Elizabeth Gilbert: Finding fertile ground after ‘Eat Pray Love’

Elizabeth Gilbert is infinitely proud of her bestselling memoir – but she says that her new novel, ‘The Signature of All Things’, is her best work yet


If an author is lucky, there comes a moment – a strange moment, quite likely – when, having laboured in isolation, one of their books is catapulted into the limelight. The moment is stranger still if the book is so different from their other work that it is something of a black sheep. Elizabeth Gilbert knows this feeling well, having written Eat Pray Love.

A bestselling memoir of self-exploration, it has been called everything along the pejorative spectrum from self-help to chick lit. Published in 2006, since when it has sold more than 10 million copies, it quickly became a self-improvement guide for women keen to make sense of their lives and the choices they’d made. To Gilbert it was year zero, and not just because many of her Eat Pray Love fans didn’t realise she had already written lots of other books.

Some journalists would habitually prefix “other books” with “serious” or “literary”, because of Gilbert’s award-winning journalism and National Book Award nomination for The Last American Man, a work of nonfiction. She lets out a loud, conspiratorial laugh at this.

“Several journalists in serious newspapers who reviewed the new book have felt the need to preface their reviews with a disclaimer: ‘I approached this book with dread when I found out it was written by the woman who wrote that book about finding yourself – but, um, it’s actually very good.’ They were afraid they’d catch something infectious from reading me.”

Gilbert is infinitely proud of Eat Pray Love, which was made into a film starring Julia Roberts. She says it’s her most important book – but that her new novel, The Signature of All Things, is her best work.

“Writing my first novel was like getting into a chum pool being circled by sharks,” says Gilbert, “but this one, despite all the research, felt good. I enjoyed the process so much more.”

Speaking to a generation
The Signature of All Things is her first novel for 13 years, but Gilbert has been writing consistently. There have been short stories and a lot of journalism, including Coyote Ugly, her story about a bar she worked at, which was also made into a film. But it was Eat Pray Love that spoke to a generation of women, and Gilbert snorts at its detractors.

“That book was very important to me. It allowed me to be vulnerable. I had spent years where my life was a mess and I didn’t do the right thing. Travelling and writing helped me figure out a lot of stuff.”

Gilbert grew up in Connecticut, where she lived with her parents and sister on a remote farm. The family kept bees and goats, and sold Christmas trees. It was an isolated existence – there were no other children her age nearby – but it was fertile ground for the imagination.

She and her sister, Catherine, who is also a writer, invented worlds. “We were time travellers with pet dinosaurs, but there was always a dark turn: one of our characters would get tuberculosis or some terrible disease.”

Later, at college, she worked on what became her first book, Pilgrims, a collection of short stories. When it was published the writer Annie Proulx called her a “young writer of incandescent talent”, but Gilbert is slightly embarrassed by the stories now. “She was so kind, because the stories were such a homage to her – to the point where I was almost ripping her off.”

The stories still have merit, and Gilbert is modest about her success. Eat Pray Love may have made her a household name – and a lot of money – but she’s keen to move on. She followed Eat Pray Love with another nonfiction book, Committed, about marriage. “The cold ugly fact,” wrote Gilbert, “is that marriage does not benefit women as much as it benefits men. Single women fare much better than married women.”

Gilbert cites issues of health, housework and income and makes a strong case against why women choose to get married. But the book’s subtitle, A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, gives her away: she got married in 2010. The catalyst was a string of visa issues that her Brazilian husband, José – the pseudonymous Felipe in Eat Pray Love – faced after a trip home.

Craft shop
The pair now live in a small town in New Jersey, where they run a craft business and shop. Here, not far from the Delaware river, Gilbert resurrected her love of gardening, which is central to her new novel. Her mother always kept a garden, and one of the book’s central characters is an expert on mosses.

Set in the 19th century, it tells the story of Alma Whittaker, “ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose”. Alma is a woman of privilege who wants to turn her love of botany into a career – but the route is not straightforward for a Victorian-era female.

Gilbert became fascinated by the women trying to make their names in the scientific world at the time.

“Women were allowed to have an interest in botany, because it was about pretty flowers, and in the book this is referred to as ‘polite botany’. Their interest was tolerated, but then in the 1800s there was a movement to rescue botany from women. I wanted to write about a woman who loved what she does, and doesn’t want her life to be saved by a man. That was often the only narrative in women’s lives of that era.”

Alma is the daughter of a wealthy importer and botanist, and her class allows her a little freedom, but her gender confines her. Gilbert’s previous books have been dominated by men; The Signature of All Things is very much Alma’s story.

“I have written about women before, but it seemed important that Alma told her own story, because I wanted to pay tribute to these pioneering women of science, and to women who didn’t just want to accept that marriage was the end of their story.”

Gilbert is a feminist, and although she believes that women’s lives have improved greatly, many of the issues that plagued women in the 19th century – career, autonomy, choice – still persist. We talk a little about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, in which the Facebook head urges women in corporate life to “lean in”, and about campaigns to encourage women to contribute to radio programmes.

“Men always go ahead and say yes when asked to take part, whereas women hold back and question themselves. It’s important to put yourself out there, though, and try not to be self-critical. My mother has a saying: ‘Done is better than good.’ It doesn’t matter if something isn’t perfect: it just has to be done.”

Jennifer Weiner, the bestselling author of In Her Shoes, among other novels, has frequently confronted what she perceives as the male-centric world of publishing, in which men’s writing is deemed more serious and their work is more widely reviewed. “Yes, Jennifer has gone up against quite a few people online,” says Gilbert, “but she has a point. There is a sense that men’s writing is more worthy, and that it’s about the weightier issues of the world, which is of course not true.”

Channelling Dickens
Setting The Signature of All Things in the past was slightly daunting, but Gilbert says she channelled writers she admires, such as Dickens and Eliot. Despite that, she doesn’t necessarily think of it as historical fiction. “If you look at Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, it’s just a great book. It feels utterly like a contemporary novel – but one that just happens to be set in the past.”

Having immersed herself in the past – she researched the book for three years before she wrote a word – Gilbert is unsure which direction her next book will take her. It’s unlikely she’ll return to the short story, but she says she might have another memoir in her at some point in the future.

In a Ted Talk, Gilbert said that people frequently ask fatalistic questions about her writing. “After Eat Pray Love people would ask matter-of-factly: ‘Are you afraid that your greatest work is behind you?’ ”

Gilbert fields these inquiries with good humour and doesn’t think she’s creatively bankrupt – although she also points out that she’s in the middle of a lengthy book tour and never writes on the road.

In the same talk she refers to the poet Ruth Stone’s source of inspiration: ideas that hunt her down, wanting her to catch them. “There are always ideas, but unlike Ruth,” Gilbert says with a laugh, “mine don’t come charging through the fields.”

The Signature of All Things is published by Bloomsbury

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