Writing Eat Pray Love launched Elizabeth Gilbert into a sort of heady, popular fame, a piece of which both Hollywood and Oprah wanted. Since its publication in 2006, the frank memoir of the American writer's travels through Italy, India and Indonesia in search of balm for a broken heart and – there is really only one way of saying this – herself, has sold more than 10 million copies and spent more than 200 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. In 2010 it was made into a film starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem which took $175m (£114m) in the year after its release.
Should Gilbert care not to, she need never write – much less sing – for her supper ever again. But Eat Pray Love (EPL) was no overnight sensation and nor was Gilbert, something she underscores time and again in her new book, Big Magic, her paean to pursuing a creative life. Creativity is so powerful, she believes, it can act as an effective antidote to depression.
By the time Eat Pray Love was published almost 10 years ago, Gilbert had spent most of her three and a half decades writing. She was an acclaimed long-form magazine journalist ,and her investigative stint working at an East Village table-dancing bar inspired the film Coyote Ugly. Her first book, Pilgrims, a collection of short stories, was a PEN/Hemingway award finalist.
Her first novel, Stern Men, was picked out as a "Notable Book" by The New York Times. Then came a biography of the naturalist Eustace Conway, The Last American Man, which was nominated for the National Book Award and Critics Circle Award.
So far, so serious. And then came her unflinchingly honest tale of her own life, which, though now notorious, took a year and many word-of-mouth recommendations to get going. In the UK, she remembers, it was even harder to sell. "The British took ages to get on board with Eat Pray Love. Alexandra Pringle [Bloomsbury's group editor-in-chief] did it single-handedly. She would take cases of it to parties and get people to read it. It was not universally embraced, but it was very widely embraced."
The wide embrace was from readers.
The welcome was not universal because, as a memoir and heartfelt human interest story – the human happening to be a woman – and a story that would work equally well as a schmaltzy romantic film, critics couldn't quite get behind it.
Gilbert was "likeable", said the New York Times review – but everyone struggled to agree if she was also permitted to be smart and serious, too.
What, then – what on earth – will the great British public and Gilbert's legion of EPL megafans make of her latest book? Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear is a self-help book. To borrow from the blurb, "Gilbert has witnessed how universal the struggle is for individuals to feel authentic and inspired; how challenging it is to find the courage and strength to lead a creative life; and how stuck so many people feel in their jobs, relationships, and above all, within themselves…"
Well, I think, after reading it but before interviewing Gilbert, if the British folk can get past all the bits about magic, which admittedly may be a struggle given the title, then they'll see it for what it is: an enthusiastic call to do what your heart, not The Man, tells you, and not to get sidetracked by bullshit such as success, failure, the ability to create stuff anyone else values, making money from your art.
But that would do Gilbert a disservice, because, as she explains to me during our interview, she really does believe in magic. She is taking a walk in the woods near her New Jersey home while we talk, and I'm at my desk in London.
She has this knack of finding the right backdrop to illustrate her ideas, and I can imagine her sharing her thoughts loudly with the trees and the birds, as well as with me. "I have one foot with the fairies and one foot with the real and I'm a great appreciator of rational Western thought. It's been very good to me in lots of ways," she says. "But one must be careful not to become too reasonable. It's beneficial to leave a little bit of your brain to mystery, to wander to magical thinking."
