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Elizabeth Gilbert Q&A, Part 1

January 25, 2010 |  9:22 am
Elizabethgilbert

Four years ago, "Eat Pray Love," Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir of going to Italy, India and Bali to recover herself after a nasty divorce, became a huge bestseller (with a little help from Oprah). Her new book, "Committed," is part memoir, part exploration of the Western traditions of marriage -- and it is also a bestseller, topping our nonfiction bestseller list this week. 

Gilbert comes to the L.A. area this weekend: On Friday, she'll be at All Saints Church in Pasadena; tickets are available from Vroman's Bookstore ($26.95, plus tax, includes a copy of "Committed"). On Saturday, she'll  be at Costco in Marina del Rey, where admission is free for Costco members.

Gilbert -- Liz, as readers know her -- spoke to Jacket Copy's Carolyn Kellogg last week by phone from her home in New Jersey, on a break from her book tour, which has just begun. She was sitting on the couch with both a dog and a cat in her lap. "It's like a big mammal huddle," she said, and said she hoped her Brazilian might bring her some tea. This is the first part of that interview. Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.

Jacket Copy: A lot of people felt like "Eat Pray Love" was a gift; they got a lot out of what you shared in the book. When you go on tour, do people try to return the favor?

Elizabeth Gilbert: Oh, sometimes people give me little gifts, which is very nice and very sweet. Mostly I feel like what they want to do is share what they proceeded to do after they read "Eat Pray Love." Which is its own kind of gift, to hear those sorts of stories. We'll have a quick minute together, and they'll say, I just wanted to tell you that after I read your book, I took a baking class. It isn't necessarily, “I divorced my husband and moved to India for a year” -- the ones that are the most touching are the smallest gestures of somebody choosing to do something, to take care of some neglected part of themselves that they had abandoned for a time, or maybe never knew how to take care of.

J.C.: There are some moments in "Committed" in which you refer to your first marriage and divorce and kind of say, “If I had known then what I know now. ...” In some ways, are you hoping that this book might land in the hands of your 25-year-old self?

E.G.: I don't know if my equivalent self would read this book. I guarantee you I would not have read this book when I got engaged at 23. I would have put my hands right over my eyes, like lalalala! There was nothing in there that I wanted to know. I think part of what youth is is that sense of self-exceptionalism. That idea that it doesn't matter what the history of this is, what the statistics say. We are so exceptional, and our story is unique and precious, and we are unique and precious -- none of this applies at all. We are going to shape this thing however we want. And that hubris would have prevented me from taking such a responsible action as reading a preparatory book about marriage. [laughs]

One can only hope that there are smarter young women out there than I was. I don't think I wrote the book intending it to be a cautionary tale for young readers. I don't know yet -- it's been out for such a short time, we don't know who its audience is yet. But in my mind as I was writing it, I suspected that it might be older women who were drawn to it -- people who had already been through a number of disappointments and were kind of reconsidering intimacy from a different perspective.

"Committed" is a little bit of a bran muffin that looks like a chocolate cupcake. Because I'd met so many readers of "Eat Pray Love," I knew that they wanted to know what happened next. I felt it was almost irresponsible to have left "Eat Pray Love" on such a romantic high note. To leave us on a boat sailing through the middle of the Indonesian archipelago on a beautiful, sunny day completely in love, to sort of hand that to people and say, "And that's the end of the story!" It's almost irresponsible in terms of discussing what love is and means. "Committed," of course, picks up from there. So all the readers who wanted to know what happened to Liz and that Brazilian guy -- they get all of that. But along the way, they're also going to have to ingest a treatise on the history of marriage.

J.C.: In some ways, that reflects your experience. You guys had sort of worked out what your happily-ever-after was going to look like and Homeland Security intervened -- you had to get married.

E.G.: My cupcake turned out to need a little more roughage than we anticipated.

J.C.: In "Committed," you are reaching out to the reader in the text. You'll write, “Bear with me here,” or, “I just have to say” -- did that come from the success of "Eat Pray Love," a heightened awareness of your audience?

EG: I think it was more something that came out of journalism. It's something that I developed what I was at GQ. I was lucky enough there for four years to be able to do long-form journalism. I had really wonderful editors. I mostly did profiles of nonfamous people, people who I had discovered and were really fascinating. Because I was writing about somebody who wasn't known, there was a way that you had to persuade the reader to stay with you. Like, I know we're not talking about George Clooney here, and we're not talking about fashion tips; we're talking about this paraplegic who you've never heard of. Let's see if we can get through the first few paragraphs together, and if I can lead you to understanding why this is such an interesting person. I think that intimacy was necessary for that kind of work, and maybe that's where it comes from. 

My sister gave me a great rule -- she's a writer also. Her rule is that you should never sit down to write anything unless you know exactly who you're telling the story to. Those women are named in the introduction to this book. I found that if you narrow down your reader in your head -- usually I just write to one person -- I wrote "Eat Pray Love" to my friend Darcey Steinke, who's a wonderful novelist. If you write something that intimately, other people might also feel as though you're speaking to them. Ideally.

Or, the criticism would be that it's too chatty, and too personal, and that you don't have any boundary -- of course, that's who I am! [laughs]

J.C.: Did moving from writing profiles of other people to making yourself the subject of a book that became so widely read make you think differently about boundaries?

E.G.: It did. Definitely. "Committed" doesn't have the raw nakedness of "Eat Pray Love." Even though it's unmistakable as a memoir, it's not skinless and boneless the way "Eat Pray Love" was. That came out of a place in my life where I was completely wide open, having been on this trip and having had all these experiences, and gone through the ego shakeup of depression and divorce. There wasn't a single instinct that I had to conceal anything -- it just was what it was. I don't think I could ever do that again so unself-consciously.

I think part of the problem with the first draft of "Committed" was that I was attempting to affect that voice. But you can't do that deliberately. It doesn't work, it doesn't ring true, it doesn't sound authentic. And I'm also not in that place anymore. Five years have passed, I've grown up a lot, I've calmed down a lot, my whole mental landscape is different than it was at that time. In the end I had to write this book in the voice that's authentic to the person that I've become, hoping that even if some of that chatty intimacy was lost, there would still be enough openness for real communication to occur.

But truly a person with real boundaries probably would not have written a second memoir after "Eat Pray Love."  [laughs]


Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of this interview with Gilbert, when she talks about her TED talk and who's been listening (Weezer. And Fred Durst).

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Elizabeth Gilbert. Credit: UCLA Live

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