Travel News

Online Q&A: Elizabeth Gilbert

Pat Nourse talks to Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, about her new book, Committed, plus pizza, the power of travel and Australian driving conditions.

Pat Nourse: I introduced the subject of prenuptial agreements to my girlfriend after reading Committed. Elizabeth Gilbert: How did that go over?
Not entirely well, but I like the way you frame it as providing an exit strategy for someone you love.
I like it too, and as we Americans have learned, going into engagements without exit strategies turns out to be a really bad idea and can lead to a great deal of expense and suffering and pain. Let her read the book, see how she feels about it. How did it land on you as a man?
I was interested in the bit in the foreword where you say you had hitherto been described as a woman who writes like a guy, but following the publication of Eat, Pray, Love you found yourself ghettoised as a chick-lit author.
Writing a book about marriage hasn't helped me get out of the ghetto, I have to say. But it's a book I really wanted to write, so there it is.
I also feel like I need to first address the question of Australia being described as a nation of Canada-like sanity and prosperity. Would you care to elaborate?
What I was trying to say, but I couldn't bring myself to say it, was that Australia is very arguably a nicer place to live than the United States in all sorts of measures. Sanity, reasonableness, practicality, social justice, healthcare, all sorts of things like that. And you have good roads.
Good roads. Great roads.
In the book, though, you're in Australia for reasons of immigration woes rather than fun. I hope that hasn't coloured your view of our fine nation and its roads too much. I've been to Australia at other times and [Felipe] had obviously been here for years and years at a time living here before that. I'd been there prior to all this with him under happier circumstances, and I've been back since for my wonderful stepson's wedding just this last spring with my parents and the famous Mimi, from the book, so we're all big fans.
Which neck of the woods is the family here? Sydney and Canberra, fine places both.
It's a nice place. That's as far as I can go.
It's also, of course, the only place you can legally get a same-sex civil partnership, in Australia, only you can't call it "getting married".
Well that's good then, you're not letting them get too many rights. I mean, I really do believe that when people are made second-class citizens it's important to remind them of that whenever possible.
The book's a discussion of marriage, of course, but it's especially of interest to us here at Gourmet Traveller because most of the conversations seem to take place in terribly exotic locales. How do you think Committed would've been different if you'd been making these decisions in Knoxville or New Jersey or Philadelphia?
It wouldn't have happened because I couldn't get to those places. Well, I could, but we couldn't. I couldn't get him into the United States, so we were forced by the nature of our circumstances to be travelling while this research and these conversations were occurring. While we were there interacting with these people along the way it just seemed wise to include them in that conversation. They became a part of our story, and I don't think the book would be as interesting without them.
One of the things I feel about this book is that there's a contract I have with the readers of Eat, Pray, Love - if you want to know what happened to Liz and Felipe and if you want to have the sort of exotic adventures you had in a way with Eat, Pray, Love, all of that is in here, but you're also going to be asked to pay a great deal of attention to the history of marriage in western civilisation and read that pretty seriously, so I feel like it's a bran muffin that's been disguised to look like a chocolate cupcake. It's stealth nutrition.
Like Jerry Seinfeld's wife.
Yes, I am the Jerry-Seinfeld's-wife of relationships. Hmm, that's a weird thing to say. But anyway, it has the familiar elements of Eat, Pray, Love, which is to say romance and travel, but I feel like that's a scaffold on which I've hung the essence of the book, which is of course the larger conversation about the nature of this peculiar social institution.
I think the trying 12-hour bus ride through central Laos in Committed ties together the theme of travel and relationships nicely. The stresses that travel puts on relationships is something that's often glossed over in travel writing. There's such a big difference between when you're travelling and you're in love and the scenery is an extension of the feelings you have for each other - it isn't to say that we weren't in love while we were travelling through central Laos, but we were four months into a really difficult, frustrating and indefinite period of uncertainly and it was a completely different way of being on the road. We'd also been travelling non-stop and we were the only two people we'd seen or spoken to in months apart from the people we encountered on the road, and so we really only had each other. In some ways that was good and in some ways that was fertile ground for frustration and irritation, and I think it took that journey, in a way, for me to realise how very differently we travel. Where I might've said originally that we were such a great match because he's a traveller and I'm a traveller, that's a pretty big category that has to be divided into sub-categories. And, as you know, there are a lot of different ways and methods of seeing the world, and we do it differently.
How do you go about negotiating that stuff? We don't do it a lot together. He travels a lot and I travel a lot - he goes on buying trips to South East Asia, and what I've discovered about him is that he needs three days of holiday every once in a while when he's stressed out and exhausted, but three days is it, and after that he's skin-crawlingly bored and doesn't want to do the things that a tourist would do to be entertained because the only things he finds entertaining is to engage in trade and commerce. He immediately starts crawling over whatever location we're in looking for stuff to buy and looking for deals to make and trying to figure out if they have shipping agents there. He'll look at the beautiful vases in the restaurant we're in and start thinking of ways to sell them in the States. It's not the way I am.
Nothing says romance like bills of lading.
Or standing in a marketplace screaming at a merchant that he's a cheat and a thief and that the deal's off, and then coming back and settling the deal, which is one of my husband's favourite things to do when he's on vacation.
I think we're still sorting out how to do it. What I've realised is that we do really well if it's a designated holiday for five days, and I'll bring a pile of books and I'll have to make sure it's somewhere where we can walk to a lot of things and restaurants and where there's a good bar where he can relax. I've abandoned the notion that we're travel soulmates. As with everything else I've pointed out in the book, it's a lot to pile on one person, that they match you on every single level and at every single moment.
What's your history as a traveller? What kind of traveller are you?
