Elizabeth Gilbert’s engrossing new novel, The Signature of All Things, is the story of a 19th-century botanist named Alma Whittaker. Janet Maslin noted in her generally positive New York Times review that Alma is the sort of “serious” woman who might “never have read the 19th-century equivalent of Ms. Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Since she has no interest in fiction, she might sniff at The Signature of All Things, too.” I’m not sure she’s quite right, since the book is a rousing account of female intellectual development, which in many ways is also the subject of Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert was kind enough to talk to Flavorwire by phone about the book and some of those themes last week. Here’s what she said.
Flavorwire: I guess my first question would be: why botany?
Elizabeth Gilbert: Oh, why not? [laughs] A couple of reasons. One is, I recently moved, or a couple of years ago, I moved to small town in New Jersey and bought a house and kind of settled down after a long time of traveling. And immediately put in a garden much to my surprise. I had grown up on a farm and I had run away from all things rural, but I felt myself pulled back. And once I started gardening I got so excited. I knew whatever I was going to write next was going to be about plants in some way or another. And then I came upon this discovery of a book that had belonged to my great grandfather and had been in my family for a long time called “Captain Cook’s Voyages.” It was a 1784 edition of the complete ship logs of Captain Cook’s three trips around the world. And in there when I started reading through it, I discovered the whole idea of the Age of Enlightenment and the fascination with botanical exploration. Once I, put those things together I knew I would be writing a botany book and that it would be set in that time.
It’s interesting. I saw in some of your other interviews you said that another thing that sort of moved you to write this was Wolf Hall. And I just thought it was funny because, you know, the subject of that book is power and the subject of this book is plants.
What Wolf Hall did was show me how to write the book. I had been doing research already for about a year for this book, but I was still a little bit lost as to how to write a period novel that didn’t sound too period-y, and wouldn’t just be really annoying. And it took me a couple of reads of Wolf Hall to figure out the trick of, that who was writing a contemporary novel set in the past, and that’s kind of what I was trying to do with mine as well. So it kind of cleared up that mystery for me.
I wonder what drew you to the historical, in the sense that up until now in your fiction and nonfiction you’ve been pretty obsessed with the contemporary? [Pause] I mean, let’s put in that way…
[Laughs.] Fair enough. I don’t know. I think I wanted to entertain myself and try something new. I think I also wanted to… you know, it’s weird. I am obsessed with the contemporary as a writer, but as a reader I’m obsessed with the historical. All my favorite books have always been 19t-century books: Dickens, Eliot, Austen and Henry James and to a certain extent Edith Wharton.
What I love about that period is the narrator who is not only omniscient but incredibly self assured. Which I guess you would be if you were omniscient. Why would you be anything other than self-assured if you an omniscient being? [Laughs.] And I think that that wonderful strong narrator that knows everything and begins the novel with a very firm command of the story can convey to the reader that, “I’m under control here and I know exactly where we’re going, just trust me we’re going to have an incredible adventure.” That’s something that I feel is often missing from contemporary literature and so I think I wanted to try that kind of voice out. And I felt that the best way to do it was in something written from the time that those books come from.
It’s interesting that you say that about the confident narrator, because I was also very struck by the way that Alma is a bit unusual. I read and write a lot about “women’s fiction,” whatever the hell that phrase means, which I don’t know —
I’m glad you’re sorting it out.
… She seemed unusually self-confident is, I guess, the way I would put it, but that does feel like I’m imposing a contemporary frame on her. Do you feel that way about the character?
Well, she’s extremely self-confident, but she’s also modeled upon a certain number of women. She’s not based on any one in particular, but obviously I did a lot of research on 18th- and 19th-century female botanists. There were lots of them because that was the only science open to women, because flowers, you know. It’s almost like women snuck into the science of botany through the garden gate.
I should say just as a historical footnote, until the middle of the 19th century, when there was a movement inside the scientific world to get women out of botany or to rescue botany from women because men were afraid that they weren’t being taken seriously as botanists because so many women were doing it. They kind of got shunted out, but up until then there were some pretty remarkable and very self-assured female voices in that world. If you read a biography of Beatrix Potter, that’s another one, there were these kind of girls who were just incredibly comfortable in the natural world and very ballsy. So physically and emotionally stalwart, when you read their letters and diaries you’re struck by the absence of the “female” in their voice and they’re impatient for that as well. And so I feel as though Alma is not unusual because she’s certainly not implausible; there were others like her.
Of course, I have to ask you about the way that this book already is being read through the lens of Eat, Pray, Love. I wonder how you feel about that. I realize that you must be resigned to this fact that for the rest of your life this is going to come up, but…
It will, yeah, but in my perspective it doesn’t come up like a police rap. There’s almost this assumption that, “Oh, like, this thing that you have to deal with.” This thing that I had to deal with is a really wonderful thing that happened in my life, and the adventure itself was wonderful, writing the book was life-changing, the people who I met on that journey are still my friends, or in one case, my beloved husband, you know, so many… it was just this giving tree. And after all this time, I’m still capable of being incredibly moved by the strong reactions that a lot of readers, and especially a lot of women readers, have had to that book, and I’m touched that they embraced it that way, and that they trust me. That ongoing relationship is important to me, and I’m always trying to make very clear that I’m not trying to bury that.