Arts + Ents News in Pictures
Arts + Ents News in Pictures
1/50 15 September 2015
Workmen install an artwork by British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman entitled 'Cyber Iconic Man' during a photocall in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit in Sheffield Cathedral in northern England. The artwork is a part of an exhibition entitled 'Going Public' which takes place across five venues in Sheffield city centre and features pieces from four private collections. The exhibition opens on 16 September and runs until 12 December 2015
2/50 14 September 2015
Lincoln Townley puts the finishing touches to Meryl Streep’s portrait. The self-taught portrait painter has been selected as Bafta’s official artist in LA
3/50 13 September 2015
A performance protest by a coalition of artists at the British Museum in central London, protesting against corporate oil sponsorship of the arts in Britain
4/50 12 September 2015
Artist, designer Blaine Halvorson conducts an art demonstration in front of his installation "Walk, Don't Run" during Spring 2016 New York Fashion Week
5/50 11 September 2015
A visitor walks past light effects at the exhibition "Discover the Power of Light" presented in the Atomium monument, to commemorate the International Year of Light and Light-based technologies 2015 (IYL2015), recognised by UNESCO, in Brussels, Belgium
6/50 10 September 2015
Stoker Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire poses by a sculpture by British artist Barbara Hepworth entitled 'Three Obliques (Walk In)' that features in the 'Beyond Limits' exhibition in the grounds of Chatsworth House near Bakewell, northern England
7/50 9 September 2015
A new mural is unveiled on wall of Century 21 department store across from the World Trade Center site in New York. The 65ft by 225ft mural called '#NYCISBEAUTIFUL', was created by street artist Mr. Brainwash and features iconic New York City sights and scenes
8/50 8 September 2015
To mark the year that the Queen came to the throne (1952), artist Quentin Devine has created a portrait of the Queen, using exactly 1,952 coins - each bearing her effigy. The portrait was produced on a grand scale (213cm x 183cm)
9/50 7 September 2015
Artist Barnaby Barford with his work 'Tower of Babel', a six metre tall ceramic sculpture composed of 3,000 individual pieces depicting genuine London shop fronts displayed in the V&A Museum's Medieval land Renaissance Galleries
10/50 6 September 2015
People visit 'The Beach' art installation at the National Building museum in Washington. The Beach is an interactive architectural installation that covers 10,000 square feet and includes an ocean of nearly one million recyclable translucent plastic balls
11/50 5 September 2015
People take part in The Color Run Night at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, east London
12/50 4 September 2015
Artist Kenny Hunter unveils a life-size Asian elephant sculpture, cast in part from scrap locomotive parts from the nearby Govan shipyards, at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. A year in the making, the 11 tonne sculpture is part of the Legacy 2014 project commemorating the city's hosting of the Commonwealth Games last year
13/50 3 September 2015
The Wave which is part of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper is installed at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Wakefield. The Sculpture which begins a UK tour will be open to the public on 5 September and will run until 10 January
14/50 2 September 2015
People walk past hand-painted vinyl balls floating in the MacArthur Park Lake as part of a large-scale public arts installation organized by the Portraits of Hope charity in Los Angeles, California. The work titled 'The Spheres at MacArthur Park' involves filling the park's 8.39-acre lake with about 3,000 balls, each 4 to 6 feet in diameter and covered in bright floral and fish patternses
15/50 1 September 2015
A policeman stands in front of the sculpture 'Bending Man' by Yue Min Jung, during the arrival of German President Joachim Gauck (unseen) at the NRW-Forum in Duesseldorf, Germany. Gauck visited the China 8 exhibition of contemporary Chinese art that runs until 13 September
16/50 31 August 2015
An Indian artist with his body painted with the likeness of a tiger dances before a tableau with a picture of tiger during the 'Pulikali' or Tiger Dance procession in Thrissur, Kerala state, India
17/50 30 August 2015
A group of people wearing full solid-coloured bodysuits walk along a promenade as they take part in a street art performance in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv, Israel. Some 40 people participated on Saturday in the performance, initiated by a group of artists called Prizma Ensemble, as part of the city's annual international street art and street theatre festival. The group says the performance deals with concepts of identity and movement in public spaces.
