Talking Eat Pray Love

Arriving at Cadogan Hall on Wednesday evening to swathes of successful looking, bright-eyed women, there is no doubt I am in the right place. I am here to hear Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the hugely successful memoir-cum-self-help book Eat, Pray, Love, in conversation with Paul Holdengräber for Intelligence Squared.  Taking a seat, the place is packed (the event is a sell-out, such is Gilbert’s draw) full of mid-twenty to forty-something year olds. Age aside, they all share an assured air – their expressions are open, their tone is one of utter enthusiasm. Snippets of conversation can be picked out from the positive noise that fills the auditorium – how the story is an ‘inspiration’, how it has moulded and moved people. The woman sat beside me is already cracking the spine of her freshly bought copy of Committed, Gilbert’s newest tome.

These are Gilbert’s ardent fans, her Eat, Pray, Lovers, and I am wondering how I fit in here. I’ve read the book in preparation for this evening and have found it simultaneously enjoyable and aggravating. Her outward and inward journeys are no doubt impressive, and how could one deny someone their search for contentment? And yet… accusations of spiritual colonialism are hard to shake and, for a cynic like myself, chapters on pizza are always going to be more gripping than ones discussing the alignment of Chakras. In the book, Gilbert has a likeable character and a gorgeous way with words, but some of her analogies seem thoughtlessly exaggerated (her and her warring husband have the ‘eyes of refugees’ as they go about their divorce, for example). All this makes me feel like the lone auditorium member hoping for Gilbert to get a little bit grilled.

Breaking the anticipation, Gilbert enters the stage looking grounded and earthy. Raising her eyebrows to the audience, by way of a hello, she settles in for a cosy chat with her friend, and Director of Public Programs at the New York Public Library, Paul Holdengräber. We are set to be taken on a journey taking in Gilbert’s inspirations, her career path and, of course, the upcoming Eat,Pray,Love movie.

We start, of course, at the beginning. Raised on a farm in Conneticut, Gilbert describes her childhood as a “petri-dish for creating writers”; With no neighbours close-by, no television and a rule of eating family meals together, the environment was that of “competitively entertaining”. Gilbert talks of her family as a veritable feast of bawdy eccentric (and alcoholic) characters, and it was her 11 year old self’s wide eyed observations at family gatherings that taught her the first basic rule of storytelling; “No one’s going to give you the floor, you have to earn it by telling the best story.”

When it comes to passing on her writing wisdom to fawning young hopefuls she says; “You have to work with no promise of reward.” Whilst Eat, Pray, Love has undoubtedly reaped huge rewards for Gilbert, her 16 year old self (who ‘married’ herself to writing in a candle-lit bedroom ceremony) would never have predicted such a future; “I would have liked to have something published before I was dead” were her humble hopes. Now, when aspiring writers ask her about finding an agent, Gilbert asks them “Well, have you written a book yet?”

Looking back to her first novel, Stern Men, Gilbert recalls worrying how she might look to those lobster fishermen in Maine that she was focussing on – a “hovering weirdo” who thinks it’s perfectly appropriate to approach them with a foolish opener, such as “Hello, I’m from New York and I find your culture so charming! Can you take me and show me… how you talk?” I find it encouraging to learn that Gilbert is self-concious in this area, as those who have accused Eat, Pray, Love of being ‘Priv Lit‘ would most likely view her as a bumbling hack, asserting herself over those she meets and clumsily grasping at their culture. In her defense, Gilberts says she tends to approach people humbly, levelling with them and saying “I really want to write about this but I don’t know much about it…”

In a New Yorker review of Eat, Pray, Love, David Denby had said that Gilbert sees the world as being in existence solely for her enjoyment. “Isn’t it?” Gilbert laughs now, wondering if everyone else holds her view that the world is like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Perhaps that’s the problem some hold with this book, that this way of thinking can be harmful if not exercised with caution. Gilbert, however, throws caution to the wind; When it comes to life “I like to roll around in it like a dog” she says.

Another gripe that cynical readers had with Eat Pray Love (myself included) is that travelling all over the world to ‘find yourself’ is great for those who can afford it… but what about those who can’t? Do you have to take a real journey to make a spiritual journey? “No,” Gilbert answers certainly, “Except, I had to.” To say Gilbert has nomadic tendencies is an understatement; Like an addict, she admits that she is the kind of person that, when travel presents itself “you twitch at the opportunity.” She is also keen to point out that all her spiritual training and enlightened learning would have been useless if she couldn’t have gone ‘home’ and applied it to the ‘real-world’.

Moving from the ‘real-world’ and on to Hollywood, Holdengräber brings up the film version of Eat, Pray, Love. “Are you referring to the movie, Eat, Pray, Love?” teases Gilbert,”The major motion picture?” Gilbert deals with the surrealism of the whole thing with her trademark sarcastic wit.

Gilbert’s character, ‘Liz’, is played by Julia Roberts, a woman who hugely impacted the success of the book by telling Life magazine her plan to buy a copy for all her girlfriends as a Christmas present.

The only time Gilbert made contact with Roberts about the ‘character’ was in writing when she sent her the prayer beads she had worn the entire journey. “Now they’re yours, and the story is yours” Gilbert had written, and was then happy to let Roberts spin the character in whatever way she wished. Using the analogy of a house you sell and then have to allow its new owners to furnish it as they please, Gilbert knew that selling her story meant she needed to let it go; ”It wasn’t mine any more, anyway,” she said, “it had outgrown me. It had flown out of my hands and if it wanted to go to be a movie it could go be a movie.”

Gilbert tells us how she  first saw the finished movie in a private screening, just her and her husband; “I didn’t want to be watched, watching it.” She tells how she was trembling as she saw her story unfold, getting caught off-guard when the invented ex-husband ‘character’ had “moments of accidental intersection when the character felt right” and reeling at the memory of “crying hours and hours a day for months on end”. Apparently, the wonderful character of Richard from Texas is portrayed perfectly and, more interestingly, tells a story of why he finds himself at the Ashram. It’s a story, recreated pretty much word-for-word, that Richard himself imparted to the director but had never told to Gilbert, or even his own sons, whilst he was still alive.

Gilbert asserts that she is delighted with the fact her book is now a film, claiming it is ’sanity inducing’  because it’s a spotlight shift, a magical moment of misdirection; “Now Julia Roberts is Liz Gilbert, and she’s welcome to be!”

The evening is rounded up with an emotional reading of Jack Gilbert’s (no relation!) poem Failing and Flying, which nicely ties up a lively conversation that has been intimate, jovial and inspiring. Perhaps not the grilling I would have liked but, hey, some of my niggles have been assuaged slightly and there’s no denying Gilbert is a wonderfully motivating presence and a fantastic speaker. Perhaps I shall become an Eat, Pray, Lover yet!

Watch the IQ2 highlights video here.

By: Sarah Barnes, 17.09.2010 | Comments (0)
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