Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of many books of fiction and nonfiction. Her most recent novel, The Signature of All Things, will be released October 1, 2013. I met the author last year, and after reading her new book (and being enthralled by it), I asked her if I could interview her for the Believer. Our conversation took place via email.
THE BELIEVER: Your central protagonist, Alma, studies plants, and, in particular, she studies mosses. Her father was also greatly knowledgeable about botany. What intrigued me when reading the novel was the incredible amount of research you must have done, but how you don’t make the book feel heavily researched. How does one do that? How did you do it?
ELIZABETH GILBERT: I’m so glad to hear that the research didn’t weigh heavily on you—I dearly wanted it to be that way! That said, I researched heavily. I was so intimidated by the scope of what I was taking on here (never having written a historical novel, and not knowing anything about botany or evolution) that I over-prepared for this novel, which I think is just what you need to do in such a case, in order to build up your own confidence with the material. Mostly, I just read hundreds and hundreds of books, for hours and hours a day, over the course of about three years. I read books about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century botanical exploration, about the early days of the evolution debate, about the founding of the city of Philadelphia, about missionaries in Tahiti, about the first pharmacists in America, about Victorian pornography, about transcendentalism, spiritualism, hypnotism, abolition, whaling… and so on. I read heaps and heaps of letters from the time, in order to really hear people’s most intimate and natural “speaking” voices.
I also borrowed a brain—by hiring Margaret Cordi, an old college friend (and contributor to Harper’s magazine), to help me, and to fill in the blanks in my own investigations. (I would send her emails like “Find me all the firsthand accounts you can of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia!” and a week later she would send me an amazing dossier.) I’d never had anyone help me with research for a book before, but I knew that I couldn’t do all this myself. I also traveled for research: to Kew Gardens in London, to the Hortus gardens in Amsterdam, all over Philadelphia to scout locations, and a pilgrimage to the South Pacific.
But mostly I just read until my eyes felt like they were melting down my face, and took thousands and thousands of index cards of notes. In the end, I came to think of the preparation for this novel as something like boot camp, or an intense language-immersion program. (Not that I’ve ever done either! But it’s the same idea: you train and train and train so that, when the time comes to act, hopefully you are so over-conditioned and so over-prepared that you will be able to act out of pure reflex.)
The crazy thing was, there was no guarantee that all this preparation would actually work. Even up to the day I finally began writing, I knew there was a chance that I would start the book and immediately realize: Oh, man, this was a terrible idea and I am incapable of pulling it off. But it didn’t go that way at all. By the time I was ready to write, I really was kind of deeply, molecularly bathed in Alma Whittaker’s world—in her language, in the debates of the day, in her geography, in her passions. I had her story already in my bones, and it was just a matter of telling what happened.
The other thing that was incredibly helpful for me was reading Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, which I studied several times over. It took me a while to figure out how she had pulled it off (how she had written such a non-precious historical novel), and then I thought I found the trick: she didn’t try to write a novel that would feel like it was originally published in the sixteenth century, because that would’ve sounded affected and fake. Instead—and this is a subtle but important distinction—she wrote a contemporary novel about events that happened to occur in the sixteenth century. Once I gleaned that truth, I felt more free. I felt like I could just tell the story in my own voice, about these people from long ago, instead of trying to imitate George Eliot or the Brontës and sounding ridiculous.
BLVR: Your novel is dedicated to your grandmother, Maude Edna Morcomb Olson, in honor of her hundredth birthday. I feel like knowing a woman who has lived to a hundred influenced this book. Many of the female characters lead long, full, and complex lives that take them to different continents, and to different economic stratospheres. You talked a little bit about your grandmother’s (very intriguing) life story in your book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage. How much did her life or your conversations with her influence the creation of Alma’s life in your book?
EG: You know, it’s funny, Vendela—you and I spoke about our similar heritage when first we met, and most particularly about what it means to have been raised by mothers of Scandinavian heritage who happened also to be nurses, which is a really specific kind of upbringing, an upbringing that entails discipline and order and competence and a general expectation of no-nonsense self-accountability. That sensibility came into my mother through the example of her own mother, of course, and backward from there, as many generations as anyone can count.
