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EW Shelf Life Book Club: 'Ape House'

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Ape-House-by-Sara-Gruen

I can’t think of a single female friend who hasn’t read Water for Elephants. (I’m sure there are countless men out there who similarly fell for that rollicking tale of Depression era circus life but I’ve yet to ooh and ahh with one over my beloved Rosie.) Sara Gruen’s  novel was a delight, even if I had quibbles about a romance I thought demanded another 25 pages or so of development. So when I got my hands on Ape House, I tore through it in two nights.

The novel, about an enormously endearing family of bonobos apes and the humans who both advocate and endanger them, is quick, momentum-fueled read. Every single person I’ve spoken with about it, regardless of how much they enjoyed the novel as a whole, fell hardest for the bonobos themselves. Truth be told, some of the human characters in Ape House drove me nuts. John’s wife Amanda struck me as more tedious than sympathetic and his hand-wringing about having kids felt half-baked. The eeeee-vil reporter Cat was perhaps more caricature than character. I thought the book really came most alive when we were back in the room with the bonobos. Several Shelf Life readers wrote in with questions regarding Gruen’s affinity for animal characters, to which the author was gracious enough to respond.

I’m interested in how Sara Gruen chooses which animal to focus on in her novels. Does she choose the animal and then build the story, or think of a good plot and find an animal that fits it?

With Water for Elephants I had the idea of setting first, the circus, and when researching it I found that the most interesting stories that had filtered down through the historical texts involved elephants. In fact some of those stories made their way into my book, such as the story of the elephant that steals the lemonade. In Ape House I learned about the bonobos and became really interested in them and decided they should feature in my next book, so in this case the animals came before the story.

Ms Gruen, do you like writing animal characters better, or human characters? Why?

I enjoy both equally because they are of equal importance to me. It’s easier in a way for me to write human characters because I can invent things they can do or say because I am human. With animals I cannot take liberties with what they may or may not be thinking. In fact my editor wanted more ape scenes but I didn’t want to make scenes up out of whole cloth. I wanted to base them on personal or recorded experience in order to maintain authenticity. Nearly all of the scenes involving bonobo conversation in Ape House are based on conversations I myself have had with apes or conversations scientists have had with apes that have been recorded  texts.

Did Ms. Gruen actually get into an enclosure and spend some face time right [with bonobos]? I know that bonobos are very different from chimps and not generally aggressive, but I’m curious to know if it was still a bit frightening to meet with them.

Actually I got out of an enclosure with a bonobo and went and had a tea party with her in the forest. Bonobo culture is so very different from chimps’, so that while you couldn’t pay me enough to be in a room with an unrestrained chimp, I was not afraid at all to be with a bonobo.

Tea party in the forest! I’d love to hear from you readers about your reading experience with Ape House. In particular I’m interested in hearing about one’s sense of expectation, how one’s passion for a writer’s previous work can enhance or distract. I didn’t enjoy Ape House nearly as much as Water for Elephants but I’m not sure how to separate that from an unfair inflated expectation. Any readers out there who actually preferred Ape House? And since we’re on the subject of expectation, why don’t we let one Shelf Life reader indulge in some speculating about the Water for Elephants film adaptation starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon.

We’ve heard that there are some pretty major plot changes in the Water for Elephants movie. Did Ms. Gruen have any say in them?

Writing a screenplay is a very different skill than writing novels and is not one I pretend to possess. Richard LaGravenese took something that takes 12 to 14 hours to read and condensed it into something that can be viewed in

two hours and still remain true to the story. My hat’s off to him.

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