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.
But it was a collection that included a bunch of profiles that he’d written through the 1930s and ’40s of stage actresses who were coming to New York to work on various productions. There’s something impossibly glamorous about the world that he was describing: going to the Sherry-Netherland in the afternoon and sitting down with the great thespian Katharine Cornell and talking about her upcoming role as Lady Macbeth. I just thought, I want to be in that world.
In a larger sense, I’ve wanted for years to write a novel about promiscuous girls whose lives are not ruined by the often ill-advised choices that they make. And I feel like that’s a difficult book to find in the Western canon, because girls are always so terribly punished for their recklessness. I wanted to write a book about girls—not who get away with it, [not] who have consequence-free sex—but who managed to survive their consequences. A book about female sexual desire and how muscular and messy it can be.
O’Leary: I don’t think I realized that the 1940s involved so much casual sex. Tell me about that part of the research.
Gilbert: Well, I was lucky enough to get an incredible first-person source on that. I had that sense, too, as I was writing. I was thinking, How could there have been such a thing as this?
We have such a naïveté in our imaginations about the reality of sex. There have always been people who have had a lot of sex. There has always been that girl who has come to New York City to test out her powers and the limits of her beauty and her allure. She just arrived in New York City yesterday, she came here in the ’20s, she was here in 1890. The theater world and the entertainment world are a magnet for that kind of girl.
From a historical perspective, you can often tell what people were doing by rules about what they weren’t allowed to do. And also by reading public health records about the spread of venereal disease and how people were getting abortions back then. But my greatest resource was a woman in her 90s named Norma. She had been a showgirl and a dancer at the Stork Club back in the day. She’d been John Wayne’s girlfriend. She was very open talking to me about the five abortions that she’d had in the course of her life—something she spoke about with absolutely no regret or remorse whatsoever—the dozens of lovers that she had, the various venereal diseases that she had, the time that Milton Berle bought her a car.
The primary focus of her life was unbridled sensual exploration. She never married, never had kids. She still lives in the same apartment that she moved into in 1952. And when I asked her, “Did you ever regret not getting married and not having children?” she just rolled her eyes and said, “Who the hell wants to have sex with the same guy for 60 years?” Except she didn’t say “have sex”; she used a much more vulgar term.
O’Leary: A lot of the action is set at the Lily Playhouse, and there is a tension between catering to the working-class neighborhood audience and creating this great big show. It made me wonder how much you think about your very fervent audience and what they want from you.
Gilbert: I think you’re referring to Aunt Peg in the book, my protagonist’s aunt, who runs a really shabby, run-down, almost burlesque theater in Midtown. [It’s] just far enough away from the bright lights of Broadway to not be glamorous, and just close enough to Tenth Avenue to be serving the working-class people of Hell’s Kitchen. She’d also done the same thing during [World War I] for soldiers. She’d come out of the war with a feeling that people are very stressed and in a lot of pain and they need diversion and I’m here to provide it.
So I feel like this book is my version of this at a time that’s not dissimilar to how people were feeling in 1940. There’s a tremendous cloud of dread hanging over the entire dumpster fire of the world right now. I don’t know anybody who’s not stressed and anxious and depressed. What I wanted to give at this moment is a book that would go down like a tray of champagne cocktails and give you a little bit of diversion.
When I wrote The Signature of All Things, for instance, I really did want to write a big, serious, epic, intellectual novel. I knew that I would lose a lot of my readers by doing that, and I was okay with that. I feel like my readers and I don’t owe anything to one another.
O’Leary: Really? They buy your books.
Gilbert: But they’re not required to. And the reason I know that is because they often don’t. They bought millions of copies of Eat, Pray, Love, but they bought dozens of copies of Committed, the book that came after it, because they didn’t want that one. I couldn’t make them if I tried. Likewise, I feel great love and intimacy for them and the interactions that we have, but I don’t feel like I owe them anything either. I should create the work that I want to create and they’re welcome to come along with it if they want to.
O’Leary: I want to ask you about the Brave Magic retreat that you and Cheryl Strayed have done. There was a piece by a writer named Laura Cathcart Robbins in HuffPost about being the only black woman there. Have you read that?
Gilbert: I have read it, yeah. And I was really glad that she wrote it, because it was thoughtful and important. It was an awakening for me as well.
O’Leary: How so?
Gilbert: It was … God. There’s a limit to how much I want to talk about this in a way, and it’s only because I don’t think we need white people talking about white privilege that much. But I will say that it’s changed the way that I’m operating. It was a tricky situation, because it was an open-registration event. We set aside a number of scholarship tickets for people who could apply based on need. It was in Northern California, which is very white, at the Redwoods, which is very white. Our readers are very white.
