DOWN TO EARTH

AF­TER 13 YEARS AS A MEM­OIRIST, EL­IZ­A­BETH GIL­BERT OF EAT, PRAY, LOVE FAME RE­TURNS TO FIC­TION WITH A BIG, OLD- FASH­IONED NOVEL. SHE TALKS TO SHARLA BAZLIEL ABOUT FAME, BEAUTY AND WHY PER­FEC­TION­ISM IS OVER- RATED

India Today - - INTERVIEW -

The voice on the phone from New Jersey— warm, funny and full of won­der— is pretty sim­i­lar to what one would imag­ine the voice of the cult au­thor of Eat Pray Love to be. “Isn’t it amaz­ing that you’re half way around the world and we can speak like this?” Gil­bert asks and then gets straight down to talk­ing about her new book The Sig­na­ture Of All Things, her first work of fic­tion in thir­teen years which re­leases in In­dia this month. At the cen­tre of the book stands per­haps one of the more un­usual literary char­ac­ters in re­cent times: Alma Whit­taker, the spin­ster­ish 19th cen­tury botanist who be­comes a lead­ing ex­pert in moss. Even the lan­guage of the book is a big de­par­ture from the usual in­ti­mate, con­fes­sional style fans of Gil­bert’s writ­ing have come to ex­pect. Criss­cross­ing the in­ter­con­nected fields of late 18th and early 19th cen­tury botany, botan­i­cal draw­ing, spir­i­tual in­quiry, ex­plo­ration, and, even­tu­ally, the de­vel­op­ment of the the­ory of evo­lu­tion The Sig­na­ture Of All Things is an in­tel­li­gent big, old- fash­ioned novel by an au­thor clearly in her el­e­ment.

WOMEN IN PAR­TIC­U­LAR AL­WAYS SEEM TO BE AS­PIR­ING TO­WARDS SOME KIND OF IM­MOR­TAL, IM­MAC­U­LATE PER­FEC­TION.

Q. Alma Whit­taker, a 19th cen­tury fe­male botanist who stud­ies moss, is quite an un­usual pro­tag­o­nist. Why botany of all things?

A. Alma’s char­ac­ter res­onated with me be­cause I wanted to write about a strong and pas­sion­ate woman who loves her work. I was fas­ci­nated with 19th cen­tury botany which hap­pened to be one of the few av­enues open to women for study and ex­plo­ration in those days.

Q. Alma is an ex­tremely plain woman, a fact which dic­tates her choices in life. Tell us some­thing you be­lieve about beauty.

A. Alma’s whole life is dic­tated by the fact that she is not a beau­ti­ful woman. Beauty is a cur­rency in this world and for many cen­turies it was the only cur­rency a woman had. But beauty can also be a big li­a­bil­ity or a hand­i­cap as we see in the life of Alma’s sis­ter. Lit­er­a­ture has al­ways been lit­tered by all th­ese beau­ti­ful literary hero­ines, you know like Emma Bo­vary and Anna Karen­ina “with flash­ing eyes and heav­ing breasts” but the in­te­rior lives of plain women have sort of be­ing passed over.

Q. You write very mov­ingly in this book about a per­son’s re­la­tion­ship to the earth and what it re­ally means to live close to na­ture.

A. I grew up on a small fam­ily Christ­mas tree farm in ru­ral Con­necti­cut and come from a long line of women con­nected to the earth. My grand­mother, mother and sis­ter are farm­ers and gar­den­ers . Now that I am older I feel the need to be more con­nected to the earth.

Q. Yet, mil­lions to­day live in ur­ban cities far re­moved from any con­tact with na­ture...

A. A friend just said to me the other day, “Our chil­dren’s books are full of pic­tures of an­i­mals but how many chil­dren have ever seen a live an­i­mal?”

Q. You were a strug­gling writer for sev­eral years be­fore the suc­cess of your first mem­oir. What do you un­der­stand about suc­cess to­day that you didn’t know be­fore?

