A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Jan 20, 2010
First Comes "Eat, Pray, Love," then Comes Marriage
If you read Eat, Pray, Love, you know that writer Elizabeth Gilbert spent a year eating in Italy, meditating in India and falling in love in Indonesia. But her story didn’t stop there.
She and her new partner—José Nunes, whom she refers to as Felipe in the book—promised each other they’d never get married and settled into a life based in America. But plans changed drastically and unexpectedly when Nunes was detained at the American border in Dallas after a trip abroad. The U.S. government told the couple that, essentially, they’d have to marry if he wanted to enter the country again.
The couple did marry and now live in Frenchtown, New Jersey. But not without Gilbert delving into the topic of marriage—and her extreme aversion to it. This body of research became her new book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, which was published earlier this month.
I recently had the chance to talk with Gilbert about her journeys: her travels, exploration of marriage and her upcoming trip to Madison to speak at Overture Center.
I understand you live in New Jersey …
That’s right. Yeah, where else would you live after traveling around the world like that than New Jersey?
Well, I think people in Wisconsin would understand. But what brought you there and what about that place made you, after all this traveling, want to settle there?
I really wanted to be on the East Coast and I wanted to be very close to my sister who lives in Philadelphia, to my parents who live in Connecticut and to New York City, which is where most of my professional life is, and this is kind of the median between all those places, it’s kind of the hub in the middle of all those folks. And I wanted to live in the country and around this part of the world, the Delaware River Valley, which is so beautiful. It’s the New Jersey that gives the Garden State its name and it’s just absolutely lovely.
It just kind of suited our needs. And my husband is the most adaptable human being I have ever met in my life. And literally, really and truly, feels that one place in the world is pretty much the same as another. So when I initially got that job teaching at the University of Tennessee right after we met, I said to him, "Should I take this job in Tennessee? Will this affect our lives in any way?" And he said, "Darling, you have to understand, as far as I’m concerned America is one place. It’s all the same place." And he’s since having lived here discovered that there are serious regional differences. But to his mind it didn’t make any difference to him where he was. And he’s always liked the United States, so we’re settled here.
I hadn’t realized that you and your husband were settling into life here just as Eat, Pray, Love was taking off.
Yeah, that whole year that we traveled … there was this whole year that we spent kind of in limbo. The whole reason for the new book is my efforts to get over my hostility toward marriage because we were sentenced to marry by the INS. They had actually arrested and deported him and the only way I could get him back into the country was to marry him. And this is the basis for the new book. But, anyway, there was this year of limbo when we couldn’t get back into the county—or I could, but he couldn’t—so we spent that whole year in Southeast Asia and the book takes place mostly there … By the time we got back from that, Eat, Pray, Love had just started to take off so we sort of settled down at exactly the right moment. We landed in this very safe, small rural town in New Jersey and kind of came in before that whole wave hit. So we were sort of braced and steady by the time it happened.
How do you deal or come to grips with all that success and all that attention? What’s it like to live with that?
Well, it’s not something I really encounter on a daily basis. Again, because I live in a small place I see the same dozen people every single day. I only encounter it when I go out in my specific role as Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love to go to an event or something like that. But as far as fame and celebrity goes, just to keep it in perspective, certainly in terms of comparing me to what actually constitutes as a celebrity in the United States of America, it’s pretty low-key. And the fans of Eat, Pray, Love are not people that you need to be afraid of. They tend to be really, really nice women who have had some disappointments in life and are very, very compassionate and sweet. They’re not anyone that anybody needs to be alarmed over. So it’s not that, and the benefits of what it has brought for me to have had this kind of success and to have achieved, most of all, financial independence is so huge that any minor inconvenience along the way can certainly be absorbed.
And also it’s just really nice to have written something that impacted people so much, which of course what we want to do when we write. It’s the whole reason we want to do it in the first place. So it’s not so bad. Also, I think it’s to my great fortune that it was my fourth book that this happened to, and not the first. And that I was almost forty years old when it happened and not twenty-two. There’s just perspective that I think you get at a certain point in life that makes that kind of thing easier. But it’s nothing to complain about at all.
Obviously you’ve done a lot of other writing. Did you have any sense that Eat, Pray, Love would be so popular or, as you look back at your other writing, do you like that book more than others?