I'm a frequent traveller. The first time I went somewhere was when I was 16 and I went to the Soviet Union, what is now Russia. My parents had said each one of us could go on a trip abroad when we were in high school and they'd help us pay for it if we paid half. My sister went to Paris on a school trip, and I was like, I'm goin' to Moscow. That was the first time I was ever out of the United States, so it started there and hasn't really ended since. I was fortunate enough to make a career out of being a journalist which enabled me to do a lot more travelling, which is how I ended up in China and New Zealand and other unexplored places like that.
The wild frontier of Wellington.
Auckland, actually.
How did you choose the places you visited in Committed while you were trying to sort out Felipe's visa issues? Were Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia just a matter of logistics? I was trying to keep both of us out of boredom. I was saying, well, if we've got all this time with nothing else to do, let's just hit the road and we'll wait till you get the notice that you have to go to the embassy in Sydney and in the meantime we'll just see as much of Asia as we can see. My original plan was that we'd go all over South East Asia and we'd go to India and Pakistan, and let's just go, but it became clear - mostly after that trip to Laos - that this was not the time for a joy trip. And it wasn't just him. I was also enormously stressed, worn down and anxious about money, worried about his future, worried about legal stuff, and it was too much. So after that ill-fated bus ride through Laos, we were like, you know what, f* it, let's just go to Bali and lay low. And it seemed to have worked. I used those last two months in Bali to just read and study, which was a good use of my time, too.
Had your Bali changed much, post Eat, Pray, Love? Did you go on one of those Eat, Pray, Love tours? I should have, because I hear they're stupendous [laughs]. No, I have not treated myself to an Eat, Pray, Love tour, but in the period of time that we're talking about, Eat, Pray, Love had not yet become, for all intents and purposes, Eat, Pray, Love. It was on the market, but it didn't do what it did until well over a year after it had been published. I thought it was over - the book came out in February of 2006, it did fine, it was on The New York Times bestseller list for two weeks, which was unbelievably exciting and unprecedented for me, but that was it, really. It kinda went away, and then this whole business with the Homeland Security Department happened in April, so it was clearly finished.
So you couldn't stamp your foot at Officer Tom at the airport and say, excuse me, I'm Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame… Don't you know who I am? Do you know who you're talking to? No, I couldn't play that card, and we also didn't have the financial reward of it, so the reason that we were travelling so much on the cheap - in Luang Prabang we were literally staying in a four-dollar-a-night hotel room - was because we had no idea how long this was going to last and what was going to be expected of us in the future. If he wasn't allowed back in the US and couldn't recommence his business, we were going to have to start life all over again, and we weren't sure how much money we'd need. So financial issues were also weighing heavily on our minds the whole time, which seems dumb now, with the explosion of Eat, Pray, Love, but we had no way of seeing that coming.
You've mentioned at other times how amazing the food was in Luang Prabang. Fabulous. We should've never left there. The problem was that after 10 days there, he was ready to settle in forever - as I say in the book he was ready to move there and open up a business and sell stuff or buy stuff or whatever it is that he does - but I was already thinking, let's move on to another country and see more of this region, but there was nothing else to match it, and it ended up being a very depressing journey, especially as we ended up going to the Plain of Jars. It's an archaeological site in the middle of Laos which was right in the centre of the most brutal and illegal bombing conducted by the United States. It was politically depressing to be there for me too, right in this wasteland of unexploded ordinance left by my country's bad choice in wars. The whole thing just became very heavy for a lot of reasons.
I've read about people following your path after reading Eat, Pray, Love; is that weird for you?
It's a little weird.
Going to Da Michele in Naples and eating the world's greatest pizza is one thing. I don't think that's weird - I think that's one thing that everybody must do. But as far as going through the entire journey, it's a little strange. To be honest, I'm not sure that many people have done it, but a few people have done it and it's gotten a lot of attention because it's a little freakish. By and large, I think the vast majority of my readers are sane people who are able to tell the difference between me and them and them and other people, and use the book not so much as a prescription but as a permission slip to ask themselves for what personally they might want to do. It might re-ignite some lost or forgotten aspects of their being. So when I meet people in bookstores, the only person I've ever met who did that was that person who was on the Oprah Show talking about it. Everybody else just took the book and made their own story. Or just enjoyed the book and went on with their lives without having to do anything that grandiose.
What do you think the function of travel can be in that regard? To change your interior landscape so that it knocks you out of your commuter mind and your habitual thinking which at some points in your life becomes destructive. I feel like that started happening to me within a month of being in Italy. The newness of the surrounding forces you to be alert, which is sort of the opposite of depression, so you have to be awake and focused and not make mistakes, and not walk the wrong way into traffic. Everything is novel and therefore potentially a little bit dangerous, so it gives you a jazzed feeling. I think it's the same effect as in Pulp Fiction when the needle of adrenaline gets stabbed into Uma Thurman's chest; the more extreme the travel, the bigger the shock of adrenaline. It can shock you back into your own being, I think, and if you couple that with studying a new language, that was a huge depression cure for me, picking up Italian, because I had this unsullied language that didn't have any associations that were bad for me or sad for me. I had this new ground in which to think and also a really big distraction, something that took up a lot of my time so that I could focus on things other than my repetitive, invasive, depressive thoughts.
What do you make of the Eat, Pray, Love movie?
For me it's more that I don't feel proprietorial over this book any more. I think it's easier for me to see this book made into a movie than anything I've written because it so long ago stopped having anything to do with me. It became such a phenomenon that it has its own energy and outgrew me long ago, so for me it made perfect sense that it'd go and be a Hollywood blockbuster because it makes as much sense as everything else which has happened with it, so why not? Go be a movie! Sure. They're welcome to it.
You've been played in film by Piper Perabo, in Coyote Ugly, and now Julia Roberts. What do you think Hollywood is trying to tell you? To grow my hair.