No more soul baring for now

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 19, 2013

After two best-selling memoirs of travel and romance, American author Elizabeth Gilbert, 44, is tired of baring her soul for public consumption.

Having chronicled her painful divorce in the 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love and her hesitant steps towards a second marriage in the 2010 sequel, Committed, she has gone back to writing fiction with a new historical novel.

"I have no emotional stakes in this novel," she declares with a laugh, in a telephone interview from her home in New Jersey to promote The Signature Of All Things.

Her seventh book is a lavishly detailed period story about a female botanist in the 19th century, which took three years to write and research.

Published on Oct 1 by Penguin US, the novel celebrates the author's newfound love of domesticity and gardening at the house in New Jersey she shares with her husband of six years, businessman Jose Nunes, 61.

It started with having a house and leisure time, "after many, many years of travel and upheaval", to examine boxes of things she inherited from her parents.

One treasure found during this period was her great-grandmother's 1947 book of recipes, At Home On The Range, which was republished last year by McSweeney's.

Another was an illustrated 1884 edition of Captain Cook's Voyages, which revealed how such historical sea voyages led to various different plant species being imported into America.

Gilbert, newly enamoured of watching her garden grow, decided "this was the only thing I wanted to write about".

It has been 13 years since her last work of fiction, the 2000 novel Stern Men, about turf wars between fishing communities in Maine. She finds fiction both harder and easier than memoir - harder because it requires world-building, but easier because "the emotional stakes are not present".

"Your life is not laid out for examination," she says. "I almost flinched to put Commited out in the world."

Committed chronicles the strangely romantic tale of why Gilbert and Nunes, two divorcees who swore never to marry again, finally decided to tie the knot.

Nunes, who is from Brazil and referred to as "Felipe" in his wife's writings, needed a visa to stay permanently in the United States.

Now they have a house and garden, and operate a store in Frenchtown, New Jersey - Two Buttons, which sells curios from South-east Asia.

Nunes does the cooking at home and is apparently deeply supportive of his wife's passion for putting their relationship into print.

"I showed my husband every word of Committed. He was part of the process, he was next to me the whole time," she says.

"Committed had to come out because it would have been emotionally unfair to my readers to follow Eat, Pray, Love with a novel."

Gilbert does indeed have a mammoth fan following. Eat, Pray, Love, which documented her journeys to Italy, India and Bali, Indonesia on a "psychospiritual" quest - her own words - has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and around 40,000 in Singapore so far.

Her fame grew after the book was turned into a 2010 movie starring Julia Roberts. Critically panned - although Gilbert was deeply moved by it - the film sent hordes following in the writer's footsteps, almost doubling Bali tourism numbers to 3 million the year after its release.

"I'm careful to say Eat, Pray, Love's message is not 'get divorced and move to India', so please don't do anything drastic," the author says, seguing into a funny story about a public reading she gave some years ago, where an Italian woman asked her why so many American women head to Italy after they divorce.

This fan went on to say that Italian women go to India to recover from heartbreak, while an Indian woman at that same reading revealed that her fellow citizens prefer to head to America instead. "So there's this whole stream of divorced women circling the world," Gilbert says, breaking into a laugh.

So what then is the real message of the book? "The message is: 'Do you dare to ask yourself the question so many women pack away? Who am I and what do I want to do with my life?'"

Far from the naif diarist of her memoirs, Gilbert is a savvy New York journalist who has written for stalwarts such as GQ and The New York Times Magazine, among others.

Born into a family of Christmas tree farmers in Waterbury, Connecticut, she studied political science at New York University and became a freelance writer, supporting herself by waitressing in a diner, working in bookstores and even bartending.

She wrote her first two books, the short story collection Pilgrims (1997) and Stern Men, in the New York Public library because her apartment, sub-let from a drug dealer, was too noisy.

"In the reading room, your silence is protected."

Pilgrims nearly won the Pen/Hemingway award for first-time writers of short fiction (it went instead to Chinese-American writer Ha Jin for his debut in 1996, Ocean Of Words), but her real early claim to fame is a 1997 article about bartending published in GQ. The Muse Of The Coyote Ugly Saloon chronicled her time in a bar owned and staffed entirely by women, and led to the 2000 movie starring Piper Perabo.

Her 2002 biography of Eustace Conway, who lives off hunting and trapping in the Appalachian Mountains and eschews consumer culture, The Last American Man, was a finalist for America's biggest critical accolade, the National Book Award.

So she does not mind the "chick-lit label" slapped on her since Eat, Pray, Love. "It's not something I'm going to lose sleep over," she says. "The only way to win that battle is to claim it. 'Chick-lit' has become meaningless. A book women write and read, which can be anything, that's a really wide net to cast.

"I was a woman who wrote like a man and suddenly I became the spokesmodel for chick-lit. I honestly would rather be dismissed as chick-lit and write books that uplift women's lives."

The Signature Of All Things is in stores now.


Elizabeth Gilbert has written seven books, including a short story collection, two novels, a cookbook based on her great-grandmother's life and recipes, a biography and two bestselling memoirs.

Here are her greatest hits.

ST 20131019 GILBERTACUO 3885996m


Originally published in 1997, republished 2007/Penguin/Paperback/224 pages/US$11.19 (S$13.90)/

Pilgrims collects 12 tales that run the gamut from romance to immigrant woes and environmental concerns. It was a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway award for first-time writers.

ST 20131019 GILBERT 3885995m

The Last American Man

2002/Penguin/Paperback/288 pages/US$11.92/

This biography was shortlisted for America's National Book Award. Gilbert's subject is Eustace Conway, who has lived off the Appalachian Mountains since he was a teenager, making fire with sticks and wearing the skins of animals he has trapped.

ST 20131019 GILBERT 7J04 3886014m

Eat, Pray, Love

2006/Viking/Paperback/ 352 pages/$18.14/Major bookstores

Gilbert's memoir of divorcing her first husband and setting out to find herself in a series of adventures across Italy, India and Bali, Indonesia, spoke to millions of women and was made into a 2010 movie starring Julia Roberts.

It has sold 40,000 copies in Singapore alone since it was first released.

ST 20131019 GILBERT 3886013m


2010/Viking/Paperback/285 pages/$17.07/Major bookstores

Another soul-baring memoir, this book describes how she and the Brazilian man she met at the end of Eat, Pray, Love finally decided to marry and live happily ever after.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 19, 2013

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