Her most recent book is the #1 New York Times Bestselling memoir "Eat, Pray, Love," about the year she spent traveling the world alone after a difficult divorce. Anne Lamott called Eat, Pray, Love "wise, jaunty, human, ethereal, heartbreaking." The book has been a worldwide success, now published in over thirty languages with over 7 million copies in print. It was named by The New York Times as one of the 100 most notable books of 2006, and chosen by Entertainment Weekly as one of the best ten nonfiction books of the year. In 2008, Elizabeth was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, by Time Magazine.
In addition to writing books, Elizabeth has worked steadily as a journalist. Throughout much of the 1990’s she was on staff at SPIN Magazine, where – with humor and pathos – she chronicled diverse individuals and subcultures, covering everything from rodeo's Buckle Bunnies (reprinted in The KGB Bar Reader) to China’s headlong construction of the Three Gorges Dam. In 1999, Elizabeth began working for GQ magazine, where her profiles of extraordinary men – from singers Hank Williams III and Tom Waits (reprinted in The Tom Waits Reader) to quadriplegic athlete Jim Maclaren – earned her three National Magazine Award Nominations, as well as repeated appearances in the “Best American” magazine writing anthologies. She has also written for such publications as The New York Times Magazine, Real Simple, Allure, Travel and Leisure and O, the Oprah Magazine (where her memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" was excerpted in March, 2006.) She has been a contributor to the Public Radio show "This American Life", and -- perhaps most proudly -- has several times shown up at John Hodgman's Little Gray Book Lecture Series, most notably during Lecture Four on the subject "Hints for Public Singing."
Question: Is it possible to balance friendship and romance?
Elizabeth Gilbert: It’s so easy to find the balance between yourself and your partner. No, I’m kidding. It’s not. It’s not at all.
Eat, Pray, Love ends on a very romantic note because it ends within the first two months of a very romantic relationship, right? And so, for me, now, I’m five years into that relationship, so it’s always sort of funny to me when people come up and they have just finished the book and they still have this very starry-eyed idea like, oh lovely, you found this very romantic relationship. And that very romantic relationship has now evolved into a marriage, which, like everybody else’s marriage, is complex. And it’s much richer than the romantic relationship in the first two months was.
I should’ve shared to people that we've actually evolved into an actual, real partnership now. And I think that some people were really delighted by the ending of that because it gave them hope for romance, which we all hold dear in our hearts.
I think some people were agitated by the end of that book because they felt like it sent a message. And therefore, the ending is that you have to find a guy and you have to be loved in this certain way. And the story was told in the way that it was told simply because that’s what happened. What happened was that I did happen to meet somebody who is really lovely and I wanted to pursue that.
Somebody said, “Well, do you think the message is that you need love?” And I was like, “Well, I think the message is that you need healthy love. And if you can find that, or something that’s as close to that as you possibly can, by all means, that’s something that you should feel entitled to look for.
Question: What are your thoughts on marriage?
Elizabeth Gilbert: A lot of these questions, I’ve been thinking about it a lot and working on it a lot because my next book is all about marriage. Marriage is kind of the antithesis to romance, in a way.
And I ended up having to get married because the Homeland Security Department got involved and actually chucked my sweetheart out of the country. And the only way I could get him back was to marry him. And I have, for reasons I probably don’t have to go into, really ambivalent feelings about the whole institution of marriage. And so, again, because I have a lot of time on my hands, because I’m a writer, I could spend two years doing nothing but reading books about the history of marriage and trying to wrap my mind around ideas about marriage.
I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert on it, but I would say that it becomes clearer to me, the more I read about it, why it is so very, very confusing for people to try to figure out the balance in their lives and between self and other.
And again, this isn’t a particularly easy time to be trying to figure that out because those roles have opened up. And men and women can be all sorts of different things in each other’s lives than they could be in more traditional and rigorous societies. The stakes are huge because our expectations for happiness are huge. But the opportunities are also really vast because we have a lot of options and organizing our lives by our own terms.
