by Fernanda Moore
Scene: How did it feel to write a memoir? Any disconnect between your idea of yourself as reporter—or as fiction writer—and memoirist? How did it feel to be famous for your own story?
Elizabeth Gilbert: I didn’t think very deeply, before I began, about [how] writing a memoir would be different than writing fiction, or what I would be revealing, or if I should. I’ve said this before, but I really don’t see a giant difference between writing fiction and nonfiction, in terms of what it feels like. (As I usually put it, it’s not like I’m a fiction writer and a dentist: I’m a fiction writer and a nonfiction writer, and in the end, it’s all the same writing muscles…. It’s just a question of what story needs to be told next, and how.)
To be honest, I had no idea when I was writing my book that it was very personal. It didn’t occur to me to hold anything back about myself. I just wanted to write my way through this story, and I didn’t leave out anything which the story needed. My friends who read the book in manuscript said, “Man, this is really personal—are you comfortable with that?” and that’s the first I even thought of it, or realized how much I’d exposed myself. Now, I’d never been a particularly private person to begin with, and I certainly never got that filter which tells you that maybe you don’t have to share everything with everybody, so that could be why I wrote so openly. But I also believe that, if you’re going to do something, you should do it completely. What’s the point of the impersonal memoir? It’s been an interesting experience, now that the book is out there in the world, to see what that self-exposure really means.
I meet people who say, “I feel like I already know you, after reading your book.” In point of fact, they do. Or, rather, they sort of know me. They know very well the person who I was at the time I wrote the book, as I was living those experiences. But that was already a few years ago—and a lot has happened in those years. I’ve altered with time as we all do. I doubt I’ll ever be quite so flagrantly self-revealing on the page again, if only because now I’ll be a little self-conscious about it—and also because of certain ways in which I’ve grown up in the last few years. I don’t regret showing so much of myself; the story called for it, but also I see now that my journey, while deeply personal, was also awfully similar to many people’s journeys.
Scene: What about the reviews? Is it stranger when they’re about your own story than when they’re about your fiction or journalism?
Gilbert: You don’t want to hang too much of your identity on either the really great or the really bad reviews. Sometimes I find I can learn things from them (like: “Oh, right, I didn’t realize I have that weakness in my work”), but mostly, by the time my books have been published—I don’t know how to say this—they don’t belong to me anymore so much…all my intimacy with them is during the writing. After that, it becomes sort of a job—a job that I enjoy, but still: a job.
Scene: Can you talk about the tension in your book between self-consciousness and fearlessness? You lay yourself bare, you admit your flaws and fears, and yet you are unafraid to walk up to, say, random fishermen to ask for the best restaurant in town. You say your best quality as a traveler is your ability to make friends—can you elaborate on this? (That’s a line from grad school—whenever you don’t know what someone’s talking about, and you need a second to collect your thoughts, you simply ask, “Can you elaborate on this?”)
Gilbert: Can you elaborate on that question? Kidding! I’m not sure there’s a big difference between laying yourself bare and walking up to a fisherman in a Sicilian village and starting a conversation—both are about doing what you fear you cannot do. Though I think the laying open of the flaws was harder for me—took a deeper, realer courage—than the random fisherman conversation, since that kind of interaction is one I find, almost at a genetic level, less painful. (My mom is the woman standing behind you in line at the grocery store with whom you suddenly find yourself talking about your recent hysterectomy—we’re naturally just comfortable talking to people.) A lot of that garrulousness can be a defense, though, of course, against real self-exploration and honest time alone, which is what a lot of the book is about.
Scene: Anne Lamott blurbs your book, and I have to say that as much as I like Anne Lamott, reading her I can’t help but think, “Oh, God lets millions of innocent people perish in wars, and yet he cares about your broken down car?” I love the tone, don’t get me wrong. I love how she doesn’t take herself too seriously. But writing subversive nonfiction about spiritual experiences has got to be difficult to pull off, and you describe some fairly intense spiritual experiences in your book.
