I was in college when I first encountered the work of Elizabeth Gilbert. I was trying to be a writer (full disclosure: I still am), and I’d given myself the assignment of reading one short story collection a week. I was very strict about it. Sometimes the books were chores to get through, but Pilgrims—Gilbert’s first book, published in 1998—wasn’t. I’d seen the capacity that short stories had— despite their shortness—to be really freaking boring. These were not those. The stories in Pilgrims struck me as sparkly and surprising and weird and very funny. They seemed to belong together, even though they were set all over the place: a ranch in Wyoming, a bar in New York City, a school bus in the afterlife (that story’s called “The Finest Wife,” and we’ve reprinted it here). Gilbert’s characters were tough and wisecracking, but full of heart and life.
My fondness for Pilgrims drove me to seek out Gilbert’s other stuff: Stern Men, a novel about lobster fishermen; The Last American Man, about a real-life Daniel Boone named Eustace Conway; the articles she’d written for SPIN and GQ (“The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon” and “The Ghost,” among them). I read it all.
A little later, I began seeing a book called Eat, Pray, Love on bookstore shelves. Then I couldn’t stop seeing it. Surely that couldn’t be my Elizabeth Gilbert, I thought. (It was.) And even though Eat, Pray, Love was the book that millions of women were reading and adoring, and even though I had read every other thing Elizabeth Gilbert had ever written, I avoided it.
For a few years, I didn’t read any Elizabeth Gilbert at all. Then in 2009, she gave a TED Talk. I was living in Florida, at the time—trying to be a writer and feeling the regular amount of despair about it. She spoke about creativity. And I remembered just how much I liked her, and just how much she had to say.
I met Liz in person this past April, when she was visiting San Francisco. McSweeney’s was reprinting her great-grandmother’s cookbook, and some of us staff took her to dinner. Liz and I sat next to each other, and talked about writing. We made plans to talk some more, but only—we agreed—after we had squared away our respective projects. She was working on a new book; I had a magazine to help put out. She finished the book in mid-September (it’s called The Signature of All Things); we sent the latest issue of the magazine to press a couple weeks ago. “Book is done! Lucky Peach is done! We are ready to roll!” she e-mailed. Our conversation took place over Skype.
The Rumpus: The first thing I ever read of yours was “The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick” in the Paris Review, and I loved it so much—it felt so generous and comprehensive in a way that most stories aren’t—and right away I went out and got Pilgrims. It’s hard for me to love story collections fully. There are always one or two stories that I don’t like as much, or one or two where it’s like, Why is this in there? They never feel as cohesive as I want them to. But Pilgrims is up there with my favorites: Airships by Barry Hannah, and The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek, and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. Why did you decide I’m going to write a story collection? What were your models, and who were you emulating?
Elizabeth Gilbert: I didn’t decide to write a short story collection. I just wanted to write things and wanted something to be published, and that was the entire extent of my aspiration. I wasn’t consciously putting together a short story collection, I was just writing stories really slowly. That’s probably the book that took me the longest to write. It took me six years to write those stories—that’s the rate of maybe two a year. I was learning, and I was studying, and my influences changed because my tastes changed over the six years, so when I read it I can see who I was imitating at various moments. Probably my biggest influence at that moment was Annie Proulx, who was nice enough to give me a blurb for that book, but she could honestly just as easily have sued me because I was really emulating her and really imitating her. I was also imitating Cormac McCarthy. A couple of those stories I wrote as an undergraduate; a couple I wrote in the years after college. “Pilgrims,” the title story, was purchased by Esquire, and published there, and after that, I got an agent, and the agent said, “If you can write a novel, we can get you a book deal for your short story collection.” And I was like, “My what collection?” I didn’t even realize what I had inadvertently created. That was really good news to find that out.
Rumpus: How do you feel about those stories now?
Gilbert: I haven’t read them in a long time. A couple of them I’m a little embarrassed by. I’m embarrassed by “Come and Fetch These Stupid Kids.” I wrote that in college and I feel like it shows. I’m embarrassed by “Landing,” a story about a girl in a bar in San Francisco. That was me trying to be Raymond Carver.
Rumpus: Was that based on anything biographical?
Gilbert: It was based on everything. That was the one that my mom read and was like, I wish that girl wouldn’t just jump into bed with that guy that she just met. And there was this long silence between us. And it was like, Yeah…I kind of wish she wouldn’t, either. But she keeps doing that. But I’m really proud of “The Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick.” That’s the last short story I ever wrote. And I feel like it was a bridge to becoming a novelist, because I feel like it’s a miniature novel. The other ones are really short stories, but that story kind of stretched out, and I began to realize I could sustain a bigger story. It’s more generational, it takes place over a longer period of time, and it reminds me of the book I just wrote, in a way, where there are big things that happen in condensed time and then twenty years pass. I still think that that one holds up, but some of them, I could barely look at.
Rumpus: Where did “The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick” come from?
Gilbert: My first husband was somebody who had been an enthusiastic amateur magician when he was a kid. Which I always thought was adorable. And he did it for way too long, like, past when it would have been cute and well into officially geeky. But I was charmed by it, and I was charmed that he was this kid from a working-class family in Ohio, and that he was trying to make transformation and misdirection and sleight of hand and all these things that you would need if you wanted to change your class and change your life. He had a book of magic tricks, and there was a trick called “The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick,” and I just loved the weird arcane language of that. I started going to magic acts in New York, and really kitschy, non-ironic old nightclub magic acts. And her father killing the guy in the parking lot over the money stolen was based on an incident that happened at a diner in Philadelphia where I worked. Well, nobody was killed, but there was a beating and there were shoes stolen and a lot of the things happened.
