Elizabeth Gilbert: Eat, Pray, "Burn Everything Down and Run"

Mother Jones

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IF ANYONE CAN MAKE a story about a spinster who devotes her life to the study of mosses read like high adventure, it’s Elizabeth Gilbert, who published three critically acclaimed works of fiction and biography before she turned her own pizza-eating, meditating, soul-searching travel exploits into the 2006 bestseller Eat, Pray, Love. Next came Committed, a follow-up memoir that explores her ambivalence toward marriage, and At Home on the Range, a cookbook of her great-grandmother’s recipes.

In October, Gilbert will unveil The Signature of All Things, her first novel in 13 years. The book’s protagonist is Alma Whittaker, the homely, overeducated daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia plant trader who spends most of her life practicing bryology on her father’s estate before embarking, at 51, on a journey to unlock the mysteries of evolution.

For her own research, Gilbert delved into the writings of Charles Darwin, Asa Gray, and other great naturalists of the time—and, to get a sense of the common parlance, she pored over the correspondence of scientists who rattled off informal letters the way we send emails. Some of the novel’s wryest moments, though, come during flashes of modernity in which Alma expresses herself with a Liz Lemon-esque exasperation. I caught up with Gilbert, 44, to talk about her travel bug, 19th-century feminism, and the vexing tendency of creative women to sabotage their own work through the pursuit of perfection.

Mother Jones: Alma is a wonderful character. How long has she been kicking around in your head, studying botany, gathering mosses?

Elizabeth Gilbert: I did three years of research before I started writing. It was just like developing a photograph very slowly. I knew I wanted to write a woman’s story. I knew I wanted to write about 19th-century botanical exploration. I knew she was going to be an explorer of the mundane and the overlooked. I was struck by the idea of what they called “polite botanists” back then, women who for the most part were unable to travel. Darwin and Alfred R. Wallace and numberless other naturalists were able to climb mountains and explore valleys and go spelunking and do that sort of research in the jungles that leads to the taxonomical advances. But she was a woman and she was tied to her father and she couldn’t do that. I think the fundamental question I had was: What can you do as a woman with your tremendous intelligence and education when you can’t leave? Her work in the mosses is kind of like hyper-intellectualized needlepoint—the small domestic arts that women were able to do to keep themselves from going mad from boredom.

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Elizabeth Gilbert: Eat, Pray, "Burn Everything Down and Run"

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