Chances are when you call Sara Gruen on the phone, you’ll hear a dog barking in the background.
Such was the case during a phone interview from her home in North Carolina recently.
“Perhaps it’s genetic, but I’ve always just surrounded myself with animals. Actually they find us. We have a goat right now that just showed up,” Gruen laughed, noting that her step daughter is a veterinarian who often farms out little dogs to their home to keep the cats, horses and birds company. “Animals have always been a big part of my life and so they naturally crept into my fiction.”
Her first two novels — Riding Lessons and Flying Changes — both involved horses. Then animals crept into her fiction in a big way in her third — and most well known — book, Water for Elephants. The 1930s drama about circus performers affirmed Gruen’s role as an animal advocate and went on to become a New York Times best-seller, was translated into more than 40 languages and was adapted into a major motion picture in 2011 starting Reese Witherspoon, Rob Pattinson and Christoph Waltz.
This May just happened to be the tenth anniversary of the book’s release. “It’s crazy to think it’s been that long,” said Gruen, “but how cool that this is also the month that the Ringling Brothers Circus retired their elephants. Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe not.”
Gruen will be speaking in Cedar Rapids on June 24 to kick off this summer’s OutLoud! Author Series presented by the Metro Library Network. She said she looks forward to these types of events as a sort of walk down memory lane.
“I like being able to talk about my old books because it lets me live them again,” she said. “In a lot of ways I have to say good-bye to them when I start a new book, but the characters don’t go away from me and I am very fond of all of them. I really like to sort of bring them back and talk about them. They are all alive somewhere in my head and I kind of have theories about what they are doing.”
“I also like to get everyone else’s take on the characters because often times it’s a little different than mine and it doesn’t mean it’s any less significant or correct.”
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A native of Vancouver, British Columbia, Gruen’s latest book, At the Water’s Edge, is set in the Scottish Highlands during World War II.
“People ask me what my favorite book is and my answer has to be the current one because it’s like love. If you aren’t in love with it and its characters then it’s not the right idea,” she said. “I just love the Highlands so much in every way. The people there were so welcoming to me and shared their stories and hospitality. The culture is so distinct and it was a very special experience being there and talking to these people who lived through the war. Half the people I talked to are gone now, that’s how close to the end it was to getting real oral stories from people who were there. I’m really glad I did it when I did. I loved the culture, loved the land, and really loved my characters.”
Research is the start for every story for Gruen. “Writing is a very obsessive process for me,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s set in the current day or it’s a time period piece…the research involved is mostly to get my mind going. For me, the devil is in the details. I’ll find pieces of real life that are just so terrific I have to use them in a book.”
“And once I’ve got a setting imagined, it’s almost like a creative portal I crawl through in the morning. It’s a trance like state,” she added. “I really have to go into that fictional world and pretend I am there. To this moment I could tell you which floor boards creak at the Fraser Arms and what it smells like in the Anderson Shelter (in At the Water’s Edge.) Once I create the setting...my goal is to get to a place where I feel like I’m watching the story and recording it rather than creating it. That’s when I know its working.”
While Gruen said a new book is percolating and she is intermittently working on it, her attention these days has veered to legal matters. “I have been a little bit sidelined for the last ten months because I became aware of a man that has been wrongfully imprisoned for 21 years and I am kind of obsessed with getting him out.”
Gruen said the man wrote to her from prison asking if she’d heard about his grandmothers who were circus performers during the era in which Water for Elephants is set. “I had heard of them and one was interesting enough to inspire one of the minor characters in the book,” she said.
“I get prison letters a lot and I never write back. But I Google the letter writers and when I Googled this guy it became clear to me that nobody thinks he did what he’s in there for. Yet he’s still there because nobody else has cared enough which is really mind-boggling and horrifying and depressing.”
Gruen has since become a private investigator and has invested countless hours and dollars to her efforts to get a new trial and free this incarcerated man. Much like her writing, Gruen’s passion project has turned into something worth paying attention to.
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“Until this happened I had no clue this type of thing could happen in our justice system. Now I feel like I have to try my best to let people know what’s going on because that’s the only way it’s going to change.”
If you go
What: OutLoud! Author Series: Sara Gruen
When: 7 p.m. Friday, June 24
Where: Hotel at Kirkwood Center, 7725 Kirkwood Blvd. SW, Cedar Rapids
Cost: Free, but preregistration required at http://metrolibrarynetwork.org/outloud
Coming up: Matt de La Pena at 7 p.m. July 1 and Jenny Lawon at 7 p.m. July 8