Q&A: Novelist Elizabeth Gilbert

If you don't have some kind of opinion about Elizabeth Gilbert—well, it's likely you a) aren't a female over the age of 20 or b) haven't read a book in the past decade. Her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, wasn't just a success—spending more than 200 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and selling 10 million copies and becoming a movie starring Julia Roberts as Gilbert—but it spawned an entire industry of women who wanted to star in their own version of the travel-induced soul-searching romance, whether that meant a trip to Italy or just a handful of yoga classes. Yet Gilbert's charming, occasionally self-indulgent prose had its detractors, and the success of the book spawned an enormous backlash only furthered by her 2010 sequel, Committed, in which she debates marrying the man she met at the end of Eat, Pray, Love.

But in Gilbert's own life, all of that is history (except, presumably, for the royalties). She's been happily married to Jose Nunes since 2007, and she's put aside writing about herself, at least for now. Gilbert's new novel, The Signature of All Things (Viking), is a 512-page epic that spans a century, from England to the South Seas to Amsterdam and Philadelphia and back to Tahiti. The book tells the story of Alma Whittaker, a brilliant botanist obsessed with moss and constrained by society, her family, and, ultimately, herself, until a surprising love affair changes Alma's life—but not at all in the ways you might think. It's an unpredictable and thoroughly enjoyable read, and nothing at all like Eat, Pray, Love.

Gilbert hasn't been back to Knoxville in a while, but she's returning to one of the last temporary homes she had before she became famous this Saturday. On her cellphone in the San Francisco airport, Gilbert giggled delightfully as we talked.

The Signature of All Things is your first novel—well, fiction—in 13 years. That's a long time to be away. How hard was it making things up after writing about yourself for so long?
It was a pleasure. It felt like an escape. That's not to say I didn't like writing memoir—I did. And I'll probably do it again. But I think I'd forgotten how joyful and playful it could be to just create your own world, and have characters do what you wanted them to do.

The Signature of All Things is so different from Stern Men, which I read not too long after it came out—
Oh, you read it? You were one of five people.

No, I loved it! When I read Eat, Pray Love, it kind of took me aback because it was so different. But anyway, I'm not sure what I was expecting with The Signature of All Things, but I don't think I was expecting such a Victorian-esque novel. What made you decide to do that?
My favorite books have always been those books. My desert-island books would be Austen and Trollope, James, Eliot, so I've always wanted to see if I could write like that. And I wanted to write about plants, and I couldn't figure out a way to write an exciting gardening novel. But in that era you had these adventurers tracking down plants around the globe, and I thought that I could do something with that, write an action-adventure story about plants.

Why moss, specifically?
Well, Alma is geographically limited by her gender, so I had to find something she could plausibly study nearby. Also, I feel like moss is a nice metaphor for the work women have always done. The study of moss seems like the botanical equivalent of needlework.

I have to ask—what is with Alma's fixation on blow jobs? Like, it really made me think of this line near the beginning of How Should a Person Be?, where Shelia Heti writes, "I look at all the people who are alive today and think, These are my contemporaries! These are my f--king contemporaries! We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists"
I have to say, that was my favorite line in that book.

Ha! Mine too! Anyway, she goes on to compare it to the 19th-century novel. And I'm sure you weren't thinking of that while writing the book, but they seem somehow connected. Like, the obsession with blow jobs seems much more modern than Victorian.
I think it's almost a scientific fascination for Alma. She wants the most intimate possible engagement with the world, and to her, that's as close as she can get. And I haven't psychoanalyzed her yet—although maybe I will now—but I think she's very uncomfortable with her body not being attractive, and that kind of keeps it at the level of her brain. But I think she'd be very honored to be thought of as a blow-job artist.

The way in which Eat, Pray, Love became such a phenomenon spawned this whole industry, really, of women traveling in your footsteps to find themselves. And that's caused some people to say that, you know, you ruined Bali, things like that. What do you think of those kinds of criticisms?
[Laughs, long and hard.] I don't think I am a powerful enough force to ruin Bali. That seems like really grandiose thinking. But I think—and this wasn't my intent while writing the book, but it was a result of it—I think I encouraged women to go on journeys they wouldn't have otherwise. Eat, Pray, Love gave them the courage to act, whether they left toxic relationships or changed jobs or moved across the country or started writing for the first time. And yeah, some of them went to Bali, but very few of them, because that's a very expensive trip.

But I'm truly honored and humbled by the effect that my book has had. I hate to see women stuck. I think women are prone to needing a permission slip from the principal to do something, and I think Eat, Pray, Love became a permission slip for women to take steps they wouldn't have otherwise. I was just in Atlanta, and a woman came up to me after the reading and told me that when she turned the last page of the book, she put it down and got up and walked out of the house and away from what had been an abusive relationship. And she moved in with her mom and went back and finished school and now has a great job and her life has been totally transformed. I started crying. It still continues to amaze me the power that the book has had.

Obviously, more people loved Eat, Pray, Love than hated it, but for those that found you a very grating narrator—how do you try to convince them to read your fiction, which is so very different? Like, I told my sister I was reading The Signature of All Things and enjoying it, and her response was, "The barrier for entry for me to read that is so high. I find her insufferable."
What am I going to do about that? Call your sister and tell her to read it? I don't think there's anything I can do about that.

Well, I just wondering if there was any kind of marketing effort to the effect of, "Even if you hated Eat, Pray, Love, you should still check out Elizabeth Gilbert's new novel because it's totally different."
No, I would assume they're doing the opposite—trying to reach the 10 million readers of Eat, Pray, Love and convince them to buy a novel. I think it's extremely unlikely that The Signature of All Things will reach 10 million fans. I mean, it's crazy that happened in the first place. But you know, I'm a very content writer. I'm happy with my work and with the audience it reaches.

You were a writer-in-residence at the University of Tennessee during part of the time you were writing Eat, Pray, Love, and living at the old St. Oliver hotel. How conducive was living in Knoxville to your writing?
It was fantastic at that moment. I was really grateful because I had no plans, and I had just come back from traveling and my friend Michael Knight offered me this position, and it was a wonderful place to land. I had written the first draft of Eat, Pray, Love at a writer's colony, but all the editing was done at the St. Oliver. And it was fun to teach students. I'd never taught before, and I've never taught since, so I have very fond memories of that time.