In Conversation Books

There are stories that want to be told: Elizabeth Gilbert

The author of ‘Eat Pray Love’ is back with a new saga set in the 1940s in the U.S.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, is back with a sprawling saga, City of Girls, set in 1940s’ New York. War rages across Europe and knocks at America’s doorstep, but Vivian Morris — a young Broadway seamstress barely out of her teens — is living the dream, juggling a seemingly glamorous work life with a torrid personal one, sampling all the pleasures the city has to offer till suddenly one day.... In an email interview, Gilbert talks about how she writes, what inspires her to write, and what inspired this novel in particular.

How did the character of Vivian Morris evolve? Why did you choose to tell the story from the point of view of a young girl?

For years, I’ve wanted to write a novel about promiscuous girls whose lives are not destroyed by their reckless sexual lives. (This

is not an easy story to find in the history of literature, where young female characters are usually ruined if they ever dare to follow their sexual desires.)

And I’ve also always wanted to write a novel about the New York City theatre world in the 1940s. By combining those two ideas, Vivian was born — a young girl who is sensual and reckless, and who spends her youth in the theatre.

There are stories that want to be told: Elizabeth Gilbert

I didn’t want to make her an actress or a dancer, because I felt that would be too obvious, so I made her a talented seamstress — someone who is literally in the wings of the great dramas, but who has a role to play as well.

To create Vivian, I spent a lot of time interviewing women in their 90s who had been in the entertainment world in the 1940s and 1950s. This was a great education! We may think of the past as having been a more innocent time, but these women had stories that would curl your hair, about their youthful exploits! Because of their candour, I was able to create Vivian.

You mention that it took you six years to write City of Girls. How did you sustain your relationship with the book in this period?

This is difficult to explain unless I use mystical language, but let me try to explain it. I have developed over the years a deep and abiding trust in my writing process, and in stories themselves.

I believe there are stories that want to be told, and that the story itself will help you write it — but only if you are patient and steadfast. I trust that when the story is ready to be told, it will tell me, and I will be its servant.

I know this sounds like magical thinking — and it is. But that’s how I work with creativity.

City of Girls is richly visual, almost cinematic. It evokes a strong sense of time and place. What went into the making of its vast and detailed universe?

Thank you for the compliment! I’m so delighted that you could feel and see the place that I was creating. That was certainly my wish. To write convincingly about the past (in this case, New York City in the 1940s) is almost like learning a foreign language. This is why it took me almost six years to create the book, because I needed to learn how to “speak” a world called “Manhattan, 1940.”

I did an enormous amount of research — reading novels and plays from that era, as well as diaries, letters, scripts, and even the invoices from old Broadway shows. The goal is to reach a place in my own mind where I can see and feel that world, and where I can pass as a native, at least within my own imagination. That way, when I start to write, it’s as though I am walking down those streets myself — not trying to convince anyone of anything, or sell a mood, but just living inside of that world. Dreaming in that language, if you will.

In your note to the reader, you talk about how much public discourse on sex and sexuality has changed in the last few years. How did these debates shape how you tell this story?

I started working on this novel before the #metoo movement began. I welcomed the #metoo movement when it arrived — it is long, long overdue, and deeply needed. But I didn’t let it change the way I wrote this book.

My novel is set in the 1940s, and it would be inauthentic to that time and place if the characters in the book were prematurely politically or socially “woke”.

These sorts of conversations simply were not happening during that era — certainly not among the showgirls, actresses, and playboys about whom I’m writing. So I was careful to keep modern sensibilities out of their discourse.

That said, as the decades go by, my character begins to awaken herself. She begins to notice, simply from her own lived experience, such things as injustice and double standards. But it comes to her slowly.

Your novels are all set in the past. In what ways do you think the past lends itself to creating commentary on the present?

I’ve always found it difficult to write fiction about the present — maybe because it’s too soon to tell what’s happening, or what is actually going on. We can’t have context or perspective on this current moment because we are too close to it — unable to see the forest for the trees. I prefer to pull my novelist’s gaze back and to look at history from a safer distance. But now you’ve challenged me! Perhaps my next novel should be contemporary... hmmm... we shall see!

Your writing has spanned different forms — fiction, nonfiction, memoir, biography. Which of these would you say best represents who you are as a writer? Why?

While I am more widely known for my memoirs, I feel most authentically at home and joyful when I’m writing fiction. It’s where I got my start as a writer, and it’s where I always feel most at home. But maybe I’m not the best person to answer that question. Again, I may be too close to it all, to be able to tell. I’ll leave the readers to decide which of my books best represent THEM — that’s the thing that matters!

In much of your writing you deal with people who undergo some kind of transformation as a result of key experiences in their lives. Tell us why transformation as an idea is important to you?

My goodness, what other story is there? Nothing is more dramatic than transformation. Imagine going to a dinner party and sitting across from someone who said, of their life, “I was born, and I grew up in a nice family, and everything has always made sense, and then I went to school and I was good at it, and my relationships have always been stable, and my work has always been fulfilling, and I’ve had no problems or dramas or emergencies, and my children gave me no trouble, and I still believe everything that I was taught as a child, and basically my life has always been very straightforward.”

I mean, you might think it’s very lucky of this person to have had such a non-dramatic existence, but is that who you really want to talk to at a dinner party? What could you learn from such a person? What tales could they tell? Wouldn’t you eventually just fall asleep in your soup, listening to them talk?

No, we want the juicy stories. We don’t always want to be living them, but we will forever want to be told them. That’s my job.

The interviewer is the author of Jobless Clueless Reckless.

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Printable version | Jun 2, 2020 11:42:22 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/there-are-stories-that-want-to-be-told-elizabeth-gilbert/article27232319.ece

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