I conducted this interview on behalf of Goodreads.com
Most people know Elizabeth Gilbert for the global phenomenon that was Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. But before Gilbert made her high-flying journey through pasta, spirituality, and romance, she was an acclaimed journalist and writer, penning a book of short stories (Pilgrims), one novel (Stern Men), a prizewinning nonfiction work (The Last American Man), and an article for GQ that inspired the movie Coyote Ugly. This month Gilbert releases her second memoir. Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage is a more tempered response to the book that set her on a path toward dizzying fame—and major pressure. We asked Gilbert how she moved on after the success of Eat, Pray, Love, and also learned what secrets she uncovered in her quest to understand marriage, the world’s oldest contract.
Elizabeth Gilbert: The franchise you mean? The brand? (Laughs) Well, it was not the book that I intended to write next. I didn’t say, “Oh, my God, I have to go write another memoir to capitalize on this.” In fact, I had the opposite instinct. I was already working on a novel, and I felt like Eat, Pray, Love was everything I’m going to say and explore. But external forces got involved in my life in a really big way when my sweetheart was detained and kicked out of the country by the Homeland Security Department and we were faced with the prospect of having to marry. It was a real crisis moment for me because of my deep hostility and aversion to the institution of marriage and the safety that I had felt with the promise that we had made each other that we would never marry.
If there is anything I learned from Eat, Pray, Love—from the success of it—is that I’m a pretty fair representation of a 21st century American woman. The questions and hesitations and fears and doubts that I have are not a lot different than what a lot of other people have. It immediately became clear to me I can’t be the only person walking around with all these unresolved fears about the institution of matrimony. There have to be other people. So I can be the avatar for all these other peoples’ questions, and I’ll stand in for those people and ask those questions again—as I did with Eat, Pray, Love. The reality is I just don’t know a more efficient way to really adamantly process something than to write about it.
At this point it sort of looks to me as a necessary companion piece to Eat, Pray, Love because Eat, Pray, Love ended on such a high romantic note. It was very sweet, and it was true. That’s how that story ended. This book wraps it up in a way that is a little more realistic to most people’s lives. “After we left the tropical island of Bali, then what happened?” It’s the difference in tone between romance and marriage. They are both about love and intimacy and boundaries and the self versus the other, but they just have a different level of volume. I think that Committed is a quieter and more sober and more measured story.
GR: Do you feel you have a handle on the marriage thing after writing this book? What do you hope married and serious couples will take away from Committed?
EG: I’ve come away with a respect for the institution that I did not expect. I really did think that the more I studied it, the more hostile I would become toward it. The conclusion that I came to at the end, that was inspiring and comforting, is that marriage is not this hidebound institution that is forced upon people, or is one cookie-cutter shape that you have to accept because society says so.
Marriage is an ongoing, centuries-long social experiment that is mostly controlled by the individuals in the relationships who insist on determining what the relationship terms are going to be. And that’s why the terms of marriage change with every century and decade. We’re shaping it from the inside. Marriage endures because it evolves. Obviously it does. None of us would accept marriage on its 13th century terms, not even the most conservative people in the country would accept it. So in order for marriage to endure it has to change along with us, and it does that very graciously. And in the end I find there is something kind of moving about it: the fact that people continue to insist on choosing somebody to build a life with.
Committed also gave me an enormous amount of perspective about myself: I’m an enormous product of my century, I’m a product of my upbringing. I was not aware of the fact that I was entering marriage with the highest set of expectations that humans have ever brought to the institution. It was really good to find that out. It doesn’t have to be the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, the moon and the stars—it can just be the moon. It’s enough that it just can be what it is. I’ve calmed down a lot about what I expect marriage should be in my life.
GR: Do you think that the feminist movement has affected women’s attitudes (or perhaps ambivalence) toward commitment? What are contemporary women dealing with?
EG: My guide on the subject of marriage was Stephanie Coontz, who is an incredibly readable academic who wrote The Way We Never Were and Marriage, a History. She is our greatest matrimonial scholar. One thing that struck me is that women have always been more critical of marriage than men. The great mysterious irony of it is—at least it’s the stereotype, and I’m not sure we can discount this stereotype—is that women want to get married and men are trying to avoid it.
