Visitors who get up close and personal with the inhabitants of the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, aren't selected by the scientists who work there. The apes have final say about who is allowed to meet them — and who isn't.
Sara Gruen decided to stack the odds in her favor for her visit to the research facility. Like one of the characters in her new novel "Ape House" (Spiegel & Grau, $26), she bought backpacks and filled them "with everything I thought an ape might find fun or tasty — bouncy balls, fleece blankets, M&M's, xylophones, Mr. Potato Heads, etc. — and then e-mailed the scientists, asking them to please let the apes know I was bringing 'surprises."'
The apes didn't have to be coerced to see Gruen; they demanded to meet her. The day after her visit, Panbanisha, a female, asked the scientists: "Where's Sara? Build her nest. When's she coming back?"
The intriguing — and frequently startling — potential for communication between our species and Panbanisha's lies at the heart of "Ape House." The novel features a family of bonobos — an endangered species once thought to be chimpanzees and known for cheerfully casual sexual behavior — at a university research facility that communicate using American Sign Language and lexigrams (graphic symbols that represent words). The Canadian-born Gruen explores what happens to them and their human counterparts when a mysterious group "liberates" the apes, a porn king buys them and they end up as stars of a reality TV show (looking much smarter, less aggressive and more compassionate than any "Jersey Shore" cast member).
Gruen is the author of three other novels, including the best-selling "Water for Elephants," set in a traveling circus during the Depression. The book has sold 2.8 million copies (with presumably more sales to come when the film tie-in edition hits shelves next spring, its cover adorned with the teen-dream face of "Twilight's" Robert Pattinson).
Following up her best-seller was daunting, she admits.
"A lot of people were going to be expecting 'Water' over and over. But I don't want to write the same thing over and over again. ... And I like to mix fiction with nonfiction. I get to do research that is amazing. I think writers do like to come away knowing something they didn't know before."
And so Gruen became fascinated with the great apes, studying the language of lexigrams in order to communicate with them. The task was not easy; she had to learn more than 380 symbols.
"I'm certainly not fluent," she says. "It's very difficult but a wonderful thing. ... It was as I was speaking to apes that I actually became remotely competent."
The conversations between the apes and scientist Isabel Duncan in the book are warm and often funny, as when Bonzi, the matriarch, requests coffee.
"Sure, I can make coffee," Isabel tells her. "WANT CANDY COFFEE. ISABEL GO. HURRY GIMME," Bonzi replies. Was there ever a more eloquent plea for a caramel macchiato?
"I was so impressed with how much research went into the book and how well she had bonobos down," says research scientist Vanessa Woods, author of the nonfiction book "Bonobo Handshake," who works at Duke University and the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
"What I really love about Sara's depiction is that it was based on some kind of interaction she or someone else had with bonobos. My favorite moment in the book is this beautiful scene where the porn king wants to sex the show up more, so he sends the bonobos a blow-up doll, and they cover the doll with a blanket. It's such a bonobo thing to do. Bonobos would be puzzled by our ideas about and fascination with sex."
Animals — horses in particular — also played crucial roles in Gruen's first two novels, "Riding Lessons" and "Flying Changes." She's always been an animal lover; she, her husband and three children live in North Carolina with four cats, two dogs, two horses and a goat. She's boarding another goat in Illinois.
"People ask me, 'Have you always been like this?' and I say, 'Like what?' I guess I do really like animals. I surround myself with them in my real life. So when I'm working six to eight hours a day in the fictional world, it makes sense to have them there, too."
One of the highlights for Gruen of studying the bonobos was her tea party with Panbanisha at the Great Ape Trust. (You can see photos of the apes at greatapetrust.org; you can also donate to the trust and other animal causes on the "Critters in Need" section of saragruen.com.)
"She's very cheerful," Gruen says. "She makes a choice about you. If she doesn't like you, she won't talk to you. We really hit it off. She knew that the book was dedicated to her — I had the manuscript there and explained it was a story about bonobos and opened the dedication page and explained it was dedicated to her — and she pointed to her name.
"She saved her cookies for a week, and she made the tea. ... The really funny thing is it was a Tuesday, and the apes are on diets on Tuesday and Thursday. I think that's why she asked for the tea party on Tuesday. She asked if I wanted milk. I took some, and I handed it back to her, and she drained the bottle. She offered cookies and after I took mine she did the same thing — tipped all the cookies into her mouth. Then she went and brought me a branch from the forest because she felt bad she'd eaten the cookies. I saw one of the volunteers eating a leaf, and I thought, 'Wow, I really hope they're not poisonous."'
The close genetic link between humans and bonobos — scientists estimate we share more than 90 percent of our DNA — is touchy for readers uncomfortable with evolution. So far Gruen hasn't had any unpleasant encounters over the subject, but she believes it's irrelevant anyway. In her book she equally skewers religious fanatics, hostile vegans, animal-rights activists, the media, the publishing industry and the shallowness of Hollywood.
"I'm not vilifying anyone specifically. There are so many shades of gray, and everyone decides where they are on that scale. We're not always going to agree. ... and it really doesn't matter if you believe it or not. It does not mean these apes don't deserve protection."