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.

MM: You also bubbled up events that were happening elsewhere, on other continents, the important moments of each year. It really placed their lives within a much larger context.

LG: And they would have known about those larger events in the world—they were people who really cared about the larger world. And when the French were able to figure out that the chemical in the Cinchona tree that makes people not get malaria was called quinine, they would have known about that. When the first calculator was made, the first adding machine, that would have meant a lot to them. These were people who were always on the brink of all the great knowledge. And I think one of the things that so attracted me to the 19th century, and these sorts of people in particular, is that this was one of the last eras where you could know everything. If you were somebody who paid attention, you could know as much about literature as you did about science. And they say that The Origin of Species is the last major scientific work that a layperson can read. Darwin reads like a novel, it reads like George Elliot. It’s beautifully written, and it’s simple and elegant. So I couldn’t write a book about 21st century science—it would be way out of my grasp. But I can write about 19th-century science. I hope. [Laughs]

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On Inventing the Whittakers

MM: Are the Whittakers entirely fictional?

EG: They are completely invented, but it also felt really important to me to make sure they were absolutely plausible. My heroine is Alma Whittaker, and her father is Henry Whittaker, and her story really begins with his story to establish how it is that this family ended up with so much money and so much power and so much intellect. So that’s why I spent a lot of time studying botanical history to find out if there was a fortune to be made in some realm of botany between 1780 and 1800, by somebody very ambitious and fearless, how would that fortune most quickly have been made? So that led me to weed through botany: is it the spice trade, is it the cotton trade? Tea? Coffee? There were so many money-making plants back in the day. But I decided it would be quinine—I was most interested in the fever tree. So I sent him down to Peru to make his fortune and back to Philadelphia, and that’s where Alma is born to one of America’s first millionaires.

MM: I loved that you gave so much of Henry’s history, because he’s such an unlikeable character later, but I found myself still rooting for him, just because I knew how much he’d struggled.

EG: I didn’t feel like I could tell Alma’s story without Henry’s. There were women who made names for themselves in botanical science in the 19th century, but to—I was going to say, to a man—to a lady, they were either the widows or unmarried daughters of really prominent botanists. That was how they got their slipper in the door. There were none that came fully-formed—they had to come out of botanical families. And so the idea of her being based in a family with really deep botanical credentials seemed really important to me, so I felt like I had to really establish her father and their wealth. Because the liberty that Alma has to be as educated as she is, and later to travel freely, comes from that inheritance. So I really needed to make it credible that this family was phenomenally successful. I wanted to show that scrappiness, and Henry’s journey from an impoverished sort of London nothing to one of the richest men in the New World. And it was so much fun to write about his ascension, and watch him just go kicking ass all over the world. And once I was done with that introduction of Henry, I remember having a little conversation with Alma in my mind, because she had not yet shown up on the page, and we’re 60 pages into the book already. I remember having a sit-down with her and saying, “You have to keep up with your dad, who’s a pretty interesting character. You have to earn the right to have this book be about you—so come on, show up on the page in a big way!”

MM: Did you always know that Henry needed to start at Kew?

LG: Yeah. I was sort of fascinated with Kew, and Kew really is the intellectual center of the botanical world, through the 18th century especially. And you wouldn’t have been able to get onto one of those voyages if you weren’t coming out of Kew. But I didn’t want him coming up through legitimate sources, so he came up through his thievery and his cunning, rather than through connections.

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On Finding the Cosmos in a Bed of Moss

MM: One of my very favorite parts about the book is when Alma has her revelation about the moss, and how essentially a whole world is contained in this patch of moss. The way that you describe it is almost like a religious conversion. It made me think of that E.O. Wilson quote from Biophilia: “I offer this as a formula of reenchantment to invigorate poetry and myth: mysterious and little known organisms live within walking distance of where you sit.  Splendor awaits in minute proportions.” I felt like that was what Alma realized there. I know you’ve had moments of creative revelation, where you felt like an idea was unfolding through you. When did you have moments like that in telling this story?

