While Elizabeth Gilbert's roots are in journalism -- she's a Pushcart Prize-winning and National Magazine Award-nominated writer -- it's her books that have granted her even more attention.
Gilbert departed from reporting in 1997, with the publication of her first collection of short fiction, Pilgrims. A finalist for the 1998 PEN/Hemingway Award, Pilgrims was also selected as a New York Times Notable Book, was listed as one of the "Most Intriguing Books of 1997" by Glamour magazine, and went on to win best first fiction awards from The Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Ploughshares.
Since then, Gilbert has successfully alternated between fiction and nonfiction -- a high-wire act that has paid off in a string of critically acclaimed bestsellers that includes her first full-length novel, Stern Men (2000); The Last American Man (2002), a National Book Award for Nonfiction; and Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia (2006), a celebrated spiritual memoir that landed on several year-end Best Books lists.
(Amanda H. Reid)
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Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Gilbert:
"I was once observed talking in my sleep, smiling with deep bliss as I said, ‘Ah...the writer's life!'"
"I was a terrible crybaby and coward as a child. I still cry a lot and am afraid of many things, like, for instance, surfing, skiing, and the possibility that somebody somewhere might be mad at me."
"I once accosted Wally Shawn in a restaurant where I was a waitress and he was a patron. I said to him something like, ‘You're a lovely, lovely man who writes lovely, lovely plays! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you, Wally Shawn!' He backed away slowly."
"I am far more of a loner than people would imagine. But I am the most gregarious and socially interactive loner you ever met. The thing is, I am fascinated by people's stories and I'm very talkative and can't ever say No to anything or anyone, so I tend to over-socialize, to give away too much of my time to the many people I adore. Therefore, one of the only ways I can ever be alone is if I go traveling solo. This is the secret reason I travel so much, and to such distant places. To get away from everyone I know. I love my friends and family, but I also love it when they can't find me and I can spend all day reading or walking all alone, in silence, eight thousand miles away from everyone. All alone and unreachable in a foreign country is one my most favorite possible things to be."
"The Disney movie Coyote Ugly was based on an article I wrote for GQ about my experience as a bartender in an East Village dive. I just had to add that bizarre fact because I still can't really believe it myself."
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In the summer of 2006, Elizabeth Gilbert took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Generally speaking, anything by Charles Dickens. I got started young on Dickens. My mother used to read us A Christmas Carol every year around the holidays, and my father, when I was 14, suggested that I might like Great Expectations, which I did. As I grew older, I worked my way up to the more difficult novels, and finally read Bleak House in my late teens and was staggered by its delights. Nothing I have ever read has filled me with more wonder. I love the compassion and sentimentality and breadth, and I use as my own example his businesslike approach to his task, the lack of tormented drama in his personal life that enabled him to be so ridiculously productive. When I was struggling through my own first novel, I turned to "Bleak House again and studied it like a primer on how to tell a story, how to differentiate characters -- basically, how to write a novel. He is the best teacher I've ever had.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Bleak House by Charles Dickens -- I can open this book to any page and be in the dazzling presence of a master.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman -- Our own beautiful American mystical prophet -- this is the most sacred text I know.
London Fields by Martin Amis -- Indefensible and misanthropic and evil and delicious and dirty.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog by Dylan Thomas -- My favorite collection of short stories ever, heart-punchingly beautiful and tragic and sublime.
Close Range by Annie Proulx -- My favorite living American author. Like everyone else who read the short story "Brokeback Mountain" for the first time, I was struck-down by the sheer, bare, unflinching power of it.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius -- I keep this in the bathroom and read from it, literally, every day. I like his humble, common-sense and somehow very contemporary philosophy.
Refusing Heaven by Jack Gilbert -- The purest artist writing poetry today. If the topic is not the very nature of dignity, wonder, humanity and grace, he isn't interested in writing about it.
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James -- I relate to Isabel Archer more than I do to any character in literature. I wrote my novel Stern Men as a reply to this book -- my own sort of optimistic American answer to its haunting old world questions.
The Gift by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky -- I guess maybe you could call Hafiz the 14th century Persian version of Walt Whitman. An incandescent, ecstatic pipeline to God.