Rumpus: A lot of the stories seem kind of autobiographical or based on real things. I can pick out little facts from your life. In “Pilgrims,” there’s a character who grew up on a Christmas tree farm; “Tall Folks” is set in a bar and you were a bartender in New York. But I’ve always wondered about “The Finest Wife”: where did that come from? You were in your twenties but it seems like it was written by someone much older.
Gilbert: That is the only objective, magical, creative experience of my life, is that story. I was taking a commuter train, from my old house in Hudson Valley to New York City, and I fell asleep and I dreamt that story. And that has never happened before or since. I dreamt that ending of the train cars with all the writing on them and this woman with all her lovers. I woke up and I must have written that story in like two or three hours. That one was a freebie. That wasn’t work. It was just transcription. I often wonder if I were a purer person, maybe I could access that more often. Or more than once. But it was just a random nap in the afternoon. I don’t know what channel got opened, but it’s never been opened again since, unfortunately.
Rumpus: Maybe you could recreate it—recreate your life back then.
Gilbert: It’s not worth it. It wouldn’t be worth it to go back to be in a failing marriage and fall into a depression. I don’t know why I got given that one, but that was a freebie. I dreamt it, but as I was writing it I knew what the mandate was, which was to write a story about a woman who isn’t punished for being promiscuous. Which is really hard to find in literature. Or in the world. And I just wanted her to be unapologetically promiscuous, and to have all the men in her life just think it’s terrific. Maybe that’s the reason that literally was a dream, because I can’t imagine a real world in which that could occur. It’s a completely unrealistic depiction of sexuality and intimacy in marriage. She gets to have a happy marriage, too. Maybe it’s a dream for lots of women.
Rumpus: When did you start writing?
Gilbert: My dad was a huge reader, even though he was a chemical engineer and a farmer. Both my parents were big readers. My mom—it just meant a lot to her. She grew up without a lot of education and it meant a lot to her that her daughters be educated. We spent a lot of time at the library, and I think it’s a natural progression to go from being an obsessive reader to being someone who wants to play, and wants to do it themselves. My older sister Katherine is also an author; she writes young adult novels. We didn’t have a TV and didn’t have neighbors, so we had to make worlds up. Well, she made worlds up and I followed her into them. She made up pretty baroquely detailed worlds. We were time traveling sisters who had a dinosaur, but one of us had polio. There was always some really weird twist, because we read too much and the children’s books weren’t as good then as they are now, so we read a lot of grown-up stuff too, and it all got mixed up. It was really kind of a Petri dish for creating writers.
I wrote a play in fifth grade, and directed it and starred in it. It was a musical, and it was ten minutes long, about a girl who went back in time—which was a big theme in our plays. No one believed her, and she had sort of a lament in the middle of the play, about how no one believed that she went back in time. I wrote the lyrics and put it to “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal.” It’s a deeply heartfelt plea. She brought back a newspaper from the 1800s, which was the evidence that people finally accepted, and she was vindicated. So I was just always writing, and that’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do or be. It has made life simple.
Rumpus: You wrote while working a variety of jobs, in your twenties. But when did you find the time to write? How did you find the time to write while bartending in New York?
Gilbert: I was really stubborn about it, and I was really fascistic about it. A bartending job is perfect because you only work three or four nights and you have the rest of the time. Waitressing, too—you can make fast cash without putting any intellectual energy into what you’re doing. You get to hear a lot of people speak. That was what was great about bartending. It was a lot of note-taking for me. Because if you work in an office, you’re encountering maybe the same six or seven people a day. But if you’re working in a bar, there’s this constant influx of all sorts of different voices and backgrounds and dramas, and it just was a really great pool from which to draw.
I was a bartender; I was a waitress at this diner in Philadelphia. That was a really great job because my friend Mike would give me every shift—he was always short-staffed—and I would just spend four or five months working seven days a week and saving all my money. Then I could leave and travel and have experiences and run out of money and then come back and pick up that job again. It was perfect for what I was trying to do. Then I worked on a ranch in Wyoming; I was the trail cook at the ranch for a season. And then it was more waitressing, more bartending. Childcare, also, is a good job for the person who wants to be in charge of her own hours. Honestly, I thought that I would probably be doing work like that my whole life, and I didn’t mind. I suspect that would have gotten old by the time I turned thirty. I had this limited idea that I could do that, but looking at it now, that would have gotten frustrating, and I would have had to have gotten a proper career. But it worked really well for me during those years.
Rumpus: Weren’t you just exhausted, though? I come home thinking, I should write, but I’m so tired.
Gilbert: I was, and I didn’t write every day. But I wrote every week. I mean, it took me a long time. It would take me almost a year to write one short story. It took me a long time because I didn’t have the confidence, and because I didn’t have the time and the energy. But honestly, what drained my energy those years, more than my work, was the fucked-up emotional psychosexual dramas that I got involved with. If I could help myself at all in retrospect as a 43-year-old woman I would be like, “Get out of that guy’s car! Don’t move in with him! Don’t cheat on that guy! Don’t run away with this one! Don’t break up this marriage!” The stuff that I was doing was so hugely mentally invasive, and so physically and emotionally draining for me and whoever I dragged into that story. When I look back on those years, what feels miraculous to me is not that I was able to do any writing working as a bartender and a waitress—it’s that I was able to do any writing while I was making the stupidest, fucking personal decisions anybody has ever made. I feel like that, more than anything, is a tribute to how stubborn I was about wanting to be a writer, because so much of my life was really quite a mess. But I really wanted it. I wanted it so much that, despite myself, I managed to get work done.
