Elizabeth Gilbert's renowned memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" features many exotic locations, including Italy, India and Indonesia.
Not mentioned in the memoir is the city where Gilbert edited her soon-to-be-famous work: Knoxville, Tenn.
In 2005, Gilbert served as the Jack E. Reese Writer-in-Residence at UT for six months while she put the finishing touches on the memoir she would release the following February.
Since then, Gilbert has gone on to worldwide recognition, due largely to the film adaptation of "Eat, Pray, Love," which starred Julia Roberts. She has also released two works, the nonfiction memoir "Committed," and most recently, her novel "The Signature of All Things," released Oct. 1.
Although Knoxville is not a usual stop on most book tours, Gilbert's Knoxville ties are bringing "An Evening with Elizabeth Gilbert" to the Tennessee Theatre on Saturday Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. The event will include a reading and a question and answer session; it is sponsored by the Friends of the Knoxville Public Library, in partnership with Union Avenue Booksellers and the Knox County Public Library.
Gilbert, who stayed at the Hotel St. Oliver and ate lunch every day at The Tomato Head, said her memories of the pre-publication of "Eat, Pray, Love" are very tied up in Knoxville.
"I worked in my hotel room in the Hotel St. Oliver," Gilbert said in a phone interview with The Daily Beacon. "It had a certain old-world charm. I loved it there actually, it almost felt haunted and definitely like the set of a Tennessee Williams story. It had a kind of weird, evocative air to it."
While working on her final draft, Gilbert also had her first teaching experience.
"I had a wonderful class, so it was a really memorable experience for me," Gilbert said. "I remember being absolutely dazzled by the amount of talent in that classroom. There were a few in the class who really wanted to devote themselves to a lifetime of writing."
Gilbert was chosen as writer-in-residence because of her previous work in fiction and her friendship with Michael Knight, professor of English. The two met around 1999, Knight said.
"We've been good friends since then," Knight said. "She's just incredibly charming and has a way about her that I knew would be great with students. She'd just finished a big book project called 'The Last American Man.' We were looking for a new visiting writer and the timing was good for Liz to come in."
"The Signature of All Things" has received positive reviews in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, among various other news organizations. The novel takes place in the 19th century and features Alma, a woman with an impressive passion for botany. For Gilbert, this was a chance to delve back into the world of fiction.
"I hope that the book has its own intrinsic pleasures as a piece of old-fashioned storytelling," Gilbert said. "I have a lot of respect for old-fashioned storytelling, for a narrator who takes control of the situation from the beginning and knows exactly where she wants to go with this, who says, 'I know exactly where I'm going with this so come along and I'll tell you a story.'"
For Gilbert, the line between nonfiction and fiction is one that she prefers not to blur.
"(Fiction and nonfiction) are clearly different animals, but they're cousins," Gilbert said. "I feel like more of an ambidextrous person than somebody who blurs lines. I can write with my left hand, I can write with my right hand. I can do fiction or I can do nonfiction.
"I seem to be able to do both those kind of novels with the same potential. I stand a chance with either one."
Friends of the Library President Martha Gill admitted she is excited about both Gilbert's novel and the positive effect the event has had on the Knoxville community.
"One of the things that the Friends have done in the past is to bring world-famous authors to Knoxville, John Updike ... Pat Conroy," Gill said. "And we sort of fell out of that for a while. One of my goals is to re-identify the Friends with book and author events.
"We are trying to educate ourselves about what the library offers all of us, to support that system and communicate to the whole community what we see as the value of that system."
With her successful body of work, Gilbert has developed a viewpoint on writing that is different from what she refers to as a "western" thought process.
"We are still really caught up in this German romantic, what I think of as outdated 19th century idea, that says creativity and torment are forever entwined," Gilbert said, "and that there's no way to have creativity without being a tormented person."
Gilbert's objection to this idea is so strong that it was one of the first things she told her class.
"If you're married to your suffering and you want to be an artist because you want to live a suffering life, then you're in the wrong classroom because we aren't going to do that here," Gilbert said. "This is more of holy temple of love and creativity and support and the more sane you are the better your work will be."
Tickets for the event are $30 for students and $35 for adults and include a copy of "The Signature of All Things."
Knoxville has many literary relations – James Agee, Frances Hodgson Burnett and Cormac McCarthy, to name a few. However, Knoxvillians may not know about a more recent connection – Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the bestselling "Eat, Pray, Love." Gilbert served as the Jack E. Reese Writer-In-Residence in 2005 and has since published a second memoir "Committed," and her most recent novel "The Signature of All Things," which was released Oct. 1.
Gilbert will be returning Saturday to Knoxville on a tour for the novel. Tickets for the event are $35 and include a copy of "The Signature of All Things." Claire Dodson, arts and culture editor at The Daily Beacon, had the opportunity to talk to Gilbert over the phone about her new book and her time spent at UT.
Claire Dodson: So you were the Writer-in-Residence in 2005. Had you already started writing "Eat, Pray, Love?"
Elizabeth Gilbert: I actually did all the edits for "Eat, Pray, Love" when I was in Knoxville. I wrote my first draft before I got there and I remember being there and working on it with my editor. That was when I first worked on the book jacket and the cover and it's all very tied up in my memories of the pre-publication of the book.
CD: Do you remember any specific spots in Knoxville where you worked on the book?
EG: I worked in my hotel room in the Hotel St. Oliver. It had a certain old-world charm. I loved it there actually; it almost felt haunted and definitely like the set of a Tennessee Williams story. It had a kind of weird, evocative air to it. I remember sitting in the old worn-down furniture and the old upholstery. And I also remember having lunch everyday at The Tomato Head and working on the book a lot when I was there, too.
