Interview with Elizabeth Gilbert in today's Weekend magazine in the Irish Independent
January is the month that many of us vow to undergo a complete personal overhaul. It might be a pledge to lose weight, eat healthier, change jobs or perhaps finally put a flailing relationship out of its misery. Some might decide to travel; to find themselves by getting lost somewhere. Others may commit to cultivating - or discovering - their spiritual side.
Writer Elizabeth Gilbert is one person who more than understands the attraction of these impulses for self-reinvention and self-discovery. At age 31, she realised that her six year marriage was over. A bitter, shattering divorce ensued, followed closely by a destructive rebound affair with a younger man, all of which, by her own admission, caused Elizabeth to consider ending her own life.
Instead, she managed to pick herself up off the floor - literally - and escape to Italy to learn the language, eat the food and absorb the culture. From there, she moved onto India and Bali to deepen her newfound interest in meditation and spirituality, where she found both enlightenment and a new love.
In 2006, Elizabeth, published her account of those experiences in a memoir entitled Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything. The book struck a nerve and gradually became a phenomenon (see panel), spending 57 weeks at the No 1 spot on the New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list, and eventually selling almost 7m copies in 40 countries worldwide. Time magazine named Elizabeth as one of the world’s most influential people in 2008, and later this year a movie adaptation of the book is due out, starring Julia Roberts as Elizabeth, along with James Franco and Javier Bardem.
“I don’t think I’ll ever know what was behind it,” says Elizabeth (now aged 40), speaking exclusively to Weekend from her home in Frenchtown, New Jersey. “But from talking to people who were passionate about the book - women especially - it seems that it acted as a kind of permission slip for them to be who they are and to vocalise certain things about their own lives.
“It’s not even that it gave permission for everyone to get divorced and flee to India, but I’m really moved when women tell me that reading the book caused them to remember themselves, and to rediscover a joy that they had lost along the way.”
Considering how burned Elizabeth was by her first marriage, it might surprise fans to learn that her new book focuses on her decision to walk - hesitantly - down the aisle for a second time. Committed: A Sceptic Makes Peace with Marriage covers an 18 month period from where Eat Pray Love left off. Elizabeth is blissfully in love with her new Brazilian-born paramour Jose Nunes (known to readers as ‘Felipe’), a fellow “divorce-survivor” 17 years her senior whom she met in Bali.
Having resettled in America, the couple swore their commitment and fidelity to one another, but vowed never to get married. However, in 2006, Felipe was detained by the Department of Homeland Security, having used his three month-at-a-time visa waiver once too often. He was ordered to leave the country.
The couple were told the easiest way for him to be allowed re-enter was to get married. They spent the next 10 months in exile in Australia and south-east Asia as they waited for Felipe’s paperwork to clear the bureaucratic maze. During that time, Elizabeth decided to study the institution of marriage, interviewing friends, relatives, and people from different cultures, largely as an act of self-persuasion before marrying Felipe in a small ceremony in the US in 2007.
“The title is a reference to Mae West’s line that, ‘Marriage is a wonderful institution, but I’m not ready for an institution yet’,” she explains. “I went into my research for this book seeing marriage as a rigid, ancient, outdated institution that people are shoved into and in which they must conform.
“I came out of it having developed an admiration for marriage almost on a Darwinian level. It has an amazing capacity to change itself in whatever ways are necessary in order to stay relevant. I think marriage today is at another point of evolution where it’s going to gave to do what it’s always had to do which is to shift and become relevant all over again. The institution always finds a way, or the couples do, or sometimes the courts in any given land have to do it.”
Elizabeth adds that many people rush into marriage without fully thinking through the consequences. “I don’t know what it’s like in Ireland, but here in the States there is a fetishisation of weddings. It creates a lot of confusion for young women in particular where they can’t separate ‘wedding’ from ‘marriage’. There are a lot of people who believe that they want to get married when in fact what they really want is to have a ‘dream wedding’, and there’s not a lot of thought about what comes after.”
This time round, marriage seems to be working for Elizabeth, though, as she jokes, “it’s only been two years so it’s still a little too soon to be making huge projections.” She continues: “I choose a much better husband this time, but also I’m giving him a much better wife than I gave my first husband. I’m a grown-up now, he’s older than me, financially we’re more stable and artistically I’m more confident. Also there were pressures in my first marriage that are not in my second.”
This is a reference to having children, or indeed not having them, which was a major factor in the demise of her first marriage. Elizabeth writes very proudly in Committed about her decision not to have children, even though a lot of people don’t understand or respect the position. “It’s as big a decision not to have children as it is to have them,” she says. “What I found in my research which is very revealing and very comforting is that it’s not a new thing for women to decide not to have children.
