.

What kind of animal person are you? Crazy cat lady? Adopter of homeless hamsters and injured snakes?

All of the above! Except for the injured snakes. I did, however, leave an egg out for a visiting rat snake this summer.

I read you use a whiteboard to keep track of ideas. What does it end up looking like? Are you more of a lists person, or do you draw images and arrows?

It's a terrible mess of bubble thoughts and arrows and bullet points and squigglies. I keep lists and draw diagrams and use colors and write cryptic notes to myself that I later can't decipher. I'd attach a picture of what I ended up with for Ape House, except that my husband reclaimed the whiteboard.

What kinds of responses are you getting from the book while on tour? What kinds of questions or comments?

People are really fascinated by the bonobos and their capacity for understanding and communicating about the past and the future. I've known these apes for three years now so I had forgotten how incredible it sounds to people who are first hearing about it.

Do you know why the bonobos at the trust seem to like you so much?

I don't really know. You'd have to ask them! I hope it's because I went in without an agenda and was respectful of them as individuals. I was a guest in their house, and they were very hospitable. We really just clicked. Sara and Kanzi kiss in this photo from the Great Ape Trust.

Do the apes know what attention you've drawn to them? Has the Great Ape Trust (or other organizations) seen an uptick in attention? If someone read your book and wanted to do something, what could they do?

Again, the apes are the ones to ask! The last time I visited them was only a day after the book came out, so I don't know what they've experienced since. I sincerely hope that the Great Ape Trust—and also the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary—have gotten more exposure. If someone wants to help the bonobos, donating to either place will help protect this critically endangered species.

Having Water for Elephants be made into a movie makes me think about Amanda Thigpen's struggle with her identity while working in LA—is it a bit of commentary on Hollywood? Are you feeling the pressure of being a celebrity, possibly buying really expensive shoes?

Fortunately, nobody cares what a novelist living in North Carolina looks like. And I definitely don't consider myself a celebrity. I will, however, admit to having a thing for shoes...

If someone reads Ape House and wants to geek out on apes and language, what resources do you suggest?

The Great Ape Trust's Web site is a great start. I also recommend the following books as starter points: Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Roger Lewin, and Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees by Roger Fouts with Stephen Tukel Mills.

What were some of your favorite books growing up?

Black Beauty, anything by James Herriot, the Black Stallion. I think I see a trend!

What are you working on now?

I have an idea rattling around, but I won't be able to start until I finish touring. I'm reluctant to say too much about it because, as I said, my writing process is so organic. Anything I mentioned specifically now would almost certainly not end up in the finished product. But this time I'll take a picture of the whiteboard before anyone erases it.

What's on your bookshelf?

My bookshelves are triple-stacked, because I cannot part with books. I'm having more built at this very moment, although I'm sure they'll be triple-stacked soon as well.


—interview by Sonya Green

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About author interviews

Each month we feature a few exclusive interviews with authors in our "State of the Thing" newsletter. Know an author who might want to be interviewed? Find out more.


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