My grandmother is an incredibly tough lady, but all those women were tough as hell, in a very particular way. Not tough like biker-chicks, just tough like people who take care of everything and everyone in the world with the same efficient, non-complaining, pragmatic manner for years and years on end—no matter what fate may hand them. Dignified is the word I would use. Dignity above all. The influence of the women on my mother’s side of the family—the Olson side—is all over this novel, as you surely noticed. I changed the heritage of the mother and nursemaid in my novel to Dutch rather than Swedish, but it’s pretty clear where their values came from, and why I know that sort of person so deeply. (In fact, I met a Dutch journalist recently who had just read The Signature of All Things and said to me, “I couldn’t figure out how you captured the essence of Dutch women so well … but then I looked you up and realized that your people are Swedish, and, of course, it all made sense! Same Calvinism!” Yes! Exactly the same Calvinism!)
For years I’ve imagined writing a novel that would be specifically about Grandma Maude’s life, but for some reason it felt too exposing, too intimate, to approach. But in the end it seems I have written a novel about her anyhow, albeit a disguised one. A fictitious book set in the past becomes a wonderful cloak—a great way to tell stories that perhaps are too familiar to tell in nonfiction. It’s also true that in my mother’s family the women live forever. (As my father always jokes—not really joking—to any man who marries into the clan: “Be warned. They will bury you!”) I wanted to give the female characters in this novel the same longevity, the same epic scale upon which to live their lives, in order to end up truly wise and having honestly earned that wisdom.
BLVR: There’s a line that struck me hard when I read it. Alma has met a man she adores, and he confides to her that he’s seen angels. Some people might say he’s had a psychotic episode. You write: “Alma, overcome with sadness—and also overcome by a jarring fear that something beautiful was being taken away from her—took all this in.” I think a lot of people can relate to a situation like that: a time when someone you’re becoming close to discloses a secret, but instead of making you feel more connected to them, it makes you feel estranged and alone. Can you talk a little bit about writing that scene, and how much you planned it out before? Did you know what his secret was? Are you someone who doesn’t know what you think until you write it? Or do you always know ahead of time?
EG: Oh, poor Alma and Ambrose. I wish it could’ve been different for them, but it just… couldn’t. I do definitely know from my own experience what it feels like in that moment when somebody is confiding in you, and your heart sinks, as you think, Oh, please don’t tell me this… please don’t tell me this. But once you’ve heard it, you can’t un-hear it, can’t un-know it. Ambrose and Alma—like all people in love—are each searching for perfect intimacy with each other. They are also both terribly lonely people who have never been able to find their match, and dare to think it could be with each other. Their very natural longing for intimacy causes them to reveal their deepest and most secret selves to each other over time. The problem is, neither of them wants what the other is offering (deepest secrets–wise). Alma is just as terrified of Ambrose’s secret spirituality as he is repulsed by her secret sexuality. Nobody is to blame, but the whole thing is a dreadful miscommunication and just a terrible match—an experience I know all too well from my own romantic history. I knew all along that this was to be their fate with each other.
I was especially interested in writing about a woman who longs sexually for a man who does not desire her body in return—which is something I feel has not been explored enough in literature. We are so accustomed to seeing the story in reverse, with the beautiful woman tormenting the lusty man. But that story can be played both ways, and is perhaps even more tragic when the woman is the one who is refused, since rejection can harm women’s minds and spirits in perhaps even darker ways than it does men’s.
