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Our interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love.

Elizabeth Gilbert

 

By NATALIA HAWK

It’s a rare person these days who hasn’t hear of Eat, Pray, Love – you know, that bestselling novel that sold a casual 10 million copies all over the world. It told the true story of Elizabeth Gilbert, a woman who gave up everything to travel through Italy, India and Bali and rediscover herself. It sent millions of other women on similar pilgrimages to chase happiness, and resulted in a follow-up novel, Committed, which ended up as another number one on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Just as an FYI, you should know that this post is sponsored by Bloomsbury. But all opinions expressed by the author are 100% authentic and written in their own words.

So of course I was intimidated when I had the opportunity to have an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert. She’s just released a new novel called The Signature of All Things – a seriously amazing, epic novel set over the entire 19th century, featuring some incredible characters and some inspirational stories. It tells the story of Alma, an powerfully intelligent female scientist, and her relationship with a Utopian artist, Ambrose.

I picked up the book to read a couple of days before my interview with Elizabeth Gilbert was scheduled, and barely put it down again. It’s one of those books that takes you on the kind of journey that is all-too-hard to tear yourself away from – it’s confusing to return to real life once the final page has been read.

And that made me even more intimidated for my interview with Elizabeth Gilbert. She’s such a successful writer. I hold her in higher esteem than the greater majority of celebrities out there. If I had a dinner party, I would want her there, along with Obama and Beyonce.

But here’s what I didn’t know about Elizabeth Gilbert: She is possibly the nicest, warmest person in the world. Her happiness is infectious and she is generous with a laugh. When I complimented her on her book, she thanked me so profusely that it was as though I was the first person who had ever told her that she had any writing talent whatsoever.

the cover of Elizabeth’s new book, The Signature of All Things

Through our 40-minute chat (10 minutes longer than she was technically allowed to speak to me), she told me some incredibly interesting things about her writing, her research process and her inspirations. Take a look:

NAT: This is your second novel, and your first novel in twelve years. Why did you decide to write another novel after all this time?

ELIZABETH: It was time. I think two memoirs in a row is enough for anybody. You know, nobody’s life is interesting enough to warrant a third memoir [laughs]. And fiction writing is my heritage – it’s where I began, even before I was a journalist, the first publication I ever had was a short story published in Esquire. All through my 20s, all I wanted to be was a writer of fiction – and then somewhere through my 30s I took a sharp turn.

I don’t regret it – I’m thrilled with how it turned out – but I wrote three non-fiction books in a row. I think I just needed to work out some things, and the best way for me to work them out was by telling true stories. Now my life is really nice and pleasant and boring, so I can make up exciting dramas!

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I wanted to write the kind of book that I love to read. I wanted to write a big, thrilling, epic that takes place over a period of time, a multi-generational drama. And I wanted to write a book with a powerful female character who had a powerful intellect. I feel like that’s not a figure that has been represented enough in writing and so I wanted to do it.

N: How did you get inspiration for the book?

E: I’m a gardener, and in the last few years I’ve gotten really into my garden. I grew up on a farm, my father was very good with trees and my mother was a master gardener. So getting back into gardening felt so familiar to me. I got really interested in what I was planting. And that led me into a contemplation of botanical exploration – and then I stumbled upon a book that was part of my family, inherited from my great-grandfather, the 1783 edition of Captain Cook’s voyages around the world.

And when I started paging through this really beautiful talisman, I looked at it and thought, “This is such a beautiful topic, I’d love to read about this.” So I dedicated the next three years of my life to doing nothing but reading about it.

N: Is that how you did your research for the book?

E: First of all, I have to thank Eat, Pray, Love and its readers for those years. I was reading heaps and heaps, probably 6 hours a day, and trying to kind of wrap my head around it all, and giving myself a sort of master’s degree in 19th century exploration and the beginnings of the pharmaceutical business and women’s place in science in the 19th century, and the history of the evolution debate, all that sort of stuff. And then I did a lot of travelling – I went to London, Amsterdam, a lot of fieldwork around Philadelphia, and of course I had to go to Tahiti to do research for the last part of the book.

N: So how long did the book take to write?

E: It all blended in – I was doing a lot of writing as I was researching. But not long – I hate to say it, because it makes me sound like a jerk – but I had to do it fast because I was holding this giant plot in my mind. I just barreled through the book over a few months – I was kind of afraid I was going to lose it.

N: Have your other books taken a longer process to write or is this typical for you?

E: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to write. I’ve learned that the more preparation I do, the faster the writing goes.

My early books were slow and arduous – I see now that I hadn’t done any work! I used to think you just put a page in a typewriter and, well, chapter one! But if you haven’t done any work then what – how do you even know what you’re doing?

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N: So what was your actual writing process?

E: Index cards, my dear! Thousands of index cards – in five shoeboxes! That is the secret. And then it was sort of mapped out. All my notes on each person would be in one file. Before I started writing I spent a week going through every single one – and when I say thousands, I mean thousands of index cards – and chartered them by topic so that it was all there. So when I got to that place in the book, all I had to do is reach my fingers in and grab a couple of index cards and keep writing.

I use a computer to write books but I hand-write my notes, which is a little dangerous, because it means there’s only one set of them. But I did photocopy them and kept them at someone else’s house in a different state – in case there was like a tornado or something.

N: What are your thoughts on writer’s block?

