Elizabeth Gilbert: "When I wrote about women’s emotions and women’s journeys I got shunted off"

The author talks about her new novel, her journalism career and the backlash against "Eat, Pray, Love"

Published October 5, 2013 10:30PM (EDT)

Elizabeth Gilbert  (Jennifer Schatten)
Elizabeth Gilbert (Jennifer Schatten)

On Oct. 1, bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert, whose "Eat, Pray, Love" sold 10 million copies worldwide, released her sixth book, just her second novel and her first work of fiction in 13 years.

"The Signature of All Things" opens in 1800 with the birth of Alma Whitaker, the daughter of Henry, Pennsylvania’s richest man. Henry’s ruthless intellect helped him parlay a budding knowledge of plants and a berth on Captain Cook’s ship into a pharmacological empire in the new United States of America. His daughter is equally impressive, and Gilbert’s lens soon settles on Alma, a brilliant, oddball botanist, whose life begins with limitless promise. Her tale is rich in history, nature and the torment of lives unfulfilled.

Gilbert and I first met in Bali in 2004 while she was researching the book that made her famous. Several martinis later, I ended up with a cameo (“Pelicans.” I say, “Pelicans”) in a runaway hit, and a generous friend. So one afternoon, on the eve of her international, 27-city book tour, and while I was hoofing it through Mexico, researching a book for "Lonely Planet," she and I Skyped to discuss growing up on a farm, her first pitch meeting, the importance of “leaning in,” her creative process and her new novel. I even crowdsourced some questions via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

The way you broke into journalism is legendary, and it was explained beautifully in the Times Magazine profile, but was there a particular story that you filed that changed the way you thought about your career? Or launched you in some way?

I’m a little embarrassed about some of the stories I wrote when I first started at Spin.

How old were you when you started there?

Twenty-four, 25. And I could do snarky really well, so my beat became, go to stupid places and write about stupid people, and it was satisfying because you get the laugh. You know, go to Renaissance Fairs and make fun of people who do Renaissance Fairs. Go to a taxidermy convention and make fun of taxidermists. So I did that for about two years, and it started to sour in me, and I was like I never want to write another story about somebody where I don’t want to see them again, where I’d be horrified if I ran into them. And also I just thought it’s a bigger and more interesting challenge to write about humanity and grace.

To show the humanity in even the most despicable person.

Yeah, that’s a kind of better writerly challenge and a better human being challenge too. So what changed that was I did a story about the professional bowling circuit. It was just the standard, Liz Gilbert go out and make fun of people in Erie, Pa., or whatever, and I was like, what if you just love them and write about how wonderful this is instead of how silly it is. That felt like a big transitional moment for me.

I love it. Do you think the way the business is now, and how hard it is financially for magazines and publishers to develop young writers, that it would be harder for you to break in? Or would you do it differently now?

I would probably do it differently because it’s a different world. I know this. I know that I’m really ambitious and I’m really relentless and I would probably continue to do now what I did then, which is whatever it frickin’ takes. But it's funny because while that is true, there are also avenues that didn’t exist then like the way you can put yourself forward in the world with your own initiative without having to send off photocopied pages and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to somebody in New York City and beg for permission to be published. What you can create on your own now is really astonishing and I’m sure I would have been deep in that.

A lot of big authors are now considering self-publishing because they can keep all the royalties, they’ve already built their audience, or you could go the Dave Eggers route and start an imprint. Have you ever thought about either of those?

Definitely not the imprint because that would require having the managerial and inspirational skills that Dave Eggers has. He’s a complete visionary and I admire enormously what he does and I published with him. I did the reprint of my great-grandmother’s cookbook just last year, because my great grandmother was a food writer in the 1940s and I found this old copy of this cookbook she had published and it was brilliant. He brought it back through McSweeney’s, which is really cool. So I’ve sort of been on the inside of how he does things, and it takes a person who is not me to do that.

Self-publishing is interesting too and I’m watching it really closely. Again, at this point I’m not sure that I’m ready. There’s an infrastructure that the publishing world still has that’s pretty convenient. It’s kind of nice that they print the books, that they distribute them, there’s a whole mechanism that still functions pretty nicely that I’m not sure I’m ready to replace. But I would be very surprised if 20 years from now the whole publishing world is not completely different, and we’ll see then? Ten years from now, seven years from now.

You grew up on a Christmas tree farm. What was Christmas season like?

Christmas season is the fun part. I always really liked Christmas tree sales. People have the same attitude buying Christmas trees as they do buying ice cream. Nobody comes in a bad mood. But the year-round work of having a Christmas tree farm is hard, and that’s the stuff I was never good at. I’m sure it was more work to make us do it than if my parents had just done it themselves, but you know, they were trying to instill character and shit.

So your formative years were on the farm, and you think that made you more creative, right? Because you didn’t have TV, you didn’t have a lot of distractions?

It’s a combination of two things. We didn’t have TV and we didn’t have neighbors our age. It was just me and my sister. My parents only had one car and they never drove it because they’re so frugal, so it’s not like they were gonna bring us anywhere. So we were kind of trapped.

You must have been reading pretty early. Did you have a favorite first book and a favorite novelist?

We loved the "Wizard of Oz" books. We had these gorgeous 1930s family heirloom "Wizard of Oz" books with the great Art Deco illustrations and those were tremendous. I think the fact that there’s a female hero, a farm girl, who was fearless was aspirational for me. She was a brave traveler.

And then I remember, the transition out of kids’ books and into adult books. My parents are both big readers and I remember one night after dinner my dad was reading and I went up and tapped him on the shoulder and I said, “I think I’m ready.”

Yeah. Come on, Dad. Give me a man’s book.

He did! He gave me Hemingway.  He gave me "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

Wow, how old were you?

I was 13 or 14. My mom had given me "Gone With the Wind" the year before, which was exciting, so I felt like I was ready, and Hemingway was a really good move on my dad’s part because it’s so readable. I was reading "Portnoy’s Complaint" when I was 14, and me and my dad were equally delighted by it. From then on, I knew I’d graduated to grown-up books.

Can you talk about your play, "Mona’s Proof"? How old were you when you put that on?

I was 10. We had a teacher who really believed that we could do all sorts of cool stuff and she said, “Let’s try and put on a school play, so think about it over the weekend …” Basically she was going to have a pitch meeting on Monday where we would all present our ideas.

Your first pitch meeting.

Yeah, but I brought a gun to a knife fight because I just wrote the play. I was like, “We’re gonna do this play and I’m just gonna bang it out this weekend.” So I wrote this play called "Mona’s Proof" about this girl who goes back in time except nobody believes her. So when it came time for the pitch meting, everybody was like, “Let’s do a play about rabbits. Let’s do a play about a birthday party.” And I was like, “Let’s do this play that’s already done.” I’d already photocopied it and started handing it out. You know, “This is your part, this is your part. You’re gonna be the director …” I just completely hijacked it.

Did they all hate you?

I’m sure they did. I was so excited about my own work I don’t remember paying attention to what anybody else thought of it. [Laughs]

You were like, “Listen, we’re not doing the fucking rabbit play.”

Rabbit play’s been done. Ever read "Of Mice & Men"? Finished. There’s nothing new to say about rabbits. We’re going back in time. Time travel. It’s hot. That’s kind of what I was like, though. I was always impaling people with my projects. I’m still that way.

Why stop? It’s working for you.

Well, you know, when I was reading about Sheryl Sandberg, it’s like, hell yeah, I’ve been “leaning In” so far that people lean back to get away.

Did you read "Lean In"?

I haven’t read it, no, although I approve of it from what I’ve read of it. I certainly approve of the idea that women hold themselves back with perfectionism, which is a problem that I’m always seeing and I’m always trying, I mean especially with young women writers, to knock it into them to just put their work out there, put themselves out there and not to worry if it’s not entirely formed yet because unformed work never stopped men from putting themselves forward. I mean, I think perfectionism is the death of creativity and happiness.

Let’s get into "Eat, Pray, Love," and I’ll just speak from my interpretation of what happened, and that is, the book was out there for about a year before it became this phenomenon, isn’t that correct?


And it became this phenomenon and all of a sudden there was this backlash, and for a long time the only people who ever said anything negative about it to me were men, and men who hadn’t ever read it.

Right. That’s why I take their opinions really seriously.

No, I know, but I was hoping you could talk about how it was to deal with that backlash from literary types, at the same time that you were dealing with this mounting love and acceptance from readers, and how you think sexism may have played into it?

Well, look, it has not escaped my attention that when I wrote about men and men’s journeys they gave me the National Book Award nomination, the National Book Critics Circle award nomination, the National Magazine Award nomination, the Hemingway award, the PEN/Faulkner, you know they just showered me with love. I think especially because I was a woman writing about men’s journeys and I wrote about them lovingly. Then when I wrote about women’s emotions and women’s journeys I got shunted off. It was crazy to watch. I was like, oh, is that all it takes to lose all respect, to write about women’s lives? That sucks.

Well, you weren’t just writing about women’s lives -- you were writing about your life.

I was writing about my own life, and I mean, memoirs already are in kind of a shady territory in the literary world, so I had committed a double crime. And then a triple crime in that it became really popular, and when things become really popular they must be terrible [laughs]. But I was also getting waves of powerful, intimate, real and uncensored reaction from female readers who were writing me these beautiful letters and telling me their transition stories, and talking about the permission that the book had given them to ask the big dangerous questions in their own lives and that just felt very tangible, and the other stuff felt very intangible and sort of silly.

It also felt like, you know, I worked in magazines for so long and I remember watching the backlash begin and thinking if I were a responsible magazine editor right now, in late 2007, I would be remiss not to assign someone a story about how much they hate "Eat, Pray, Love." That’s almost your obligation.

Dickens came to mind for me as I was reading your new book, but there’s a sadness to it too. I’ve always thought of you as someone extremely positive, and yet in the book, there’s an awareness of the world as extremely sad and tragic. I didn’t expect that, and I wonder is that something you’ve always carried with you or did it come out in the writing of this book?

It is a sad story in a lot of ways, but I think the word I was really interested in pursuing in this book was "resilience." You know, especially with its evolutionary themes. The idea of resilience and endurance and survival and I don’t know if you can write about those traits without writing about tragedy, loss, disappointment, shame, all of those things that provoke resilience.

And the other thing was I decided that I wasn’t going to give my female heroine one of the only two endings that female characters ever get in 19th century literature, which is, you’re either happily married to landed gentry or a suicide or murder victim because you made an essential error and you’re deeply punished for it. I feel like then as now women’s lives are not so easily categorized as either being fairy tales or tragedies. The older I get, the more I see that the women I know and admire have lives with equal parts of both, and that we’re all somewhere in the middle, and what I’m fascinated with is women who have a particular talent for transforming disappointment into resilience.

So I sort of needed Alma to not get all she sought and to try and figure out where’s the grain of resilience? Where’s the grain of dignity? Where’s the grain of endurance that to me looks like what the women in my family are? The women in my family are really strong but they didn’t get that way by having easy lives. They got that way by shit not working out.

Is there a part of you in Alma?

I mean there’s no way that I can write anybody who can have emotions or experiences that I haven’t had. So yeah, my fingerprints and my DNA are all over her. I know all of her disappointments. I know what it feels like to desire somebody who doesn’t want you. I know what it feels like to feel stuck, but the redeeming grace in Alma’s life is how much she loves her work and how much she loves the natural world, and the fact that she gets to do that for her entire life is what saves it from having been a sad life.  And there haven’t been that many stories written about women whose work saves them.

