‘Generosity is now a foundational virtue for me’: Elizabeth Gilbert7 min read . Updated: 14 Feb 2020, 12:11 PM IST
The writer speaks to Lounge about her intense love of people and life, making the time to write, and what keeps her grounded
It has taken me two days of relentless pursuit, but here I am at last, sitting with Elizabeth Gilbert on a sunny January morning on the grounds of the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur. It’s the third day of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) and the star guest of this year’s edition has granted only a handful of press interviews. It’s a prudent decision for a writer who admits she is much too invested in meeting new people—a pleasant contrast from the conventional image of the writer as a reclusive misanthrope. She has to say no, for no other reason than a practical concern over conserving her time and energy.
Gilbert is gregarious, her joie de vivre is infectious. She loves social media, she tells me; it enriches her work. “I want to meet everybody anyway, so it is a godsend for me." A big laugh punctuates this confession. “I enjoy rolling around the cyber world and collecting information, like a dog rolls around mud and gathers smell."
This is Gilbert’s first visit to India since 2004, after three aborted attempts in between. But she is just as thrilled as the last time by the “sensory overload" of the country (“For heaven’s sake, your senses are there for being overloaded!"). She describes a montage she saw the other day as she stepped outside the “beautiful bubble" of Rambagh Palace. “There was this girl vomiting out of a car window, a camel was sauntering by, someone getting a shave on the street and then, almost like in a Fellini movie, in comes a monkey into the frame!" More laughter. “I came to this life to do the full curriculum," she says. “I know sometimes it may be better for me to stay inside a bubble, but that’s just not my nature."
If you follow Gilbert online, you know this is not mere affectation. She puts herself out there like few writers of her celebrity do. She posts deeply felt, often intensely personal, updates; engages with her audience regularly; keeps tabs on what’s happening around her. But what’s baffling is her prodigious output, in spite of this commitment to living a full life—eight books, numerous articles, speeches and talks, alongside a punishing travel schedule.
“I have the soul of a serious writer but the personality of an airline stewardess," Gilbert quotes herself when I ask her about rationing her time while managing her eventful and peripatetic life. “But I have always been pretty good at demanding time for my work, even when I was a college student or working as a bartender, long before anyone heard of me or I had published anything." She mentions her friend, the writer Ann Patchett, as a counterpoint to her restless creative energy. “She has lived in the same house in Nashville for years, she’s sane and reasonable, a creature of habit, married to the same person for a long time—everything I am not. Ann says I’m a hunter and she’s a gatherer."
Like any deft hunter, though, Gilbert is focused and disciplined in her own way. She wrote her first two books at the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library. “I was really broke back then, so I intentionally took myself to a space—at least twice a week—where other people were working," she says. This regime of concentrated bursts of work persists to this day. She arrived in India earlier this year and spent 17 days at a retreat in north Goa, overlooking the Arabian Sea (“Can you imagine the exoticism of a place like that for someone who grew up in a Christmas tree farm in Connecticut?"). “I went off social media, wrote all day every day, and spoke to no one, except for the waiters of the hotel I was staying at."
It’s not surprising, Gilbert’s capacity for single-minded immersion. Whether it is writing, giving an interview, addressing an audience, or taking care of her late partner Rayya Elias, a musician, writer and director who died of cancer in 2018—Gilbert gives it her best shot. But perfectionism can be a major deterrent, to creativity as well as in life, as she argued in her 2015 book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. It was during her time as a carer to Elias that she realized she would never be able to administer her duties without faltering. “Your job as a long-time caregiver is to survive it, not to handle it gracefully," Gilbert says. “When I meet anyone in that situation, all I tell them is that I am praying for you to survive this."
This mantra of survival is key to the narrative of Gilbert’s life. It took her years of penury and three books to get famous, until the publication of Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search For Everything Across Italy, India And Indonesia in 2006 changed her life. Not only did it become a giant best-seller, it was also made into a hit movie, with Julia Roberts in the lead, in 2010.
On the first day of JLF, Gilbert spoke to Alexandra Pringle, the editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury Publishing, and her long-time editor and friend. The success of Eat, Pray, Love, she said, liberated her not only financially but also allowed her to take risks in spheres she hadn’t ventured into until then. Her ambitions as a writer, for one, grew audaciously in the subsequent years. But just as importantly, Gilbert discovered a capacity for openness within herself. She left a marriage of nearly a decade to be with Elias when she realized her feelings for her friend, soon after Elias was diagnosed with cancer. She found reserves of generosity in herself she didn’t know she had. “Generosity is now a foundational virtue for me," she tells me. “It is the only legacy I want to leave behind."
Gilbert’s emotional awakening influenced her ambitions as a writer and public figure as well. She is invested in highlighting the achievement of women who are unsung. “Don’t wait for the culture to catch up and bring in change," she says. “Do what you can in your private capacity." At the same time, she is attentive to the conversations about cultural appropriation happening around the world. “We can all agree that white Western culture has got a lot of attention and that it is time to step back and let other voices emerge," she says. “For instance, at this point in my life it is important for me to share my platform and resources with African American women."
The lives of women have been front and centre in Gilbert’s work all along, though the theme has returned in unexpected forms in her recent novels. In 2013, she published The Signature Of All Things, a novel about a woman botanist in the 19th century. Based on extensive research spanning years, it tells the story of a woman scientist’s courage and fortitude in the face of thwarted recognition. Women’s empowerment is explored in another context in City Of Girls (2019), Gilbert’s latest novel, set in the theatre scene of New York in the 1940s. “I wanted to write a story about promiscuous women, who were not besieged with guilt," she says.
Set in the epicentre of glamour, fashion and showbiz, City Of Girls is a propulsive read, poised to be turned into a movie by Warner Bros, Gilbert says. But its hurtling pace disguises the painstaking legwork that went into its making. “I usually begin with a rough idea of the historical moment I want to write about," Gilbert says. This thought is followed by “voracious reading" for months, while taking notes on index cards, until she is able to funnel her accumulated knowledge into the most crucial receptacle for a novelist: character. The plot comes last, and is often the hardest part.
You would think that after successive best-sellers and enduring celebrity, life is easier for Gilbert. But she quickly corrects any such presumption. “My mental illness keeps me grounded," she says with disarming candour. “It’s hard to get off on how awesome you are when, literally, every day of your life you wake up and have to deal with this situation up here," she points at her head. “It is a full-time job." Having once hit rock bottom and recovered from that utter loss of dignity—a period of her life she wrote about in an article titled “Confessions Of A Seduction Addict" (The New York Times, 28 July 2015)—she knows it’s best not to go around believing in her own press.
Since Elias’ death, Gilbert has achieved one feat that she couldn’t earlier. She now meditates, often twice a day, a habit she inculcated along with her partner, as she was nursing her through her last year of terminal illness. “When Rayya got sick, I ended up suffering from excruciating pain in my neck and shoulders," Gilbert says. “So I went to a chiropractor, an Indian woman in New York City, who told me that I won’t be able to live through this without prayer and meditation." The practice has continued since then. “No one is more surprised than I am," she says, bursting into one of her trademark laughs.