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: Why do you think Eat, Pray, Love was so popular?
Gilbert: I don’t know. I don’t know why “Eat, Pray, Love” has had the impact that it’s had. I also don’t know… I mean, I’ve written books before this, you know, and they sold upwards of dozens of copies each, you know. I don’t know how that happened. If I knew how that happened, I would do it again or I would’ve been doing it all along, you know. It’s… There’s a… There’s a certain randomness in the way that my questions, for some reason, about my life intersected… dovetailed with questions that apparently a lot of other people, women in particular, at this moment in history were asking about their lives. One possible answer is… I mean, I do feel like I’m a pretty representative example of my culture, you know. I’m pretty representative 21st century, middle-aged, American woman in the way that I’ve been educated in the way that… you know, the things that I’ve been led to believe that my life should feel like and the disappointments that I experience when my life doesn’t feel like that, the particular kinds of questions that haunt me at the things that I want and wonder about. You know, I don’t think I have any particularly special… I think I feel that stuff the same way that certainly everybody I know feels those things, you know. And, again, pointing to the question of privilege because of the fact that I’m a writer, I have… and because of the fact that I’ve been able to build a career as a writer and sort of organize my time in a certain way, I have access to a lot more time than other people might have to think about those things. I was able to say, I’m going to take one entire year and do literally nothing every minute of the day except think about all these questions. I remember, before I left on the trip, this friend of mine who’s a mother of two, she’s a doctor. She’s, you know, at home right now with her kids but certainly has this ferociously intelligent mind. You know, she just sat me down and said, “Take us with you,” you know, “All of us who are asking these same things but are staying here, you know, with our families, with our kids, with our work. You know, take us with you and ask the questions that we would ask and do the work that we would want to do if we could,” you know. So, I think, I felt a great obligation to do that while I was traveling in that way, didn’t forget that. And I would ask myself, what would Suzanne, Kat want to know if they were here and sort of feel that and try to answer those questions on the page. And I wrote the book very directly as a letter to one specific person. I wrote the book to my friend Darcey Steinke, who’s a wonderful novelist and a memoirist and who’s also in a very different sort of spiritual path… a spiritual path but a different one for me. She’s a student of Christianity but is also this hipster who lives in Brooklyn, single mom. And we’ve had a long ranging conversation over the years about marriage, about divinity, about autonomy, about all these questions that, you know, are foremost in our minds. And this book became a kind of extended letter to her. And the one thing that I’ve heard people to say when they read the book or when they respond to it in this way, and certainly not everybody has responded to it positively by the way, you know, but the people who do say, I feel as though we were having a conversation and I feel like you were talking directly to me. Because in the sense, I was. I was talking directly to one person who is also a very representative 21st century, American woman. And so, maybe that’s it, you know. Maybe it just feels like, you know, we’re knee to knee with, like, a cup of coffee between us, trying to figure out this stuff together, which, maybe, we need right now.
Question: Is escapism part of the book’s appeal?
Gilbert: Well, I think that going and traveling very literally to very literal places is about as much the opposite of, like, the Facebook, blogosphere, you know, avatarist world that so many people live in or at least that I hear so many people live in. I’m not sure whether people live in that world quite as much as commentators like to imagine that they do. You know, I still feel like people have a lot of interpersonal contact and communication with each other in really real ways. Although, there’s nothing like, actually, going to Naples and eating a pizza, you know, to make you feel like you’re really in a place doing that thing. But I don’t think… I’m not sure that the dream of pilgrimage is new, you know. I think it’s hardwired into us in some way. The yearning to step aside from the fold and the [clan] and go off into the desert, the mountain, the cave, the holy city, you know, whatever… you know, whatever the sort of dream of distances. That’s something that is part of every single human society on earth. And, I think, the way I did it was just a way that was reflective of, you know, the kind of person that I am and a kind of culture that I grew up and the kind of stuff that I was yearning for and wanting. But… You know, I always find it really interesting. You know, you go back and you read these accounts in Roman histories of people going to India, you know, like being sent to India from… by Indian emperors… sorry, by Roman emperors, people being sent to India to specifically find these yogis that everybody was talking about and see if they could get an audience with them, see if they could study them. And then, they come back to Rome and they would report. You know, there’re these guys who, you know, go into these states where their heart stop beating and claim to, you know, understand the makings of the world. And, you know, people were sort of discussing that then and longing for that then. So… I just think the idea of going on a holy journey is something that not all of us but, damn, a whole lot of us dream about, you know, at some point. I just can’t tell you how many people have sort of confess that to me as though it’s some dirty hidden secret when, in fact, I think, it’s almost like a linkage of longing.