Author Elizabeth Gilbert Opens Up About 'Eat, Pray, Love' Backlash, Partying With Oprah, and Self-Help Snobs
By John Boone
Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
"I thought, 'If I have to read even one of these books, I’m going to kill myself.'"
Author Elizabeth Gilbert lets out a laugh. We're discussing the 12-year journey leading to her new nonfiction book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, and she is explaining what pushed her to finally put pen to paper.
She recalls spending years collecting "hundreds and hundreds and hundreds" of books for research, covering everything from neurobiology to psychology. "One day, a couple years ago, I just looked at all those books gathering in my shelf," she says. "It’s so depressing for me to see creativity reduced to either sociological or biological data."
So she wrote Big Magic, a sort-of guidebook to living your best creative life, based on "hints of mysticism" and her own process. The New York Times best-selling author recently spoke with ETonline by phone, discussing everything from why it's OK to call her new book a self-help book, to backlash against Eat, Pray, Love, to Oprah Winfrey, and more.
You've written memoir and fiction and short stories, what inspired you to write more of a self-help book?
You can totally, full on call it a self-help book. I'm taking full ownership of that! It's so funny; some of my very literary friends are being so delicate about it. They're like, "You know, it's not like you've written a self-help book here." I'm like, "No, I wrote a self-help book. That's what we're calling it. That's what it's for."
This is the first book I've written that 100 percent sets out to be a self-help book. I think Eat, Pray, Love, people used as a self-help book, but it wasn't my intention. My intention was to write a travel memoir and write about a spiritual journey, but it kind of got used as a self-help book...I've spent years engaging with creativity in my own way, and I've also spent many years talking to people all over the world about the creative projects that they wish they were doing, but they aren't doing. It's one of the most interesting subjects to me, to speak to people about what's holding them back from doing the work that would probably bring them to life in a much more interesting way. And generally speaking, once you kind of wade through the superficial excuses, the only thing that's ever really stopping people from doing their work is fear. So I thought it would be really interesting to write a book about creativity and fear, and how to move past fear in order to make a more interesting life for yourself.
Why do you think there is that stigma around self-help books?
Because people are snobs! And also, I think, people are afraid of their own weakness, and I think self-help books are all about addressing your weaknesses and your frailties and your vulnerabilities. People don't want to admit that they have any...I have no problem with the label or the genre, because I’ve used self-help books in my life, because I'm always trying to help myself. I always say, "What's the alternative? Self harm?!" There's nothing wrong with self-help, it's great.
You've probably heard from countless people who've used Eat, Pray, Love as a self-help book about how you've inspired them. Is there one interaction that sticks out?
The one that affected me the deepest was a tweet that somebody sent to me, and they didn’t even use all 140 characters. [Laughs] I've gotten 10 page, double-sided, handwritten letters from people talking about what Eat, Pray, Love meant to them, and I've had people standing holding up book singing lines for 10 minute to tell me what Eat, Pray, Love meant for them. I've had all kinds of interactions, but this was the greatest and the one that I felt was the most simple and emotionally powerful. A woman wrote to me, it said, "@GilbertLiz just know that you are 90 percent of reason I walked away from abusive situation after 20 years and went on journey to me." For some reason, it just made me sit there with my phone in my hand and start crying.
Usually people cry for a different whole reason when they read their Twitter notifications.
Yeah, no s**t! I've cried for those reasons too, believe me! But it's different kind of tears. A more likely tweet would be, "Just know these are 90 percent of the reasons I think you suck." It's an incredible thing to imagine...Also, I love that she said 90 percent, not 100 percent. Because she was taking responsibility for her own agency. It's probably much more the reverse. I was probably 10 percent of the reason, if that.
There's a line early on in Big Magic, where you talk about reclusive poet Jack Gilbert and how he wrote for delight. Why do you write?
For delight! You better, really, because if you have other motives it's not going to go well for you. If it wasn't for delight, I wouldn't have stayed with it during seven years of nothing but rejection letters when I was a waitress and a bartender. And if it wasn't for delight, I wouldn't have continued being a writer after Eat, Pray, Love, because I was in this weird, very disorienting situation where the one eventuality I had never planned for — with everything I had planned about a creative life — was to be successful. Nobody ever plans for that. Also, I was standing there at the age of 35 knowing that I had written something that I could never match for the rest of my life. There's no way I could write another book that’s going to sell 10 million copies worldwide. It's just a total fluke. There was certainly a time of existential crisis for me of, "Why should I even keep doing this?" Everyone is always in competition against themselves and I had just knocked myself out of the park and there was no way I could ever compete with myself again, and so why bother? And the answer is because I love it. I don't love anything more than this.
Obviously Eat, Pray, Love was a huge hit, but there was backlash as well, specifically targeted at you--
[Sarcastic] What?! This is the first I've heard of this! What are you talking?! I live in a very protective bubble! I have people who don’t let me see things! I thought everybody loved it! People thought it was self-indulgent, narcissistic garbage, what?!
How do you deal with stuff like that?
You know, it’s OK if people don’t like something you made. They don’t have to. Sometimes people will write really nasty something to me on Twitter and I’ll read it and I’ll be like, "All right? [Laughs] I guess you had to get that out of your system?" But I don’t know what you want me to do about the fact that you hate a book that I already published. Because I can’t do anything now about that for you...It’s already been written, it’s out there, it is what it is, and the people that liked it, liked it. I hope this doesn’t sound terribly reductive to say, but not everything is for everybody.
