Elizabeth Gilbert, the best-selling author of Eat Pray Love, talks about why she chose to combine botany, history, travel and romance in her first novel in 12 years, due this week.
Eat Pray Love brought Elizabeth Gilbert everything that an author could ask for. Since then, she’s written memoirs, autobiographies but The Signature of All Things (published by Bloomsbury to be released on October 1) is her first novel in a decade.
A mammoth book, 500 pages and a century long, it is a highly unusual book that takes you on a journey through barbaric lands and beautiful mosses, and transforms a subject so far relegated to botany textbooks into something magical.
Excerpts from an interview:
Your book starts with Captain Cook’s voyage, and quickly becomes a saga that encompasses botany, medicine, mysticism. What drew you to the story?
There were two reasons, really. After Eat Pray Love, I bought a house and returned to gardening, which I hadn’t done since I was a child. Once I got my hands on the soil I realised that the next thing I wrote would have to be about plants. And then I came upon this 1784 edition of Captain Cook’s voyages that belonged to my great-grandfather. I had never read such a thing before. This radical book spoke of travels and discoveries and conquests. It was incredible. From there, it was a very short journey to writing this novel.
Alma Wittaker isn’t pretty, she doesn’t miraculously become beautiful as the novel progresses, her heart is broken and stays broken, and she’s a scientist with a penchant for moss. One doesn’t come across a protagonist like her very often.
One thing I really wanted to do was to turn on its head the two endings women are usually allowed; certainly in 17th century fiction but also in today’s contemporary fiction. You either get the happy marriage to Mr. Darcy or you end up on the tracks like Anna Karenina because love did not work out for you.
But I think the reality of women’s lives is that most of us live in between, neither living fairy tales nor stuck in tragedies. Most of us live with the reality of getting a little of what we want and a lot of what we don’t want. Our lives are a lot about reconciling with disappointments. And I’ve always been very interested in the idea of how women through the ages handled disappointments in their lives.
I wanted to write about a woman who was real, who didn’t necessarily get everything she wanted, but lived a fascinating, tremendously dignified life, directing her passion towards her work. We don’t usually have that, a book that concentrates on a woman’s passion towards her work.
Almost every woman in the book is strong. Prudence, Alma, Hanneke, Beatrix— every single one of them has agency, has the will and intelligence to carve out her own space. It’s unusual to see women this free to choose their lives in a historical fiction.
I’ll be honest with you. Initially my intention was to write about a woman of towering intellect with great pioneering ideas, who couldn’t make a place for herself because she was a woman, but when I actually started to research on 18th and 19th century female botanists — and there were several of them — I started to realise that telling the story in such a way would be an insult to their lives. Several of them were highly respected, many of them were published and accepted and leading botanists. I thought that it would be unfair to their lives and work to tell such a simplistic story. So instead, I chose to write about what I think is one of the primary demons that held back Alma, and a lot of other women. She held back her work not because she was a woman, but because she was a perfectionist. While I am not a perfectionist myself, I have friends and I have seen many women who will not put their work out in the world until they believe it to be perfect. First of all, perfection doesn’t exist, and second, lack of perfection never stopped men from putting themselves out there.
A lot of historical fiction is like costume drama, intended to only put women in beautiful clothes and have them in horses and carriages. The last thing I was interested in was what kind of a dress Alma or any other female character in the book would wear. I did a tremendous amount of research about 18th and 19th century botany, I read letters and journals and I discovered their natural lives.
There were a lot of women who were interested and working in science, sometimes indirectly, because their husbands were scientists, and sometimes independently. There were always women always behind the scenes, they were always present, I just had to dig deeper to find them. Their presence was very powerful. And also, it wasn’t very difficult for me to write about strong women because I come from a family where the women run things.
Holland, United States, Tahiti, United Kingdom — your book is a voyage across all these places and more. You’ve written about each of them in great detail. Tell us a little about the geography of the book?
Every country I’ve covered in the book, I was brought to by history. I realised during my research that there was no way I could write about chemical and modern science without writing about the Dutch. It was the chemical centre of the world during the 18th and 19th centuries. Everything I read about, the fever tree that Henry studies, the advancement in medical science, everything brought me to the Dutch. And as for the rest, every adventure had to be situated in the right place. I knew Tahiti had to play an important role in the book because of how essential it was to Captain Cook. The New World was where Henry would start his new life, and I chose Philadelphia because it was the first place in America that medicine became important. This was probably because it was largely a Quaker town and young Quaker men had very few career options.
This is your first novel after the roaring success of Eat Pray Love. How much have you changed as a writer?
I am much more confident. In the last 10 years I’ve learned so much as a writer, I’ve learned to pick a character, a story that I can write about. When I wrote Stern Men I was still in my 20s, and going through all the usual dramas all the time. Having settled down, now in my mid-40s, I no longer live dramas, I write them. I have come to the realisation that to write remarkable dramas, you have to be relatively free of them in your own life.
Eat Pray Love got you recognition and fame. Your name is indelibly attached to the book now. How does this affect expectations of your new book?
I will always be recognised for Eat Pray Love, I know that. But I don’t consider this a ghetto, a banishment. I am very proud of the book and, over the years, I have come to love its readers. I feel immense affection for them, they are intelligent, passionate people who have taught me a lot. I care about them and in no way do I want to run away from them or the book.
This novel is perhaps my open question to them — I am grateful that you came along on my journey in Eat Pray Love.