18/50 29 August 2015
People look at exhibition hang above a river during the 27th 'Visa pour l'Image' Annual international festival of photojournalism in Perpignan
19/50 28 August 2015
The inflatable sculpture "Everybody Always Thinks They Are Right" by U.S. artist Stefan Sagmeister is displayed at La Villette as part of the exhibition "L'air des Geants", "The Air of the Giants", in Paris, France,
20/50 27 August 2015
Singer Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine performs onstage at What Stage during Day 4 of the 2015 Bonnaroo Music And Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee
21/50 26 August 2015
People walk through the 'Spark Your City Urban Jungle' giant interactive kaleidoscope that has been installed between Waterloo station and London's Southbank, England
22/50 25 August 2015
A woman peers out through a glass wall of the "JumpIn!" ball pit, an interactive art installation by creative agency Pearlfisher made up of 81,000 white balls, in New York City. The installation is hosted at the agency's new SoHo office and open to the public from August 21 till September 21, to promote how play can yield results for creative thinking
23/50 24 August 2015
South African artist Mbongeni Buthelezi works on a portrait in his Johannesburg Studio. Buthelezi is turning discarded bits of plastic into sought-after works of art. The plastic bubbles pop under Buthelezi's fingertips, calloused from manipulating the hot, molten material he uses to create large abstract pieces and portraits.
24/50 23 August 2015
Mexican artist Rivelino with his 25-ton, 14.5 meter long sculpture, You, consisting of two giant fingers as it is installed in Trafalgar Square, London. The two index fingers, equal in weight, colour and size point towards each other as a reflection on human equality.
25/50 23 August 2015
Hand-painted vinyl balls float in the MacArthur Park Lake as part of a large-scale public arts installation organized by the Portraits of Hope charity in Los Angeles, California on August 23, 2015. The work titled ``The Spheres at MacArthur Park,'' involves filling the park's 8.39-acre lake with about 3,000 balls, each 4 to 6 feet in diameter and covered in bright floral and fish patterns.
26/50 22 August 2015
Performers participate in the opening ceremony of the 15th IAAF World Championships at the National Stadium in Beijing, China
27/50 21 August 2015
People interact with "Pixel Wave 2015" a projection art installation by France's Miguel Chevalier and local designers Carolyn Kan and Depression that features geometric patterns that react to movements and interactions of people, during the Singapore Night Festival at the Singapore Design Center.
28/50 20 August 2015
A steward is seen outside Bansky's 'Dismaland' exhibition, which opens tomorrow, at a derelict seafront lido in Weston-Super-Mare, England. The show is Banskys first in the UK since the Banksy v Bristol Museum show in 2009 and will be open for 5 weeks at the Topicana site.
Getty Images Europe
29/50 19 August 2015
As part of The Big British Airways Take Off, which features great value fares on flights and holidays, the airline has created what's believed to be the world's biggest piece of coin art. Six hundred thousand coins were delivered from a London bank vault to British Airways' aircraft hangar where a team of seven took six hours to create the 10 metre by eight metre image of The Statue of Liberty. New York is British Airways' flagship destination.
Getty Images for British Airways
30/50 18 August 2015
David Bowdich FBI Assistant Director in Charge, left, and and FBI Special Agent Elizabeth Rivas speak at a news conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, announcing the investigation into the theft of valuable art. The FBI is offering a reward of up to $20,000 for help in finding two N.C. Wyeth paintings stolen from a home in Portland, Maine. Four were recovered from a pawn shop in Beverly Hills, California, in December, and are estimated to be worth up to $2 million. But the remaining two were never found.
31/50 17 August 2015
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (2nd R) take a tour of the German Pavilion at the Expo 2015 on August 17, 2015 in Milan, Italy.
32/50 17 August 2015
An explosion goes off as Chinese actors playing Japanese soldiers are are filmed in a battle scene during filming of the series "The Last Noble," set during the second Sino-Japanese War on August 13, 2015 in Fangyan, China. Seventy years after the end of World War II, there is still widespread resentment across China toward Japan and its wartime misdeeds. Many of the films are shot in and around Hengdian Studios, Asia's largest production company.