I certainly understand what it feels like to have something going on in culture that a lot of people are really excited about and I don’t get it, and I don’t like, and it’s not for me. But I also don’t feel the need to go on social media and have a temper tantrum. My mother used to always say to us, "It’s not what you hate that makes you interesting, it’s what you love that makes you interesting." But if you want to get on there and rant about what you hate, have at it. It’s not that big a deal. The other thing is: I’m a woman who has a voice in the world, and that is a brand new idea. Very few women in history have ever had the kind of voice that I have, and if it means that sometimes I do stuff that people don’t like, I’ll take that and I’ll take the criticism and I’ll take the attacks, rather than being silenced.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately, not centered around you, about the privilege in even being able to tell a first person narrative so publically, and about the people who are given that voice. Is that something you see?
Here’s the thing: We live in a world with horrors and injustice and awfulness in a lot of ways. And there are millions upon millions of people in the world who have absolutely no privilege whatsoever, they have absolutely no agency whatsoever over their lives, and the last thing that they have is a public voice. If you are fortunate enough to live in a society where regardless of your race, or your gender, or your social position, you have any agency over your life, then by god, use it! If only in a way of honoring people who have none, who have no voices whatsoever. My concern is not that too many people are speaking. Actually, on the contrary, my concern is that not enough people are speaking. I want the clamor to be even more clamorous. Hopefully, those circles of voices will get wider and louder.
The other day, somebody said to me, "Aren’t you worried your book is going to have people make a bunch of really bad art?" I was like, first of all, you are an elitist assh**e, if that thought is even in your mind. And two, my concern is not that there is too much bad expression in the world, my concern is that there isn’t enough expression in the world...I’m such a populist. I want everybody to write a memoir.
Switching gears: The film adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love was a huge success, as well. Why do you think its follow-up, Committed, was never turned into a movie? The continuing adventures of Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem seem like a no-brainer.
I would happily watch the most delicious doppelgängers you could possibly have for yourself, for me and my husband, order Chinese food over a telephone. I would watch that all day. I’m happy to see them do absolutely anything they want.
I don’t think Committed, the book that came after Eat, Pray, Love, is as cinematic a story. So much of that book was about an interior reflection on what marriage is and what marriage isn’t, and the expectations that we have around intimacy, and a lot of social sociology data, which I don’t think translates very well to the screen. Maybe it wouldn’t make for a good movie.
Is it weird seeing Julia Roberts in other movies now, seeing as she essentially played you?
[Laughs] Now I look at August: Osage County and I’m like, "Yeah, that’s my family. That’s our family reunion." No, you’re going to find this remarkable, but I have no trouble telling the difference between me and Julia Roberts. It is not a psychological disruption for me. It’s very easy for me to know where I end and she begins. Many, many, many differences. For one thing, I don’t walk around looking like I’m constantly lit from behind. That is the most amazing thing about her, in person. It’s like she has invisible lighting guys around her at all times. She’s in this cone of light no matter where she moves that I definitely don’t have.
You’re also, at least professionally, close with Oprah. You’ve appeared on her show a number of times and joined her for Oprah's The Life You Want tour. What has that relationship meant to you?
We’re very friendly, and she’s been very generous to me, but I would never try to let anybody believe that we are close friends, because that would be rude to her to make that assumption. I think our relationship is very much, "She is my hero and I am here to serve her." And every once in a while she calls me up and invites me to something she’s doing, and I’m amazed every single time. She’s the most extraordinary person that I’ve ever been around, and I was lucky enough last year when I went on her speaking tour to get to see her in action in a way that I never had been able to see before. There’s a reason she’s Oprah Winfrey, and that you and I are not. She possesses this furnace of power that’s so incredible to be around, and she has this sort of 360-degree vision. When she’s in a room, she’s aware of everything that’s going on, she’s conscious of every person, she’s considerate of every person, she’s extraordinary. She’s Oprah, man. There’s only one, and there only ever will be.
What’s one thing about Oprah that most people don’t know?
She throws a really good party. Let me put it this way: It’s not like she throws the party and leaves. She throws the party and she’s at the center in a way that is incredibly fun, and amazing. Although, I think people maybe do know that about her. This is a woman who knows how to celebrate. It was certainly one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Lastly, you write in Big Magic about a friend who picked up ice-skating later in life. Is there any part of your ‘creative living’ that you still haven’t tackled that you want to?
Karaoke is very important to me right now. Truly! I have become really passionate about karaoke in a very earnest way. I live in a town that only has 1,100 people in it, and the local bar has a karaoke night every Wednesday that my friends and neighbors and I started going to kind of ironically, and now it is anything but ironic. We are so into it. We will call each other days in advance and run through playlists. We make arrangements in advance for who’s going to be doing duets with who. It’s become a very, very important part of my identity. And none of us can sing! But now we’re at this point where we feel like, none of can’t sing...We’re made it sing. It’s the same reason I go to Zumba, even though I’m a 46-year-old woman who grew up in Connecticut and has no business doing any kind of Latin dancing. We are made to dance. We are made to decorate our lives. We’re made to express ourselves in all these different creative ways that we have these strange senses to do.