“If you look across human history, you’ll see that consistently, in population after population, there is a steady percentage- around 10pc - of women who never reproduce. It’s such a high number that it suggests to me that maybe, as a species, we need a few women who never have babies and whose energies are not depleted by child-rearing; that there’s some other role that we’re meant to play in society. I call us the ‘Aunty Brigade’. There are some of us who are meant to be moms and some of us who are meant to be aunties.”
Elizabeth Gilbert was born and raised on a Christmas tree farm in rural Connecticut. She moved to New York to study at age 19, and worked nights as a barmaid in a famous East Village pub called ‘Coyote Ugly’. Years later she turned that experience into an article for GQ, which was then made adapted into a hit movie in 2000.
She went onto publish three books all with male subjects at their core (The Last American Man was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award). Then came Eat Pray Love, and, one can only assume, a huge amount of pressure to deliver a follow-up of equal impact.
“Honestly, I think I’ve been granted a little bit of a reprieve just by nature of the fact that it was so ridiculously, out-of-sight successful,” she says with a chuckle. “I’d be crazy to even try that twice. I plan on writing many more books. My next one is going to be fiction, and I’m under no illusion that there will ever again be anything else in my professional life to match Eat Pray Love, and there doesn’t need to be either.”
Given the extent to which it penetrated popular culture, the book inevitably drew its fair share of critics and detractors who accused Elizabeth of ‘abandoning critical thinking’ and encouraging ‘unrealistic shortcuts to happiness’. That must have stung?
“Well, you don’t love it,” she replies with a wry laugh, “It’s never easy when people attack you or your work. The thing is I’m truly sympathetic to the criticism of Eat Pray Love because I think it leaked into an audience it was never intended for, people who had no business reading it. I’m sorry for them but there was nothing I could do about that.”
Another potentially unpleasant side-effect of her success could arrive in the form of a book that is reportedly being penned by Elizabeth’s first husband, Michael Cooper. Displaced, which is due to hit the shelves around the same time as the release of the Eat Pray Love movie, will tell his version of the events surrounding their painful separation and divorce.
“I don’t know an awful lot about it,” she admits. “I don’t have any contact with him and I don’t have any way of stopping it or controlling it even if I wanted to. That’s what it means to be divorced. He can do whatever he likes and there’s nothing I can do about that. It will be what it will be. I’m really not that agitated about it. I don’t know what his intentions are so it doesn’t make sense to worry.”
In the meantime, it’s safe to assume that Eat Pray Love-mania will kick off all over again once the movie opens. “It’s a dream to see your life reconstructed with a much more ideal human being than yourself,” she laughs. “I was in Rome watching a scene on a street where I had been standing six years earlier hearing Julia Roberts speaking words I had said. I was thinking, ‘It’s so familiar, she’s just like me - except thin, and with incredible hair, and 36 inch legs’.”
As our interview time ends, I ask Elizabeth if, in all her years travelling the world, she ever made it to Ireland. She laughs - indeed, cackles is probably a more accurate word - in response. “Funnily enough, I came to Ireland for my first honeymoon,” she reveals. “The marriage didn’t end that well but we had a great honeymoon.” She also imparts some sage advice she received on that holiday. “I remember we were in a pub in Galway, and this old man said to us, ‘Just married huh? Don’t worry: it’s just the first 20 years that are the hardest’.”
Word-of-mouth and book club recommendations were the big reasons for the slow-burn success of Eat, Pray, Love, but Gilbert also owes a debt of gratitude to the most powerful woman in television, Oprah Winfrey.
The talk show titan - famously a fan and supporter of spiritual and self-help works - twice invited Gilbert on the show in 2007, which was enough to make her little tome go supernova.
Oprah was also an early advocate of Rhonda Byrne’s positive thinking juggernaut, The Secret, helping to propel it to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list.
Most recently, the Almighty O has made a superstar of spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle by heavily promoting his book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. To give some indication of who holds the real power, sales of Tolle’s book reached 3.5m within four week’s of Oprah’s endorsement.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that Elizabeth’s book has inspired its own satirical spinoffs. Writer Andrew Gottlieb put a boozy, mid-divorce male character at the centre of his ‘bloke-lit’ novel Drink Play F@#k: One Man’s Search For Anything Across Ireland, Las Vegas, and Thailand. Similarly, comedienne Sarah Silverman has published her own Gilbert-esque adventure entitled Eat Pray Fart: Life Lessons from the Sarah Silverman Program.
*Committed: A Sceptic Makes Peace with Marriage is published next week by Bloomsbury.