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A Conversation with Elizabeth Gilbert

February 5, 2010

When I first heard of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, I didn’t think too much about it. But whenever I was in a bookstore, I found myself drawn to the book. I’d pick it up and flip through the pages to see if it was anything I wanted to read. Usually I would put it down and move on to something else. But I have a rule for book buying. If a book calls out your name more than 3 times and whispers “read me,” then I know that it’s a book I must read. And so it was with Eat, Pray, Love. I was intrigued by the story—taking a year off to find oneself in Italy, India and Indonesia. I would perhaps have chosen different locations (Provence, India and Thailand) but it was a trip I have always wanted to make.

I purchased the book and began to read. It wasn’t too long before I realized that the author was significantly younger than I but I am not one to eschew wisdom no matter how young the bearer. Thus, I devoured Gilbert’s book and was better for the experience.

I had the opportunity to talk with this young sage this week. The interview follows:

Elizabeth Gilbert

Jean: On the biography section of your website, you mention that since your earliest memories you wanted to write. Do you remember any specific incident that lit the ‘writer fire’ in you?

Elizabeth: My sister and I talk about this all the time because she’s a writer, too (Catherine Gilbert Murdock). I think it’s a combination of factors. We grew up in a household where getting a good job was never presented as the answer for life’s happiness. We were a really self-sufficient, frugal family that had this very strong idea that you could completely shape your life. You didn’t have to rely on anybody. You could do it all yourself. We were taught to be self-sufficient and at the same time we didn’t have any pressure on us to go out into the world and succeed in any traditional way.

We both really loved school and we’re from a family that really values reading and books. Neither Catherine nor I were very good at science or math. So that left English and History…if you put all that stuff together it’s kind of a Petri dish. I don’t know what else we would have become except maybe teachers. That’s probably the only other thing we would have been qualified for.

The other thing we both remember is that we grew up on a farm and there was a lot of work to be done. The only time that we were allowed to be taken away from work was if we were reading. Reading became kind of a refuge.

JM: So you went from reading books to writing books?

EG: I think it’s a thin line, don’t you? It’s like reading is the gateway drug. It’s really doesn’t take very long from being a reader to wanting to do it yourself and do an imitation of what you see all around you. Writing was the next obvious step.

JM: What was your first writing job?

EG: I worked on a contract for Spin Magazine. But that came to me after I had my first short story published in Esquire. And after that happened I had the opportunity to do other things.

JM: In Committed you said that people used to tell you that wrote like a man. Other than the subject matter, how does writing like a man differ from writing like a woman?

EG: I think a man writes more about experience and less about feelings, I guess. When I was in my 20s I was really interested in having encounters and as many of them as possible, in as many ways as possible…generating experience and then writing about experience and adventure. It grew over time. I started out with kind of a tough hard voice because I was trying to prove to myself that I was tough and hard. And then as I gained more confidence, I became more relaxed and I came into my own voice. I guess the fact these days I’m writing more about feelings than action. Although both the books take place with so much travel and a combination of both action and feelings I guess that’s why now I’m told I write more like a woman. I think those monikers are a bit tired.

I have a friend who recently wrote a book called “Read Me”. It a collection of commentary about advertisements from the New York Times from the last century that had to do with books and publications. It’s really funny to see that even as late as the 70’s they were calling Toni Morrison and Edna O’Brien “some of our best lady writers…” Like it’s some very different world writing for women than for men.

JM: Do you think your books speak to women of a certain age or do you think there is a universality to them that appeals to women of all ages?

EG: I don’t think anybody can speak to everybody and if you try you end up speaking to nobody. There are plenty of women out there who don’t like my books at all and that’s certainly their prerogative. I think these last two books have certainly appealed to women who have been through some disappointment in their lives, which is to say most women—after a certain age. I think the resonance that people seemed to have felt with Eat, Pray, Love was that the book reminded them of some very important aspect of their being that they had been neglecting to take care of for awhile. Or maybe had never learned how to take care of. There are men in that world too.

JM: I understand that you are going to speak on creativity and the need for our ‘creative minds’ when you’re in Madison for you appearance next Thursday (February 11th), can you explain what you mean by that?

EG: I’m going to talk about the process of writing Committed because it’s a peculiar challenge of trying to figure out how to write a book after the success of Eat, Pray, Love. And I feel that there are lessons in there. I certainly found lessons in there about holding on to your sanity and your perspective and your patience while trying to do the work that you feel that you were born to do. Which is, of course what we all must do. I get frustrated because I feel that we live in a society that has come to glorify madness and dysfunction in association with creativity. I think that the interest in glorifying that has taken quite a toll on individual artists and on the culture as a whole. So I’m always out there banging a drum on methods of living sane and remaining creative at the same time.

JM: In Eat, Pray, Love, the medicine man Ketut told you that you would have one child, a daughter, late in life. But in Committed you write that you are in the “Auntie Brigade”. Tell me about the “Auntie Brigade”.

EG: I liked the way he said it…because he said “Maybe. If you choose to…” He gave a very ambivalent answer. And of course, I have a stepdaughter whom I have chosen to make a really huge part of my life. So I feel like that might have been what he was referring to. The decision of how much you want to take on with this human being in your life and the answer is ‘a very great deal.’

I’m very happily childless. I’m also happy to talk about that because I feel there is such an old chestnut of a stigma on women who choose not to have children–especially married women who choose not to have children. Because then what’s your excuse? I just very strongly believe that there are women in this world who are destined to be mothers and born to be mothers. And there are women who are born to be aunties and there are women who really shouldn’t be allowed to be near children at all. And it’s really important at some point to figure out which one you are because tragedy results when anyone of those ends up in the wrong category—tragedy for the family for the community and for the children. And I know myself well enough at this point to know that I have a different role to play. And that it’s a role that requires a great deal of nurture and compassion and care. And that’s my job. I’m happy to do it.

JM: Is there anything else you’d like the readers to know about you?

EG: Just that it’s been a delightful journey. I think that we also feel like we have such a ‘Hollywood story’ in our minds that success always leads to suffering. And that’s not necessarily true. Sometimes it can be a very beautiful, interesting, complex path. I’m just enormously grateful that it came at a period in my life when I had my sanity and that I’ve been able, as much as possible, to hold that sanity throughout this whole experience. I know that it won’t last forever and that’s okay too. It’s been an interesting ride.

Elizabeth Gilbert will be appearing at the Overture Center for the Arts, 210 State Street, Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 7:30 p.m. For more information on BRAVA Magazine’s pre-show reception and ticket deal, visit In the Know.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. lindsey walker permalink
    October 10, 2010 5:00 pm

    Hi!!

    Does Elizabeth have a fan mail email or website? Or is there an address where admirers of her work can send letters? I thought for surely that in this day and age of social networking that she surely would have a facebook page…if she does I have yet to find it.

    Most appreciative,

    Lindsey

Trackbacks

  1. Elizabeth Gilbert is all over the local press! « Inside Overture Blog
  2. Eat. Pray. Read. | Bruce Hanify

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