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Interview: Elizabeth Gilbert, author of City of Girls

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about her new novel, City of Girls

books Updated: May 31, 2019 17:25 IST
Simar Bhasin
Simar Bhasin
Hindustan Times
New York street scene in a photograph clicked on 9 September, 1949.
New York street scene in a photograph clicked on 9 September, 1949.(Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
         
480pp, Rs 599; Bloomsbury
480pp, Rs 599; Bloomsbury

City of Girls comes a decade after Elizabeth Gilbert’s wildly successful memoir Eat Pray Love. The 20th century love story emerges from the protagonist Vivian Morris’ response to a letter she receives in her old age and begins in the summer of 1940 when she was a 19-year-old Vassar dropout relocating to New York City to live with her Aunt Peg, the proprietor of a crumbling Manhattan theatre. Vivian puts her talent as a seamstress to work with the costume department and, in the process, encounters myriad characters and befriending a showgirl, Celia Ray. Their bond is one of the most finely etched female friendships in recent fiction. The 466-page narrative looks at female sexuality and desire, and at constrictive notions of masculinity too. In an email interaction, the author speaks about challenging stereotypes, writing in a post #MeToo world, constructing New York as a living character and about her process.

In your book New York becomes almost like a living character. Was that something you had set out to do consciously or something that happened organically in the process of writing the novel?

LG: New York IS a living character! It was easy to describe her as such, because that’s exactly how I’ve always experienced the city. (And she is female, by the way.) My personal nickname for New York has always been “The Great Mother”, because she’s taken me in so many times in my life, and always with such generosity and compassion. I’ve moved to New York City four times in my life — once for college, and three times when I’d messed up or blown up my life elsewhere, and I needed to come back home to mother. Each time, she’s given me a home, community, creative inspiration, and nourishment. It was high time I wrote a novel about her.

You alluded to the #MeToo movement in your author’s note. How important do you feel narratives centred on female voices are in today’s time?

LG: Female voices have always been important. But it’s not only important to hear women’s voices; it’s important to hear stories about women who have lived unconventional lives. Despite the enormous progress women have made in the last half century (and the progress is enormous, make no mistake about it) there is still a lingering, toxic, tyrannical vision out there about what constitutes the “right” kind of female life. Sexual policing is very much a part of that tyrannical vision. Women are supposed to be chaste, virtuous, and respectable. God help the girl or woman who follows her own sexual curiosity, has multiple partners, makes some “reckless” choices, or ends up an unconventional path (no marriage, no children) throughout her life. She still has to reckon with a social conservatism that sometimes seems to permeate the groundwater of culture itself. This is why I wanted to write a novel about a “loose” woman, who is not destroyed by her passion, her actions, or even her errors of judgment. Because I don’t think we’ve seen that story told very often.

The novel keeps you hooked through the the 466 pages, but do you feel that the length can prove to be a negative given the short attention spans of the digital generation?

LG: Well, if the novel kept you hooked, it’s a pretty good bet that it will hook others!

With the success of the film adaptation of Eat Pray Love, while writing City of Girls, did the possibility of a cinematic adaptation influence how you wrote the book?

LG: I have thought about City of Girls as a move or play (or, in this age of golden TV, perhaps a TV series) but it didn’t effect the way I wrote the book. I actually don’t know how to write for the screen or the stage (I leave that the pros) so I wouldn’t know how to do it if I tried. It’s hard enough creating a novel... I’ll stick to that.

What is your writing process? Do you have a dedicated writing place?

LG: My writing process generally involves years of research and preparation, and then a big burst of actual writing, which I try to do all in one big push. I prefer to be absolutely alone when I’m writing, so I tend to go off into the countryside somewhere to dive into the story. It’s easiest for me to keep the story together when I don’t take my eyes from the page, so those months of writing are pretty intense for me. I wrote this novel out rural New Jersey last summer at an old church that I own. I barely spoke with anyone the whole time. It was wonderful.

Portrait of Elizabeth Gilbert by Timothy Greenfield Sanders
Portrait of Elizabeth Gilbert by Timothy Greenfield Sanders

While constructing the characters of Vivian Morris or Aunt Peg or all the interesting characters that made up “Peg’s world, with all its novelty and noise,” were there any real life counterparts that you were drawing on? How much of your personal experiences made it to the final pages?

LG: The characters in City of Girls are a mish-mash, drawn from people that I know (my great aunt Lolly, for instance, who owned a hotel and was very similar to Aunt Peg), and from my own history (I didn’t have to do any research on what it’s like to be a reckless young woman) and from my pure imagination. There comes a point when the characters are so real to me that I forget that they didn’t really exist. I STILL miss Aunt Peg, and I have to remind myself sometimes that she was never a real person.

With Frank’s story, there is also a mention of PTSD and the aftereffects of war where even the entire socially constructed notion of what constitutes masculinity itself comes under question. What was the kind of research required to make his story sound as authentic as it did?

LG: I wanted to challenge stereotypes of masculinity in this book just as much as I wanted to challenge stereotypes of femininity. In some ways, Frank is every bit as much of a “failure” as a man as Vivian is as a woman. Or, rather — they are failures in terms of how conservative culture would see them. Vivian is a failure at being chaste, and Frank is a failure at being brave in battle. But they are such wonderful, real, and vulnerable people. It wasn’t difficult to create Frank, after reading the accounts of sailors who had been in line of fire in the South Pacific during World War II. They walked through hell, and most of them were never the same again. I have had some good friends who went to war, and who came back forever changed. I drew on those experiences and encounters, as well. Back in the 1940s, there was no language for PTSD (just as there was no language for what we might now call #metoo) but that doesn’t mean people weren’t still experiencing devastating emotional distress.

You have written across genres, from non fiction to historical fiction, which other genre would you like to work with?

LG: That’s a great question! I never think too much about what genre is next. It’s more like this: I think about what story I want to tell next, and then I try to figure out what genre will serve the tale. This leaves me open to all sorts of possibilities. So... we shall see!

♡LG

Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

First Published: May 31, 2019 17:25 IST

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