I try not to pick favorites when it comes to things that I’ve written. Each book is important to me for different reasons. And if I had to, I would think probably the book that I’m most proud of, just because it was the biggest accomplishment for me, was Stern Men, because it was really difficult to write. And I had big, huge moments of self-doubt where I thought I wasn’t capable of doing it. So it doesn’t really matter what the end result was or how it landed on the world. I know it that was an enormous personal victory. And so that book means a lot to me for that reason and my first book means a lot to me because it was my first book and I wrote it with no chance of reward. I wrote it before anybody wanted it. And I like The Last American Man because of the thought process that went into it. So each one has its own special reason for being. And I think the really important thing for me has just been that I’ve been fortunate enough to be allowed to follow my curiosity over the years. And I’ve been able to really devote myself to whatever it is at that moment that I find the most fascinating or the most important. Sometimes that’s been fiction; sometimes that’s been nonfiction. And sometimes it’s been memoir and sometimes it’s been an exploration of other people’s lives. It just kind of depends on what’s going on.
That’s wonderful to have that freedom to follow it.
I’ve been really, really, really, really lucky. And stubborn about it, too. It’s a combination of luck and stubbornness.
That’s a good way of putting it. Now, Eat, Pray, Love was very personal. Is that something you’ve done in equal measures with your new book, Committed, or did you scale back knowing how many people would want to read it?
The new book is personal, too. It’s certainly recognizable as a memoir. It’s not as searingly raw as Eat, Pray, Love was, mostly because my emotional state was really different. I mean, they took place at really different times in my life. In Eat, Pray, Love I was really clawing my way back from a serious depression and heartbreak and loss and so all of that is in the book. And the new book, Committed, is a much more sort of sober, considered account of trying to, for once and for all, get to the bottom of the question of what is marriage and why is marriage and what isn’t marriage. So it’s got a different tone to it. It’s still me writing, it’s still my voice, but I keep saying the difference in tone between Eat, Pray, Love and Committed is the difference in tone between romance and marriage.
Because Eat, Pray, Love is a really romantic book even before the love story occurs. Just the idea of going off on a personal journey and a quest and getting to the bottom of your own life—these are enormously romantic ideas. And it was really important to me when I was writing Committed to sort of intentionally strip it of romance in a way. It’s still a love story but it’s about an entirely different set of values in a way and I really wanted to turn on all the fluorescent lights and look at it really carefully.
How has researching and writing Committed affected your view of marriage? How did that shape your journey going into your marriage?
Well, it was essential. I can’t now imagine the feelings I would have had. The only way I can explain it is in that moment, in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport when the Homeland Security officer informed us that really our only option was marriage, my first thought was this horrible sinking feeling that I had and that my husband had as well. Because we’d made a really solemn commitment to each other that we were never going to get married. It just felt like safety not to and it felt like security not to, which is sort of the opposite of how many people would see it. But having been through really bad divorces, we just didn’t believe in this whole idea. And the first thought that I had was, of course, yes, we’ll do this. I mean, there’s no question, I’m not going to lose him. I don’t feel so strongly about this that I’m going to let go of this person. But I don’t want anyone to know. We’ll be secretly married and we’ll pretend to be unmarried. And maybe if we do it fast enough and sort of hold our noses, we won’t even know. Maybe we can just forget that the whole thing ever happened.
And when I examined those feelings and saw that’s how I was reacting to it, it really occurred to me that I needed to work this out. Because that’s really going a little too far. Come on, is it that scary? Is it that awful? And so the book was really a long, drawn-out process for me of exploring the history of this subject and looking for a place of comfort for myself within it.
And ultimately I was able to find that and come away from it with a respect for marriage that differs from what I think social conservatives mean when they say respect for marriage. It’s more of an effort of admiration for the fact that this thing endures at almost a level of Darwinian survival. People just continue to insist on having privacy with each other and wanting to see that privacy respected by a circle drawn by the law around them. And we want that so much that we keep this institution around and we alter it and tinker with it in the courts and in our homes but it doesn’t go away. And I found that really kind of fascinating and worthy of a certain admiration.
What surprised you most working on the book?
Probably the fact that I had gone into it thinking of marriage as this very rigorous, concrete institution, like a set or mores and boundaries that were really rigid. And what I discovered is that it’s a very limber, flexible, ever-changing social experiment more than it is a rigorous, vigorous institution. It’s something that we’re constantly altering, and no one, not even them most conservative member of the United States Congress would accept marriage on its fifteenth-century terms. Or even its seventeenth-century terms.
