I’ve been lucky enough to see author Elizabeth Gilbert speak, not once, but twice now, after two different books yielding two different experiences.
I stumbled across Liz’s (yes, I’ll call her Liz) work seven years ago when my book club (and the rest of the world) read Eat, Pray, Love. To say I liked the book is an understatement. I devoured it. I became a student of her own self discovery. I uncovered as many tips for finding my authentic self as I could. And when I found myself wanting, as the devout return again and again to their favorite passages of scripture, I turned again to my dog-eared, underlined, highlighted copy of Eat, Pray, Love.
When Liz gave a talk in Miami a couple of years later, I dragged my roommate along, giddy with anticipation at meeting a woman in whom I had found so much inspiration. I hung on every word she spoke. When she signed my worn out copy of her international best-selling memoir I almost cried.
This was the lens through which I approached her 2013 novel, so it took a few pages to wrap my brain around a 19th century theme.
Still, Liz’s writing made it easy to fall for the characters, to be transported to the world of imagined history. (The main character, Alma, is raised with all the things money can buy, by parents who train her to think critically and to never settle for not knowing. Yet her life evolves into a desperate search for the things she cannot understand — desire, love, companionship, keys to science’s greatest mysteries.) Some long parts could have been shorter, some short parts could have been longer. But I liked the book, overall.
I finished The Signature of All Things the day before Liz’s talk in Switzerland.
About 150 people, almost all women, filled the small library reading room and I snatched up a front row seat just a few minutes before the event began. Liz was accompanied by a journalist who asked the questions (in German) and interpreted Liz’s responses. She was also traveling with a woman who read several passages of the book (in German) so emotively, I could discern which scenes she was reading.
I was awed by Liz and enjoyed listening to her speak about her process creating fiction, though part of me still hoped for some grand epiphanies about life’s experiences.
She spoke of how her love of gardening fueled the idea for this story set in the midst of a sort of world-wide botanical revolution. She researched for years and at one point refused to read anything printed after 1880 so that Liz began thinking and writing naturally in the tone of the era.
She spoke of her love for writers like Charles Dickens who wrote with such authority that the reader was carried along with ease. And she touched on the true-life, understated role women played in science around the time Charles Darwin introduced the notion of evolution.
I was excited to hear that the makers of Downton Abbey were in talks to turn the book into a miniseries.
While the bits of the presentation I could understand fascinated me, part of me ached for a little of that introspective insight. But at the same time, I am in a different place myself. I’m in a better place, emotionally, than when I read her famous memoir. And I have just completed a rough draft of my first novel, in part with Liz’s thoughts on writing in the back of my head, with a dreamer’s lofty goals of seeing it through to publication.
I saw Liz Gilbert no longer as an emotional guru but as a professional one. So instead of being ecstatic at her talk, this time I rode home on the train feeling … good. It may be a little strange to see the same person in two different lights, but it’s always a gift to be in the presence of someone who inspires you. I thought for a few minutes about the event, then I opened my new book.