LG: Yes. I felt really guided by excitement, more than anything. I had such a freedom in writing this book, more than I’ve ever had before. It’s a freedom that’s born of a number of factors—it’s just sort of a lucky star moment, you know. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove, so I felt like I could write a book that I just really felt like writing, for no other reason than it would be a joy to spend so many years in its company, and in the company of its research. As a woman who doesn’t have children, and someone who—to be very honest, Eat, Pray, Love made me self-sufficient to an exponential degree, so I have the liberty to go literally to the ends of the world to chase ideas. And I’m healthy. So I just thought, “This is the moment to do the big one, to not hold back. You want to write a book that requires you to go to the most obscure islands in French Polynesia? You do it right now!” [Laughs]

Alma is so familiar to me as a person because she thrills to the world. From her earliest childhood, she’s extremely excited about everything she’s learning, and I totally get that, because I live in that place. And yet her life is so much more constrained than mine was. So it was a challenge to try to figure out a way to bring something to her that she could study with full excitement and unfettered joy and total devotion that was literally within walking distance of her bedroom, because she was confined to the family estate. Moss was the answer there.

And then, as I began to study moss in-depth and realize just how perfect that was for her, that it is a universe contained…. There’s a moment at the beginning of the novel where William Herchel, this famous astronomer, comes to the family estate for a party and creates this kind of celestial dance of Philadelphia high society on the lawn, imitating the movement of the planets, and Alma’s brought into this idea of the galaxies that swirl outside of her life—

MM: And her father says, “Give her a place!”

LG: “Give her a place! Give the girl a place in this galaxy!” Right? And when she discovers moss, there’s a moment where she says, this is Herchel’s universe seen in detail. You can either look into a telescope, or you can look into a microscope, and either way, you’re going to find cosmos. So for Alma—and, I think it’s kind of a metaphor for the constraints of women at that time—she goes small. Rather than becoming an astronomer like Herchel’s sister, who was a great astronomer of the day, she becomes a microscopist—a great microscope user. [Laughs] And it’s almost like needlework! She goes deep, deep into the forests of moss around her house.

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On Victorian Passion, Dutch Pragmatism, and Tahitian Battle Cries

MM: You have this wonderful TED talk about people’s concept of genius and how that’s evolved. And you lament at one point how sad it is that so many people are afraid to do the work that they’re put on this earth to do. And I thought that Alma’s not afraid of doing the work, but she keeps running up against shame about who she is in other ways—and not just her, some of your other characters get caught up in cultural constructs that make them feel deeply ashamed about their basic biological desires. Is that something you consciously thought about? Have you watched Brené Brown’s TED talk on shame and vulnerability?

LG: I love Brené Brown! I love her. I get to meet her soon. I’m very excited--she’s a big hero to me. Not to give away too much about the book, but one of the things I was capable of exploring that George Eliot and Jane Austen couldn’t is sexuality. And that’s why it doesn’t read like a 19th-century novel. There’s stuff in there that they could allude to in very opaque ways, but they could not touch on as directly as I could.

MM: Anias Nin, maybe.

LG: Henry James, more. Edith Wharton, a bit more. But their hands were tied about what they could just come out and say about desire—and their hands weren’t tied in a hot way. In a literary way. I wanted to be able to discuss these people as full people, including what they yearned for. And one of the things a Victorian-era, carnal woman and a gay man would have had in common is shame, and the wrongness of what they want. And then what do you sublimate your passion into? There’s been a lot of research come out just recently--in the New York Times there was a story about how the longer men stay in the closet, the more successful they are in other parts of their lives—they sublimate it into becoming the very best at something. What do you do with passion when it can’t be passionate?

Alma has that in her, you know: she’s a very earthy, hungry, passionate, sensual person who can’t express that in any other way than to spend her life studying moss in great detail. There’s something both sad and noble about that, I think. It’s sad that she doesn’t get to feel those things in partnership with another human being. But it’s noble that she refuses to live a life that isn’t passionate.

