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
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