The other thing I was trying to do here was to set up Alma and Ambrose’s relationship as a bit of a metaphor for the dreadful schism that occurred in the nineteenth century between science, divinity, and the arts. I’ve come to believe that this painful split is one of the most interesting aspects of the nineteenth century, and we are far from resolving it even today. See, for most of Western civilization there was no real division between the realms of science, divinity, and artistic endeavor—they were just three strands of the same braid, all of them pulling toward the same beautiful desire: to try to understand the workings of this curious and beautiful world. There were many people who would have called themselves all three things at once: men of god, men of science, men of the arts. Most of the early naturalists were also ministers; there was no contradiction to it (nature is where you encounter the majesty of God, after all), and they were also botanical artists. But in the nineteenth century, due largely to the evolution debate and the clanging reality of the Industrial Revolution, they all broke apart and went their separate ways, never to be reunited (to the point that science, divinity, and artistry hardly even talk to each other anymore, are rarely seen in the same room, and still fight over the custody of the children.).
I don’t think I’d realized until I researched this book how tragic that split was for the people living it during the middle of the century. Their souls were destroyed, to have to make that choice between science and God. And I feel that so much was lost in that choice—so much that is central to our most fundamental humanity. The biggest tragedy to me is that we now live in a world full of scientists who are absolutely devoid of devotion, and the religious, who are absolutely absent of reason. (And the artistic minds are just flailing around somewhere in the outskirts, often seeming to have totally lost both reason and devotion.)
Alma and Ambrose’s marriage, not to put too fine a point on it, is meant to be a quiet personification of that division. He is spirit; she is reason. He is airy; she is earthy. His irrational beliefs terrify her; her worldly yearnings repulse him. And there still seems to be no way to breach that divide sometimes.
BLVR: One of my favorite stories you’ve written, and favorite premises for a story, is “The Finest Wife,” which is the last story in Pilgrims. It’s about an older, widowed woman named Rose who’s a school-bus driver. Her daily life and the kids she picks up are described beautifully, but one day none of the kids are on her route. Instead she picks up all her past lovers and boyfriends and even her deceased husband and they all meet each other as she drives them around. Can you please talk about the impetus for that story? It’s easier to identify the sources of other stories, like “Coyote Ugly,” since you worked at a bar with that name. But back to “The Finest Wife.” Did you ever approach it in a different way? I guess basically what I’m asking is how did you get that story so right? But you probably will be shy answering that, so I’ll just ask about the craft of it. It’s obviously about a woman who’s lived a long and interesting life, so I can’t help but be reminded of Alma. But you’re young! So the fascination with older women and the idea for that story and telling it in that way came from …?
EG: I’m so glad you like it! It’s my favorite short story, too—and the last one I ever wrote, and sometimes I think it will be the last one I’ll ever write. It’s been, what, almost twenty years since I wrote it, and I haven’t had the desire to write a short story since. This one has a magical origin, unlike anything else I’ve ever done. It came to me in—wait for it!—a dream! An actual dream. This has never happened again, and I doubt it will ever happen again, though I remain ever hopeful. I’m usually a mule when it comes to my work, plodding and disciplined and methodical, but this one story was brought to me totally intact by the fairies. I guess I was about twenty-five when I wrote it, and there was a bit of personal background to the general idea. I had been working as a bartender at Coyote Ugly, a place filled with a very loose and open display of constant female sexuality (what with all the hot young lady bartenders, the free-flowing booze, and the curious power dynamic between the all-female barmaids and the mostly male clients). Most of my friends who worked there were living pretty promiscuously at that point in their lives, as I had at moments in my own life, too, and they all seemed to be really enjoying it. It all felt like good, healthy, raunchy, sexy fun.
And I’d been thinking that year, in a very general way, about how female promiscuity never really gets celebrated in a sweet and generous way—certainly not in literature. Traditionally in the great novels, the loose woman is severely punished for her moral lapses (through suicide or murder or ruin or banishment), or else she needs to repent and be saved, or at best she becomes a kind of bawdy cartoon figure, à la Mae West. But what if there could be a woman who had an absolute ball in her youth with her body, and with men’s bodies, and who didn’t get punished for it? What if she actually got celebrated for it—even adored for it? What if, down the road, she would look back on that period of sweet, dirty abandon as having been the best thing about her whole life?
