Celebrated author chooses Glendon for background research

It is not every day that an internationally recognized author, whose latest book was at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for 10 weeks, comes to Glendon to do background research for her next book. But that is exactly what author Sara Gruen did at the end of November. Gruen visited Glendon to conduct research for her next book project with the working title, “Ape House”.

Right: Author Sara Gruen

Her third and latest novel, Water for Elephants, was preceded by Riding Lessons, her 2004 fiction debut, and its sequel, Flying Changes in 2005. The thread that joins all her work is her great interest in animals, whether they are elephants, horses, or apes. But if the theme of animals is a constant in Gruen’s work, each of her books is also a profound and highly observant analysis of human behaviour and the relationship of humans with the animal world.

An award-winning technical writer, Gruen has only recently switched to fiction. But her deep interest in and love of animals is a life-long story. The Canadian-born author lives in an environmentally-conscious community north of Chicago, with her husband and three young sons, two dogs, three cats, two goats and a horse. Gruen describes herself as a transplanted Canadian. She moved to the US in 1999 to take a technical writing job. “Two years later I got laid off,” she explained. “Instead of looking for another job, I decided to take a gamble on writing fiction full-time.”

Gruen takes her background research very seriously. The idea behind Water for Elephants was sparked by a newspaper article and accompanying photograph of a travelling circus. Knowing very little about circuses or elephants, she immersed herself in a research effort which lasted close to a year. Absorbing all she could from books and magazines, she went on to pay several visits to the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Florida,  and the Kansas City Zoo, Missouri, where she learned about elephant body language from a former elephant handler.

For her current project, Gruen started her research by contacting Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a lead scientist doing language research with bonobo chimpanzees at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa in Des Moines. Savage-Rumbaugh directed her to two members of Glendon’s linguistics faculty with whom she has been collaborating in bonobo language research for a number of years. Glendon’s Professor Emeritus James Benson and Professor Emeritus William Greaves invited Gruen to spend some time with them at Glendon and learn about apes.

Left: William Greaves (left), Sara Gruen and James Benson

 “I have learned so much in these two days about apes and what they can do,” she said, explaining that Greaves and Benson showed her photos, descriptions, research material and video clips about the ability of bonobos to communicate at a highly sophisticated level. The two professors support the mission of the Great Ape Trust which states that humans need to feel less separate from other species; that humanity needs to know more about its relationship with other animals and be aware that mankind are only one notch on the continuum of evolution.

Gruen was able to glimpse this relationship through video clips showing bonobos responding to questions, making complex decisions and communicating these to their human associates, and expressing a full range of emotions through body language that is very similar to how humans react. “The highlight of my Glendon visit was watching a video of Kanzi [one of the bonobos at the Great Ape Trust] ‘vocalizing’, that is, using real words to express what he wanted,” said Gruen. “When I heard him say ‘bring water’ and ‘right now’ with recognizable sounds, it was a very moving experience.”

Right: Kanzi, one of the bonobos at the Great Ape Trust

Benson and Greaves, who have been collaborating for decades on research and publications, are currently examining interactions between humans and bonobos to analyze their vocalization, gestures, expressions, body language etc. “Bonobos express concentration, shame, affection, just as we humans do,” explained Greaves. “They gaze, point, make eye contact. We share a lot with them; biologically, we are very close.”

As for Gruen and her new project, she expressed her great delight at this opportunity to learn in such scientific detail about a species she has not explored before. “I have already figured out my plot for ‘Ape House’,” she said. “What I needed from my visit to Glendon was to gain a deeper understanding of apes. But I am also going away with a number of wonderful anecdotes, which will be grist for the mill. It has been a thoroughly enjoyable visit.”

This article was submitted to YFile by Glendon’s communication officer, Marika Kemeny.