Gilbert: Nope. Can’t join you on this one. Can’t get behind any criticism of Anne Lamott. I think we’ve grown so accustomed to her, perhaps, that we forget the very radical thing she’s been able to do—namely, to talk about her born-again American Christian experience in a way that people like (frankly) me can digest, [and] without once watering down that she quite means it when she says that her acceptance of Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savoir has saved her life and her soul. What she pulls off is a kind of genius, in that so many of us see our own thoughts and ideas reflected in her apparently simple, direct prose. As Emerson said, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts,” and I think Anne is so popular for that very reason—we read her and say, “Yes! Me, too!” Not simply because she’s experienced the same things as we have, but because she’s translated those experiences so well back to us. Anyway, I am her literary offspring, no question about it. Her books made it possible for me to even imagine that one could write about these esoteric, religious (and possibly, to many readers, offensive or scary) topics in such an accessible way.
Scene: Can you talk about ways in which you’ve managed to maintain, or possibly deepen, that spiritualism since returning from the Ashram?
Gilbert: Look, madness would follow anyone who tries to keep that sort of spiritual schedule in their daily Western life. (Not to mention that you would quickly become an annoying person if you insisted on six hours a day of meditation practice.) What I took away that has changed me more than the peak experiences of feeling like I was sitting on God’s palm (a transcendent experience, to be sure) was something more practical and more important for my daily life—namely, the heaven of self-familiarity, which I earned through a long journey into my own mind. I know myself fairly [well] now—warts, tics, pettiness and all. Me and myself have met, we have reconciled, we have more than [a] truce; we have affection and understanding. And that’s not only a difficult achievement, but a profoundly useful one. When I find myself slipping back into old bad habits of thinking, there’s this very amused voice (what the mystics call the oldest, best part of yourself) which says, “Do we really want to go through all this again? Or can we remember what we learned that year?”
Scene: You have a genius for describing secondary characters. And on your website, you provide links to several of the characters in your book—updates and specific information on how to find them, as well as how to, say, find the best pizza in the world. Are there Elizabeth Gilbert pilgrims who go off on the three-part Eat, Pray, Love tour? Any feedback from the folks you link to?
Gilbert: Apparently there are such pilgrims, which is a very funny business, to my mind. Then again, we humans are always following each other around on our journeys. (Case in point: Am I the first person ever to have gone to India looking for God? Uh, nope.) When I was in Bali last year I went to visit Ketut Liyer, my medicine man friend, and while I was there two nice ladies from New York City showed up at his place, via Eat, Pray, Love, which was great. He says people come to see him all the time now—which is wonderful for him, as he is no longer empty in his bank, and wonderful for the pilgrims, since he does deliver a wonderful, unforgettable encounter. Best of all, it’s wonderful for me, since Ketut Liyer, now that I’ve made him famous, actually remembers who I am now when I come to see him!
Scene: What are you presently working on? I read somewhere that you were writing a novel set in Brazil in the 1960s: is this thanks to Felipe—whom you’re still seeing, right? How does it feel to switch genres? In which genre would you say you’re most convinced of your talents?
Gilbert: Next comes a nonfiction book about marriage, actually. [It’s] a long story, which—yes—does involve Felipe, whom I’m not only still seeing, but have actually just married. I set aside the novel because this is the story I want and need to explore right now, and the great benefit of being a writer is that you can use your vocation as a tool through which to understand questions that are vexing or fascinating you. I’ve only ever written the book that I absolutely needed to write at that time, whatever it might be. For these last few years, that seems to be memoir, but I don’t think that will always necessarily be the case, once I’ve found the answers I need in my own life, in order to move on to other things.
Scene: Can you comment on the process of having your writing turned into a movie? How does it feel that none other than Julia Roberts (!!) will be playing you in the film version of Eat, Pray, Love?