If I’m being forgiving of myself, I could say I’m somebody who was really hungry for experiences. The same thing that would make me go try to be a trail cook on a ranch was the same thing that would make me want to have sex with a couple cowboys while I was there. So, all of that kind of dovetailed. I just… I wanted to know everything. There’s a lot of disorder that comes along with wanting to know everything and wanting to try everything and wanting to experience everything, but there’s a lot of knowledge that comes out of it too. And there’s nothing like intimacy for revelation. If I went through—word by word—those short stories, I can tell you who that guy was. I wish that it didn’t have to be that way. That’s not how I work anymore. And I think it’s more efficient not to be that way.
Rumpus: Okay, Coyote Ugly. It was a GQ article…
Gilbert: It was a GQ article I wrote after I wrote “Tall Folks.” And “Tall Folks” I wrote while I was still working at Coyote Ugly, and that’s the fictionalized version. “Tall Folks” is a good example of what I got out of the work that I did. That year-and-a-half that I worked there produced that short story. And then when I started working as a journalist, I was mentioning to an editor that I had worked at this bar and he said, “Well you should write a story about it,” and I remember that being the first moment where there was a bifurcation, where I just thought, Oh wait, am I allowed to use this material for nonfiction purposes as well? And if I do so, is there stuff I need to hold back—like the good stuff, should that be saved for fiction because that’s the higher calling? Up until then, I had never even thought to be a nonfiction writer, so yeah, that came out of those years. And that beautiful movie.
Rumpus: Were you part of that writing at all?
Gilbert: No, no I wasn’t. And I never imagined when Disney approached and said they wanted to make a movie about that bar. That made no sense. It still doesn’t make sense to me. It’s a piece of quite miraculous alchemy that they formed that skanky story and that skanky bar into a preteen love story that captured the hearts of a lot of thirteen-year-old girls. I don’t really know how that was done, but it was done, and it was an astonishing transformation.
Rumpus: I Netflixed it in preparation for this interview. I tried to watch it, but I could only watch about seventy percent and then I couldn’t go any further. The sex scene! Do you remember the sex scene? She was wearing lavender panties…
Gilbert: Oh, my god. Oh no. What I remember about that was going to the premiere, at the Ziegfield theater, in New York, and being allowed to bring a dozen guests. So I brought all the regulars from Coyote Ugly and a couple of the bartenders. The real Coyote Ugly bar was a pit. And a very proud one. It was a hole, and it was disgusting, and it was awesome. Then the movie became its thing, and then the bar began to imitate the movie, and now it’s a chain. It’s an odd sort of ping-ponging, how that happened. But when the movie premiered, I remember all of us had one row of the Ziegfield, and everyone got up and left and all the Coyote regulars and bartenders were just still in there seats, staring at the blank screen, like, What the hell just happened? All these guys in their biker vests and their beards, and these really tough chicks who were bartenders there—everybody’s like, What the fuck was that?
Rumpus: Your early stories and the stories in GQ strike me as really confident. I’m just wondering, how did you get to be so confident in your writing when you were just starting out? Were you faking it at all? Or did you just feel like, I can do this?
Gilbert: A combination of both. I really honestly always felt like I could do this. If you’re good at something from when you’re really little, there’s a lot of people who keep telling you that you’re good at it. When I was in 5th grade, I was in this special drama program, and we were all given the assignment to see if we could come up with a play idea. I went home and wrote my play—the one that I told you about—and I typed it. It was fifteen pages long and it was a complete thing, it had characters—beginning, end—and I just remember, by comparison, all the other ten-year-olds, their work was really amateurish. I remember feeling like, I’m really ahead of these guys on this. Once you start off ahead you just get that kind of momentum.
Also, I wasn’t good at anything else. And I’m not being falsely modest. I really wasn’t. I can make a long list of things I’m not good at academically, and so I felt like I’d put all my chips on that thing. And that’s what I did, and that momentum kind of pushed me. I remember, in college, taking a writing class, and the professor, Helen Schulman—who’s a wonderful fiction writer—took me aside and said, “You could do this if you want to do this—if you feel like you want to try to be a writer.” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah! I know! That’s what I want to do!” And she said, “But I really encourage you to just spend these years focusing your craft and not worrying about getting published.” And I was like, Fuuuck that. I was already sending short stories out to The New Yorker. Because I was in a hurry. I was in a big hurry to try to get this thing going. She said to me, “The inevitable rejections will crush your spirits and break your heart.” It was such compassionate advice, and it was such good advice for almost any other kid, but something in me knew: No it won’t! It’s okay! I’ll just go ’til I fucking get it.
I was just so committed, and I did have six years of rejection letters. And it really didn’t break my heart. Some of them made me really excited because some of them had little handwritten notes at the bottom. Pretty good, but not our thing. And I was like, I got a really great handwritten note from Harper’s! And I would hang it on my wall, like, That’s such a great rejection letter! I don’t know why I felt like I had the right to do it. I don’t know. I’ve always been really surprised—and I really remain very surprised—at people who don’t think they have the right to do their work, or feel like they need a permission slip from the principal to do it, or who doubt their voice. I’m always like, What? What? Fucking do it! Just fucking do it! What’s the worst that could happen?! You fucking fail! Then you do it again and you wear them down and they get sick of rejecting you. And they get tired of seeing your letters and they just give up. They don’t have any choice. So part of it was real confidence, and part of it was fake confidence, and part of it was insecurity. It was a combination of all them.
