A chat with "Eat, Pray, Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert
Talking with Elizabeth Gilbert, the best-selling author speaks like someone who's clearly found her zen. She talks with a relaxed, easy and honest calm about the kind of topics – negative feedback, critics, struggle, expectations – people don't usually handle with an easygoing demeanor. Then again, considering she literally wrote the modern book on finding one's zen – "Eat, Pray, Love" – that shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
Eight years after the wild success of her personal journey of self-discovery and spiritual awakening, Gilbert has a new book out, "The Signature of All Things." The book marks a return to fiction, telling the sweeping, scoping story of Alma Whittaker, a female botanist from an era long since past.
Gilbert is bringing the novel – and herself – to Boswell Books on Wednesday, July 9. The ticketed event starts at 7 p.m. and includes a discussion with WUWM Lake Effect's Bonnie North and likely some fan questions as well. Before she answers questions Wednesday night, however, OnMilwaukee got to ask Gilbert a couple of our own, mainly about her thoughts on the creative process, her new novel and the wild success – as well as the critical whiplash – of "Eat, Pray, Love."
OnMilwaukee.com: I recently watched your 2009 Ted talk about genius, inspiration and the idea of "the tortured creative mind." Where did you kind of harness this thesis and these ideas about the creative process?
Elizabeth Gilbert: I think I've just been in casual study of it for most of my life. Part of it is just circumstantial evidence, just having spent a lifetime looking at the different ways different people are creative and seeing which ones of those methods leads to despair, alcoholism and early death and which ones leads to a satisfying life full of curiosity and steady production. So I had to figure out what are the definitions of one, what are the definitions of the other and where did these varying ideas some from.
And also, just a growing sense that what we assume to be the only definition of creative life in the modern Western world, which is still very much linked to the idea of torment and suffering in the German romantic mode, we really just assume that that pathway's the only one. But I've traveled to other parts of the world to see that that's not necessarily how everybody makes art, and I don't think that's how human beings did it for most of history. I think it's mostly a recent idea and a bad one. (laughs) It certainly isn't appealing to me, so I'm always looking for alternatives.
OMC: I have to ask about "Eat, Pray, Love" for a second. Obviously, most of the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but there was also a decent amount of backlash with people calling it "priv-lit" and stuff like that. How did you feel about the reaction to the book?
EG: I mean, nobody's loved being attacked. (laughs) I don't seek that out. In the interest of preserving mental health and using time well, I don't spend time Googling horrible things people say about me, but I do stumble upon them and hear things.
I know there are people critical of the book, and there's a little bit of which, to be honest, I'm sympathetic with the critics because I personally, as a reader, I know the feeling of there being a book out in the world that everybody's really excited about and for some reason I just don't get. That happens routinely to all of us. Sometimes we're really tied into the zeitgeist, and sometimes we're just not. I've been on both sides of that. It's just natural. It's subjective. There's just some stuff that doesn't speak to you, and I don't think you can really blame anybody for that.
I think when a book reaches a point where it becomes viral and takes over the culture in some way, then everybody suddenly has to have an opinion about it because you're irresponsible not to. So people end up reading the book who it was never meant for, which is what I think happened with "Eat, Pray, Love." Because people needed to have an opinion about it, they read a book that wasn't written for them in the first place. And I'm sorry they had to. (laughs)
I always want to say to the people who hated it, "Why did you even read it? I would never get 50 pages into a book that I hated as much as you hated this. Why did you put yourself through this? Don't you have other things you want to do with your life than hate something this hard?" (laughs) Go find something to love and celebrate and enjoy. Don't waste your time with me if you can't stand me.
OMC: How did you feel about the movie?