Marriage doesn’t benefit women as much as men, and it never has. And women, once they are married, become very critical of marriages in a way that men don’t. Women come into it with great inflated expectations for what they want this relationship to be, and men don’t give it that much thought. Men come into it with this reluctance about being capsized or trapped or whatever their fear is. When you check in later, women are disappointed because their expectations have not come to pass, and men are pleasantly surprised—”Oh, this is really nice. I’m actually really comfortable in my relationship.” I don’t think you can say that feminism has made women critical of marriage because women have been critical of marriage for centuries.
The curious thing is that women who report themselves consistently as being happiest in their marriage are women who are the most obvious beneficiaries of feminism. My instinct would have been that it would be the opposite. That once you got educated and had independence and autonomy and your own finances that you would be a bad candidate for marriage—because you would be too uppity.
The reality is that those women are much, much more content in their marriage, and those marriages tend to last as opposed to, say, an uneducated woman, who has children very young and is quite trapped in her relationship. Once you think about it, the more freedom that people have as human beings, the more contented they are. In a strange way, feminism has strengthened marriages for women who choose to marry late in life on their own terms. That’s the thing I found so amazing about the statistics on marriage resilience. You almost can’t wait too long. The longer you wait, the better off you are going to be. And the happier your kids are going to be, and the happier a mom you are going to be.
The message seems to be, when it comes to women, get your life together first. Put on your own oxygen mask first. Figure out who you are. Mature. And then go find somebody to share that life with.
GR: In your speech for the Ted Conference 2009, you talked about the stresses following the success of Eat, Pray, Love. What sort of devices did you use to psych yourself up for the writing process and carry you through to the end of Committed?
EG: It wasn’t so much psyching up; it was more calming down. Psyching up is something I’ve always been able to do because I get really excited about things. It was more like gaining a little bit of perspective to relax. It’s kind of a question of expectation. I’m a pleaser by nature; I don’t want to disappoint anybody.
I remember I was in college, and I was sitting in a literature class and somebody mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird. This 19-year-old boy sitting next to me goes, “To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee, one-hit wonder.” Uhmm. It’s not like she’s a pop singer. If you’ve written the definitive book on race and compassion and the 20th century, I think you can take the rest of your life off.
We live in this society where you must constantly be reinventing yourself. The big question is what are you doing next. The only thing they want is composed of these three elements: They want you to do it the exact same way because they want more of it; but they want it to be totally different; and they want it to be better. (Laughs) And that’s it. That’s all you have to do. You just have to do something that’s exactly the same, totally different, and better. So how hard is that?
If that becomes what’s expected of you, at some point you have to decide to excuse yourself from that expectation and say, “Well, I’m not sure I can do all that.” But what I can continue to do is to continue to follow my curiosity and my path and create work that I think is reflective of what I’m really interested in and just share it with you, and you can take it as you like it. That ended up being the only way I could figure out how to get through my anxiety.
The good news is that Eat, Pray, Love wasn’t my first book. It was my fifth book. I’m well aware that it’s OK to write books that only sell a few dozen copies. I’ve done it before.
GR: Your early books, Stern Men and The Last American Man, certainly explore the male sphere, while Eat, Pray, Love is the quintessential female story. Now Committedis an analysis of both sexes. How has this trajectory echoed your own life?
EG: I think I really did spend my twenties overly fascinated with men and masculinity, and instead of expressing my fascination by becoming a serial dater—although I kind of did that, too—I wanted to understand them and be around them. I loved working on a ranch in Wyoming and as a bartender because I had that kind of access. I loved those moments when I would be with a group of men and they’d forget that I was there, or I’d be the only girl allowed. I always thought it was a magic trick, to be able to pull that off.
I needed to spend those years writing through all my questions and affirmations about that. And I think The Last American Man certainly was a venue for me to finally, once and for all, get to the bottom of the question what it meant to be male. I think I went as far as I could for my own gender. And then I had kind of neglected to spend any sort of attention to figure myself out, which is what one might argue those years should be for. I don’t think it’s an accident that my life kind of fell apart and I needed to turn my attention inward just to get it back together. That led to Eat, Pray, Love and everything you see now.
GR: Eat, Pray, Love the film is in postproduction and slated to come out in 2010. Were you involved in the filmmaking process?