A. Suc­cess changes ev­ery­thing and yet noth­ing at the same time. You still wakeup the next morn­ing and are essen­tially the same per­son with the same lim­i­ta­tions and the same kind of prob­lems that ev­ery­one has. None of that stuff ev­ery goes away. How it did change my life in an enor­mous way was that I went from be­ing a fe­male writer strug­gling to get by whereas I now have the lux­ury of tak­ing three or four years off to re­search my next book.

Q. You vis­ited In­dia briefly and med­i­tated in an ashram. Tell us a bit about your time here.

A. Well I’ve only trav­elled to one ashram in In­dia, and have seen only a tiny atom of what In­dia re­ally is. I went to In­dia in the ca­pac­ity of a spir­i­tual seeker. It was a very in­tense and

per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence that I wrote about in de­tail in my mem­oir. But I do hope I have a chance to visit In­dia again.

Q. Writ­ing to­day has be­come a se­ri­ous busi­ness whereas ear­lier it was more about the cre­ative process. What are your thoughts on peo­ple who pur­sue de­grees in cre­ative writ­ing?

A. I have a real prob­lem ad­vis­ing peo­ple to go into debt to study to be­come a writer. If you want to be a writer, noo­body can teach you how to write or stop you from writ­ing. For me lit­er­a­ture was a call­ing ever since I was 15 years old, I saw it as some­thing sim­i­lar to tak­ing vows. Many writ­ers I know are far more ta­lented than me but you need a com­bi­na­tion of three es­sen­tials to suc­ceed: tal­ent, hard work and luck. And hard work is the only part of the process you can con­trol.

Q. What’s the best piece of ad­vice any­one has ever given you?

A. I was lucky to have a very wise woman as my mother and she used to al­ways say to me: Done is bet­ter than good. It’s the most per­fect ad­vice be-

YOU NEED A COM­BI­NA­TION OF THREE ES­SEN­TIALS TO SUC­CEED: TAL­ENT, HARD WORK AND LUCK. AND HARD WORK IS THE ONLY PART OF THE PROCESS OVER WHICH YOU HAVE ANY KIND OF CON­TROL.

cause as a writer you know per­fec­tion­ism is the mur­derer of cre­ativ­ity. It’s im­por­tant to get rid of the need for ev­ery­thing to be a per­fect. And that’s holds true whether you are a woman or a writer. Learn to ig­nore the nag­ging voices in your head. Women seem to do this in par­tic­u­lar and are al­ways as­pir­ing to some kind of im­mor­tal im­mac­u­late per­fec­tion. When I started out my sto­ries weren’t very good but I kept send­ing them out. Then I wrote two books of fic­tion that didn’t do very well. But I never gave up.

Q. What do you know to­day that you didn’t when you were in your twen­ties?

A. It’s im­por­tant that you don’t think about your younger self with cru­elty. Don’t ex­claim at how stupid and ig­no­rant you were. We don’t know any­thing about life un­til we learn and ev­ery­one is do­ing the best they can. If I could say any­thing to my­self as a young woman I would say: Don’t get mar­ried so young! But of course the younger me wouldnt have paid any at­ten­tion.

Q. What are you read­ing right now?

A. A House In The Sky, a mem­oir by Amanda Lind­hout and Sara Cor­bett which I rec­om­mend highly.

Q. Your first mem­oir Eat, Pray Love. sold a gazil­lian copies and was made into a Hol­ly­wood movie. Do you view it’s suc­cess as a bur­den or a gift?

A. The suc­cess of Eat, Pray, Love changed my life in so many ways. It was truly life trans­form­ing but in­stead of feel­ing bur­dened by it I feel ex­tremely hon­oured and blessed. I wrote another mem­oir af­ter that, and now I’ve re­turned to my roots in fic­tion. I’m cu­ri­ous to see if read­ers will join me on this jour­ney as well.

The novel spans con­ti­nents

and a cen­tury

Re­turn­ing to her roots: Gil­bert

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