Gilbert: People have asked me if I’m afraid that the movie will ruin the book. But the movie can’t ruin the book—only because the book is finished, completed, its own solid being. The movie can only ruin the movie. Which it might do, or might not do—that’s sort of up to it. But I’m not even so worried about that. Also, I’m always a little surprised when writers sell their books to Hollywood and then criticize the results. I think, when it comes to selling things, you must be willing to let it go, or not sell at all. Trying to hold onto “control” of the product can be exhausting and useless; so many voices are involved in making a film that even the director, often, can’t totally control what a film becomes. Complaining for years about what Hollywood did to your book is sort of like selling your house to somebody and then driving past it for years, complaining about what the new owners did to the place. (“Geez, that pergola is awful!”) It’s not yours anymore, not in that form. You have to let it go, or don’t bother. This book has been nothing but good to me, and nothing will ever change the goodness that it brought. Whatever comes next is just a fun and peculiar bonus, as far as I can see. Plus, really, I’m a great big Julia Roberts fan. She’s Our Julia, you know, part of our cultural heritage and—like many women aged 37—I grew up laughing and crying with her. I’ve missed her on the screen. (I know—she’s been busy with other things.) If only as a fan, I’m happy she’s doing this.
Scene: A leitmotif in Eat, Pray, Love is your decision not to live what is termed a “conventional” life as a wife and mother. But are you really serious about this? In this decade, and at the age you were when you wrote the book, you were hardly compelled into a life of bland suburban housewifery. Plenty of women these days aren’t even married by the time you had your existential crisis and set off on your voyage of the soul. I wonder where you got this idea that a woman your age (early 30s?) was supposed to be settling down to a life of Volvos, car seats and babies. Did it come from your family? From your ex-husband?
Gilbert: I don’t know any woman who doesn’t have to face at some point in her life the Big Question as to how she’s going to sort out the whole business of whether and how she shall partner up with anyone, and how or if she should have children, and what that’s going to mean for her autonomy, identity, work, body and soul. I was struggling with these questions as far back as high school, along with my other female friends, while my male friends were watching Predator 2 and not seeming to feel concerned about this aspect of their future at all. It’s a huge, huge, huge question in women’s lives and we’re all still sorting through it, and wondering (at least the women I know) whether we’ve made the right choice or, as the brilliant Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman [wrote] of our modern struggle, we worry that “one is living a lie or a mistake; that something crucially important has been overlooked, missed, neglected, left untried and unexplored; that a vital obligation to one’s own authentic self has not been met, or that some chances of unknown happiness completely different from any happiness experienced before have not been taken up in time and are bound to be lost forever if they continue to be neglected.” Sorry for the long quote, but I think that covers it, at least, as I’ve said, for all the women I know.
Scene: You spend a great deal of time in your book detailing ways in which your relationships with men were flawed, doomed and disappointing. Your love affair with Felipe seems to break this pattern. Can you talk about the ways in which your relationships with men have changed since your year eating, praying and loving?
Gilbert: I’m sorting all this out now as I’m writing my next book. Not to short-shrift the question, but I’ll have to take a pass on this as it’s just too big a topic for here (as I felt it was in Eat, Pray, Love: hence the next book). Scene: This book has been a phenomenal best seller. How’s the book tour for Eat, Pray, Love been going, especially compared to others?
Gilbert: Oh, yeah—it’s different. I once (for my short story collection) did a reading in Vermont in front of two audience members. One was the owner of the store. They’d filled the bookstore with seats, which were entirely empty. The one actual audience member sat in the back row. Halfway through my reading, I looked over and saw that he had his hand raised. “Yes?” I asked. “You in the back, sir?” He looked at me blandly and said, “Can you speak up?” I was like: Damn, man—can you MOVE up? This book tour has obviously not been like that. I’ve felt staggered, really, by the crowds. And people are coming to the reading wanting to share with me their own emotional stories, their own heartfelt responses, and I do everything I can to try to show up for them, if that makes sense, in order to honor their attachment to the story. It’s been a tiring schedule, of course, but not as tiring as working five shifts a week at a bar used to be, back when I was trying to get published. And I really do feel, as well, like I owe a great debt to this book, so I don’t mind the load.
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