Sara Gruen (photo: Lynne Harty)

Many novels include animals in starring roles, many of them with human-like emotions, motives and characteristics. Classics such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Richard Adams’s Watership Down and Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull feature anthropomorphized animals for social commentary. Library shelves are filled with thousands of well-loved novels with horses, dogs, cats and other critters as human sidekicks often rank on the bestseller lists. Animals—whether they are pets, livestock, or wild beasts—provide layers for character and world building in novels of all genres. This week in #litchat we’re discussing novels featuring animals in central roles.

Sara Gruen, whose third novel, Water for Elephants, spent several years on the New York Times Bestseller list, joins us on Friday to discuss her new book Ape House. While animals are centric to each of Gruen’s four novels, Ape House goes a step further. In addition to the two pivotal human protagonists, Ape House features six bonobo apes capable of communication with humans using American Sign Language and lexigrams. These apes operate as endearing characters within the scope of the story, each one of them with personalities as unique as the humans written alongside them.

An ambitious and multi-layered novel, Ape House effectively satires the voyeuristic inclinations of pop culture, reality TV, and pornography, with a one-two punch at animal cruelty, research/experimentation labs. The human characters drawn around the bonobos are perfect counterpoints to the intuitive and peaceful natures of the bonobos. You can read a summary of Ape House here.

Gruen is an animal lover by nature and supporter in ways physically and financially. Gruen shares her North Carolina home with her own version of a blended family:  a husband, three children, four cats, two dogs, two horses, and a goat.  In order to write this novel, Gruen studied linguistics and a system of lexigrams so she could communicate directly with the bonobos living at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa.  She now considers them to be part of her extended family and, according to the bonobos, the feeling is mutual. You can read about Gruen’s experience at the Great Ape Trust in her website.

Read the chatscripts here:

November 1 & 3, 2010: Animals As Characters

November 5, 2010: Animals As Characters, author Sara Gruen

Follow Sara Gruen on Twitter: @SaraGruen.