So this had been vaguely on my mind for some time, but definitely not in any specific way. And then one day I fell asleep on a Metro-North commuter train, and I dreamed the whole short story—school bus full of old lovers and all—right down to the last image of the trains passing by, with the whole curious cargo of life’s ingredients written on the side of each passing car. I woke up, took some notes (took dictation is maybe more like it), and I think I wrote that story in one day. Everything about it was sweet and good. I don’t think I did more than one edit on it, and a light one at that. It was just … intact. I loved it just the way it was (which had never happened before), and I still cherish Rose and her old-man lovers with all my heart.
And thus ended my career as a short-story writer! And also my only brush with magical realism … and just plain magic.
BLVR: I would venture to guess most writers who wrote an excellent short story, and one that they themselves called their favorite, would be inspired to keep writing short stories. But you stopped writing short stories altogether. Was it because you felt that you finally fully understood the form? Or because you wanted to tackle something new? Or did the scope of what you wanted to write change and grow, requiring a bigger casing? It’s OK if none of these questions are accurate at getting at your relationship with the short-story format. I’m just curious to hear more about why you haven’t written another.
EG: You know, I’ve never given it a moment’s thought. Which is not very self-searching of me! Let me consider this now … I know only that it took me about eight years to write the short stories that became Pilgrims—and it was so difficult! It was difficult because I flat-out didn’t know how to write yet, and I was learning on the job. Some of those stories took me a year to finish, maybe more. I don’t have the most joyful memories of having written them. I felt like a clumsy, novice dancer. I know that we aren’t supposed to think of short stories as being gateway drugs that must eventually lead to novels (there are brilliant writers who write only short stories, of course, and they are not in any way stunted artists; it is very much its own form), but truly, in my case, I think I wrote short stories until I had learned enough to graduate to longer work. And once I’d tasted the pleasure of stretching out my legs and making prose into a book-length form, it has never occurred to me since to go back. I think it’s been nearly twenty years since I wrote a short story. Unfairly and unjustifiably, I almost feel like it takes just as much effort and passion to write a fifteen-page story as a three-hundred-page book, so you might as well go for it and do the book. (I think it was Mark Twain who told a friend that he had to write him a long letter because he didn’t have time to write a short one. It’s kind of like that.)
In the same way, once I managed to get to a point as a writer where I didn’t have to do magazine features for a living anymore, and could write books instead, I lost all interest in ever writing another magazine feature—after having loved being a journalist for many years! But once I was done, I was done. Maybe in my heart I always knew that what I really, really wanted out of life was to be the author of long, slow-written books, and now that I’ve gotten there I will cling to that privilege as long as I can.
BLVR: You said that when it comes to your own work you’re “plodding and disciplined and methodical.” Can you please elaborate on this? Do you have a pattern? Is it the same pattern with all books? How long did it take you to write The Signature of All Things? It’s a long, dense book that, as we’ve discussed, required a great deal of research. What does your method entail?
EG: Goethe said, “Never hurry, never rest.” That’s how I write: methodically and carefully. Never in a fugue state, never in a blitz of inspiration, but never stuck in the grip of paralysis, either. When I’m at work, I get up early, go to my desk, and just plod along for a very reasonable four hours at most. Then I take a break for lunch, walk the dog, do my emails, think about the book all afternoon, have dinner with my husband, and return to it the next day after a good night’s sleep. It is the least glamorous means of writing one could ever imagine, but it absolutely works for me. Sit there all morning, and the pages come.
I think again I can point to my mother for having taught me how to work steadfastly. I remember how she used to use the kitchen timer a lot when we were kids, to count out the one hour that we needed to practice the piano, or clean our rooms, or do homework. I was never the student in high school or college who pulled all-nighters, either, and for the same reason: I’d had it drilled into me as a child to work as you go, to work the same pace every day, to spread out the discomfort and the boredom of work evenly, as well as spreading out the inspiration and the joy. What can I say: we are Swedes. Not glitzy, not romantic, but very reliable. The pattern is the same with all books. I can no more imagine writing at 3 a.m., or drunk, or stoned, or high on Red Bull, or in my dirty pajamas, than I can imagine writing on a papyrus roll. I have no idea how people survive that kind of reckless, devil-may-care work pattern. And with research it’s kind of the same thing—though I can put in way more hours researching than writing.
