Interview by Andi, March 22, 2007
Sara Gruen is the best-selling author of three novels: Water for Elephants, Flying Changes and Riding Lessons. In addition to a healthy run on The New York Times Bestseller List, Water for Elephants was nominated for Entertainment Weekly's Best Novel of the Year and was a Booksense #1 pick for June 2006. Gruen is currently at work on her fourth novel, Ape House.
AM: What is your writing process like? Do you have any unbreakable habits or rituals? Pacing endlessly or staring blankly into the fridge, for instance? (I'm giving myself away on this one.)
SG: I usually start the day by checking my email at least twice, glancing around the room to see if there isn't anything I could possibly use as an excuse not to write, making a pot of tea, checking my email again, getting agitated because I haven't started writing yet, wondering if I can live with myself if I don't write that day, deciding that no, I can't, because it means I won't sleep that night, and finally sitting down and writing. All of this usually happens by 8 am.
AM: Could you describe the space in which you prefer to write?
SG: I'm really not fussy so long as nobody talks to me! I need to enter my fictional world in order to write, so I can get a little grouchy if someone pulls me back into this one. If I have my headphones on and nobody expects me to interact, I can write darned near anywhere--cafeterias, airports, my kitchen, hotel rooms. I've been known to write in my bedroom closet.
AM: Do you show your work to anyone in order to get feedback while you're working on a piece?
SG: My husband gets the earliest peeks, but even my critique partner doesn't get to see much until I feel it's ready. I think that's because I write such messy first drafts (I liken them to sloppy spaghetti) that I don't think anyone but me could follow what I'm doing. I jump all over the place and leave myself messages in hidden text, etc. That, and there are inevitably disclosures along the narrative that aren't fine-tuned until the end, and if my primary reader already knows they're coming I can't get a take on the impact.
AM: How do you know when a novel is finished? Do you have trouble walking away from a piece, or are you looking ahead to the next one?
SG: I edit things until they're ripped from my hands.
AM: Do you keep a diary or journal? Do you record daily life, ideas for writing, or both?
SG: I don't, but I always carry little bits of paper and pens around to record things that might be useful. Every once in a while I clean out my purse and backpack and see if I have anything good.
AM: Water for Elephants is undoubtedly a huge success. Would you say it is your favorite piece that you've written?
SG: My last book is always my favorite. It's like being in love--I never think I'm going to feel that way about another book, and then of course I do.
AM: What is the hardest part about being a writer? What advice would you give to the unpublished author?
SG: It's really hard mentally and physically to sit down every day and pull things from the ether. But it's also the magical part. I find I'm relying on a part of my brain that I don't really control and sometimes I worry that it's not going to come through for me. And then it does. It's working on things even when I think it's not.
I guess my advice would be to think about your story all the time, have it stewing when you go to sleep at night or when you're walking your dog. But even more importantly, sit down and write even when you don't feel like it, even when you think you're writing garbage. Garbage can be edited. A blank page cannot.
AM: What writers have influenced your work the most? What is it about those particular writers that you admire?
SG: I am continually amazed by the number of really good debuts out there, so right now I mostly try new authors.
AM: Do you read for pleasure often? What are you reading now?
SG: I don't read while I'm drafting because I'm afraid of voice-creep, but I read probably a novel a day when I'm between books.
AM: According to your website you live with your family in an environmentalist community, and as many of our readers already know, your work deals largely with animals. Is there a particular instance or turning point that led you to this passion? Do you have any recommendations for people who would like to get involved in preserving the environment?
SG: I've always been like this about animals. I don't think it really occurred to me until I was doing interviews for Water for Elephants that not everybody is. My advice for people concerned about the environment is to do everything you can personally. It may feel insignificant for a single person to recycle, or to choose a sensible vehicle rather than a gas-guzzling behemoth, or to nag your children to turn off the light when they leave a room, but if enough people do it...
Many thanks to Sara Gruen for her willingness to answer my questions and her wonderful warmth and humor.
Be sure to sneak a peek at her website: http://www.saragruen.com