33/50 16 August 2015
Brazilian twins and street artists 'Os Gemeos' put finishing touches to their new New York mural on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York
34/50 15 August 2015
In a photo released at the Disney Expo Lucasfilm shows actors Riz Ahmed, from left, Diego Luna, Felicity Jones, Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen, in the first image from upcoming film, "Star Wars: Rogue One."
35/50 14 August 2015
An artist performs in a labyrinth of 3,000 candles at Tempelhof park (Tempelhofer Feld) in Berlin, Germany. The maze, called "Die Grosse Reise" ("The Big Trip"), was opened to the public today by the theater group Theater Anu & Magica and will run through August 23.
36/50 13 August 2015
Indian kite maker, Jagmohan Kanojia displays kites colored with the Indian national flag and depicting Indian freedom fighters, at his home's workshop in Amritsar, India, 13 August 2015. The kites are Kanojia's latest creations made for the India's Independence Day celebrations on 15 August
37/50 12August 2015
Passengers take the 3D painted "Wonderful" tram in Guangzhou, China. The "Wonderful" tram decorated with 3D cartoon forests and animals paintings which were designed by WansBrother, holder of Guinness World Record for the longest 3D ground painting, would run 30 times a day for one month in Guangzhou.
38/50 11 August 2015
Mexican clowns Cazzo, Lazzo and Pozzo from Triciclo Rojo attend a photocall to promote their show 'VAGABOND, where will the wind take you?' during Edinburgh Festival Fringe Day 5 at Newhaven Quay Lighthouse, Edinburgh, Scotland
39/50 11 August 2015
A woman photographs a painting by DR Congolese artist JP Mika, entitled Kiese Na Kiese (Happyness and Joy) during the exhibition 'BeautÈ Congo 1926-2015 - Congo Kitoko' on August 11, 2015 at the Fondation Cartier in Paris
40/50 10 August 2015
a graffiti mural commemorating the 'August Agreements' and Solidarity Movement anniversaries by Polish artist Biko in Szczecin, Poland. A mural depicting the history of the Solidarity Movement with Pope John Paul II, the gate of the Szczecin Shipyard, Martial Law in Poland and a famous election campaign poster of Solidarity Movement with Gary Cooper will illustrate the commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the August Agreements' signing.
41/50 8 August 2015
Hall lit up to celebrate 50 years of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus as thousands of people attended the opening of the Edinburgh International Festival.
42/50 7 August 2015
An art installation formed with milk churns, made by land art artist Gerard Benoit a la Guillaume, is seen at the Chenau de Mayen in the resort of Leysin, Switzerland. More than 80 milk churns were placed between the Tour d'Ai and the Tour de Mayen summits at an altitude of 2,000 meters (6,561 feet) above sea level under the direction of the artist, to be photographed for his ongoing art project entitled "Milk churns without borders"
43/50 6 August 2015
Members of the Ukrainian group 'Dakh Daughters Band' striking poses during their performance at the 'Seebuehne' (lit: Lakeside stage) within the 'Zuercher Theater Spektakel' (Zurich Theatre Spectacle) at the 'Landiwiese' venue in Zurich, Switzerland. The international theater and performing arts festival runs from 6 to 23 August 2015
44/50 5 August 2015
Morph-suited performers David Labanca (orange suit) and Gianmarco Pozzoli (green suit) from Italian dance company Discoteque Machine perform in a giant kaleidoscope at Camera Obscura in Edinburgh to promote their show running from August 7 to 31 at Zoo Southside as part of the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival
45/50 4 August 2015
The voice of Thunderbirds Parker, David Graham, by a sculpture of Shaun the Sheep titled Thunderbirds Are Go, is one of 70 sheep sculptures placed around the city of Bristol, decorated by artists and celebrities to raise money for the Wallace & Gromit's Grand Appeal
46/50 3 August 2015
'Venus of the Rags' by Michaelangelo Pistoletto on display at Tate Liverpool in Liverpool, north west England. Tate Liverpool have unveiled a new display of more than 150 artworks featuring pieces by iconic artists including Sir Peter Blake, Louise Bourgeois, Marcel Duchamp and Eduardo Paolozzi
47/50 2 August 2015
A street art mural on the facade of a building is pictured in Fanzara near Castellon de la Plana, Spain. Every year new artists come to continue painting murals on the buildings of the town
