Finding Cosmos in a Bed of Moss: Our Interview with Elizabeth Gilbert

If you know Elizabeth Gilbert from her Eat, Pray, Love reputation or her books about rough men, a birth-to-death novel about a Victorian-era woman who becomes a moss taxonimist--in spite of staying largely confined to her family's estate until she's 50--probably sounds like a surprisingly introverted turn. But The Signature of All Things is an earthy, elegant, deeply sensual novel, dazzling in its breadth and passion. Through the life of her heroine, Alma, we glimpse the whole cosmos, its infinite worlds within worlds.

My conversation with Gilbert in Seattle last spring was one of the highlights of my book-loving life, so I decided to post a lightly edited transpcript of our conversation, broken it out by topic, so you can listen in and jump to the topics that most intrigue you.

On the Desire to Explore, Sublimated & Indulged

Mari Malcolm: There’s a persistent theme of exploration in your books—of yearning to become the person you need to be and going in search of it. When Eat, Pray, Love came out, a lot of people had the reaction of “I want to do that, but I can’t go travel and have these profound experiences because I don’t have the money, or I don’t have the time, or I’m just not at liberty to go anywhere.” I felt like that experience of frustrated longing was really beautifully explored in this book through Alma’s life—she figured out a way to explore, despite her constraints. Was that conscious?

Elizabeth Gilbert: It was conscious, but not in the sense of being a direct answer. That’s a question I get a lot from people after reading Eat, Pray, Love: “I want to do that, but I can’t do that, so what should I do?” I completely respect the ways people are bound in the lives that they have, whether it’s because of forces outside of their control or choices that they’ve made that they want to honor with their own responsibilities and obligations—taking care of people around them or being a part of a community, or their work, or whatever keeps them in one place, and those responsibilities may be in conflict with desires that they have to get divorced and move to India.” [Laughs]

I was really interested in the idea of 19th-century botanical exploration. There were so many great male botanical explorers, and there were so many great female botanical illustrators, because they couldn’t go on the trips. But when the men would come home with their drawings and sketches of these exotic plants, it was invariably the wives and daughters of the explorers who did that work for them, especially the painting and the lithography. And of course, women like flowers, and botany was the only science that women could really participate in because it wasn’t considered unladylike.

With Alma, I really wanted to explore what would happen to a woman with a tremendous mind, with tremendous potential and curiosity, if she couldn’t leave her home. What do you do? I’m interested in how people sublimate their desire for knowledge and exploration when they can’t leave their house. Half the book is about that.

And then it’s so funny, because about halfway through the book I fling her out into the world because even I couldn’t take it anymore. [Laughs] And I was like, ahhh, hell with it, she’s going on an adventure! She’s 50 years old, and it’s time for her to see the world. And her life as an adventurer really begins at 50, which also fascinated me, because I see that happen a lot for women who can’t travel when they’re young, and then their kids grow up and they become amazing adventurers. Travel is not only for the young. Sometimes it’s wasted on the young.

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On the Books That Inspired The Signature of All Things

MM: What sparked your obsession with botanical explorers?

EG: So this whole project came out of the rediscovery of a family treasure, something I had always known about but had not touched in many years. My great-grandfather was a book collector, and he had somehow—probably around 1915—acquired this exceedingly rare, very beautiful 1784, printed-in-London edition of Captain Cook’s Three Voyages Around the World. And it’s really a spectacular book. It looks like something that should be on a magician’s bookshelf, and we had it in our house when we were kids, and it was one of the objects in our house that we could not touch, ‘cause it was really much nicer than anything that my family deserved to have [laughs] in our farmhouse, on our Christmas tree farm. And because of the fact that it was the biggest book in the house, and one that looked the most exotic, and almost talismanic and hypnotic, of course I touched it all the time, and recently discovered—or my mother discovered—that I had in fact scrawled my name in it as a child, when I was four years old, misspelled, but I’d laid claim to that book.

That book ended up in my hands because I was the person who’d destroyed its value, so my parents were like, “Ah, you might as well have it.” And I found, at the age of forty, that I was just as fascinated with the book as I was at four.  And it led me to look more closely at Captain Cook and then very quickly to make that charismatic jump to Joseph Banks, who I think is a more interesting character, and his scientific passion and botanical exploration became the basis for the entire book.

MM: Which other books were essential?

LG: I read—oh God, I read so much. For three years, all I did was read for hours and hours and hours a day. Kind of ruined my eyes on this. But there was this weird kind of 19th-century glory in that, too, because all those guys ruined their eyes. They were always writing in letters, “I’ve ruined my eyes, I’ve ruined my health from my studiousness!”—they were such scholars. So I felt a kinship, like “I’m going blind!” [Laughs] There’s such a noble history in ruining your eyes by over-reading.

I read hundreds of books, but some of the key ones—there were some great biographies of Alfred Russel Wallace that were really important in shaping the end of the book. There were some writings of some of the wonderful 19th-century botanists. There was a woman named Mary Treat who lived in New Jersey and was a correspondent of Darwin, and she corrected him on carnivorous plants—she was an expert on them because of living in the swamps. So they had a long correspondence, and he really admired her. And there were other greats as well.

But their letters: that’s where you hear their voices. So I read so many letters, and not just letters of naturalists and scientists of the day, but there’s a great journal that a lot of historians reach for, that a late-19th-century Philadelphia housewife kept for her entire existence, and it’s become this kind of bedrock of Philadelphia history.

MM: Is that the journal you quote where she says that the weather’s backwards, during the Year Without a Summer? You reference in 1816 a housewife’s diary where she says “weather backwards.”

LG: Yes. And that’s where she says, “snowbells and bluebirds in the same day,” because there were these late snow storms. There’s all this very specific detail that comes from her. And also from Thoreau’s letters and Whitman’s letters, and Emerson’s and Dickinson’s letters—I read all of them just to get a tone, a 19th-century tone of speech and writing that would feel convincing. It was really important to me not to write a book that would pass as a 19th-century novel—I think about The Signature of All Things as a contemporary book about the 19th century. At the same time, I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a word in there that wouldn’t have existed at the time, and dialogue that felt true. And that you can only get from letters, because that’s the closest you can get to overhearing a conversation.

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