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Psycho Circus

Big-top novel goes behind the big top.


Writer Sara Gruen never went to a circus when she was young. In fact, she knew very little about the big top when she pitched the idea for her latest novel, Water for Elephants, which is set behind the scenes of a Depression-era traveling circus. “I read a newspaper article about a photographer who traveled with circuses,” she says. “And I just got lost in it.” So Gruen spent a year researching the world of flying acrobats, bearded ladies, and dancing poodles. “It’s the kind of setting where anything can happen,” she says.

Freaks and Carnivàl taught us that circuses aren’t the happy places they appear to be. Water for Elephants doesn’t challenge those portrayals. “It’s not the big top that fascinated me, but the stuff that happens under it,” says Gruen. In the book, an old man recalls a time 70 years ago when he worked for a circus run by a crazy ringmaster and populated by the usual freaks. There’s romance, murder, and a young boy’s back-tent seduction by a pair of circus ladies. “It’s not about the show,” says Gruen.
Thu., July 27, 7 p.m.

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