One of the things I really want this novel to convey is that women are capable of enduring a tremendous amount of disappointment and still have a good life. And I think in the models for 19th-century novels with women characters, you really only get one of two endings: you get the good, satisfying marriage, or you are under the wheels of the train, or you are shamed or destroyed because of a passionate mistake, or you’re in an asylum. Generally speaking, that’s good drama—the marriage plot or the tragedy—but the reality of women’s lives is that most of us don’t get what we wanted, and most of us find ways to have really interesting lives anyway. I want Alma’s life to have been a victorious life despite not having “won.” She has a really good, satisfying life, and she doesn’t get almost anything that she wanted.

MM: Well, and she’s very clear-eyed. There are a couple moments when she assesses her life, and realizes “All these bad things have happened to me, but I’m actually not unhappy,” and it seemed like a freeing feeling. Almost a Pema Chödrön moment. [Laughs]

LG: Dutch Pema Chödrön. I think of it as Dutch pragmatism, because she gets a lot of that from her mother, and her housekeeper, who just instills in her, like “Who told you that you were here to get what you wanted?”

MM: Yeah, just grind that disappointment under your boot and…

LG: Keep moving on. It’s a combination of that and something that’s sort of Zen, by the end of her life. And that’s something that’s worthy, that I aspire to.

MM: Well, she moves beyond fear.

LG: Yeah. That’s a good way to put it. And regret and shame. And all the heavy things. There’s a great acceptance that this is not how she thought this story would end, but here we are. I think most women in their 80s have that. [Laughs] I’ve always wanted to write a birth-to-death novel, and this is even a pre-birth-to-death novel. And by the end of her life, there’s a tremendous peace and satisfaction at how well she’s handled what’s come to her, and what hasn’t come to her. And that perhaps more than victory, dignity is the thing.

MM: One of my favorite parts is how she adopts that Tahitian rallying cry about her lineage, when she really needs to assert herself.

LG: To mobilize herself, yeah.

MM: Do you ever do that?

LG: I kind of do. Yeah. And you know, I’m trying to pass it on. I had a conversation with my 14-year-old niece recently that I really felt was almost a Vince Lombardi moment, but also sort of what Alma does, too. I took my niece out to Minnesota to meet her grandmother, who she’d met when she was very young, but my grandmother just turned 100, and she’s the person I dedicated the novel to. And I felt like it was really important that my niece meet her, and know “This is who you come from, and it’s important that you know that you come from women who are really survivors. When you feel like life is too difficult for you, you have to remember your bloodline. Like, these are people who got on a boat from Sweden and came and made farms in northern Minnesota, and lost babies and buried them in the winter and moved on, and handled their disabilities and their disappointments and their poverty—this is in you! It’s in you, and you have to know that.” I just remember driving down this highway in Minnesota and almost shouting it at her. I just loved that idea of the Tahitian shouting of your lineage. There’s a character in Tahitian history, a person who—the only possible English translation of it is the haranguer. And the haranguer runs alongside of you in battle and shouts at you who you are, like “You are the grandson of So-and-so who was the great warrior who killed this person!” I feel like we all need to be that in our own lives sometimes.

MM: That literally can help in struggle to survive—and in the larger picture, it can help your line, thinking of those larger evolutionary themes. It seems like that’s an adaptation of those people who are survivors.

LG: Yeah, the book is about that. It’s about endurance, people getting through it to the other side so that can be passed along. How that has shaped the world. There’s no way I was not going to have a moment where Alma has to rise up and claim her lineage and fight. Especially as Henry Whittaker’s daughter. There’s no way the daughter of that guy isn’t going to lift a spear in the air at some point, and be like, “I exist! I will not be ignored! I will not be defeated!” And I also like that there are a couple moments in her life where the older women in her life kind of knock her around a little bit, they really challenge her to not sink into defeat. They just don’t tolerate it. There’s a lot of tough love.

