Elizabeth Gilbert, whose new book The Signature of All Things (Viking), comes out this month, is not overly concerned about living up to the sky-high expectations set by her 2006 blockbuster Eat, Pray, Love. For one thing, the new title is historical fiction, not a memoir/travelogue chronicling another personal freakout. For another, Eat, Pray, Love, which spent 57 weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list and became a Hollywood film starring Julia Roberts in 2010, “was so big, so not just a normal best-seller, that I don’t even have to bother competing with it,” she says. That is not to suggest that the 44-year-old Frenchtown resident, who has been living in New Jersey since 2008, does not have high hopes for the new 500-page tome. The meticulously researched book, set largely in Philadelphia, tells the story of Alma Whittaker, a well-heeled 19th century spitfire on a life’s journey marked by scientific, spiritual and romantic discovery. Gilbert talked with New Jersey Monthly this summer about being inspired by the nature in her Hunterdon County back yard; about the novelty of letting her husband, Jose Nunes, with whom she runs Two Buttons, a jewelry and housewares emporium in town, in on the writing process; about holing up in her attic to write; and about her thwarted plans to write “the big New Jersey novel.”
New Jersey Monthly: You say writing the new book was a different kind of experience. How so?
Elizabeth Gilbert: This was different even than the fiction I’ve written. It was a work of joy, to be honest. I feel really free right now creatively. It’s like the stakes don’t exist in life.
NJM: Doesn’t your enormous audience make the stakes even higher?
EG: You would think. But if someone casts you in a certain light, if they’ve decided who you are, there’s no point trying to convince them otherwise. Which means you can do anything you want. There’s a weird liberty in that.
NJM: So returning to fiction was liberating.
EG: Yes. And I was really expecting to have the same experience I did when I was writing my first novel, which wasn’t always such a pleasure. It was a veil of tears, my first novel. But I’ve been writing for 20 years, so I was bound to get better at it. With this book, I didn’t struggle. There’s a difference between something being difficult and something being a struggle. We can enjoy difficult things if we’re not weeping and anxious and working hard to push through a major obstacle.
NJM: Tell me about Alma, the indomitable 19th century botanist at the heart of “The Signature of All Things.”
EG: There’s a lot of me hidden in her. It’s so funny how your fingernails—your DNA—work into your characters. I don’t see how you could do a novel without it being at least a little autobiographical. Alma is way tougher than me, and way smarter, though.
EG: Well, I had to do tons of research. I spent years immersing myself in two things: 18th- and 19th-century botanical history, and also the language of the 19th century. I needed that to write from her perspective. I also had a wonderful coach [SUNY professor Dr. Robin Wall-Kimmerer], a moss scientist, who I mention in the acknowledgements. She was a muse to me—a really wonderful writer and a very sensitive, artistic person. I came to her before I started the book, and I felt like I was meeting a rock star. But she was so generous. And I came to her almost for permission. I asked her, “Is it possible someone could unlock the secrets of much bigger things just by studying the mosses in her back yard? And don’t say no, because my entire book depends on it.” She said yes.
NJM: And that set you off on your journey to the 19th century.
EG: It’s my wish and hope that I’m historically accurate. But I’m sure I’ll hear criticism from people who know those worlds better than I do.
NJM: Why historical fiction? Why not a modern story?
EG: I can kind of trace the inspirational revolution in two parts. The first part was discovering in my mother’s house this 1784 edition of Captain Cook’s Voyage. I remember looking at it when I was a kid, and it had these incredible illustrations. That rekindled my love of that era. And then the other part of it was settling down in New Jersey and wanting to know my own world better after having traveled so many years.
NJM: But the book is set in Philadelphia, not New Jersey.
EG: Initially I wanted to set the book in New Jersey. I wanted to write the big New Jersey novel. I started gardening here, and I started hiking and exploring this area, stomping around from place to place. Because I never knew one place well, and I wondered, How much can you learn about the world just from what’s in your back yard? I began to imagine this female botanist, who was a great explorer but incapable of traveling. My plan was to set the book right outside of Princeton, but the evidence just grew and grew that the only place she could settle was Philadelphia, because of the trade in America at the ports there, and other reasons. So with much reluctance I had to move it out of New Jersey.
NJM: Not entirely, though.
EG: Right. Unfortunately the only part left in New Jersey is a mental hospital in Trenton.
NJM: Did you write in Frenchtown?
EG: I wrote all of it at home. It was the first time I’ve ever done that…I tend to be unable to work with any distraction around me, so in the past I’ve had to farm myself out, go away someplace. The book is actually a testament to how quiet and nice my home life has become.
NJM: You had complete privacy?
EG: Actually, it also became a part of the book that every night I would read what I had written to my husband. It was a sweet thing, something I had never done before. I got to be Scheherazade. I think it made the book a better book—I had to keep his attention. It was an act of love. Before that, I had never shown anybody anything I had written before I was done with it. Because there’s a bit of perfectionism in me.
NJM: But you weren’t worried about Jose’s criticism?
EG: It would be harder if I were married to a writer or an editor, but he’s just someone who likes a great story.
NJM: Do you have a studio at home?
EG: I write in the attic of my house. We live in a Victorian house that was built a little later than the dates I was writing about, but it’s close enough that you could blink and it would seem the same time period. I’ve turned it into a really private space—it’s not a room that other people walk through, or that’s used for secondary purposes. There’s no Verizon bills. I’m at a remove from all that.
NJM: Were you in the room all day when you were writing? Long into the night?
EG: No, I get up really early to write. The morning hours are when my brain seems to function best. I’m usually up between 5 and 6. That’s four hours of work I can do before the world wakes up at 10 and the phone starts ringing and the disasters arrive.
NJM: I read an early review of The Signature of All Things that calls it “An enjoyable novel about women, sexual frustration and plants.” What do you make of that?
EG: That’s a good analysis. That’s right on. The only thing that I can do that Jane Austen and George Eliot couldn’t do [because of the time in which they lived] is write about sexuality. I wanted to create a character who was sexualized, with a body full of longing, but not beautiful, and not living in a time where that might be explored in an easier way. I also think sexual frustration can be a metaphor for other frustration. It’s all a part of repression. How do you find a voice? How do you find expression when it’s not available to you?
NJM: Do you have a goal for this book? Do you think, or hope, that “The Signature of All Things” will become as big as “Eat, Pray, Love”?
EG: I do have a question for the reader with it, something I was playing around with: In the 19th century, there was really no other entertainment other than music or the theater, so people just devoured great big books. With this book, I’m sort of asking, Do you want to do that again? In an era that everybody is accused of having no attention span, I hope and submit that if you can hold their attention, people will read books. As far as being as big as “Eat, Pray, Love,” I don’t know. My feeling is, I’m such a populist. I tried to write a novel that would be for all readers, including people who loved “Eat, Pray, Love.” I hope they like it. Everybody’s very, very invited.