Tag Archives: writing research

Why Water for Elephants is One Bold Book

I like books that surprise me.  Especially when that surprise comes from the author through her ability to do research and turn it into a story you wish would never end.  Sara Gruen has done this.  The author of Water for Elephants spent about 6 months doing research at several circus museums, including Sarasota, Florida’s Ringling Museum and the Circus Museum right here in Baraboo, Wisconsin (I’m planning a visit!).  She went to the Kansas City Zoo and walked up to an animal handler and said, “Hi I’m writing a book about elephants, can I meet yours?”  She worked up the guts to get inside the secret lives of circus performers and took many of their best anecdotes for her novel.

What Gruen has produced is the life story of one polish boy becoming a man while working on a traveling circus.  The author’s note alone makes this book a great read.  Setting the story during the Great Depression, she gives the reader perspective that makes the hardships of the characters real.  Through her research, she brought in lesser known bits of history like the disease “jake leg,” a paralysis caused by drinking a toxic, cheap alcohol.  She also changed the definition of a “hobo” from the Depression era.  Rather than an old, dirty man, most of the people left in train ditches and town outskirts were young boys, orphans with no parents or available work.

So we have this book, rich in history and research, but that’s not even the part that surprised me!  Call me naive, but when I see a book that’s on the New York Times Bestseller list for so long, and all my co-workers have read the book and rave about it, I simply wasn’t expecting just how BOLD Ms. Gruen was going to be in her subject matter!  No more than halfway through the book and we’re introduced to the Lovely Lucinda in the cooch tent, a masturbating dwarf, a chemically preserved hippopotamus, a virgin who can’t hold his load, extreme animal violence, and forbidden love!  I’m so excited I could pee myself, which would probably make me fit in with this ragtag train of circus folk!

I am overjoyed and in love with this book.  Here’s why:  This is an example of where an author made bold writing choices that were supported by her research and they combined forces to make millions of readers love her and her book.  I am thrilled that this author could put some pretty risque subject matter in her book and have society like it.  You can guess I am never one to join in with a book ban; I believe people should be able to read what they want to.  And Gruen’s novel is great writing, great writing with some edgy subject matter that for once DIDN’T put the public off, but instead GOT THEM TO LIKE READING!  Thank you, Sara Gruen!  P.S., check out this photo of Sara with the film version’s elephant on her site, pretty funny!

A week ago, I went to see the film version of Water for Elephants and I really liked it!  Of course, the book is better, which is why you’ll hear me always say watch the movie first!  I mean it.  I stand by this absurd sounding trait of mine.  I watch the film first.  Seriously, if you watch the movie, you’re enjoying it as it unfolds and not spending your time going where’s that character, why did they do that, that’s not how it is in the book!  I know, I used to live like that.  Never again!  The book is always better, we know that.  So, watch the movie first, enjoy it, and then read the book.  When I follow this rule, I’m delighted by new characters that are in the book and not the film, I like the subtle, sometimes drastic plot changes, they are surprising and fun to debate which one worked better.

In this case, I do feel the book was better.  But I was very surprised at how close to the book the film version stayed.  Christoph Waltz is amazing as August, the equestrian ringleader.  He is handsome, charming, and menacing beyond belief.  Great antagonist.  But reading the book gives you a better understanding of how Gruen webbed together two antagonists to play off of each other, August and Uncle Al, the show’s leader.  Neither man synchs up with the other which creates multiple points of conflict all worthwhile!

If you haven’t already read this book, I highly recommend it!  It’s an enjoyable, exciting read.  For those that like to research the topic you’re reading about, you won’t be disappointed.  If you like to dissect characters and are looking for some teeth sinking, juicy ones for your next book club, this title has plenty!   And for those of you, like me, with book lists a mile long to get to, you can watch the movie first, because it will make you want to read the book!  🙂

Where Do Books Come From?

      Last night I was reading more of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.  Instead of picking up on the chapter I left off, I flipped to the back and started reading the acknowledgments Gruen wrote.

Psst.  I also have a secret habit of reading the last sentence of a book before I get there.  I know, I shouldn’t, but then when I really do get to the end and re-read that last sentence, it’s like coming home.  I refuse to stop, don’t try to make me.  

In Gruen’s acknowledgments, she first related how she came up with the idea for the story.  She read an article in the newspaper about Edward J. Kelty, a photographer who traveled along with circuses in America during the 1920’s and 30’s.  She became so transfixed with a photo in the paper, she immediately went out and bought two circus photography books.  From there, the passion took over.  She spent around 4-6 months researching everything circus, including visiting the Circus Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, which isn’t that far from where I live, so my honey and I are going to plan a weekend getaway to check it out!  She spent a few weeks in Sarasota, Florida at the Ringling Museum and time at the Kansas City Zoo getting to study elephant body language and behavior.  Want to start your own circus project?  I kind of do.  I’m fascinated with the book so far, and was intrigued that a whole story began after viewing one photograph in the newspaper.

Doesn't just a little part of you want to trade places with this performer for a day? To say you rode an elephant in a circus!

I’m sure most of you heard the genesis about how Twilight series author, Stephanie Meyer began her books.  She had a dream that was used in the meadow scene with Edward and Bella.  She also spent time in Forks, Washington, the book’s setting, and now the community has more tourists than ever coming to see the houses and school Bella “went” to.

I'd write a book too if I was dreaming of Robert Pattinson!

One of my all time favorite books is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  I’ll actually be re-reading it this month for a book club.  Skloot spent 10 years doing research for this book and it all started with a science class.  She remembers her teacher wrote the name Henrietta Lacks on the board, and after that day no one knew a thing about her.  She spoke with ethics advisers, lab technicians, doctors, nurses, lawyers, and eventually family members to piece together a story so crucial to the medical industry and never told to the woman’s own family.  Just a name on a blackboard launched an investigation into a multi-million dollar industry and one well-kept secret.

Her research went on to conduct interviews, review medical records, visit the hometown of Henrietta, and eventually make contact and earn trust of the Lacks family, thereby viewing journal entries of Henrietta’s daughter and family footage and photos.  I am just floored by the amount of devotion Skloot put forward to make a difference in the lives of the Lacks family and to tell a story that helped shape every medical advancement you can think of.  You really MUST read this book!

What I’m wondering is what was the moment that hooked you into your writing project?  Did you read something in the paper, have a dream, see a name on the blackboard?  Every writer is inspired differently, what inspired you?  And what was the next step that took that captivating idea into a work in progress/published book?

%d bloggers like this: