Author Sara Gruen gets lost in her books. “I wasn’t able to immerse myself completely with Water for Elephants,” she says of her 2006 best-seller that became a film starring Reese Witherspoon. “The type of circus I was writing about no longer existed.” For Gruen’s new novel, At the Water’s Edge, part of that setting, too, was lost to time. The book, which launches on Tuesday, March 31, with an event at Malaprop’s, is set in the Scottish Highlands at the end of World War II.
Still, Gruen (who lives in Asheville) spent a total of five weeks in the British Isles, researching, absorbing the culture and immersing herself — literally. “I got lost in the cover and was utterly panicked,” she says. “The cover” is the local name for a wooded area where main character Maddie, an American socialite, also loses her way.
And, “I tried to persuade the equivalent of the Coast Guard on Loch Ness to tie a rope around my waist and throw me in, fully clothed, so I could describe it accurately,” Gruen says. The mariners did not agree, but the scene, a narrative crest, is adequately chilling.
“One of the things I love about this job is that I get to find something that really interests me and spend a couple of years researching it,” says Gruen. The idea for At the Water’s Edge was sparked when the writer came across a file declassified after 70 years. It contained a 1938 letter stating Scotland Yard’s belief in the Loch Ness monster. “I fell down a Nessie rabbit hole,” she says.
The resulting novel begins with Maddie, her husband, Ellis, and his friend Hank making an ill-advised wartime voyage across the Atlantic. Barred from joining the military due to color blindness, Ellis — a Harvard dropout recently shunned by his family — decides to prove himself by finding the Loch Ness monster. Unmindful of the war raging and the hardships affecting the residents in Drumnadrochit, Ellis and Hank continue their drunken, clueless bromance. But Maddie, quickly abandoned by the men in their Nessie hunt, befriends the staff of the inn where she’s staying and begins to realize there’s more to life than parties and fancy clothes.
Gruen has experienced a transformation herself. Previously a tech writer, she’s learned that as a novelist she can’t work from outlines and, invariably, has to throw out the first third of each book. “At some point [the characters] come to life, and then they take over,” she says. “They change any idea I had for them, and they change the plot.”
But those dramatic alterations are not wasted time, Gruen insists: “I had to write it for me … it serves a very important purpose.” In fact, Gruen says that all of her projects have to ultimately be based on ideas that she loves. “I feel like I have to channel a story and be true to it,” she says. “If you could design a best-seller, then everyone would. You can’t. It’s elusive.”
But Gruen has written a best-seller. If it wasn’t by design, then perhaps it was by chance or her own contagious enthusiasm for the subject. “When I was in the Highlands, after I was finished for the day, I’d park myself in the corner of the pub and I’d eavesdrop,” she says. “I’d pick up phrases and absorb the accent because it’s a very distinctive dialect.”
And the research didn’t end with regional jargon. “Newspaper archives were helpful, but equally helpful were the pamphlets that told women how to create new patterns using material from old dresses,” she says. Gruen also collected ration books. One Ministry of Food recipe for a cheese and onion pudding called for fat, flour and onions. No cheese. “[My husband] and I tried to live on rations for a month,” she says. “I think we lasted two weeks.”
WHO: Sara Gruen’s book launch for At the Water’s Edge
WHERE: Malaprop’s, malaprops.com
WHEN: Tuesday, March 31, 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 and include a $10 coupon toward a copy of the book