Last week my sister and I went down to Sacred Heart University in Fairfield to see Elizabeth Gilbert in conversation with WSHU radio host Trevor Crow. The event was part of WSHU's Join the Conversation lecture series, which hosted Kahled Hosseini earlier this year and will host Wally Lamb later this month. Among many things, Elizabeth discussed her new book, The Signature of All Things, which marks her return to fiction for the first time in twelve years. She engaged us all instantly with her realness; she has a way of talking about writing that manages to reach out and involve everyone in her audience, whether they relate to the process or not. She made us feel like we were doing something more profound and exciting than simply sitting and listening. One of my first impressions was of her wonderful capacity for warmth and positivity. My longtime suspicions were confirmed: she’s one of the most remarkably friendly – and truly funny – people you’ll meet.
Of The Signature of All Things she discussed the intricacies of its research, a process that took six years, and she gave some fun insights on how, where, and why she wrote it. She said that The Signature of All Things gave her an opportunity to delve into the world of some of her favorite writers, the masters of the 19th century. Here she could exercise her unique perspective to combine the historic setting of the novel with the very modern passions of her heroine, Alma Whittaker. When asked about how her characters came to her and whether she struggled with them, Elizabeth said the relationship was rather smooth. “I’m not a wrestler,” she said. “I probably wouldn't even wrestle with a mugger.” She talked a great deal about Alma and how important the character was to her. One of the many exciting insights I picked up was that Elizabeth wanted Alma to represent a different sort of female protagonist: one whose story isn't dependent on the traditional ending of other literary women from her era. So often in literature – then as well as now – our heroines meet either an Elizabeth Bennet style ending, or one more akin to Anna Karenina or Tess of the D’urbevilles. Alma’s would be different; but exploring the character’s sexuality was important to her as well, giving the character liberation on as many levels as possible. Another big part of the novel is its focus on botany, which she discussed as well. “I wrote a 500-page book about moss,” she joked, “but don’t worry, it goes down easy.”
The Signature of All Things was also, amazingly, the first book Elizabeth was able to write completely from home. It took on the feeling of a Victorian serial, she said, because of her unusual but welcome process: she would write a portion during the day and then read it to her husband at night. (“You guys know I’m married to Javier Bardem, right?”) She even talked candidly about the fickleness of her reception from critics and the overwhelming diversity of opinions on Eat, Pray, Love, the memoir which made her an overnight success. As someone who counts that among my favorite books, and who was deeply, personally affected by it, I so enjoyed the honesty with which she embraced it. She has the rare ability to be unperturbed by and yet still completely respectful of her critics – I love that! Later, she got personal when she talked about living with our fears and the criticizing voices in our heads. This was an especially inspiring point in the night, because her attitude is both optimistic and realistic.
After the interview, Elizabeth took the time to answer a bunch of interesting questions from the audience. She devoted her full attention to each one and gave truly profound responses, creating conversations with every point rather than simply providing answers and moving on. Her manner of engaging people and focusing completely on them – whether in an interview or in person – is a gift, and one she exercises with grace. Even when her signing caused a line that extended the length of the theater, she was never fatigued or inundated with her audience. After she graciously snapped a photo with us I took a moment to tell her about my experience with Eat, Pray, Love and how I saw life differently after reading it; she hugged me tightly and said, “Thank you for sharing that.” She’s a person genuinely in love with life and filled with grace and good-natured light, traits that shone through and made for a night that was inspiring, thought-provoking and just plain fun.
Many thanks to the folks at WSHU for making this event happen. They also recorded the evening which will eventually be available in a webcast - I'll certainly share the link to that on Facebook and Twitter when it's available!