I remember talking my way into SPIN Magazine to try to get a job there, and being so scared. It was one of the few times in my life I understood the expression “when your bowels turn to ice.” Going up in that elevator was so terrifying. But I had just seen that Quentin Tarantino movie, Reservoir Dogs, and there was a character, the undercover guy, who just keeps saying to himself, “You’re a beretta, you’re a shark, you’re a beretta, you can do this.” And I just remember going up in that elevator and being like, You’re a beretta, you’re a shark! and just pushing in. Maybe it’s just because the stakes for me were so huge. I didn’t have an alternative plan. I didn’t know what I would possibly do if I wasn’t going to be a writer. It had to work. It just had to, or else what the hell else was I going to do? I would just be a bartender forever. And wind up really skanky, full of cigarette wrinkles.
Rumpus: Was it always easy for you? Did writing come easily for you?
Gilbert: It came pleasurably. Not necessarily easily. And every time I transferred into doing something I’d never done before, like the first time I wrote a journalistic story for SPIN—“Buckle Bunnies,” about the groupies of the rodeo circuit—there were tears. I remember sitting in a bathtub in Texas, in a Motel 6, just crying because I was so intimidated. I didn’t know how to do it. I hadn’t gone to journalism school. I had talked my way into them sending me on the assignment; I had convinced them that I could do it, and I didn’t know if I could. I didn’t know how to interview people, I didn’t know how to take notes, I didn’t know how to use a microphone—I still don’t really know how to use a microphone—so I’d just take notes and I thought I would get in trouble. I just didn’t know how to do it. And I just learned, I guess. I remember going to the first rodeo bar in Houston and sitting out in the Avis rental car and just being fucking terrified to go in there, and just daring myself. Okay you have to do this. What’s your alternative, to go back to SPIN and say, I’m really sorry, I was too shy to talk to anyone? They bought you a plane ticket. You have to do it. I would not let myself leave. It’s so hard to approach people. I wouldn’t let myself leave a situation until I’d spoken to five people. I was making these sales goals, almost.
But even when writing is hard, I still find it so interesting. It keeps my attention in a way that nothing else ever has. It’s not easy, but it’s so fun when it works. And it’s so fun trying to solve the puzzle of how to make it work. And it’s so interesting when it doesn’t work, because then you look at your failure and you’re like, Well, I wonder why that didn’t work. You do an autopsy on it and try to figure out what it choked on. Nothing has ever kept my interest as much.
Rumpus: I love your TED Talk about creativity. You talk about all the pressure creative people put on ourselves to be “geniuses,” and how that’s messed things up and given us an unrealistic amount of pressure, when in fact we should think of “genius” as a thing out of our control. Has that perspective made writing easier?
Gilbert: I’ve come to think of it as the plow mule and the angel. This is how I think of it: there’s a contract between you and the mystery. And the mystery is the thing that brings life to the work. But your part of the contract is that you have to be the plow mule, or the mystery won’t show up. It might not even show up if you do your work. There’s no guarantee. It doesn’t promise you anything, but I can promise you that if you don’t do your work, it won’t show up. That’s the only guarantee. It’s not going to wake you up in the middle of the night to be like, Hey I’ve got this golden gift for you! It doesn’t do it that way. It needs to see that you’re giving the full commitment.
It’s the idea that I will do my side of this bargain. As long as I am able, as long as I have agency over my body, I will do my part of this, even when I don’t want to, even when I don’t believe in it. It’s gonna be a long life, hopefully. And so it’s all right to embark on a project that doesn’t work, and it’s okay to abandon one. It’s okay to recognize that you took a wrong turn, and to begin anew. It’s okay to write a book that gets bad reviews. It’s okay to write a book that no one reads. The idea is just to focus on how you want to spend your life. My intention is to spend my entire life doing this, so any one piece of it isn’t that important when you think of it in the long scale. Then when you open up that scale even further and you think of the entire history of human collaboration with the arts—my little piece of it is really insignificant, and that takes the pressure off a lot, too. I’m just joining a history of people who do this work. I’ll do it for as long as I’m permitted. I’ll do it to the best of my ability. It may not be successful, it may not be lucrative, it may not be well-received, but I’m gonna give it everything that I have, and then I’m gonna die, and then other people will do this. And so it will go. And what a wonderful way to live your life! What a great company of saints to join. And a wonderful team to play on: the makers. It’s worth a lot of trouble to get to do that.
Rumpus: Does this generosity with yourself extend to relationships? This idea that it’s okay to take wrong turns. Because sometimes I don’t feel so okay about it. I think, Ugh, why did you go and do that? Why did you waste your time?