So when we talk about the sanctity of this institution it’s really important to remember that we are all constantly tidying it up and bringing it up to date. And I’ve come to sort of think of marriage as an automobile built upon a stagecoach with a mule cart underneath. It still contains all its original forms but we’re always bringing the newest modern innovations to it.
And when I realized that and also realized a very interesting side story about how various institutions from the Christian church to communism to fascism to feminism have tried very hard to get rid of marriage at the beginnings of their evolution. Every new revolutionary social concept that comes into being, one of the first things they try to do is to undermine the idea of family and marriage and to create this new social order wherein “we are your family now,” the brotherhood, the fellowship. You are not to have private longings and private loyalties but you’re to surrender all that up and you’re to answer to this higher uniting cause. And people just won’t have it …
It just kind of puts the whole thing in a different light and you start to see yourself as being the latest in a line of quietly revolutionary couples who refuse to chose anything other than each other.
Do you have any expectations about how the book will be received?
It’s not going to be what Eat, Pray, Love is. It just can’t be. And there’s something in a weird way almost liberating about that because Eat, Pray, Love was such an audacious phenomenon that you don’t even have to worry about competing with it—because you can’t. You can’t do that twice. It’s astonishing to do it once. And I don’t have any problems having another book not reach that height. I think other people might have heightened expectations but I’m not in charge of their expectations. And the first draft of Committed was kind of warped by me trying to write a book that would please all the people who loved Eat, Pray, Love, and wanting to satisfy them and make them happy. It wasn’t until I let go of that and realized I have to do what I’ve always done which is to do the book that I feel needs to be written in the way it needs to be told.
What are you planning to talk about when you come to Madison?
I’ve been on a bit of a bender talking about creativity and preaching my own personal gospel of trying to encourage a new way of looking at creativity that doesn’t have to do with attachment to romantic, and I think now outdated, ideas of how madness and depression are always connected to invention. I think that we’re at the beginning of a very tense century and we need our creative minds, we need them more than ever and we need them sober and sane and alive. And it’s time for us to let go of some of those harmful old chestnuts of ideas about the links between creativity and insanity. I preach sane creativity.
That’s great. And have you been to Madison before?
I have been to Madison before. I think I was in Madison when The Last American Man came out. It’s obviously a wonderful town and a hotbed of all the kind of stuff I believe in. I feel like I’m going to be very comfortable there.
I bet you will.
It’s always nice to go and speak in places where you know one of the questions you won’t be asked is, “Is it selfish to go on a spiritual journey?” And I would say that Madison is one of those places where you can be pretty sure no one is going to ask that. Madison, Southern California—there are certain places where you’re safe.
Is there anything you hope people leave with after encountering you, whether through your books or seeing you in person?
Friendliness is nice. I would hope they could count on that. And I do really try, for what it’s worth, to encourage people to just be a little gentler on themselves. We do live in a time when especially women hold themselves to such a high standard of what they expect they should and could be doing with their lives at every moment. And it’s a little too much and practically everybody that I know just seems to be a little strung out, or a lot strung out. And I just hope that I’m able at some point just to give people permission to pump the brakes a little bit and regard their lives with a little bit more self-care and a little bit more self-compassion. It’s not necessarily a simple time in which to live even though we have, especially as women, more freedoms and more options than anybody before us ever has had. We are still the subjects of a vast new social experiment that is still underway in terms of the question being, What happens when you give women autonomy and education and literacy and financial independence? All these things that nobody in history before us had. And we don’t have centuries and centuries and centuries of role models for how to negotiate our lives with all those options. We’re all sort of figuring it out for ourselves and so there’s a lot of stress and a lot of neurosis that goes along with that. I think it’s part of the beginning of this. But I think we all have to be a little gentler on ourselves.
What’s next for you?
I want to go back to writing fiction. I’ve missed it. The last three books that I’ve written have been pretty intense journeys into the real. And I would like to return to the world of invention. I think it would be really, really nice to be able to do that.
Elizabeth Gilbert speaks at Overture Center February 11 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets or more information, call 258.4141 or visit overturecenter.com.
Photo courtesy of Overture Center.