Sara Gruen’s fascination with Depression-era traveling circuses began in early 2003, when she came across a photo by Edward J. Kelty in the Chicago Tribune of a bearded lady, the world’s tiniest man, and a host of other circus regulars. In the 20s and 30s, the article said, Kelty had built his own cameras to take panoramic shots of circuses. Gruen immediately ordered a book of his images and soon was working out the narrative for a novel about a ragtag “mud show,” an old term for a circus–the wheels of the wagons that carried the animals once they were off the train often got stuck in the mud. That novel, Water for Elephants, just released by Algonquin Books, stars Rosie, a mischievous and misunderstood elephant; Jacob, the young veterinarian who cares for her; and Marlena, the married performer he falls hard for.

Animals have always been front and center in Gruen’s life. She’s ridden horses since she was a child growing up in Canada, and her first two published novels, Riding Lessons and Flying Changes, feature an equestrienne, her teenage daughter, and the troubled horses they nurture. Gruen has a horse at her Prairie Crossing home, where she lives with her husband and three kids, two dogs, three cats, and two pygmy goats. She also puts feed out for two ducks that waddle onto her porch in the afternoon. “My life is so full of animals, and I love the way they think and the way they work,” she says. “The animals give me an oasis of easy writing, and I think sometimes the things that come easiest are the best fits.”

Gruen’s parents, both professional musicians, thought she should become a concert violinist. “I was a typical horse-crazy girl,” she says, “and that’s where the blackmail came in.” They allowed her to take riding lessons as long as she also studied the violin. Later she grudgingly began a degree in music at Carleton University in Ottawa. She’d always hated performing publicly, and she says that during a performance near the end of her second year “I made eye contact with someone in the audience, and I couldn’t get unaware of the audience again. I got so nervous that my bow started bouncing on my string. It was a long sustained note, so it was obvious to everyone, and it got worse and worse and worse until I literally tucked the violin under my arm and fled.” The next day she switched her major to English.

In 1999 she moved to Chicago to take a technical-writing job, and when she got laid off two years later she decided to try writing fiction full-time, even though she hadn’t studied writing and had never even written a short story. Two years or two books, she and her husband agreed, and if it didn’t work out she’d find another job.

“If I had any idea of the odds, I’d never have tried it,” Gruen says. “It’s a crazy, crazy business.” She decided to start with a romance, figuring genre fiction would be easy. She bought The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Your Romance Published and one mass-market romance novel. The guide offered lots of practical tips, but she managed to get only three pages into the novel. “I went, I can’t read this, so I can’t write this,” she says.

She turned to what she knew and loved: two central figures in her first novel, about a woman who returns to the family farm after her father’s death, are a horse and a dog. The manuscript was turned down 79 times, but she did land an agent. She wrote half of another book before her agent told her, “This is chick lit. Chick lit doesn’t sell.” Then she moved on to what would become Riding Lessons, which got great reviews and has sold more than 200,000 copies. It also established her in the “women’s fiction” genre, books that are typically marketed to and read by an older female audience and are often less sassy or confessional than chick-lit titles.

Gruen was working out ideas for a more serious novel when she saw the Kelty photo in the Trib. She started her research by calling Circus World, the museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, that’s near the spot where the Ringling Brothers Circus had its winter quarters until 1918. Museum staff supplied her with a bibliography of mostly out-of-print titles, some of which she tracked down online.

She also went to the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, for several days. In a reading room in the small, somewhat shabby section of the museum devoted to circuses she soaked up lingo–a “first of May” was a newbie, “red lighting” meant throwing a worker who was ill or not working hard enough off the train in the middle of the night. She took photos of the museum’s colorfully painted circus wagons, which had been carted from town to town on railroad flatcars. “They have these great friezes and ornate pieces of wagon stashed behind wagons in unlit corners,” she says, “so the only way to figure out what these things are is to take flash photography and look at what your camera comes up with.” Eventually an employee noticed her crawling under and around the wagons and asked what she was doing. When the museum staff heard, they gave her a guided tour. She went home with more books and started trying to get the rights to photographs in them, hoping to use them in her novel.