Gilbert: I have a lot of trouble forgiving myself for being so dumb. I really do. And then I’m like, But you were twenty-one… And then I’ll be like, But you were thirty-one… But yes, of course, the big generous compassionate view that you should take of yourself and of all events is: what a glorious circus train this has been, and what a wonderful messy parade, and all of those steps took me here, where I precisely need to be now, so God bless it. When I’m feeling benevolent, that’s how I feel about it. And when I’m not, I’m like, You could have been writing novels so many years earlier! How could you have wasted a minute of your beautiful youth on that stuff! But all of it went into the work in various ways, so I suppose it all had to happen. My husband always tells me this great Brazilian adage. They say that there are three kinds of people in the world. There are people who never learn one way or another anything; there are people who learn from their own mistakes, eventually and with great pain; and then there are the really wise people who learn from other people’s mistakes and spare themselves the suffering. And I’m in that middle category. I’m an empiricist. A lot of stuff I had to fail at spectacularly, in person, in order to understand it.
Rumpus: So I have to admit I avoided reading Eat, Pray, Love for a long time. It felt almost like you were an indie rock band that I had loved before anyone else knew about them, and then I felt betrayed, like you had done a Target commercial or had a hit single, and I didn’t want to share you. Also I got really mad when Eat, Pray, Love readers would leave bad reviews on the Pilgrims Amazon page. That made me so angry! But then I thought I should probably read it so we could talk about it. So I read it, and realized: it’s still you. It’s a lot of the same themes you were preoccupied with in your novel and story collection, and it’s about people’s specialness and shittiness, all observed in your unique way. But it is different. And the people who read Eat, Pray, Love were different from the people who had read your stuff before. Your work always seemed to me really tough and macho and maybe written for men. And now you’re…
Gilbert: The definition of a chick-lit author.
Rumpus: How did that happen? What’s the difference? Did something change in you? What happened?
Gilbert: I don’t know! I think what happened to me was that I had spent a lot of my life trying not to be a girl. It just seemed like the boys got to do such better stuff. And I’m not a tomboy at all; I’m actually kind of a pussy. I’m not physically brave, but I’m socially brave. And I wanted to be around men. I was also just really interested in guys and I wanted to be around them. And I felt like the happiest times of my young life were when I was the only girl in a group of men. I just felt like I had pulled off the ultimate trick, and that they were showing me who they were really were, and they were talking the way they talk when women aren’t around, and I was getting all that. I felt like a superhot spy, to get to be in that world. I wanted to be like those guys. And probably the ultimate incarnation of that was The Last American Man, like I kinda wanted to be Eustace Conway. But spending a lot of time around maleness stunted me, in a way. It was beneficial to me in some ways, but in other ways it stunted me. And primarily it stunted my ability to know what I was feeling. Because it just seemed like I shouldn’t have feelings, or I should cope with them in a butch way, so I just put a lot of that stuff aside.
It must have bottled up. And it was really humbling to have my heart broken, not once but twice in quick succession, to fail so spectacularly at marriage, to fall into really painful emotional depression that was so intense that there was a period where I thought I might never be able to get out of it. After two years of crying every single day, I remember just thinking, Fuck, what if this is what it’s going to be? What if I look back on my life and I’m like, Well, I had a really great childhood and I had a lot of fun in my twenties and then something happened, and for the rest of time I was the person who woke up at four o’clock every single morning, sobbing. I couldn’t crawl out of this hole and it was so terrifying. And the only way I could get through it was to admit that I was a woman despite how hard I had tried to live, and write, and act like a man, that I wasn’t one. I was a woman that I had vulnerabilities, I had sensitivities, I had unfinished emotional business, I hadn’t grown up in certain ways, that there was a lot of stuff I was afraid of feeling and knowing and wanting. Eat, Pray, Love was obviously the big expression of that. I went really femme! But I felt like, there’s no way to do it but be really honest. And that’s precisely where I was at that time. It just so happened that every single one of my questions and desires and fears intersected with like ten million other women who have all of those same questions and fears and desires.
I, too, marvel at how suddenly I went from being the only girl in the room to everybody’s big sister, or whatever it is that I’m perceived as: soul sister to all these women. It’s a really peculiar honor. And I’ve tried to treat it with a great deal of respect, because those women who read that book deserve that respect, and their own emotional experiences deserve my respect, and my regard. It doesn’t really matter to me that they don’t read Pilgrims. Because why should they? It’s not their thing. I cannot tell you how many times a week people say to me, whether it’s on Facebook or in person, “I really loved your first book. It changed my life.” And I know that they don’t mean “I really loved your tiny little carefully constructed fabregé egg of literary short stories that sold 2,000 copies,” and I just nod and smile because I know, for all extents and purposes, Eat, Pray, Love is year zero. Everything that came before it is something that I will just have to know exists and a few people who I am really delighted exist know exist. It’s something really special and almost private. It can remain that. I don’t go around trying to shove it down the throats of women, like, “You should really read my lobster fishing novel!” Because I don’t know that they really should. I’ve had several women come up to me at book signings, who’ve said, “This is the first book I’ve ever read.” That’s how far it is from the rarified world of literary fiction. There are people who’ve read Eat, Pray, Love who’ve never read a book. That’s an honor.
Rumpus: Does it get to you, when readers of “serious literary fiction” dismiss your work as chick-lit?
