Last week I wanted to be Paddy Leigh Fermor – the charmingly debonair nomadic traveler and writer – because I had just read Artemis Cooper’s wonderful biography of him.
This week I want to be Elizabeth Gilbert. Consider the reasons, in no particular order: beautiful, smart, funny, loved, successful, published, admired and only forty-something.
When I asked a friend what interested her about Gilbert she replied: “I’d like to know if she’s as nice as she seems.”
The answer is: nicer. Truly.
From the moment we met, she established exactly that intimate complicity that makes reading Eat Pray Love exactly like a letter from your closest girlfriend (she did indeed write it with her best friend in mind as her reader, a technique she has employed for each book). Unaffected, curious and with that rare gift of being utterly present. The meditation is obviously working.
Gilbert has been in Australia under the radar hanging out with her second husband’s family (he’s the guy she calls ‘Felipe’ whom she meets in Bali) in Canberra. The poor things spent that horrendous hot day last week driving to Sydney.
We were at the Opera House to talk about life after Eat Pray Love and how she’s dealt with success (a topic she’s covered in her hugely popular and inspiring TED talk), about the nature of creativity and how the Romans and ancient Greeks viewed genius as something that visited you, not something that you possessed.
In her twenties, Gilbert went to work on ranches in Wyoming, preferring the company of men. She said she chose to hang out with guys like her uncles: great storytellers and drinkers. It was only much later she realised that, in fact, it was the women who had all the responsibility and were quietly running everything.
She berated the fact that we still expect women to manage having it all without adequate support when it comes to childcare (she does not have children) and then is surprised that women experience depression. She talked about how the depression of her divorce reduced the world ‘to sawdust.’
Yes, she acknowledged that the book and the film have had an impact on Bali (“Did you see the T-shirts that say Eat Pay Leave?” she asked). But she pointed out that most of the grumbling comes not from the Balinese, but from expats who don’t want to share their corner of paradise.
You will be pleased to know that Wayan, (the healer with the disconcerting ability to tell that Liz had not had sex just from massaging her legs,) is doing well and has, thanks to the impact of the book and film, become one of the rare women in her community with status. Wayan now commands authority in decision-making gatherings (she recently intervened when there was disquiet about a lesbian couple who had moved into the village).
Liz Gilbert is completely devoid of skepticism (“not so good when you are a journalist”) or cynicism. Somehow, she has managed to preserve an almost naïve wonder and she’s also comfortable enough in her own skin to share moments of embarrassment that others might skip over (she told a very funny story against herself, including all the excruciating details, about appearing on Oprah). Is there a price to pay for her candour? “I don’t know any other way to be,” she shrugs.
As I suspected, Julia Roberts did not gain weight for the Italian section of the film of Eat Pray Love, and was more beautiful in real life than you could ever imagine.
Was Liz contractually obliged to say she liked the movie? “No, but I am contractually obliged not to say I don’t like it,” she replied.
Appearing soon at US women in leadership conference, she said we still don’t know what we are capable of, because it’s only in the past 70 years that women have been able to do so many things that there is no template for. She has no time for those who work in the arts and complain that it’s a hard road. “Steelworker, that’s a hard job,” she says briskly. “This (a creative life) is a choice you make.”
She’s very much a ‘just do it’ kind of girl with a strong work ethic. She claims writing is the only thing she’s any good at. She’s serious about her craft and a big reader. (I gave her Courtney Collins’ The Burial for a taste of our wild women of the bush and she sat up half the night reading it.)
She’s weeded those who might envy her out of her social circle but struggles with the selfishness required of a writer when it comes to friends in need.
Her next book, due out in October, is The Signature of All Things: an ambitious literary novel about a 19th century female botanical explorer. It’s set all over the world and features our very own Captain Cook and Joseph Banks.
We ran out of time and failed to address the questions sent in by the audience, including a nice one which asked “what would you tell that you aged 21 today?” but she said she’d try to give some answers on Facebook.
I really wanted to ask her if she subscribes to Naomi Wolf’s tantric goddess theories about our vaginas talking to us. Maybe next time.