Water for Elephants: Sara Gruen Answers Your Questions

Jackie Monk posted a call for questions you may have had for the author of Water for Elephants. Hard at work on her next book, Sara Gruen takes time to answer them.

Q. Thanks for the reminder Kristin. I love the old photos, too! I would love to know where they come from. Will we get to ask the author???
Posted by: Chris H| Wednesday, May 20, 2009 at 10:57 PM

A. I wanted to include photographs in the book because the entire story was inspired by a vintage circus photograph. Some of the pictures came from the Ringling collection, and others came from private circus archives.
It took months of hunting to track down the rights to some of the images
because they were so old and the books I had seen them in were out of
print. But I had to have them! The photographs were integral—each
foreshadows something in the chapter that follows.

Q. Question for the author: was the story of this circus based on a real circus, that is, did the equivalent of ‘Uncle Al’ in real life get murdered and found inside a rolled up tent, etc?
Posted by: VaniSan| Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 12:45 PM

A. I created the Benzini Brothers from a hodgepodge of historical details
about sleazy old-time circuses. And there was indeed a ringmaster who
was murdered and rolled up in a big top!

Q. I enjoyed reading this book and all of the comments from other readers. My question for Ms Gruen is, “Did you find that a high incidence of animal cruelty still exists in the circus life, as it did during the time of this story? Or are they treated more humanely now?”
Posted by: Chris H| Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 07:08 PM

A. I limited my research to the Golden Age of the circus, when there was a spectrum. The top-quality shows, like Ringling, were called “Sunday
School Shows.” At the other end were “grift shows,” the sort that made a
fine art of shortchanging their customers and sent pickpockets into the
crowd. The Benzini Brothers were firmly at the grift show end of things.
I would assume that to some degree that spectrum still exists.

Q. My question for Ms. Gruen is: have you chosen your next subject to write about?
Posted by: Bettyann| Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 10:27 PM

A. I am writing about language competent bonobo apes in a reality TV show situation. The research has been fascinating—I was able to visit the
language competent bonobos at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa,
and am going back in the next few weeks. Having a two-way conversation
in human language with a great ape is a life-changing experience.

Q. I thought the ending was poignant. His biological “family” had blown him off, he hated the nursing home and probably didn’t really need to be there as his hip was basically recovered, & his favourite nurse was leaving. He was nothing more than a “caged animal” in the “circus” at the nursing home, enduring “forced-fun” and eating food they wouldn’t feed their animals, etc. His most vivid memories were of the circus and his beloved Marlena. Just as he left-behind the uncertain future/tragedy of his youth, he escaped an uncertain future, again.

The man who takes him in even calls him “Pops” and listens to his story. This is more affection and attention than he has gotten from his biological family in a long time. His biological family never bothered to do that, they were too busy. So, by returning to the circus, he was in essence returning “home” and returning to his “family”.

Note/Question: Did anyone else find it interesting that the elephant’s name was ROSIE and his favorite nurse’s name was ROSEMARY… Maybe they are two “roses”; two bright spots in his life (other than Marlena) who understood him unconditionally and had a certain affection for him despite difficulties surrounding their relationship.
Posted by: Edie | Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 12:52 PM

A. There is definitely a parallel between Jacob’s former charges and his
current situation—the animals were fed, watered, and put on display,
and essentially so is the elderly Jacob. He spent his most formative and
happy years with Marlena at a circus, and now that he’s lost everything,
it is the one shining beacon, his final hurrah. Circus people certainly
differentiated between themselves and the “rubes,” and so in a sense
Jacob is indeed returning to family.

The similarity in names is part of what launches Jacob’s flashbacks. At
the end of his life, after Rosie and Marlena have died and his family
has filed him away, Rosemary is the only thing he has left.