EG: Not in any official way. I feel like you have to make a decision when it comes to that kind of thing. I was lucky enough to have some previous experience with that, because of Coyote Ugly. (Laughs)Orson Welles could not have done that movie better.
The choice is in the moment when you sell, and what you have to ask yourself is: Are you ready completely and totally to let it go? Just relinquish your expectations for it and let it be, or don’t sell it.
I thought, I can let Eat, Pray, Love go because it’s not me anymore. Once I lived that year and processed it into a book and released it into the world, it already gained a certain detachment from who I am now. The story is out there, and it belongs to anybody who wants to interpret it however they want to. That being said, once I made that decision, the people who are working on the film have been really great about wanting me to be included and asking very specific questions as they go along. “Where exactly was that fountain in Rome you were sitting in front of when you were reading that poem? Where exactly did you eat that gelato?” They are trying to get it to be as accurate as possible, and they are very passionate about the book.
GR: Did they ask any questions when they were picking the actors?
EG: No! They wouldn’t give me any control like that. All I can say is, it feels like lunacy that Julia Roberts is playing me and Javier Bardem is playing my husband. I don’t know how to say this except very simply: We do not look like Julia Roberts or Javier Bardem. But we quite like the idea that if someone is going to play us—why not just go all the way? Why hold back?
GR: Tell us about your writing process. Do you have any unusual routines or techniques?
EG: It’s funny, writers always complain that they get tired of answering that, but whenever I meet a writer, that’s what I want to know. I don’t write every day. I used to. I think when you are an aspiring writer, you must write every day. It’s not as though anybody will call you up on the phone and say, “I understand you are a very promising, aspiring writer and I’m going to give you this assignment.” You have to create it yourself or it’s never going to happen. I spent my teens and my twenties ferociously writing every day, but now that this is my job and it’s my career, I tend to go project by project. I can go months without writing anything, which is actually quite nice.
I’m very diligently researched. All my books, even the fictitious ones. With Stern Men I spent an enormous amount of time on these remote islands up on the coast of Maine because there was no other way to get that story. I don’t think I’m very imaginative. I’m not a fabulist, I’m not a story inventor. I think I’m good at going out in the world and reflecting what I’m seeing there.
Obviously with a book like Committed, it takes an enormous amount of research before you even begin writing. I bury myself in research until I know inch by inch, every detail of the world that I’m writing about. Only when that’s all gotten together can I finally sit down and work. And then I work in one six-month period. Everything else goes away. I stop washing my hair. I grew up on a farm and I keep farmer’s hours. I get up really early, I work until noon, and then I take a lunch break. By mid-afternoon I’m sort of spent. That’s the only way I know how to get it done.
I’m really good friends with Ann Patchett. She and I talk about this all the time, and the one thing we believe that we share as writers is that we are not geniuses. We don’t rely on the muse. We are both really hard workers. Every once in a while we get rewarded by a mysterious force. But mostly it’s just showing up at our desks at 7 o’clock every morning day after day after day. I wish it were more glamorous. We just plod our way through it, like grindy students that we used to be, we still are.
GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?
EG: I’m reading Wolf Hall right now, the one that just won the Booker Prize, Hilary Mantel‘s book. It is one of the most superbly crafted novels I have read in so long that I’m doing that thing that insane readers do. I’m meting it out to myself one page at a time, because I don’t want it to end. I’m relishing it. It’s such a banquet. It’s one of those books as a writer you always read in two minds: You read as a reader and you enjoy it, and you look at it as a writer, and you just admire the architecture and the construction and you think, how in the world did she do that? I can’t even begin to figure it out.
And this year I also really loved The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker‘s new book about a guy trying to write the introduction to an anthology of poetry, and his whole life falling apart because of writer’s block. It sounds like it should be grim, but it’s actually hilarious and brilliant. I think the books I love the most are the books I know that I could have never written.
I really love all the great 19th century novelists, especially the British ones. Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, that whole gang. And on our side of the Atlantic: Henry James. That’s my favorite genre—it’s the pinnacle of the English language. I guess some people would argue that Shakespeare is the pinnacle of the English language, but I’d rather cuddle up with George Eliot.
GR: What’s next?
EG: I’m back to a novel. I can’t say much about it because it’s so nascent. But I’ve been doing the research for my big gardening novel.