So it’s just in my memory as a kind of nice thing, I’m not surprised or taken aback or appalled when people bring it up and I’m happy to talk about it. I remember hearing John Cougar Mellencamp once on a radio interview [where the interviewer is] saying, “Don’t you get sick of playing ‘Jack & Diane’?” and he’s like “You know what? Hardworking people who paid $45 to come and see my concert, didn’t pay $45 for me not to play ‘Jack & Diane.’” Eat, Pray, Love on one level is like my “Jack & Diane,” and I feel like whoever wants to ever talk about it can talk about it. The only problem is that I might continue to write books that might not be similar, but that’s not an act of aggression. [laughs] Just to entertain myself…
I also sort of wonder, on that book tour, meeting those people, it didn’t give you, I mean, you’re a journalist by training as well…
By practice more than training. [Laughs.]
I wonder if you couldn’t frame it as a grand research project in a way, learning all this stuff from readers about female self-actualization or fulfillment. All of those questions which are wrapped in your novel as well, right?
Well yeah, I suppose so. For me it was more. I’m trying to think of it more as a research project or as an unexpected spiritual trip. To have been invited into women’s confidences at that level has been really emotionally transformative for me. I think even more than intellectually transformative, if that makes sense? I’m sure that it all goes into a hopper and then comes out on the other end, or will one day if it hasn’t already. On my Facebook page I’m still having exactly those kinds of conversations with those readers every day, because that’s the kind of stuff that I’m also thinking about in my own life. All the same questions that I’ll probably be thinking about forever: How do you be a good person? How do you find your courage? How do you find your meaning? What if the relationship between self and other… how do you set boundaries while remaining an open human being? These are all questions that I’m still fascinated with, and I may not be directly writing memoirs about them, but I haven’t stepped away from that conversation. And I think readers of Eat, Pray, Love will recognize that in The Signature of All Things.
Where do you sit on the idea that the experience of finding fulfillment is kind of gendered?
I think it is gendered. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I don’t even know if it needs to have a morality put to it, but I think it’s still the case that women’s experiences in the world are different from men’s. The most difficult thing for women is giving themselves permission. I think women are constantly asking for permission for all sorts of things or asking whether they have the right to put themselves forward in the world in certain ways or to demand their joy over somebody else’s care.
I think I probably, in my early 20s, would have fought against that idea. Especially because I was trying to be a guy, largely because the women’s lives who I grew up seeing did not look enviable. I grew up like most of us — I shouldn’t say like most of us, that’s a huge generalization, but it’s not an unusual experience, let’s put it that way. To grow up in a world where the men are very entitled and the women are very self-sacrificing, and in certain things I saw where I was raised and I didn’t want to imitate that. I was more likely to imitate the feckless men than the exhausted women. So I tried, sort of, to de-gender myself, but now I feel kind of honored to be part of an ongoing conversation with women about what the value of meaning in their lives are. I don’t know if that answered your question at all.
It did. It occurred to me that one of things I thought you might say when I asked you, “Why write a historical novel?” is, it allows you to confront these questions of gender relatively directly. Which I felt like the book did. I know this is something that has preoccupied you because you’ve mentioned in other interviews that you felt, earlier in your career, like you needed to prove yourself to men. Whatever the hell that meant, too.
Prove myself as a man. I think that’s more of the truth. You know, make a man of myself in the world.
For a lot of women — especially women who write — that seems to be a central drama.
Yeah, it does.
It’s funny it hasn’t changed. It’s already going to inflect the reaction to your book, because when we talk about who your readers are as a result of Eat, Pray, Love, what we are really talking about — even though sometimes people want to be euphemistic about it — is the question: Is it OK to have women as your major audience? What are your feelings on that?
I think it’s OK. [Laughs.] There’s something that just makes me sort of frown and scratch my head about that in a really frustrated way, because you know the implication of that question is: are women readers as good or as valid or as legitimate as male readers or male editors or male critics? And, you know, I even get frustrated with the term “women readers” because I think at this point, since women are the consumers of 70% of all literature in this country, we should just call them readers. Or the readers. Or maybe just have a separate category for male readers. Which is a very, very small number of people.
And yet, the men who, the people who control the legitimacy of the literary world, they tend to be male. Which is very exhausting and annoying. There’s some weird, freaky Friday, opposite thinking about all this. It’s like backwards day. [Laughs.] Where it just doesn’t make sense in the same way that I feel, after having written two books, having done all that research about marriage… Every single possible study points to the fact that marriage does not benefit women as much as it benefits men. And every single possible cultural example points to women being desperate to marry and being incomplete if they are not married and then trying to escape it because it’s a trap. When in fact, it should be completely the opposite. It should men who are desperately diving into marriage because they’re going to have fucking great lives as husbands and it should be women who are desperately dodging it because they’re going to be giving up so much of themselves.
When you see this kind of insane reversal, where the facts just don’t line up with the conversation… it just can become very tiring. And I think that’s how I feel about the whole question of women readers vs. men readers. You know, women readers are the most sophisticated readers in this country and the fact that we are still questioning whether they are legitimate is… Um, I was going to use a really politically incorrect word. It’s stupid.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.