Author Elizabeth Gilbert on Why Hilary Mantel's 'Wolf Hall' is 'Off the Hook'
Author Elizabeth Gilbert is best known for her bestselling memoir, "Eat, Pray, Love"--adapted into a movie starring Julia Roberts--but she's been longing to put that behind her. "After the tsunami of 'Eat, Pray, Love,' [my memoir] 'Committed' was scary to publish," she told Bookish. "It took one for the team: People got to have opinions about me--everybody got to vomit out whatever they needed to vomit out." Her latest book, "The Signature of All Things," is a new direction for Gilbert: historical fiction. For inspiration, Gilbert read Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and shared her thoughts on the book: "Isn't it f*cking mind-blowing, that thing? It just makes my ribs hurt how much I love that book, because it's just off the hook." Gilbert also told Bookish about her new novel, her beef with Philip Roth and which literary classic she thinks is "kinky and sexy and weird and dark and great."
Bookish: We loved the piece you wrote for Bookish decrying Philip Roth's advice to a young writer--that he stop writing. Do you enjoy taking on other writers?
Elizabeth Gilbert: I just don't have the [Norman] Mailer pugilistic thing. I don't think I've got the cojones for it. On the other hand, I couldn't stay quiet on [the subject] because it annoyed me so much. I want everybody to be friendly, but that particular issue just sets something off in me--it unleashes an anger in me that is too big to contain. [Laughs.] I'll be the Andy Rooney more than the Norman Mailer of the literary world.
Bookish: What are you most excited about with the publication of "The Signature of All Things"?
EG: It's the first time I've been excited about bringing a book out since "Eat, Pray, Love." After the tsunami of "Eat, Pray, Love," "Committed" was scary to publish because something had to be "the book that came out after 'Eat, Pray, Love.'" ["Committed"] took one for the team: People got to have opinions about me, have their opinions about memoir--everybody got to vomit out whatever they needed to vomit out. And then, there was this wind of liberation where I thought, "That's good, it broke the spell, and now we can all move on." I just felt this tremendous creative freedom to do whatever I wanted. So, I wrote the book that I would want to read, the book that I would want to spend years writing.
Bookish: When did the idea for "The Signature of All Things" come to you?
EG: I had inherited this book that had belonged to my great-grandmother. It was a 1784 edition of Captain Cook's voyages, and it had been in my home the whole time I was a child and we had been forbidden to touch it because it was way more valuable than anything we should have had. It was big, leather-bound--it looked like a magician's book of spells. And so my sister and I of course touched it all the time, and I had in fact written my name in it as a kid and therefore destroyed its value. My parents gave it to me once they discovered I'd written my name in it. It revived this wonder in me--I remember paging through this book as a kid and seeing all these nautical maps and epigraphic illustrations. I began to think, "It has to begin here. It's got to begin with something that has to do with Captain Cook, with botanical exploration and Joseph Banks and these great Age of Enlightenment figures who went out in the world to put into taxonomical order everything on earth and give names to the world." It started there, but it grew--and grew and grew. [Laughs.]
Bookish: What's the significance of the title?
EG: "The Signature of All Things" is a 16th-century botanical and mystical theory posited by a crazed [man with] hypergraphia--it's the opposite of writer's block; it's writer's diarrhea, basically. This guy [Jakob Böhme] was probably on the autism spectrum. He was a 16th-century German cobbler who had visions, and he believed that God had hidden in the design of every plant on earth clues to that plant's usage. He wrote tens of thousands of pages on this. His idea was, God so loved the world and so loved man that He wanted to make it obvious to man what to use the plant for--and that's why walnuts, which look like brains, are good for headaches and sage leaves that are in the shape of the liver are really good for liver ailments. For a long while [his theory] was commonly accepted to be true--a sort of scientific/religious collaboration of a notion, a weird mystical taxonomy. Then, as the Age of Enlightenment came and people decided to focus on facts more than dreams, all of it broke down as they realized there are actually a lot of plants that have leaves that are shaped like livers and some of them will kill you [laughs].
I have a crazed, mystical character in the book--the love interest of my very scientific heroine--who still believes in Jakob Böhme. Even though he knows it's out of date, he still believes that God has left thumbprints in every plant. I also like the sound of it as a title. It's got a kind of elegance.
Bookish: What were your biggest challenges in writing historical fiction?
EG: Whether I could do it. Whether I could convince anyone. I was really inspired by reading "Wolf Hall." I read it twice to figure out how [author Hilary Mantel] did it--which I could not figure out because it's truly a masterpiece. But I was looking for "the signature of all things" in her writing. [Laughs.] She's writing a contemporary novel about a particular time, and she doesn't have any anachronisms there--nobody's LOLing--but, at the same time, it feels of this moment. I can't stand candlestick-y historical romance where it feels like "Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe." I wanted [my book] to feel fresh and current, but it's about these people who happen to live in this time. I don't think I would have been able to pin together how to do that if I hadn't read Hilary Mantel.
Bookish: What's the book that you've recommended the most, overall?
EG: Probably a toss-up between "The Portrait of a Lady" or "Bleak House," and these days I'm on a "Jane Eyre" thing. [It was] a big hole in my reading resume. I'd always thought it was boring and moralistic, but it's so kinky and sexy and weird and dark and great, so that'll be probably the new one from now on. What are you recommending to people?
Bookish: "Wolf Hall!"
EG: Isn't it f*cking mind-blowing, that thing? It just makes my ribs hurt how much I love that book, because it's just off the hook. It's off the f*cking hook. It's so good. It's staggering, staggering. I've been pushing that book down people's throats. [Laughs.]
Bookish: Mantel's a fascinating person, too, isn't she?
EG: Oh, dude, she's wild. She's spooky and wild, and she talks to ghosts, and she has visions, and she pulls up a chair and has her characters communicate with her. Read "Beyond Black." It's about a mystic, and it's sick. It is so sick, in all definitions of that word: It's sick-good, it's twisted, perverse, dark and, well, great.
I love [Mantel's] joy in writing--that's a big important thing for me--and I love her self-confidence. I love that she just knows she's got this. She's like, "No, I got it. [The third book in the trilogy] is going to be as good as the other two. I know what I'm f*cking doing here." There's no weird fake modesty in her.
Bookish: That's what she said when she won her second Booker Prize, right? Something along the lines of, "They gave me the award because it was the best book."
EG: [Laughs.] I know. She doesn't give a sh*t, and I love that. Dickens was like that. Dickens called himself "the inimitable." He knew he had the goods that nobody else had. It's not even vanity--it's just certainty. It was interesting to see [Mantel's] kerfuffle with Kate Middleton--not with, but about, Kate Middleton--which was so freaking silly, especially because she was defending her, but whatever gets [Mantel] out there, I don't care. I just want everyone reading her.
Elizabeth Gilbert is the acclaimed author of five books of fiction and nonfiction. Her 2006 memoir, "Eat, Pray, Love," was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller; it has been published in more than 30 languages and has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and in 2010 was made into a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts. Gilbert's debut novel, "Stern Men," was a New York Times Notable Book; her short story collection, "Pilgrims," was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and her memoir of marriage, "Committed," was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. In 2008, Time magazine named Gilbert one of the most influential people in the world. "The Signature of All Things" is her most recent book.