Elizabeth Gilbert interview: Eat Pray Love author reveals how to pursue a creative life in new self-help book Big Magic

Elizabeth Gilbert got rich from 'Eat Pray Love', her 2006 bestseller, but says creative satisfaction matters most. Now she's a self-helper, advising her readers to embrace their mystic selves, can she still cast her spell?

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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."

 

 

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 now

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