E: I have gotten it – but I think when people speak about writer’s block, it’s a misdiagnosis of other things. I don’t think it is, in itself, a thing. Sometimes what we call writer’s block is fear. Sometimes it’s narcissism, sometimes it’s anger, sometimes it’s anger. I think the more important question is – what’s your obstacle? And then work on the specific obstacle. Rather than being like “oh I have writer’s block!” you know, like you’d say “oh I have measles!” It’s not a medical condition. It’s a symptom of something else that’s going on.

N: It reads almost like a biography – I had to keep reminding myself that the characters weren’t real. I feel like I want to tell people this amazing story of what happened in the 19th century and then I remembered – it didn’t actually happen. Have you always wanted to write this kind of historical novel?

E: You know what? No. I always wanted to read them, though – but I had never considered writing one. When they go wrong, they’re SO wrong – when the language doesn’t feel right or someone’s laying it on too hard. It was intimidating to take it on. What I really feel like the book is – this is an important distinction for me to make in my own mind – I didn’t want to try to pull off a 19th century novel, I’m not trying to be Jane Austen or George Elliott, but what I am doing is writing a contemporarily written novel about the 19th century. And just that subtle little distinction gave me the freedom to tell a story that happens to have happened 150 years ago… and happens to not be true. But hopefully it’s plausible.

There’s a book review here in the states that says that it tells the “true” story of Henry Whittaker and imagines his daughters life and I was like, oh my god! It’s not true but I love that you think it is!

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N: The female protagonist –and her mother – are such strong, female characters. And while there’s love in the book, it’s largely about science, which you rarely see in a novel about women – did you consciously make that decision, or did the process happen quite organically?

E: Well a little of both – I knew I wanted to write about a woman of great intellect and I knew I wanted to write about a woman I could relate to – someone whose primary love in her life is her love of her work – there’s certainly times in my life where my personal life has failed and my work has kept me going, so I know what that’s like, to have a project that you care about enough.

I also knew that I wanted to do something other than the classic 19th century ending for a woman’s life, where they really only get the two choices – you either get a good marriage to the gentry or you are dead. And I just thought, the reality of most women’s lives, then and now, is not that. The reality is that none of us really get the fairytale ending and none of us get the tragic ending either, we get something in between. And we make out of that, our own existence.

I think that women are also stupendously able to endure tremendous disappointment in a way that isn’t captured in literature. Terrible things can happen to you and you can survive them and live a very dignified existence around your disappointments – I think that’s what most women do. The key is to end your life thinking, “Well that’s an interesting thing. Didn’t get everything I wanted, but I have my pride and I learned a lot, and I’m glad I came.” I kind of felt like that’s the ending I wanted Alma to have.

N: Are you disappointed by the lack of strong female characters in literature and film in general?

E: It’s not a new position for someone like me to take to say that women’s stories have been underrepresented in history but largely because women’s voices have been underrepresented in history.

And part of the reason why I wanted to write such a forceful book at this time, not a didactic book but a strong book, is because I can!

The Brontes never got to do what I got to do. They never got to travel, they never got to leave home, they never got to be members of libraries. So there are all sorts of restrictions on their lives that I never had. So I wanted to go big.

Elizabeth’s first book, Eat Pray Love

E: If you want to know the world, sometimes you have to get out and roll around. And also because I think narratively – there’s an old adage that there are only two stories that have ever been told – either you go on a trip or a stranger comes to town. And I never wanted to be the person that waited for a stranger to come to town – I wanted to be the stranger!

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N: What are you hoping that readers will take away from the book?

E: I mostly just want to give them the kind of adventure that I love to read. The greatest reading experiences of my life have mostly been books written in the 19th century. Jane Austen, Henry James, Thomas Hardy – that’s my team. That’s the team that I love and that I vanish into. You pray for a rainy day and an afternoon to sit with a glass of wine and read their books.

But more than anything it was Dickens who has this ability to take the reader by the hand, at the very beginning of the book, and say – “you don’t have to do anything. I’ve got this all sorted out, just come along for the ride. Trust me, I know what I’m doing, I know where I’m going.” And to be able to relax into a narrative like that and know that the writer has you in their hands is such a joy. And I’ve experienced that so many times at the hands of brilliant writers – and I just want to try and offer that myself.

If I’ve done my job right, readers will hopefully surrender to the narrative, delight in the story and come through to the other side kind of having had a window into another world that they’ve never had before.

N: Do you feel any pressure after the success of Eat, Pray, Love?

E: I don’t feel any pressure for this book. I felt appalling amounts of pressure after Eat, Pray, Love and before Committed – you know, that was really a psychological challenge for me, to puzzle through how to write the book that came after Eat, Pray, Love. The emotional commitments and the expectations of readers were so high, not to mention the vitriol of critics who didn’t like it.

Once Committed was done and out there in the world, I have never felt so free. And hopefully from this point forward I will never feel anything but free, to write the books that I want.

So I can honestly say with this book that there’s no pressure on me, there’s no pressure on my readers from me. There’s no pressure to buy 10 million copies. But they’re lovingly invited to join me on this journey if they’d like to – it’s entirely up to them.

N: What’s next for you – are you going to do another novel?

E: I think so! I’ve got another one kicking around in my brain. I’ve been away from it for so long that I didn’t know if I could do another one – I didn’t even remember why you do it. So this has been such a pure joyful encounter and just a delight – it’s been the most fun I’ve ever had working. So I don’t think I’m ready to walk away from that yet.

You can also watch this interview with Elizabeth Gilbert where she talks further about her new book:

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