Gilbert: It does get to me sometimes. Of course it does. Because writing is everything to me. Publishing wasn’t everything. Writing was everything. And I accidentally made this bestseller. It wasn’t my intention. And to be honest, it felt like a big risk for what I had of a career. Because prior to that point, if I was known at all, I was known as the tough-writing woman who was the only girl in the room. I quit my really good job at GQ to go traveling that year, and they couldn’t promise me that I could have that job back. I’d earned a certain amount of credibility that I knew I was endangering by speaking with such emotional candor. All the guys that I hung out with at GQ I was thinking about as I was writing Eat, Pray, Love. I was like, Oh my god. What is Adam Rapoport going to think of this? Those were my peers. But what can I do? It was a really emotionally honest attempt, and it was a really literarily honest attempt, too, as a book, and for every person who’s snarky about it, there are several thousand whose lives were altered by it, in ways that were very real, and when I meet those women and they tell me their stories and they tell me what that book did for them, or did to them, those stories are profoundly real, and they’re far more real than a gripe-y blogger. Of course the gripe-y blogger has a real life, as well. But I’ve met those women and I’ve spoken to them and I’ve seen this great opening this book gave them to start to consider questions in their own lives about what they deserve, and what they want, and what they want to seek. That’s a solace.
I also take the long view, too. Eat, Pray, Love wasn’t my first book. It’s not going to be my last book. It’s too soon for people to make a judgment of what my career represents. There are gonna be a lot more books coming and, you know, when it’s all done we can assess. But it’s probably pretty clear that that will define how people think of me for a long time. But that’s okay. They gotta think of you as something.
Rumpus: Does it ever feel sort of sexist? Like, when you were writing for men and being one of the guys, you were nominated for National Magazine Awards, and now that you’re appealing to women, it’s different. And that’s not blaming men. For a long time I only read men. I wanted to be taken seriously, and women write about emotions and things that don’t matter.
Gilbert: And if you’re going to read women writers, you’re going to read Annie Proulx. Or Margaret Atwood. Or people who have earned their credibility because they’ve been knighted by the men who have grudgingly accepted them. I am embarrassed for myself that I had the same feelings for much of my twenties. I wouldn’t be caught reading a women’s magazine, but I wrote for men’s magazines. I gave a lot of speeches in bars about how much better the men’s magazines were than the women’s magazines were, and it’s so lame, because they’re not. You open up the men’s magazines and there’s talking about shoes too. They’re talking about moisturizer. They really are! It’s all in there. I felt that thing too and that’s a pity, and I don’t know what it will take to undo that, and I don’t know what we can do as writers about it. I think: do I want to take this battle on, in some way? Do I want to have an argument about this, defending the legitimacy of my work? Do I want to reply to any of these people? No. I have a task. I have to write the next book. You have to write the thing you feel is missing from the world, that’s not on the bookshelves, the book that you would want to read if you’d heard about it, the book that you long for. And you have to be really honest about what that is. You can’t necessarily write the book that will earn you the respect of other people who are the guardians of the culture. Because you appointed them to be. That can’t be the motive. You have to write the book your heart wishes existed. At the moment that I wrote Eat, Pray, Love, I wished that someone had written that book and given it to me as I was crying on the bathroom floor. That’s what I needed and so it’s the book that I wrote, and it’s not the book that I need to write right now so I’m not going to do it again. I hope I don’t have to do it again. Then you just kind of have to wrap yourself in a cloak of philosophy that what people decide to think of you and your work is none of your business.
You also have to be very careful not go trawling for what people think of you and your work. It became really clear to me, from within a few months of Eat, Pray, Love being published, that I could never again enter the Internet. And I have really avoided it! I don’t look! I don’t Google myself, I don’t look at my Amazon pages. It is a recipe for heartache, and I wear blinders to not see it, because I know it will fuck with my head. I don’t want to do that to myself. There was a couple years ago when I was on a book tour, and I had an event and I couldn’t remember what time the event was, and so somebody had a computer, so I said, “Can I just borrow this and find out if I have to be there at 7 or 7:30?” and so I Googled my name. I swear to God it was right after Committed was published and up comes this line: “Is Committed Elizabeth Gilbert’s most annoying book yet?” I was like, “Fuck, I just wanted to know what time I had to be at the library!” I wasn’t even looking! And now that’s gonna be in my head forever. It’s so unfair. I really didn’t seek that out. But you just have to let everybody bark and get stuff out of their system and then you just have to keep working.
Rumpus: This new novel that you just finished writing: tell me about it.
Gilbert: I haven’t talked about it yet. It’s a big, sprawling, epic historical novel that takes place from 1760 to 1880, following the fortunes of a family called the Whittakers, who make their name in the early botanical exploration/proto-pharmaceutical business trade. And Alma Whittaker, who’s our heroine, is the daughter of a global botanical explorer, who grows up in this rarefied world of books and plants and knowledge, but also has a very confined life until she’s about fifty years old, when circumstances in her life change dramatically and she is thrust out into the world on her own exploration and adventure. It’s about science, it’s about botany, it’s about searching for the mechanism behind patterns of nature, it’s about all those great 19th Century, mid-century Victorian scientists with their incredible discipline and focus. It’s about the beginnings of the evolutionary debate, and the struggles between understanding nature and understanding divinity. It’s a love story.
It was so damn fun to write and to research. I researched it for three years and started writing it back in April. I was intimidated. I hadn’t written fiction in thirteen years, since Stern Men. I didn’t know if I could do it anymore. Also, it was a period novel, and I didn’t want it to be candlestick-y and bodice-y and costume-y and funny voices-y. I was very influenced and helped and given confidence by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall because of what she managed to do—this terrific hat trick that she played. She wrote a book that’s set in [the] 16th Century, but it’s a contemporary novel. And that’s sort of what this is too, because of that realization that you don’t have to try to write a book that feels as though it was written in 1840—you can write about 1840 from this perspective. So it’s sort of a contemporary novel about that time. It’s not like people are like LOL’ing or anything, but I didn’t want it to be too precious because it’s really about the story. It’s a big, hopefully galloping story and that is the first time I’ve fully explained it to anybody because it’s newly finished. It was really fun.