You’ve talked about reading letters and nothing published before the 1890s to get you into the voice. How long did it take to start thinking in that language? Because I remember you emailing me that you were about to write it, then getting the book in the mail within five months! I mean, how did that happen?

Well, it was like learning a foreign language, that’s what it reminded me of more than anything, that year and a half I spent trying to learn Italian, but in this case it was three and a half  years trying to learn 19th century, trying to learn botany trying to learn that whole world. That’s a long time, that’s almost a college degree. You can get pretty far in three and a half  years years working on something.

And I think what happened is that I was so intimidated by the scope of what I was taking on, so afraid to begin writing because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do it that I rigorously and vigorously over prepared. I wrote a 70-page outline of the novel before I began. I had it in my marrow, in a way that I’d never had with a book before. The metaphor I keep using is that it was like painting a wall with a roller that somebody else spent a month prepping. Everything had been taped and sanded and all the furniture was out and all I had to do was just slap the paint on it with really broad strokes, and so that’s why I think it happened so fast. Also, I felt like if I slowed down or looked down I would lose my nerve, so I didn’t even want to hesitate.

You were scared of getting back into the novel form?

Yeah. Not only could I not remember if I could still write fiction. I couldn’t even remember a little bit why we write fiction. And it wasn’t until I began that I was like, "Oh my god, I remember why! Because it’s the greatest!"

I started soaring emotionally in that first scene with Joseph Banks and Henry because of the thing you can only do in fiction, which is putting a fictitious character with a real character. It just felt so naughty and wicked.

So does that mean it’s all fiction from here on out? Do you know what your next book is?

I don’t want to ever close doors on anything. I’m still feeling really excited about fiction, and I have an idea in my head for a novel but it's gonna be a year before I have time to even begin so who knows what’ll happen.

OK, let’s get into some of these crowdsourced questions:

"How did you come up with the title for 'The Signature of All Things'?" -- Rose C, Morelia, Mexico

The title of the book is actually the title of a theory that was posited in the 16th century by a mad German mystic named Jakob Böhme who believed that God had hidden in the design of every plant on earth the secrets as to that plant’s usage. And I loved the weird magical thinking of that theory. It’s sort of on the border between mysticism and the beginnings of taxonomy and science, and I have a character in the book who still upholds that idea, which is a sign that he’s a romantic and maybe a fool?

“I would like to know what puts Liz Gilbert in 'the zone' -- how does she get into her writing flow state?” Kristin A, Las Vegas

Um …  feedbags of cocaine … [laughs] … No, the real answer is solitude. And that’s always the hardest thing for me to acquire because I’m really social and I care about a lot of people and I’m involved in a lot of people’s lives, but the quieter my life gets and the more isolated my life gets, the bigger my imagination grows. That, and the coke.

“Ever care to write screenplays?” Tchaiko O, Hollywood

I don’t have an artistic or political objection to it. I just don’t know how to do it. It’s a craft. It’s not something that’s necessarily parallel. People who do that have a mastery that I do not want to assume I could just step into.

And on the screenplay issue, someone else asked …

“How is it watching a movie made from something that you wrote?” Lia B, Chapel Hill, N.C.

It’s surreal and delightful and lovely. I’m always amazed when writers get really gripey, “Oh Hollywood bought my book and then they changed it!” I want to say, have you never seen a movie based on a book? Is this, like, news to you that that’s what happens? To me it’s a very clear creative and financial exchange. You sell it and it doesn’t belong to you anymore.

Have you sold "Signature" yet?

No, I haven’t. Although I keep thinking that I would love to see it as a series rather than a movie.

Beautiful, an HBO series.

Even if it’s the end of journalism and books, it is the golden age of TV.

Uh-oh, you may have to actually write a screenplay?

Oh man, somebody’s gonna have to show me how to do that!

By Adam Skolnick

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