CD: So did you get a chance to talk to a lot of the creative writing students and work with them?
EG: I did. Yeah, I had a wonderful class. I had never taught before and I have never taught since, so it was a very memorable experience for me. I remember being absolutely dazzled by the amount of talent in that classroom. I've remained in touch with some of them over the years, too. They were amazing. There were a few in the class who really wanted to devote themselves to a lifetime of writing and there were a few others who were taking the class for various other credits. In the case of one woman, I'll never forget, she accidentally came to the class thinking it was something that it was not on the first day, and then she realized that it was a creative writing class and panicked and thought, "I'll never be able to do this." Then after the class she came up to me and said, "You seem like a nice person; I think I can handle this." So it ranged from people who had never done creative writing at all to people who were really serious about writing as a career. They were wonderful, there's some great work that came out of there.
CD: I was reading on your blog where you talked about how "you must find another reason to work, other than the desire for success or recognition. It must come from another place." Could you expand on that and where that comes from for you?
EG: You certainly have to do that at the beginning of your aspirational career, because the results are so shady. There's just really no guarantees. It's not like other lines of work where if you work hard and are good at it you'll be certain to have success. There's an element of randomness in all the arts. I would apply that not only to writing, but to anyone who is wanting to live more of creative life rather than sort of a more career life. I see people go into writing like it's a career like any other and it really isn't. Your hard work and your talents don't necessarily guarantee you a spot at the table. None of us are in charge of how much luck we have. So, if your comprehension of yourself is tied up in how much outward success you are going to have in the labor, then you may end up being incredibly disappointed even if you make beautiful work. You have to find a way that allows you to take satisfaction in the process, and you may also have to find another way to survive and take care of your material needs while also being a writer. I remember being adamant with my students that, you know, getting a degree in creative writing is not the same thing as getting a degree in dentistry, where you kind of know when you get out there's going to be a job waiting for you. It's just not like that. So, it just needs to be approached in a different way.
I would also say that needs to continue throughout your career, regardless of what may happen. I've had great success but then I've also had failures, I've had really devastating reviews in the New York Times, I've had books that didn't sell as well as people thought they would. I've had a book that sold so well that technically I never needed to work again at all, which is another kind of obstacle in a way because it means you could just stop writing. Through all of that, the reason I continued writing is the reason that I started, which is because I love it and my work brings me meaning and pleasure. That seems to be the most helpful way to go into that line of work.
CD: So in your most recent book, "The Signature of All Things," what is most important to you about what you want to convey to readers?
EG: First of all, I hope it's a pleasure to read. Beyond anything else, I feel like if you're a creator you have a certain obligation to the person on the other end of it. You always try to keep that in mind that there's a human being on the other end that has many things to do with their time and you should be presenting them something that's diverting and entertaining. So I hope that the book has its own intrinsic pleasures as a piece of old-fashioned storytelling. I have a lot of respect for old-fashioned storytelling, for a narrator who takes control of the situation from the beginning and who says "I know exactly where I'm going with this so come along and I'll tell you a story." That's what I wanted this book to be – in the style of the great 19th century storytellers.
Beyond that, I wanted to tell the story of a woman with towering intellect, at a moment in history when such a thing was not necessarily valued in women, and to celebrate that by telling the story of this female botanist, to honor the lives of great women scientists and kind of like plants coming up through the sidewalk who managed to flourish in small ways in various aspects of science despite the fact that it wasn't like doors were opening up to them very readily.
CD: Do you see a line blurring between fiction and nonfiction as far as your writing is concerned?
EG: They're clearly different animals, but they're cousins. I feel like more of an ambidextrous person than somebody who blurs lines. I can write with my left hand, I can write with my right hand. I can do fiction or I can do nonfiction. I don't know how to write a screenplay. I don't know how to write poetry. There's a lot of things I can't do. But I seem to be able to do both those kind of books with the same potential. I stand a chance with either one.
CD: On the tour when you come to Knoxville, will you be reading from the book and answering questions? How does that work?
EG: I'll be speaking and reading a little from the book and then I get to do the best part which is answering questions, which is always my favorite part of any event. I love to go on book tours because I like to meet my readers and that tends to be really entertaining and sometimes moving part of the evening.
CD: What do you most want UT students to know about your writing and writing in general?
EG: Oh my goodness, you know I've always been an advocate for loving your work. And I know that sometimes makes me a voice in the wilderness. We are still really caught up in this German romantic what I think of as outdated 19th century idea that says creativity and torment are forever entwined and that there's no way to have creativity without being a tormented person. If you are not destroying yourself and everyone around you then nobody should take you seriously as an artist. And I have always taken really strong objection to that, partially because I have traveled to other parts of the world where the arts are not seen that way, that assumption is not made. It's a very Western assumption, and a modern Western assumption.
In other parts of the world there's almost a holy reverence for the work and for the idea that creativity is a relationship between a human being and a mystery and that mystery is the mystery of inspiration and it's one of the most exciting interactions you can have in life. To brush up against the mysteries of inspiration and to dedicate your life to that. It's a really noble and beautiful and awesome thing to do.
That was the first thing I kind of opened with was that statement: If you're married to your suffering and you want to be an artist because you want to live a suffering life, then you're in the wrong classroom because we aren't going to do that here. This is more of holy temple of love and creativity and support and the saner you are the better your work will be. And thankfully no one walked out on me.