EG: I really liked it! Everything that happened around "Eat, Pray, Love" just blew up in such a weird, over-the-top phenomenon that very early on in the process, I just decided that every book has its own personality and character and desire. And I guess this book just really wanted to be a phenomenon, and I'm just going to stand out of the way and let it be. It's old enough to drive; you want to be a movie, go be a movie. (laughs) Mostly, I just felt grateful that anybody cared enough to want to do anything about it (laughs), especially after having written books for years that nobody really cared too much about.
OMC: That's a very level-headed way to look at things, especially as you say in the Ted talk, looking back and thinking that your most successful days are probably behind you.
EG: Well, definitely behind me! (laughs) Like not even close. That's just a fact. That's kind of the great thing about the level of the phenomenon that "Eat, Pray, Love" reached. It just got so stratospheric that there's really no point in me even trying to compete with myself. It just can't be done again, and I'm not even going to bother trying because that would just be dumb. (laughs) I don't hate myself enough to do that. I just want to keep doing stuff that I love doing and keep making work and following my curiosities. I would never ask another book of mine to even approach what "Eat, Pray, Love" did, which is good because it won't. (laughs)
OMC: You moved back over to fiction with your new book, "The Signature of All Things." Why the return to fiction now?
EG: Because it felt like the right time. It felt like it would be fun. It felt really liberating after having written two books in a row that were about me and in my own voice to just sort of vanish into an imagined world in a different century. It also sort of felt that I'm so lucky at this point in my life. I have something that very few creative people have had – and glancingly very few women have ever had – and that's total creative freedom. I can really chart my own course about what I want to spend my time doing.
With "The Signature of All Things," I didn't have to go to a publishing house and beg them for an advance to write a 500-page novel about a spinster who spends her life studying mosses. I didn't have to try to build that case – which would not have been a good case, anyway – I can just go do it because I can afford to fund my own life and passions.
I felt like I was lucky enough to have that freedom, then don't waste it by going small. Try to do something big and ambitious and strange. Otherwise, it's kind of a waste. I almost feel like in the name of all of the great women writers who never had the opportunity to have that kind of freedom, you almost have to go and try to write an epic book.
OMC: Where did the inspiration for the story of "The Signature of All Things" come out of?
EG: Part of it is just a lifetime – well, I mean, not a lifetime because I wasn't reading 19th century novels when I was six (laughs) – but from an early age, I fell in love with 19th century literature, especially of the British variety with the big Victorian novelists. I love them; I love them all. They are my team and my gang, and even though I'm a 21st century writer, I've always been a 19th century reader.
More than anything else, it's always narration that I've loved and what draws me to those books, the pre-modern idea of the very reliable narrator and the idea that there's a person telling a story who is a master storyteller and knows what they're doing, and you can just relax as a reader and be taken along on this great story. I love experiencing that as a reader.
Part of it was that, and part of it was wanting to write about botany, which is a big fascination for me. And part of it was wanting to write a story of a woman whose life is neither ruined by a man or rescued by a man, and I think it's very hard to find a story like that in world literature. I wanted to create that kind of character.
OMC: How did you do the research needed to do such a massively scaled story that spreads across multiple eras and countries?
EG: I just read my eyes out; I actually blew out my eyes on this book and had to start wearing glasses for the first time in my life because I had so much reading. That's really the only way to get it. I mean, I traveled to those places and I spoke to historians and I became friends with a woman who's an expert on mosses – she became my moss guardian angel, making sure my science was right. I did a lot of field trips to Philadelphia to make sure I had my locations right and that sort of thing, but that's such a small part of it.
The major part of it was reading everything that I could about 18th and 19th century botany, about trade and commerce, about the abolitionist movement in Philadelphia, about the migration of people, transcendentalism, homosexuality and how it was perceived in that time period, missionary life in the south Pacific. A lot of topics that needed to be studied really carefully, but most of it within that was reading letters and diaries to kind of immerse myself in how people spoke and thought.
It was a lot, but honestly, I can't think of anything I'd rather do for three years than that. (laughs) Every bit of it was so much fun because I just got to indulge in the geekiest aspects of myself.
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