48/50 1 August 2015
Hundreds of houses painted in bright colors in what organizers claim is Mexico's largest mural, is part of a government-sponsored project is called Pachuca Paints Itself, in the Palmitas neighborhood, in Pachuca, Mexico. German Crew is the artist collective responsible for painting the mural project. Director Enrique Gomez, who goes by MYBE, said the crew has painted 1,500 square meters with 20,000 liters of paint. The project aims to bring the community together and rehabilitate the area
49/50 31 July 2015
Black suited and top hat wearing teenagers from Newington College peer through telescopes as they form the human installation The Search for Happiness on Coogee Beach in Sydney, Australia. Surrealist artist, Andrew Baines collaborated with Newington College for his latest surreal event
50/50 30 July 2015
Kaiser Chiefs perform at One Mayfair in London
In Gilbert's world, ideas are "disembodied energetic life-forms" which choose you as surely as you choose them. "I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria, but also by ideas," she writes in Big Magic. "They are capable of interacting with us – albeit strangely.
"Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner."
If you don't believe her, ask Ann Patchett. As Gilbert explains in the new book, Patchett only got the idea for her 2011 novel State of Wonder, about an American drug company employee who ends up in the Amazon investigating murder and malaria, because Gilbert had "lost" it while preoccupied with the business of being forced to marry her Brazilian partner by the US Department of Homeland Security.
The story of Gilbert and "Felipe", as she calls her husband in all her writing, is the "love" part of Eat Pray Love. They meet on Bali and intend to spend their lives together, but neither is keen on marriage after painful divorces from previous partners. When the authorities intervene, the pair spend 10 months wandering through Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia, waiting for permission to get married and live together in her native America.
"It's reasonable to be sceptical. No offence taken," she says graciously, when I ask how she deals with people who may find it difficult to get on board with all of this.
Her follow up to Eat Pray Love, she says, had one thousandth of the readership of its predecessor (Bloomsbury won't confirm or deny this, or reveal sales). It was the story of marrying Felipe and an examination of the culture of marriage entitled Committed: A Sceptic Makes Peace with Marriage, so she has some experience with scepticism.
"It was a precipitous drop, the sort that could kill somebody," she admits. "If the only reason I was writing that book was to be more successful than the last, my creative life would have been over. Thankfully I don't hate myself enough to make that be the only way I see the world."
She pulled through, making her peace with marriage, and got a green card for Felipe. One of the outcomes of that period was her TED talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius, which has been viewed in excess of 10 million times. In it, she introduces the ideas that form the foundations of Big Magic, which she has been wanting to write for 12 years.
"I couldn't find the right voice for it. I don't want it to be an argument or a polemic or frustration about the fetishisation of the tormented artist."
"Part of it was an uncertainty about whether I had the right to lay out a manifesto. If you're going to do that, you need to feel that you have the authority to write this. I thought I needed some more work to prove to myself that I'm really smoking what I'm selling."
Eat Pray Love did just that. In it, Gilbert is recovering from her first marriage. "I got married at 24 as if it were the next class in the syllabus, and the next thing was to start having children before 30," she says. "But it was going against everything that my career and soul wanted, and it made me sick and it made me crazy. In order to restore the right direction I had to have the courage to listen really hard, to get really quiet and really serious with my own destiny."
In Committed she looks at the history of marriage and children in her own family, her mother and her grandmother, and acknowledges the strain raising children put on their lives, and their independence.