Rumpus: How did it feel to write fiction again? Did you feel that you had learned stuff, in the thirteen years, that you were using?
Gilbert: I feel like a better writer. I feel like I know how to do my job now. When I used to write fiction I was still searching, but I’ve been doing this work for twenty-five years now—2013 will be the 20th anniversary of the first time I ever got published, but it’s also five years prior to that I was writing—so it’s a lot of labor. I’ve kind of learned how to do it. But it was also new because I haven’t done fiction in so long, and it was so fucking fun to write about something that had nothing to do with me, nothing to do with my family, nothing to do with anybody that I knew, because even The Last American Man—the third-to-last book I wrote—I was a character in that book, as a storyteller. It was so liberating. I’d forgotten what you can do in fiction. Just because you say something happened, it happened. If you can make it plausible, anything can happen. So Alma, my character, her father makes his fortune in the quinine trade because I said he did. And as long as I know a lot about the quinine trade and I can create a plausible reason as to why he could become, essentially, the beginnings of a multi-national corporation billionaire for the time, in this trade, sure. If someone needs to die, you kill them! Whatever needs to happen you can just make it so.
Rumpus: Was this book more imaginative for you? Or did you go to bars and eavesdrop on people talking about botany?
Gilbert: The people who I needed to eavesdrop on are dead! But I eavesdropped on them from across time by reading a lot of letters, which is how you do historical eavesdropping. Because even better than journals, I read a lot of journals, but letters, man. I just read so many 19th Century letters. And they didn’t have to be botanist 19th Century letters—I just read anybody’s 19th Century letters. That is the closest approximation, I think, to human speech. Especially if you can get a volume of every letter that somebody ever wrote, letters that they weren’t writing for posterity, letters that they wrote when they were pissed off at somebody, letters that they were writing in heartbreak, letters that they were writing when a product had disappointed them. You can hear a voice in there, especially the really fast, jotted-down letters. It’s like reading someone’s e-mails. That’s where I got tons of detail of dialogue and character and speech.
Rumpus: Eat, Pray, Love obviously helped a lot of people, and helped them out in hard times. But before that, when you were writing fiction, did you ever think: is this okay, what I’m doing? Just making up stories? Does it ever feel selfish?
Gilbert: Totally. I still feel like that. And I think it is. And I think another way that you can really harm yourself as an artist is by buying into the mythology that it’s really important. Because I kind of actually don’t think it’s really important. I think that once you let go of that, you’re even more free. Because in the triage of human suffering and existence, I think the arts are really kind of low, on the necessity level. I feel like they are a luxury, and I know that there are people who would adamantly disagree with that, but I’m a freer artist by believing that it’s a luxury rather than believing it’s a necessity, or believing that I have a mandate to humanity.
My work is incredibly important to me personally. It brings me joy and it brings me life and it brings me meaning. It doesn’t necessarily have to be important to the people who read it. It would be nice if it did bring them life and meaning, but it doesn’t have to. It’s not their fault that I wanted to be a writer. I just want to do it because I like doing it and it’s a pleasure. I always quote Tom Waits, because I had this amazing experience of getting to interview him and every single thing that he said was so Socratic—he’s just biblically wise about the arts—and he said something like, “You know, it’s not that important what I do. I’m just a guy that makes jewelry for the inside of people’s heads.”
And it’s lovely to have jewelry. It’s not food. It’s not difficult for me to come up with twenty careers right off the top of my head that are really much more important for the good of society than what I do. From kindergarten teacher to anyone who fixes a road or makes bridges or whatever. Anybody’s work is more important. I’m really lucky that I get to do this, and it’s a privilege to get to make jewelry for the inside of people’s heads. And it’s not a big deal. It’s just jewelry. That also helps you get through bad reviews or sort of critical artistic mental blocks because it’s like, we’re just playing. We’re just writing songs, we’re just writing poetry, it’s not that urgent. Just enjoy it.
Rumpus: It seems like writing for you is pleasurable, it’s helpful. How did this newest book help you? What did you take away?
Gilbert: I think this book is my reward to myself. Because writing Committed was not pleasurable. It was helpful to me because I needed to process all my thoughts about marriage, and it was useful to do that in print. But it was a very heavy assignment, to write the book that came after Eat, Pray, Love, and I had never had a heavy assignment before. I knew that there was something at stake that was hugely important, not to anybody else, but to me. Which was, if I let this big success get inside my head and cause damage, that I would lose the real love of my life, which is this work. And that must not be allowed to happen, because that would be a huge tragedy on a very small scale. It would be a tremendous tragedy for one human life only, and that would be mine. And I just felt like, as the guardian of my own life, I can’t permit that to occur. So I had to push really hard. That was like the biggest plow mule work that I’ve ever done, because I just had to push against everything that Eat, Pray, Love had become, and everything that people wanted me to be, and everything that people mistakenly thought I was—or maybe honestly was or accurately thought I was—I don’t know. There was no possible way to write the book that came after Eat Pray, Love that would not disappoint that woman in the bookstore in Tulsa, Oklahoma who had only read one book in her life and it was her favorite. Like, well, I can’t give her anything after that that’s going to make her happy. There are a lot like her.