BLVR: Since I’ve called it a long, dense book, I want to say that I read it very, very quickly. I returned to it at every chance. And I’ve read responses from other early readers of the book saying that they also consumed its pages very quickly (in fact, some of them were surprised how quickly they read it, given its length and the fact that it’s not a thriller, etc.). How aware are you of the reader’s experience when you’re writing? Do you think, Maybe someone will put the book down here, so I’ve got to keep things moving along? Or do you not think of the reader at all? Or do you think of yourself as the reader, in that you write for yourself?
EG: Thank you! I wanted it to speed along! My experience with the great, sweeping nineteenth-century novels is that they are indeed long, but not boring—more like a long train ride at a fast clip. But there was something really special about the way I wrote this—something I’ve never done before—which I think set that pace. Every evening, while I was writing the book, my husband would get a glass of wine and come into my office and I would read aloud to him what I had written that day. I can’t stress how transgressive this was for me (I’m normally really secretive about my writing until it’s completed and polished), but it became a habit we both looked forward to and enjoyed so much. And every night when I got to the end of the section, he would cry out: “What happens next?!” And that cry would carry me through the next morning’s work, because I felt the (not at all unpleasant) weight of his anticipation. Which meant that the whole time I was writing, I was thinking, Will this delight him? Or will this bore him? I could see it in his face when I was losing him, or when he was just listening politely.) He was such a wonderful guide! He was standing in for all the readers, and his presence in that room every night made the book so much better. At times I felt like a Victorian author, writing a serial novel—except that the serialization was daily. So I’m really glad to hear that the novel speeds along for you—it’s precisely how I wanted it to feel. (I’ll thank my husband again, too, for being the perfect audience.)
BLVR: I love that you read aloud to your husband in the evenings after writing all day. Was that every single night? Seven days a week for those four months? I ask because it seems like you must have obligations in the form of speaking tours, readings, etc., and that that must require some travel, so I wonder how that works for you. Did you shelter yourself and try to maintain a very consistent life while working on a book during those months?
EG: It actually was pretty much every night for all those four months. Which meant that I did completely shut down my life in order to write the book. This is part of what I was saying before (I think!) about how writing feels like seasonal labor to me. This is how I’ve always done it—or tried to, as much as logistically possible. When the season comes for actual writing (the best season of all), everything else has to go. It takes so much preparation to do this, to shut down a busy life—almost like preparing a big ship for dry dock, or shuttering a giant house for the winter, or something along those lines. It takes months of preparation, and I can do it only every four or five years. When that time is drawing near, everyone in my life has to be forewarned far in advance. All social and family duties must be attended to before I vanish, all bills must be paid, all invitations declined months ahead of the work. I have so many people in my life whom I care about, and nobody wants to hear, “I’m sorry, but you won’t hear from me for a while,” but that’s what has to be said. Then the door is shut and it’s just silent, and finally time to work. And it’s so wonderful! Always, when I’m in that zone, part of me thinks, Why can’t my life always be this small, this contained, this simple? Those periods of creative withdrawal have always been the happiest periods of my life.
I also feel—and this is a funny thing to say—that when I am deep in silent writing, I am the least full of shit that I can possibly be. I just feel purely like myself, and it’s such a relief from all the hats and masks I wear in normal life, around so many different people. All my most annoying tics and traits fall away. It’s what’s supposed to happen in meditation, I guess, but never does—at least not for me!
So sometimes there’s an urge just to slip away forever into that solitary space. (A very famous and gracious female novelist I know once said to me, “Do we write so that we can be left alone? Do we write because it’s the only excuse anyone will accept for our need to be alone?”) Most definitely, it is drenchingly wonderful, for me at least, to spend that much time so alone. But I don’t know if a person can really live that way all the time, so distant from the world forever. On one hand, it would make you a pure artist, but on the other hand, what on earth would you make art about? What would you know about anything, about anyone, about life, about shame, about disappointment and family and absurdity and loyalty? To know all those vital human things, you have to live out in the world.