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald -- Sebald's writing was something between elegy, poetry, contemplation, diaries. Nobody wrote, or thought, or -- I dare say -- FELT quite like him. I read his sentences with my heart in my throat. Every word is important, deep and resonant -- like chords played on a distant cello. We lost him too soon.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I'm a real populist. I can never answer this question without mentioning Raiders of the Lost Ark. I go to the movies to be entertained and thrilled. Libraries and churches are for intellectual meditation -- movies are for popcorn.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I can't listen to anything when I'm writing -- not the radio, not music, not voices. I envy my friends who are painters because they can listen and work at the same time. I need stillness, largely because I tend to read aloud to myself as I'm working (this also means nobody can work in the same room with me.) I love old country music, girls-with-guitars-and-broken-hearts music, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Patty Griffith, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson. But I've gotten out of the habit of listening to music at all lately -- maybe because I'm writing too much?
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
My feeling about literature is the same as my feeling about furniture -- it is meant to be used. There's no reason to keep a piece of furniture in your house that is so sacred and rare that you can't put your feet up on it and a dog can't jump up on it. Likewise, a book that sits on a shelf like a piece of porcelain, only to be admired, never to be read again, is a dead book. I try not to make my bookshelves into graveyards, so I'm constantly giving books away by the dozen. The minute I'm finished with a great book, I pass it on. I like to see books circling around, living and breathing and being enjoyed, getting handled and dropped and read in the bathtub and marked up with exclamation points. The more I like the book, the less likely that I'll keep it.
As far as what I like to receive -- just like every other devoted bookworm, my favorite four words are, "You Gotta Read This."
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have an all-encompassing lifelong writing ritual, which is to say -- I regard it as a holy practice, a devotional act, an expression of love. Every day. So that's my general approach. My daily practice changes based on what will help me best manifest that holy practice that day. I used to be more superstitious than I am now (I could only write with certain pens, at certain hours of the day, etc.) but now I think of my muse as tough, sweaty, sleeves-rolled up angel, who likes to get into it in every possible way -- not only when the stars are all aligned and I am facing East. I try to give her all the room and freedom she wants to jump out of me whenever and wherever possible.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I guess you could say I'm an overnight success who took about six years to become one. I collected rejection notes from the time I was about 18 until I was about 24. I didn't love being rejected, but it didn't slay me, either. I'd made my vows (almost like becoming a nun) to a life of writing and, while I was really hoping for success, that wasn't entirely the point. There was simply nothing else I wanted to do, or was much good at. Of course I have an ego, like everyone does, but it's not super-sized for some reason when it comes to writing. (It's much more of a problem in romantic relationships, but that's another story.) I have a reverential relationship with this work. I love the process. I think I am the luckiest person in the world that I get to do this as a career.
Once I finally got published, doors opened fast and wide to me and I've tried to gamely hop through as many of them as I can. I think my enthusiasm has helped launch me. I think editors have enjoyed working with me for that reason. Because I have become relatively successful now, I guess I've lost any credibility to say, "I honestly wouldn't have minded writing forever with no success at all." Who would believe that, if I said it? How could it be proven? But I like to think it's true. I do know this -- I love the work an awful lot. I always have. That said, of course, I'm insanely grateful for my success.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I can't get behind the ambition to be "discovered" as much as I can get behind the ambition to write beautifully and honorably and steadfastly. Here's what I believe about creativity. I believe that creativity is a living force that thrums wildly through this world and expresses itself through us. I believe that talent (the force by which ephemeral creativity gets manifested into the physical world through our hands) is a mighty and holy gift. I believe that, if you have a talent (or even if you think you do, or maybe even if you just hope you do), that you should treat that talent with the highest reverence and love.
Don't flip out, in other words, and murder your gift through narcissism, insecurity, addiction, competitiveness, ambition or mediocrity. Frankly -- don't be a jerk. Just get busy, get serious, get down to it and write something, for heaven's sake. Try to get out of your own way. Creativity itself doesn't care at all about results -- the only thing it craves is the PROCESS. Learn to love the process and let whatever happens next happen, without fussing too much about it. Work like a monk, or a mule, or some other representative metaphor for diligence. Love the work. Destiny will do what it wants with you, regardless. Just love the work.
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