It’s almost like Committed was the sacrificial book. I’m very fond of it and it’s very dear to me for that reason, because it went out into that aftermath and allowed itself to absorb all the disappointment and all the attacks from people who’d had years of frustration about how much they hated Eat, Pray, Love build up, and they needed to get it out on their blogs—it just took all of those slings and arrows. But then it was distracting everybody, and I got to go off and write a novel about 19th century botanical exploration! And so Committed permitted me to write this book. I feel like that’s why you have to keep working, because you never know what your one project will open up for you, for your next one. You owe it to the project that wants to be born next to get this one finished, so that you can do the next one. You just have to keep the assembly line going. I know I make it sound like it’s always been a ball, but it hasn’t always been a pleasure. Sometimes it’s been painful. But it’s mostly been a pleasure.
Rumpus: In The Last American Man, you write, “Now I have a habit of speculating about the sex life of every single person I meet.” Do you still do that?
Gilbert: Do you know what the worst part of that is? When I wrote that sentence, I originally wrote, “Like all of us, I spend a lot of time speculating about the sex lives about everyone I meet.” A lot of people have pointed out to me that they actually don’t do that. I really thought I was just making a point, like, you know how we all sometimes think about how cool it would be to be invisible or fly, and wonder about our neighbor’s sex lives? I’m trying to think of the least pervy way to present myself. I can’t deny it. I’m a novelist. I’m really, really curious. I want to know all the secrets. And that’s the most secret thing about people, usually.
Actually, in this new book, it was really important to me that my character Alma was really carnal. It was really important to me that she be very sexualized because that’s the thing that’s missing from all the George Eliot novels, because they couldn’t. She’s not a beauty and she’s got romantic bad luck against her, and that’s her secret hidden self.
When it came time for me to write her masturbation scenes—she’s a big masturbator—I started choking at it. I had always planned for that to be the case. But when it came time to write them I thought, Can I do this to you, Alma? I don’t know if I can do this to you. I ended up going out to lunch with this romance novelist to just get her advice, because I haven’t actually written that many sex scenes, for someone for whom sex has been a really important part of my life and my work. There’s not that much in here. And she said, “I can tell you as a romance novelist who is contractually obliged to write two and a half sex scenes per book—two sex scenes and either one oral sex or masturbation scene, and they have to be separated by thirty pages—here’s the one piece of advice for writing a sex scene: you just have to ask yourself what that person would actually do. Then let them do it.” I felt one of those moments of embarrassment, where I felt like, I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years and that would have been really good advice for someone to have given me about fiction writing. Seems really simple, but I’d never put it in those terms before. It kind of opened up the whole book for me, from that point forth, because every turn I would just ask the characters: what would you really do? And then let them. Sometimes they surprised me. But I think it’s authentic to who they are.
Rumpus: Can we play a game where I say a famous person’s name and then you imagine their sex life?
Rumpus: Nina Simone.
Gilbert: Tragic. Devastating. Humiliating, and sorrowful, and with deep rich tones. Maybe I’m just thinking of her voice. I’m just thinking of those songs. They were all about horrible things. But I bet she couldn’t help herself, and just kept going back for more.
Rumpus: Woody Harrelson.
Gilbert: Cartoonish. Maybe a little show-off-y. It would be performance-y and actorly. My very limited experience with actors has been disappointing. They’re always performing.
Rumpus: Kermit The Frog and Miss Piggy.
Gilbert: I think it’s really hot, and I think, unexpectedly, she’s the bottom in that relationship. I think their whole thing—her browbeating him and his sort of meekness—is just play-acting, and what’s really going on is he’s just giving it to her. And that is what keeps them together, is hot, hot sex. Frog on pig, never pig on frog. It’s those little guys, those little meek guys! You never know. I think he’s kinda got that Woody Allen thing, where he plays the insecure schmuck but he’s actually really like, a real lothario. Gentleman on the streets, demon in the sheets.
Rumpus: Well, thank you so much for talking to me.
Gilbert: Thank you. How is your book going?
Rumpus: Um, it’s not really. That’s why I was asking about how to get writing done when you’re working a whole other job. I just realized something about my own psychology or personality, which is, if I have a job, even if it’s making coffee, I will give it everything I have: I will make the shit out of that coffee and go home feeling tired and defeated. I love my job, but after work I can’t think or write my own stuff. I’m still trying to figure out how to do it. The writing feels devious.
Gilbert: Like you’re cheating on your job.
Gilbert: But your job is making you cheat on your writing! Or just cheat on your job, and go have an affair with your book. Your job is like your husband. Don’t let him know—just get some sexy lavender underwear from the girl in Coyote Ugly and go have a fling with your book, and then lie to your husband, and say, “I was thinking about you all night,” when you really weren’t. Just go cheat on your job. Go have an affair. Be more like a Frenchwoman. And now I’m just perpetuating stereotypes like I already have about Woody Harrelson.
Well, I wish you luck, and stubbornness, and the absence of the need for a permission slip from anybody. Just go fucking do it. Or as my favorite character on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Latrice Royale, says… She has three rules for how to get through life, and she’s like a six-foot-ten black former felon who’s a really amazing drag queen. She says, “Get up, look sickening”—which in drag queen parlance I guess means “awesome”—”and make them eat it.” That’s what you gotta do.
Read our exclusive reprint of Elizabeth Gilbert’s short story, “The Finest Wife,” from her short story collection, Pilgrims, here.