In Ape House, the follow-up to her 2006 best-selling debut novel Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen turns from a Depression-era circus elephant to bonobos, chimpaznee-like apes that understand both English and American Sign Language. The novel follows a group of bonobos as they are moved from a university language lab to the set of their own reality channel. Gruen spoke to TIME about animal activism, tea parties with apes, and making it as a writer.
You spent time with bonobos at the Great Ape Trust while researching Ape House and described your conversations with them as "life-changing." What was your most memorable conversation?
The most memorable conversation was about a week after Easter when I went up to visit. Panbanisha, [one of the bonobos,] put on lipstick and made tea and invited me to have a tea party in the forest. The apes are on diets on Tuesdays and Thursdays where they eat only monkey chow and the other days they eat fruits, vegetables, fish, and tofu. But this was a Tuesday and so she took advantage of this and she asked me if I had had an egg for breakfast and I said no, I hadn't. She said that the Easter bunny had been by the week earlier and had hidden eggs in the forest. And then she said, "I wish the bunny would come back." So five minutes later, the 'Easter bunny' snuck out of the Trust and hid more eggs in the forest. So the most memorable conversation involved an ape asking what I had for breakfast and then segueing into requesting more Easter eggs. She was totally manipulating diet Tuesdays!
Many of the activists in Ape House are either ridiculous or unnecessarily provocative the misguided eco-feminists or the "Eastborough Baptist Church" members come to mind yet you yourself are an advocate of animal rights. Where do you think the line is between necessary activism and incendiary, or even dangerous, activism?
There are a lot of the people that are trying to hog camera space in Ape House, and my point was that they had no business being there at all. Their causes had no real relation to what was going on. And personally, I think there is a very broad spectrum between those who think we should be able to do whatever we want to animals and people who think that we should harm people who would harm animals. I think there is just an incredibly wide spectrum. Any point where you are harming others, the point where you are resorting to violence, that's too far. But I'm really not trying to tell anyone what to think in this book. I hope that people think, but I'm not going to tell them what to think.
Do you think that the way humans treat animals can reflect how they treat one another?
I think so. This is a paraphrase, but I think it was Gandhi who said that a society can be judged by how it treats its elderly and how it treat its animals.
In your novels, the animals are usually the most likable characters...
Well, certainly in Ape House, they are the most civilized!
Exactly! Do you find it easier or more enjoyable to write animals than to write humans?
I think I explore them equally. I just don't think I've had the desire yet to write a vicious animal like a dog-gone-bad or anything where I do feel that I need a balance of all types of humans. The bonobos in the books do all have distinct personalities but none of them are the evil sort. I just think I'm better equipped to make a study of human personality than trying to get into the mind of animals.
You studied English in college and started your career as a technical writer. Was there ever a point where you considered a career working with animals?
Yes, when I was growing up I wanted to be a veterinarian. And I started thinking about doing language cognition when I heard about Koko in 1980, and I corresponded with Penny Patterson [the researcher who taught American Sign Language to Koko, a gorilla] and I asked her what courses I should take in order to be able to do this. But then when I got to high school, I found that I was entirely incapable of even dissecting a worm, so that was out the window.
Well, you've found huge success writing about animals. Do you think animal stories are missing from today's literary scene?
I don't think so. I mean, The Art of Racing in the Rain is fantastic and of course, Marley and Me. And I grew up on Black Beauty and The Black Stallion and all of those books. I think there is just a vein of humanity that really loves animals and really loves to read about them.
Do you feel pressure to continue writing stories about animals?
I can't say for sure that I will. I may, but I may not. I don't want to find myself pigeonholed. This particular book is very different from my other books and I've tried to make them all very different and I hope to continue to make them different. I like to explore a little bit and test the boundaries. That's one of the fun things about being a writer.
In the novel, journalist John Thigpen deals with newspapers downsizing and his novelist wife, Amanda, struggles to get her book published. Did any of that come from personal experience?
Well, the big, red "No" written across my own query letter made it into the book. I have a lot of writer friends and I just kind of boiled all of our horror stories into one horror-story-melting-pot but I think it's a very accurate view of what a novelist has to go through because it's just so tough. If I had had any idea of the odds, I never would have tried it.
Trying seems to have worked out quite well for you.
Yes, I think this was a case of ignorance is bliss.