At the end of “Eat Pray Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert found herself, against all odds, in love again. This time, though, she was determined not to marry. It was the difficult collapse of her first marriage, after all, that sent her on the yearlong odyssey that resulted in that book (and, later, the blockbuster movie).
But visa problems forced her hand. After 9/11, her Brazilian lover, “Felipe” (his real name is Jose), was denied re-entry to the United States, told that he had been “visiting America too frequently.” The only solution: marriage.
For 10 months, Jose and Gilbert traveled Southeast Asia in a sort of limbo, waiting for paperwork to clear, agonizing over doing this thing they had sworn never to do.
Out of this came Gilbert’s second memoir, “Committed,” newly published in paperback, in which she examines the institution of marriage from every possible angle ― historical, religious, legal, cultural and personal ― and slowly comes to terms with becoming, once again, a wife.
Q: You and Jose have been married for four years now. How’s it going?
A: It’s going very well. It was beneficial for us to do this. The question I was struggling with as I was writing the book was, “Why marriage? Why does this thing still endure?”
There are any number of answers to that, but one of them is that there’s a circle of privacy and respect that the very word draws around you as a couple. In America, people will not give that seriousness to the word “partner.” And that’s one reason why same-sex couples are fighting for that language ― not just for the civil rights, but for the entire package, including the vocabulary.
Tonya Melendez (right) meets author Elizabeth Gilbert after Gilbert recently staged a reading and signed books at a book store in Oak Brook, Illinois. (Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Getting married has definitely made our lives ― we’re held in a higher regard.
Q: If you had not done all of the research and soul-searching that you did in this book, would your marriage be different than it is?
A: It would be not as good. And the thing is, I wouldn’t have done that research if I hadn’t been writing about it, because I wouldn’t have had the discipline or the incentive.
There’s nothing to hone your discipline like having to write a book. It’s almost like a dare ― you put it out there and you say, “I’m going to do this thing and it’s going to be done in the next two years,” and you literally sign a contract saying you’re going to do that.
So it was a wonderful excuse for me to learn my way through something that I think has ultimately been really important.
Q: You went into this thinking that marriage was something society imposed on people, but you came out of it realizing that it’s something that people have imposed on society.
A: That’s an idea I came upon late in my research. It pulled the whole thing together for me. I just thought, “Yeah, what do you think society is, other than people’s will?”
Q: There’s a scene in “Committed” when you’ve been traveling for months and you suddenly realize that this is not making Jose happy; he wants to stay put somewhere. Do you find that marriage requires a lot of compromise?
A: A lot of our lives are informed by what we long for, and there’s always going to be a pull against what you have. My longing is usually for more solitude, and I think it has something to do with being a writer. It’s not a crisis, but if there’s a pull, that’s the way it goes. You work it out, every day.
Q: Do you still have that need to travel? It felt almost compulsive as “Committed” unfolded.
A: To a certain extent in the last few years I’ve had less of a longing for adventure travel than any other time in my life because of how much unintentional travel we had to do, and how much unintentional travel I’ve done on the “Eat Pray Love” train.
It’s taken some of the fun out of it, in a way, and it made me not want to travel anymore. It made me long for home. And to that end, we moved to a small town in New Jersey, we have a lovely house, and I’ve got a cat sitting on my lap right now.
Q: In the preface, you said you wrote the entire book and then threw it out because the voice wasn’t right. It took you until page 500 before you realized it wasn’t right?
A: It took me until I was standing in Kinko’s holding it as it printed out for the first time, and I opened up a random page all excited and started reading and felt like I was going to throw up.
This wasn’t, “Gee, I had a dream of this book and it’s fallen a bit short.” This was, “Oh dear, this is a catastrophe and I don’t want anyone in the world to read it.” I ended up having to write a letter to my editor, saying I don’t have anything to give you.
Q: What happened?
A: It took me half a year away from it, not thinking about it, not doing any writing at all, to recognize what the problem was, which was, I wasn’t talking to anybody.
I always have a really strong rule that you shouldn’t begin a book unless you know exactly who you’re speaking to ― usually it should just be one person, and I was trying to write a book for 10 million people. And it read like it, like with every single sentence I took a vote among 10 million people I don’t know, saying, “Do you like this? Do you want more like this?”
It wasn’t until I narrowed it down to the women who I know and wrote the book for them that it came alive.
Q: And you’re working on a novel?
A: I’m back to working on fiction, which feels really good. My first two books were fiction, and then I fell into journalism, and then wrote a biography, and then it was Memoir City for a while.
There’s just a great joy and liberation I feel in being able to invent a story line and shape outcomes. I’ve been trying so hard to shape the outcome of my own life, and I thought, “Why don’t you just shape the outcome of imaginary people? It’s a lot easier.”
Q: You once said that your goal was to publish something, anything, before you died. You’ve achieved that; so what’s your new goal?
A: I would like to return to being a writer instead of being a personality. I was so delighted and edified by being able to be part of that whole world, but that’s not where my joy is. So I have a pretty simple goal: I would like to be a wintertime writer and a summertime gardener for the rest of my life. Doesn’t that sound nice?
By Laurie Hertzel
(Star Tribune (Minneapolis))
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)