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On Gilbert's Travels for the Book

LG: There were a lot of pilgrimages that were necessary for this book. I went to Kew Gardens and met with their librarians. I have to say that I have such a crush on the librarians at Kew Gardens. [Laughs] I’m like, “Ah, you work in the herbarium at Kew Gardens! Curator of ferns? You have the best life in the entire world!” So I really geeked out there. And also just to be shown some of Darwin’s own pages from his herbarium—you kind of need to go roll around in that, if you’re writing a book like this. I went to Amsterdam, to the Hortus Botanicus, which is one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world, and it’s right in the center of Amsterdam. There’s a tree in the Hortus Botanicus that I saw in the very beginning of researching this book, that I knew would become a character in the book, and it shows up in the last sentence of this whole journey. I met that tree and we had a moment, and I was like, “You’re going into show business!” [Laughs] “You walnut, transplanted from Philadelphia.”

Then I went to Polynesia, to this Island called Raivavae, which is one of the most remote ones. That’s one of the amazing things about going to these places—realizing the scope of the distances of what this culture embodied, an oceanic continent the size of Europe, where 3,000 miles away from each other over the open seas they were speaking the same language and worshiping the same gods, I mean it’s an extraordinary culture. And the most remote one is Raivavae. I went there because it’s where Polynesian culture is still at its purest. The missionaries got there, but it was the native missionaries, not the Europeans, so they allowed them to keep a lot of their own ways. So you go to Christian church services, but they are singing in polyphonic verse that just puts chills up your spine because it’s so ancient and rich.

Then closer to home, I spent a lot of time snooping around Philadelphia, and trying to find the perfect location for the mansion that Alma Whittaker grew up in would have been. I found a really wonderful one that suited the purpose and spent a lot of time poking around the basement and attic and carriage house. And the New York Botanical Gardens, of course. So it was fun! It was good adventure.

If you can, you have to go touch those things, so you can have experiences—like when I was on that island of Raivavae, waking up in the middle of the night, and the island has this extraordinary lagoon that kind of surrounds it, so it doesn’t have any surf, and I woke up and walked to the beach and saw something that ends up being in the novel: two heavens. The lagoon was so still, and the starlight, I mean, you’re never going to see starlight like that except in the middle of nowhere on a moonless night. Numberless stars, I mean just dazzling stars, but not just in the sky, reflected perfectly in this glassy, still ocean. So heavens in the sky and heavens in the sea, and it’s something you can’t really imagine until you’ve seen it. And once you’ve seen it, Alma’s gotta see it. [Laughs] It just brings you into that place. And staying in this little hostel there, waking up in the middle of the night to a scary dog in the room with me, who became Rod the dog, who’s a very important character in the book as well. So you just have to go to these places to find these scenes and characters.

Gathering-MossAnd I spent time with Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, who’s one of the foremost moss experts in the United States, who weirdly lives 20 minutes from my grandfather in upstate New York. Visiting her was the last pilgrimage I did. She wrote a beautiful book called Gathering Moss, and I’d read that book and consulted it so many times. Three years into this project, I finally had the nerve to write her a letter, and ask if I could visit and run by her the whole central theme of my novel, and ask, is it plausible that someone could have discovered the theories that Alma discovers just through the study of moss? If she had said no, I don’t know what that book would have ended up being about, because I had really been banking on that being possible. So I didn’t want to see her until I had the whole thing planned out. And I sat in her farmhouse and spent an hour telling her the whole novel, and she said, “Yeah! Sure.” [Laughs] And I was like, “Yaaaaay!” It just felt like Merlin had given me this blessing. And then I sent her the manuscript, and she checked all the moss stuff. And she took me in the woods and we did a bunch of moss exploration.

I’ve never met a proper new age botanical explorer, but it would be cool to go on one of those forays. The age of discovery isn’t over.

Gilbert-HeadshotElizabeth Gilbert is the author of The Signature of All Things and Eat, Pray, Love, as well as the short story collection Pilgrims--a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and winner of the 1999 John C. Zacharis First Book Award from Ploughshares.

A Pushcart Prize winner and National Magazine Award-nominated journalist, she works as writer-at-large for GQ. Her journalism has been published in Harper's Bazaar, Spin, and The New York Times Magazine, and her stories have appeared in Esquire, Story, and the Paris Review.

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