Online Gruen discovered a subculture of devotees of the vanished world of the traveling train circus and sent them questions, guessing they’d pounce on any inaccuracies that made it into her book. She also tried to find circus workers and performers to talk to, but the ones who were still working were wary, feeling they’d been burned by groups such as PETA.

A lot of doors opened after she called Ken Harck, once briefly a drummer for Badfinger and now the proprietor of the Bros. Grim Sideshow and the owner of a vast collection of circus memorabilia, including a shrunken head that he kept in his home. Harck gave her permission to use a Kelty photo he owned of 21 sideshow freaks and hooked her up with retired clowns and other circus workers. Several of their anecdotes made it into her novel–there’s a hippo preserved in formaldehyde and an elephant that breaks into the cookhouse and drinks all the show’s lemonade. And the book vividly suggests the sounds and smells of life on the move–the buckets of putrid meat fed to the big cats, the musty, makeshift sleeping quarters of the workers, the screeching brakes of the train.

Looking for details to portray Rosie, Gruen spent an afternoon glued to a bench outside the elephant pen at the Kansas City Zoo, where a friend had once worked as an elephant handler. She says she heard an elephant purr for the first time. “Amazing,” she says. “Like a Hoover but with stuff rattling around inside of it. Whooshing and rumbling, and stuff sort of clinking around in there.”

She also got the gory details of the incident that caused her friend to give up his job 20 years earlier–he’d almost been killed by a male elephant that speared his thigh with its tusk and pinned him down. It was about to squash him when another zoo employee hit it with a bull hook. Gruen had read about rogues, and by the time she got a chance to touch an elephant, a docile one at Circus World, she says she was shaking. Later she was introduced to an African elephant at a small circus that set up for a few nights at a fairground near her home. “I was just terrified,” she says. “But this one was such a love bug.” She fed it peanuts and says it reached out and “kissed” her. “I came home that night and told my husband I was running away to join the circus.”

When Gruen gave Water for Elephants to HarperCollins, which had published Riding Lessons, her editor told her it wasn’t women’s fiction, wasn’t at all what they’d had in mind. They turned it down and suggested she write a sequel to Riding Lessons instead. Over the next four months she churned out Flying Changes while her agent sought a home for the circus book.

Algonquin finally picked it up in early 2005. “I loved it, from beginning to end–especially the end,” says executive editor Chuck Adams. “It’s exactly the kind of fiction I love–good, solid writing that doesn’t try to draw attention to itself, a story and characters that a majority of the reading public can relate to, all set against a big backdrop.” Still, he thought the book would have to rely on word-of-mouth publicity. “I didn’t expect reviewers to respond to it,” he says, “because they would consider it too old-fashioned and not literary enough to even merit their attention.” But Algonquin’s marketing staff fell in love with the book too and went courting independent booksellers. Book Sense, a national association of independent sellers, has made it the number one pick for the month of June, and Borders and Barnes & Noble have both decided to do special in-house promotions. The early buzz persuaded Algonquin to increase the book’s first printing from 15,000 to 50,000 copies.

Gruen says that during the writing of the book Rosie became so real to her that she suffered a bit of postpartum depression once it was finished. She’s decided she now wants to work her way through the animal kingdom–bonobos in her next book and then maybe dolphins. She doesn’t have any immediate plans to write about the circus again, but she’s not quite ready to give up the big-top beat. “I’ve kind of caught the circus bug,” she says. She’ll now go to any cheap, third-rate show she can, and she still hangs out at the Yahoo group Sideshow World, frequented by sideshow performers and enthusiasts. “It’s funny, because you read and you sort of forget what they’re doing,” she says. “Then you realize that one of them is picking up a 50-pound block of cement by his pierced nipple and you go blecchh!”

Sara Gruen

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen J. Serio, courtesy Timothy Tegge Circus Archives, courtesy Ken Harck Archives.