Like Spinal Tap, Elizabeth Gilbert goes to 11. Whether it’s the depths of her despair in Eat, Pray, Love, the intensity of her research in her fiction, or the openness with which she shares her life—romantic and otherwise—with her rabid fans, she lives in bold.
Gilbert has something of a two-track career, toggling between carefully crafted fiction and confessional creative essays. The latter, of course, made her a guru for thousands of women who longed for a similar arc of self-discovery and a thrilling life. Now, after the death of her partner Rayya Elias, Gilbert has written a new novel, City of Girls, set in 1940s New York. The work follows a privileged woman’s adventures, headstrong mistakes, and growing self-knowledge. It’s sprawling and colorful, with characters firing off dialogue that would fit in a Howard Hawks movie. I spoke with her about her book, her craft, and what it means to be Elizabeth Gilbert. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lizzie O’Leary: This new book inhabits a very complete and discrete world: a sort of crumbling, pre–World War II theater scene with a naive, self-absorbed young woman in it. What was the spark for creating this?
Elizabeth Gilbert: A couple of things. I always feel like there are multiple sparks, and then they conjoin. And then you have a match, and then hopefully it becomes a torch. But I can tell you some of them. One is that I came upon an out-of-print book of essays by Alexander Woollcott, who was, of course, one of the Algonquin Round Table figures, and a critic and columnist for The New Yorker. He was really famous in his day and not at all now.