A Capital ”J” Journey: A Conversation with Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of the recent New York Times bestseller "Eat, Pray, Love" (Viking, 2006) about her travels around the world. She is hilarious, honest, and, according to The New Yorker, the talk of the town. We think so, too.
InsideOut: Your book is about never knowing in what form your education is going to come, including being hit by a bus on your bicycle, right?
Elizabeth Gilbert: A smallish bus, a folly-sized bus. I really believe that if you are seriously going to head out there on a capital "J” Journey, there is a kind of accordance that you have to fall into, which is to say that you pre-accept that anything that happens to you is in your best interest, and that there is something that is trying to be shown to you and it's going to come in whatever form, and if that means you have to get knocked around by a bus, then that means you have to get knocked around by a bus. I think you have to agree to those terms. I think those are the terms of a quest, and you have to sort of sign the contract saying you are up for that, and only then do the lessons reveal themselves accurately.
IO: You traveled for a year. Is traveling now to unknown places or places you haven't visited before part of your normal life?
EG: I think it always will be, to an extent. This year it doesn't have to be because I am really tired. Last year, I ended up marrying the fellow that I met in Bali and my Brazilian guide. We had some trouble with the INS and Homeland Security and Immigration. We ended up having to spend 10 months last year out of the country waiting to be allowed back in. Of course, I could have come back at any time, but he couldn't, so we went on another very different kind of journey than what I did two years earlier. There's a big difference between a heroic quest and an externally imposed period of exile. It's got a very different flavor.
IO: Do all the big lessons and epiphanies that you have throughout the book — whether it's forgiving your former husband or that moment of transcendence — are these moments that you have to repeat or can you say that your travel was actual progress?
EG: The Buddha always warned his followers not to become addicted to peak experiences and he [was talking about] meditation. Don’t be chasing the transcendence all the time, the sort of drunken unity with the universe. But in travel too, I think you need to be careful not to become addicted to peak experiences, and had a lot of that on that trip. Anybody would. You go off for a year in those three countries by yourself, you are going to have some really mighty encounters, and I had some really mighty encounters with other people and with myself and with divinity and with my thinking. I don't feel the need to be doing that every day.
I feel really changed by that journey, deeply, even to the point of my personality. When I go back and read that book, the Liz who wrote that book is not exactly the person that you are talking to right now. There's been a maturing and quieting. Something happened to me that year that answered lifelong anxious questions and stilled those questions. Since then, I've just been kind of living contentedly in a way that doesn't resemble at all the person who left on that journey a long time ago. As a friend of mine said once about quests, "This shit works.”
I think the more useful things that happened to me over the year were less those kind of peak transcendent encounters and more about just slow, steady hammering out of a new relationship between me and myself.
IO: Do you find yourself wondering in retrospect how in the world on had the courage to do it all — a single, recently divorced woman going off to places unknown for whole year?
EG: Less than when I look back at things I did in my early 20s when I was traveling by myself. I can't believe I did that. This journey was actually fairly measured. I don't think it was that risky. It was risky emotionally just to go off and be alone so much, but I don't think I was ever in any kind of real physical danger, certainly the safety of the ashram was very enclosing. Bali is a very safe place, and Rome is a very safe place. Not like when I was younger and went to China to do some reporting and pretending not to be a journalist — certain things that I did then were truly dangerous, but I don't think I was quite smart enough or old enough to realize how dangerous those things were. I don't think anyone goes through the great trouble to change your life unless you feel like you don't have any other choices. It's a pain in the ass to change your life. It's expensive and inconvenient. There are a lot of people around you who don't like that you're doing it.
People have asked me, “Is it safe for women to travel alone?” I can't say that because you never know, and in any given circumstance on any given day anything can happen to anybody. All I know is I never had any trouble traveling alone. In fact, as a woman, I have had advantages that men don't have. People trust you quicker and you make friends quicker and make alliances quicker. People are a little more willing to look out for you and take care of you.
IO: You describe in your book your ability to talk to anyone; this asset that you carry along inside you probably gives you an immense advantage. Are you still in touch with Lucas Spaghetti?
EG: I’m going to go see him. I haven't been to Italy in four years. We have been e-mailing about meeting up in Rome. I've been in touch with pretty much everybody in that book. There's something about those relationships and that year that was so kind of star-kissed, because it was just such a big year in my life, that I think I love those people more than other people. I attach something extra important to those relationships.
IO: So this is being optioned as a movie. Does this mean you are going to be played by Julia Roberts?
EG: Apparently so. But there is a long distance between somebody optioning a movie and going to a movie theater and seeing Julia Roberts in it. It will probably be years before we see if that idea actually even happens.
IO: Does that amuse you?
EG: It does make me happy. I am a flat-out Julia Roberts fan. I can still vividly remember seeing the poster for "Pretty Woman” on one of my first dates ever in high school with a guy going to the movies. She's such a big part of my cultural landscape and a lot of people's cultural landscapes. She represents something very American, very hopeful and very lovable. I think she's really appealing.