A few years ago, Elizabeth Gilbert was approached by two women at JFK International Airport after one of the women turned to her friend and described Gilbert as, "that woman who wrote that book based on that movie." Two out of three were correct: Gilbert is "that woman," the successful author of "that book," 2006's Eat, Pray Love, which spent 199 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. What the women got wrong was that the successful 2010 film of the same name was based on Gilbert's memoir, not the other way around.
Gilbert, who will give the headlining keynote address at the Sun Valley Wellness Festival on Friday, May 22, spoke to Boise Weekly during her vacation in Miami Beach, about her past success, her latest project (which hits bookshelves in September) and her future plans—all guided, she said, by soul instead of ego.
I should first apologize for interrupting a bit of your vacation.
But I'm always working a little. I go by Goethe's model: "Never hurry; never stop." I don't work in a manic state, but I don't stop, either. I like my work, so it's not unpleasant.
Speaking of a manic state, I must note that I've watched a video that you recently posted online of you singing in a New York City cabaret. I'm presuming that was a karaoke night.
A friend invited me to a live karaoke night, and I put my name on the list. But then a lot of other people started singing and I thought, "Oh my God, these people really know how to sing. They're Broadway performers, and I'm a 45-year-old, bifocaled woman [awake] past my bedtime." I was going to take my name off the list, but then I thought that I have spent a good part of my life trying to encourage people to do things outside their comfort zone, so I said to myself, "You better make sure that you're smokin' what you're sellin'."
Does any of this connect to your new book? Does this connect to your new book? [Big Magic is set for release Tuesday, Sept. 22.]
It's all about putting yourself out there, raising your hand to take a job, asking to write another story in spite of multiple rejection letters. I just sent the galleys of the new book out this week, so the critics can start sharpening their knives.
Does it help to have a thick skin when it comes to the critics?
Not really. There's no imagination or joy with a thick skin. Yes, my feelings can be hurt, and I much prefer good reviews. And I do try to stay away from things that will hurt my feelings; it's not productive. But honestly, it's not very mature to think that, once you put something out there, that people won't react to it. It comes with the work that we love.
So, can we talk about "that book," Eat, Pray, Love?
We'd be remiss if we didn't.
I'm guessing that your memoir means a lot of things to a lot of people.
It goes from one end of the spectrum, where people write letters saying, "I detest you," to letters saying, "You've written my bible." But somewhere in the middle, people said, "Wow, I had forgotten that my life belonged to me, and thank you for reminding me that my life is mine." The book became a giant screen on which people projected their own emotions, feelings and opinions.
How did that monumental success impact your creative process for future projects?
I think for me to do anything but embrace what happened would have been madness. I'm very aware that I'm in a very enviable position that very few artists have ever experienced.
And did those expectations go to a whole new level when you watched Julia Roberts portray you on the big screen?
I haven't truly processed what happened because, honestly, I don't know if it's processable. It's more like a phenomenon, and it has no rational explanation. Meanwhile, I go on with my life as sanely and soberly and responsibly as I can.
In the midst of that hurricane of success, was it difficult for you to focus on your next projects?
I was already in the habit of looking for new things. It wouldn't have been too easy to absorb if Eat, Pray, Love had been my first book, or I was 21 years old instead of being closer to 40.
Now that you've mailed out the galleys for your next book, Big Magic, what's next?
I'm probably going to write a novel on the New York City theater world of the 1940s.
That's a rich backdrop: Broadway's Golden Age.
I'm pretty thrilled about it; I'm just starting the research now.
I have managed to arrive at a place where I'm confident that I'm following my soul and not my ego. When I get hurt, I think "OK, my ego was hurt; but how's my soul doing?" Egos get hurt; they're competitive and prideful, but a soul is a much better guidepost. Yes, we need an ego. It's a wonderful servant but a terrible master. It's much better for me to know that I'm guiding my life decisions based on what my soul would like me to be doing.
And what does your soul tell you what you should be doing lately?
Writing. Living happily and conflict-free with my husband. Not judging people. Getting enough sleep. Those are the things that bring me wellness. :