Elizabeth Gilbert's 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, recounted the now-famous story of how the newly divorced author, at age 31, left her home in New York to spend four months each in Italy, India, and Indonesia. Less well-known is the fact that Gilbert actually wrote much of Eat, Pray, Love while serving as a visiting writer at the University of Tennessee during the spring semester of 2005.
The Signature of All Things marks Gilbert's return to fiction for the first time in more than a decade. An expansive historical novel, the book follows a well-to-do Philadelphia woman, Alma Whittaker, whose hunger for learning leads first to an encyclopedic knowledge of plants, flora and the natural world, and then to startling, fantastic discoveries in far-flung places like Tahiti. This is a saga of discovery, romance, self-reliance, rebellion and wit.
In advance of her upcoming appearance in Nashville, Gilbert answered questions via email:
In E. Annie Proulx's short story "Bedrock," the main character feels "loosened from his life." I'm wondering if you might've felt much the same way after the release of Eat, Pray, Love.
Oh, I have a habit of getting loosened from and then refastened to my life in pretty regular cycles. It is not entirely unpleasant to get loosened from your life every once in a while. The view changes. Your assumptions change. Loosening from your life (voluntarily or accidentally) is how you transform, and transformation is the only way we can be sure we aren't dead yet. So, yes, I would say that I was unloosened, in a bunch of ways, and I would say that I rather appreciated it in the end.
The scope of The Signature of All Things is exhaustive, leaving no stone (or moss) unturned. How did you undertake the requisite research, from scientific to historical? Where did you begin?
I began by doing an overview of study for several months on the basic history of 19th century botany, just to wrap my mind around it. Then I narrowed in on the parts that felt right for my plot — medicinal plants, taxonomy, women's contributions to botanical science, the evolution debate, the role of missionaries in botanical commerce, the role of the Dutch, the beginnings of the pharmaceutical trade, etc. Then I read for three years, until my eyes turned to custard. I also spoke with botanical historians and moss experts and traveled from London to Amsterdam to French Polynesia to be sure I got the settings right. But all of this for me is pleasure — the highest pleasure. There's nothing I love more than nerding out, and this book really allowed me to nerd out to the most extreme degree.
Can you explain the magic of bryology? Why, specifically, did you focus on mosses?
Mosses are enormous, complex and ancient — in fact, the oldest land plants on earth, and some of the most diverse. A person studying mosses is really studying time, which is what could have feasibly led Alma into questions of evolution and transmutation. Also, because mosses are so tiny and intricate, they reminded me of the sort of work that women have always done — needlework, especially, which is also time-consuming and miniaturized, and traditionally a way for women to express their creativity without taking up too much space or using too many resources.
In her adventuring, Alma reminds me a little of Eustace Conway, the iconoclastic subject of your 2002 nonfiction book, The Last American Man: "The American boy came of age by leaving civilization and striking out toward the hills," you wrote. And in a way, of course, you yourself left civilization behind, too, in Eat, Pray, Love. Is there a particular aspect of chucking it all that you find most interesting to explore in a book?
There's an old adage that says, "There are only two stories that have ever been told: Either you go on a trip, or a stranger comes to town." What kind of writer you are is largely determined by which of these two stories you find more compelling. I've always been a "you go on a trip" kind of soul, and I like best those sorts of adventures where somebody (whether myself or another person) chucks it all away and goes wandering.
Why is it vital to this story that Alma be a woman instead of a man?
Because women are traditionally underfoot and overlooked, not unlike mosses. As such, there are more hidden mysteries to unfold. It's a far more interesting and surprising story, a woman's life.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.
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