So again, welcome to modern life.
There comes a certain point in your life; one thing that’s been really interesting to me about doing all this research about marriage is just realizing how the expectations that we have burdened in this institution with, at this point in history, are staggeringly huge. On every generation since the 1700s in Western culture has just heaped another layer of expectation on what they want out of this relationship called marriage. And it is so out of scale right now.
Back in the 1920s, there was a survey that asked college women what they wanted in a partner and they listed all these virtues; reliability, honesty, decency, morality. And somewhere down around six or seven on the list came love and passion. These things showed up sort of low on the list. Prudence was sort up high.
And then, in the 1970s, they ask those questions again to women and the very first thing on the list is love and connection and intimacy and then the other stuff they weren’t really paying very much attention to. And now, it’s even worse because they ask this question and they say they want a man who will inspire them everyday. I think that’s a lot; to expect that the person in your life should, almost in this divine way, every single day, inspire you. It’s a huge thing to want somebody to be. And it’s a huge thing to have somebody want from you.
I’m only capable of inspiring people, like, every third Wednesday. The rest of the time, I’m just trying to; it’s hard.
I would never sit down with a young woman and say to her, lower your expectations as a piece of advice for life. I think it’s been really sanity-inducing in me, just after doing all this research about marriage to realize.
For better or worse, my expectations are really big; and do with that what you wish. But that’s a good piece of information to know. Because we shouldn’t walk around, thinking that this is how people have always thought about marriage or that this is what people have always expected out of their marriages.
I’m not quite sure how you resolve that, but it’s just a piece of information I didn’t have before, that I have it now. And it somehow changes things. When inevitable disappointments or frustrations arise, I just think, what would a 17th century wife think about this? What did my great grandmother think about this? It’s just helpful.
Question: How have your thoughts on sexuality changed?
Elizabeth Gilbert: When I was younger, I don’t think I was so much concerned with being objectified. I think I was kind of wishing I would be a little bit more objectified. I’d always been the smart girl and the bookish girl. There was a certain sort of sexual attention that I was longing for. And I was wishing that I could generate. I was always really happy to get and always really happy to pursue whether or not it benefited me to be out, chasing that in a certain way.
I was going to say it’s up for debate but it’s not. It actually… Actually, it was not beneficial to be giving so much attention to that. I was a boy crazy kid and I wanted a lot. I’m a very excitable person and I’m a very passionate person.
An just in the same way that, as a writer, I wanted to go and roll around in the world and experience it in really huge ways. I had a big hungry heart that wanted to know love and infatuation and to disappear into the other end. Everything that you could do to try to do that, I did. And the results were fairly predictable. It’s like a lot of messes; a lot of just really messy experimentation with intimacy; a lot of impaling myself on people in really unhealthy ways; a lot of carelessness toward people; and other really unhealthy ways. It was just a big, flat, hot mess.
But I guess I had to go through that; as many of us do and kind of see that all out to its natural conclusion and then, take a lot of time to be alone.
It’s interesting because therapists always say that they have two kinds of patients. The ones that need to be screwed in a little tighter and the ones that need to be loosened up. And I was definitely one who needs to be screwed a little tighter.
I know that other people’s psychological problems, that they’re too withholding and mine was kind of the opposite. I had to narrow my margins in order to become sane. And a lot of that, for me, came just from spending a lot of time by myself, which I had never done before because I was always seeking that reflection in the other person.
I have a really pretty good relationship now.
And I sleep with one eye open when it comes to love because I’ve made such huge mistakes and I’ve been punished for those mistakes.
So, I think, when you’ve been through a divorce as crappy as my divorce and when you’ve been through breakups as bad as my breakup, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop a little bit.
Is this real? Because this is pretty good. But how long is this going to last?
I don’t know.
I try not to walk around, calling trouble’s name. If things are going well, I try to be happy to just let that be well and recognize that if trouble wants to find you, it knows where you live and it will come and knock on your door. But I don’t go looking for it very much anymore.
Recorded on: April 29, 2009.