So writing itself is seasonal work for me, and remains seasonal work. What made this novel so different, though, is that my husband came with me into that space. I usually literally run away from home to write (to an artist’s residency or some faraway place), but this time I stayed home, and I read the book every night to him as the story moved along. It was incredibly sweet and intimate—a sign, I think, of how much I trust him. I don’t think I’d ever felt quite so safe in my own home before, to write with someone so near. It was lovely.
BLVR: You’ve written the stories of women’s lives, including personal stories about your own life, but you’ve also written about the lives of men in Stern Men and The Last American Man. Can you discuss? And while we’re at it, what’s next?
EG: I spent pretty much the first ten years of my writing career focused entirely on men. I wrote about men, and I wrote for men. Whenever I wrote about women, either in fiction or in journalism, they were women interlopers in men’s worlds. This makes perfect sense to me in retrospect: during those years, I was also focused entirely on men in my personal life, often with unfortunate and complicated results. And I think I was truly confused about whether I wanted to be surrounded by men or whether I just wanted to be a man. Maybe I spent so much time in their company because I was trying to learn how to live like a man, with all the privilege that maleness provides. My favorite moments during those years were when I would be with a group of men (on a ranch, in a bar, on a ship, on a trip) and they would seem to forget for a spell that I was a girl, and I could see their real faces, their true selves. That always seemed beautiful and magical to me.
There are, of course, all sorts of not-too-easily-disguised psychological reasons why I was fascinated with masculinity and especially with masculine freedom. My family is certainly not historically unique in that the men always had far greater liberties than the women. Being a woman did not look enviable to me, even when it looked admirable. It looked like nonstop sacrifice and service. Because it was. Being a woman seemed vulnerable and sad. Even the strong women I knew—and they were all strong—had earned their strength through enduring huge disappointments and tremendous struggles. Whereas all the men in my family just seemed entitled and carefree and spoiled and lucky. They were all King Babies—ageless children who did as they pleased, forever tended to by weary and responsible women. I didn’t want to be those tired women; I wanted to be those feckless men. Most of all, I was always scared of the moment when somebody was going to force me to be a mother—the most dangerous of all feminine duties, as I saw it. I was haunted by that fear, terrified of being trapped in motherhood. Which just made me run further toward men.
I think all my early writing reveals all of this stuff pretty clearly. I remember being so delighted when my first short story was published in Esquire and somebody wrote to the magazine saying, “There’s no way that this story was written by a woman. Elizabeth Gilbert is either a man or a big lesbo.” I took the comment as such a badge of honor! These days, of course, I am very much seen as a woman who writes exclusively for and about women, and I now wear that label as badge of honor. Nobody would mistake my work now for men’s writing—whatever that even means. (By the way, sometimes when I read men’s magazines these days, I am struck by a tone of strain and insecurity—that the male editors and writers themselves are trying to sound like men. I recognize that tone because I used to do it myself. But that’s another story!)
Bottom line: I don’t think I was able to start learning how to be a woman—or how to write about women, or how to earn the trust of women readers—until the moment I left my first marriage behind and promised myself that neither I nor anybody else would ever force me to have children. Being liberated from motherhood liberated me into womanhood, if that makes sense. I honestly don’t think I had realized prior to that moment that someone could be a woman without being a mother, or that someone could be married without being a mother, but that’s the woman I am now, and needed to be. Once I figured out how to let myself be that person, I could finally relax into this gender and feel safe about exploring its complexities. Whew.
BLVR: I always experience a little twinge when people ask me this question just as a book I’ve worked so hard on is being released to the world, so apologies in advance for asking: do you know what you’ll be working on next?
EG: Well, it’s a bit too soon to know for sure, but I think it will be a novel about young girls behaving quite recklessly in a long-ago time.
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