Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert on being unbothered by bestseller's chick-lit tag: 'I consider it an honour'
'Women tell me that the path of their life changed after reading the book,' Elizabeth Gilbert says, of 2006 book Eat, Pray, Love. 'This is shocking to say but the book was the first memo they ever got that said, ‘Your life belongs to you’.'
“I don’t give a shit,” says Elizabeth Gilbert. The American author laughs out loud and the table of journalists interviewing her joins in. Gilbert is responding to a question about her 2006 bestselling book Eat, Pray, Love: “Are you bothered that people consider the book to be chick-lit?”.
Gilbert shouldn’t care. Eat, Pray, Love — a memoir chronicling her trip around the world after her divorce — became a New York Times best seller, was made into a film starring Julia Roberts, and got her on Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in the world.
She followed this up with Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, the self-help book Big Magic, and last year, City of Girls.
Gilbert was in India to attend the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2020.
Excerpts from the interview:
Are you bothered by the fact that people call Eat, Pray, Love chick-lit?
I don't give a shit. I am so lucky. I have had such a blessed life. People care about my work and they read it. And it's hardly like I’m marginalised. I have a beautiful audience that's mostly women. I respect them. I love them and care about them. There's a great line that WC Fields said: ‘It’s not what they call you, it’s what you answer to’. They can call me whatever they like but, it’s what I have achieved that is important.
It is girly in the sense that it was written by a woman about a female experience and read primarily by women. Now, if you consider that an insult, I’m sorry for you. I don’t. I take it as an honour.
A whole generation of women have taken comfort and inspiration from your books. Surely that must matter more.
You know, routinely women tell me that the path of their life changed after reading the book. This is shocking to say but the book was the first memo they ever got that said, ‘Your life belongs to you’. It’s amazing that at this moment in history, we still have to be handing out such memos. If my role in the world was nothing more than to hand that memo to 12 or 13 million women, I’m very happy I did it. I like to think of my entire existence as being a giant permission slip for women all over the world.
Sometimes people will say it’s an elitist book and that I had the privilege to be able to do this; not everybody can. That’s absolutely true and I think that those questions are important to address and discuss. But, after we’ve discussed it for a minute, I would direct people’s attention not to who wrote the book, but to who read it. It was read by women every culture, and age, all over the world. Some of them made radical decisions about their lives after. To me, that’s a much more interesting conversation.
You mention the new book you’re writing is about grief. Your earlier books too came out of a sense of loss…
I had been working on City of Girls for years. And then my partner [Rayya Elias] got ill and I couldn't imagine caring about that book ever again. Eighteen months went by, taking care of her until she died. Very soon after she died — I don’t know how to explain it because so much of creativity is mystical — I got a message. It was from what I call the mothership, from whatever the directive is in the sky, telling me the very best thing that I could possibly do for myself is write this book about joy, sex and sensuality, fun and frivolous things. The book would save me. And it was correct.
It gave me a job. And I’m so grateful that I had something to do. There would be a few hours a day where I wouldn’t have to think about the fact that she had died. I really wanted to offer this book as an escape to people who are anxious and stressed. Sometimes it’s nice to have a few hours off from the catastrophes of your personal life and the catastrophes of the world. So hopefully, people receive the book that way.
You believe in spirituality, in a higher power?
I certainly believe that I’m not in control of my life. I try to be but I’ve found that I’m not running the show. There’s a million pieces of evidence every day that I’m not in charge. It’s a dance, between me and a mystery. I cannot make things happen that are not supposed to happen. I can’t stop things that are supposed to happen. And when inspiration comes to me and says, ‘You have to make this book’, I’ll do my best. If it doesn’t succeed, I can’t make it happen. I’m interested in the dance more than anything.
After the loss of your partner, did you find grief has become more precious than love? Grief is very similar to love. First of all, it’s a side effect: you can’t grieve when you don’t love. Grief is the tax that you pay for love. It’s a steep tax, but it’s worth it. And another thing is, I’m not in control. I didn’t intend to fall in love with Rayya, it was extremely inconvenient for me but, the heart knows who it belongs to. I’m not in control of my grief either. I don't know when it will be over. When it hits me very hard, it comes in waves that are bigger than me, in the same way that love comes in waves that are bigger than me. And just as with love, I think you have to surrender to it. I have a lot of reverence for grief. It’s a great powerful God. When it comes and hits me like a tsunami, I just obey and get on my knees, and I just let it take me. Because if I resist it, it’s worse.
Do you still believe in the institution of marriage?
It exists, so I have to believe. I’m not a fan of it, and it’s definitely not where I belong. The depressing statistics and the data about how marriages are bad for women will make you want to lay underneath your bed and cry. There’s nothing that tells you that a woman is better off being married. Married women have shorter lives, they make less money, they’re more likely to commit suicide, to be murdered, or get addicted, they weigh more, their health is worse, they’re more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. The opposite is true for men: they do better, they live longer than single men, they’re richer, healthier etc. A woman takes years off her life, her health, her well-being and essentially hands it over to the man.
A good marriage requires an incredibly good partnership and a partner who won't allow for what’s the natural current: a woman giving everything of herself to a man. The thing that makes me crazy is that this has been known for a very long time and yet, every single culture in the world teaches us that a woman is not healthy, complete or well unless she is married.
Is that why you wrote City of Girls, a book about female sexual desire and sensual exploration? Were you trying to make a point about women?
I really just wanted to, as an experiment, write a novel about a promiscuous woman whose life is not ruined because of her sexual adventures. That’s such a difficult story to find in literature or opera or even music. There’s a very classical story of the ruined woman and it makes for really good drama. A woman has one orgasm and then she has to die. It’s so unfair. It's so mean. I wanted to write a story about a woman who could actually survive her desire.
— With additional reporting by Joanna Lobo
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