There’s also something problematic about me saying black women should love my work. But I was distressed by the same exact thing that the woman who was there was distressed by, and I was really grateful that she wrote about it. I’ve been working with my speaking agent and the people who I create these events with to try to figure out how to remedy that. A lot of it is just about going to different locations. So for instance, how about I don’t do that retreat in Napa Valley? Why don’t I go to Jackson, Mississippi, instead and just bring it to a different audience?
I’ve also, in the last year, been doing that exact same retreat for free at various nonprofit organizations. And there is also something problematic about assuming that the reason that there weren’t black women in the audience is because it cost too much.
I’m trying to create events where I can take my spotlight and put it on somebody who might not have the spotlight that I have, and create more diversity not just in the audience, but on the stage. All of this is stuff that I’m working toward remedying; it’s an imperfect science. But what she said needed to be said.
O’Leary: I’ve noticed that in your work and in your reflections on life you treat things such as Ideas and Grief with capital letters, as their own things that exist and don’t necessarily belong to you. Can you explain that concept?
Gilbert: The simplest way to explain my general worldview is it’s kind of pagan. I think that everything is animate and everything has consciousness and will. I don’t think it is a metaphor. When I speak about [an idea] having will and consciousness, it comes and gets your attention and kind of uses you, almost parasitically, to make itself come into being.
It seems to make it easier to do that work … You’re a little bit off the hook. It’s kind of [like] I can make bigger leaps of faith because I believe that a lot of [life] is a mystery and that it’s not all coming from me.
O’Leary: You used the phrase off the hook. I wonder if there is the potential to abdicate responsibility for one’s own emotions and experiences by using this as an animating philosophy. Does it let you skate through life without thinking about the consequences and maybe how they affect other people?
Gilbert: I don’t think life itself will let you do that. I think when you’re out of integrity, you’ll find out very quickly, because exactly that will happen: You’ll get hurt or other people will get hurt and the consequences will rain down upon you and you’ll know it. So there’s a sort of a self-correcting mechanism in there. Also, I think that I have a tremendous amount of reverence for creativity itself, and for the privilege that I have to engage with it, and so the responsibility that I feel is to show up at the very highest possible level that I can. That’s how I remain responsible.
O’Leary: The book also wrestles with the idea of being a person of honor and not turning away from your mistakes. I went back and read this essay you wrote about being a seduction addict. Do you still think of yourself that way?
Gilbert: No. I don’t do what I used to do. I don’t think I would have written that article and revealed that about myself if I still behaved the way that I used to behave.
O’Leary: You fall in love a lot.
Gilbert: Yeah, but there’s a difference between that and seduction … I do fall in love a lot, thank goodness. I put a lot of myself out there in the world. But I behave with honesty, and I think all addiction is based on dissembling and lying, and I can’t do that anymore. Not for very long, anyway, without finding myself in a lot of pain. So I think that’s the major difference.
O’Leary: How do you decide what to share and what to keep private? You expose a lot of what you think and what you’re going through.
Gilbert: I don’t have a process other than my own intuition. I don’t have any rules about it, actually. I wouldn’t know how to set them. I don’t have a social-media manager. I’ve never had a meeting with an expert about how to do this. I just share when I’m ready to share, and I couldn’t even begin to tell you what the calculus is for that other than just deciding that it’s time.
O’Leary: I was looking back through Eat, Pray, Love and I wonder if, for you, it feels like a book of a person in her 30s, where your 30s are consumed with who you are and making it true, and your 40s are like, “Oh, my back hurts and I don’t really care what anyone thinks of me.”
Gilbert: I hadn’t read it in 10 years, but the 10-year anniversary came up recently and my publisher asked me to write a foreword to it. I thought I should probably read it before I write a foreword.
I don’t know if it’s a book for women in their 30s, but it’s certainly a book written by a woman in her 30s. I was struck by how much shame there was in that book, and how apologetic I was as a narrator, about myself, and how embarrassed I was by the fact that I wanted to go on a spiritual journey. I kind of roll myself under the bus a lot in that book.
There is a paragraph that really struck me and actually made me very sad, which is when I was in Italy. I’m having this great meal and I’m actually feeling good, and I’m writing about how, for the first time in three years, I actually feel good. And then I said something that was like, “I know that eventually I’m going to have to settle down and become a responsible, productive, contributing adult. I promise that I will do that soon but just a little while longer let me just do this now.”
And I think that insecurity of a 34-year-old woman who’s saying, “Conventional life; I tried it … I’m going to go do this thing, but I promise it’s just for a year and then I’ll settle down again and I’ll be normal again” didn’t work for me. That’s an insecurity I don’t have anymore. That’s a promise I would never make to anybody again.