Does having children get in the way of creativity – the "pram in the hallway" described by the writer Cyril Connolly as "the sombre enemy of good art"?
"I think what creates problems for women is living a life that is modelled on someone else's. It's really a question of what works for you. The family question is moot.
"Sometimes what's missing is the entitlement: I'm going to give space to this, I have the right to have a voice. For women especially. It is so hard to get women to realise that we have the right to be present, and to not be afraid of doing imperfect work. It's never stopped men."
The Signature of All Things, a long and literary novel, came next. It is an intensely researched tale set within the Victorian era, when the race to discover discover the secrets and the value of the natural world was hurtling forwards.
It begins in Kew, where a poor Londoner, Henry Whittaker, makes his fortune and ends up master of a huge Philadelphia estate, a kingpin in the botanical pharmaceutical industry and father to Alma, who was born with the 19th century and becomes a prominent botanist herself. Gilbert deftly explores her ideas about how genius, spirituality and magic can cohabit with science, knowledge and discovery through the pairing of Alma Whittaker and Ambrose Pike. It's a luminous sketch of the thrill of the 1800s, in which the rush to explore the natural world and understand our relationship to it consumes the protagonists.
In some ways, given the themes of self-discovery, it's not that big a leap to Big Magic. Anyway Gilbert dismisses the idea that jumping between genres, as she does, is remarkable. "I'm not a journalist and a dentist. I still have only ever done one thing with my life, some kind of storytelling."
However she cautions against the assumption that your creative ideals will pay the bills. "My dream was to live off my art, there's nothing wrong with that. I'm not against aspiration but you have to be very careful to make sure that it's not your only motivation, and that it's not your endgame, because you're setting yourself up for a life that will no doubt disappoint you."
Disappointment is a theme for artists, of course. With very few exceptions, our culture conceives of artists as suffering in some way, whether with poor mental health or the inability to sell their work, or find patronage. Gilbert quotes Rilke, who said, "If my devils are to leave me, I'm afraid my angels will take flight, as well."
"We must be wary of the lure of the Tormented Artist," she writes in Big Magic. "Sometimes it's a persona...as the Tormented Artist, you get a pass, because you're special. Because you're sensitive and creative. Because sometimes you make pretty things.
"I don't buy it. I believe you can live a creative life and still make an effort to be a basically decent person."
It's a wonderful idea, isn't it? Magic notwithstanding, the suggestion that you don't have to be an alcoholic or a manic depressive, there's no need to slice your own ear off or self-medicate yourself towards suicide, if you want to write or to paint, to sing or act.
She brings up the writer Andrew Solomon, who examined his own depression in The Noonday Demon. "The final conclusion was that the opposite of depression is not happiness, it is vitality, it is movement, it is that you're alive in the world. We can express this through creation."
For one of Gilbert's friends, Susan, taking up figure skating at 40 awakens her creative side. "I have absolutely no interest in high art vs low art and who is allowed to call themselves an artist. I don't care," she says. "The only thing I'm interested in is the difference between a life that is creatively stagnant, and a life that is full of creative vitality."
For all her diligence as a writer, Gilbert still finds time for Facebook. "I had avoided it because I thought it was a timesuck, but instead it's turned out to be a really generous community of people.
"Once I found my Facebook voice, I realised, 'That's the voice of this book.'" She has become something of an agony aunt, too, making podcasts with interested readers who want to share their problems. "I'm so interested in the shared dilemma of human existence."
At least, admits Gilbert, after carrying around this idea for 12 years she now has space to take something else on, and she's already working on a story about the promiscuity of girls working in 1940s theatreland.
"Culturally the American market is a much easier place to talk about magic and mystery," she says.
"That language is in our society, beyond women who do yoga. The freedom to call yourself an artist is the opposite of self effacement and self deprecation. Culturally these words are very difficult for British women to feel comfortable about." We'll see if Big Magic changes that.
'Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear' (£14.99, Bloomsbury) is out nowReuse content