Elizabeth Gilbert is of course best known for “Eat, Pray, Love” (2006), the megaselling memoir that was made into a popular 2010 film with Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem. But Gilbert's first love was fiction, to which she makes a triumphant return in her new historical novel, “The Signature of All Things,” about the life and loves of Alma Whittaker, a brilliant amateur botanist in early 19th-century Philadelphia. The daughter of a wealthy businessman and natural philosopher, Alma makes her way in the science of plant life; she's fascinated by mosses in particular. But her world view and emotions are turned upside down when she falls passionately in love with Ambrose Pike, a handsome artist with a distinctly romantic, spiritual and sensual side to which the clear-thinking Alma struggles to adapt.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Gilbert, 44, for a phone interview from her home in New Jersey. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
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Q: From the first page of "The Signature of All Things," I was struck by the sense of not just reading historical fiction, but of having it narrated by something of a historical voice — the voice of a novelist of the 19th century — and yet it's not quite that at certain points of the story, if you know what I mean.
A: (Laughs.) I know exactly what you mean.
Q: It's like Charles Dickens with sex.
A: (Laughs.) Oh yeah.
Q: So how did you come up with that voice, and how did you calibrate it?
A: Well, you definitely started off on the right track with Dickens. He's my role model in all things writing, but particularly in this book. The thing I love about Dickens, and was trying to emulate, is the omniscient, omnipotent narrator, and the great confidence of the narrator, which marks 19th-century novelists in general and Dickens in particular. Dickens often has these very exuberant narrators, who convey the sense that "Not only do I know what I'm doing, and we're going to go on an adventure — it's going to be a terrific adventure." That's something he did magnificently, and I tried to emulate that.
At the same time, I didn't want to pretend that this book was written in the 19th century. Dickens never could write about sex. (Jane) Austen could never write about sex. (George) Eliot could never write about sex, except in the most oblique way. And I wanted to be able to explore these characters and their intimacy in a way that I wouldn't have been able to do if I were purporting to write an actual period novel. And I did struggle with how to do that, until I read "Wolf Hall." It felt like a lightbulb went on, because Hilary Mantel does such a magnificent job of writing in a way that feels accurate to the period without feeling like she's pretending to write a book that's 400 years old. It's a very modern voice that she uses to write about a very distant time, and that's what my aspiration was.
Q: Of course, Mantel is British, so maybe that 19th-century voice comes more naturally to her than it would to any American writer.
A: Well, I was raised on that literature; it's my native reading. All those authors are the ones who raised me, really.
Q: You grew up, I gather, in a home without television. Was it that you didn't have one, or you chose not to watch it?
A: Oh, I would have watched it 24 hours a day if we'd had one! I should say that I'm a big television watcher now; I stayed up late last night watching an episode of "Breaking Bad."
Q: But you did a lot of reading that maybe you wouldn't have, if you'd had TV.
A: That's right. We had a lot of books, and we also lived on a farm about a mile and a half from the library, so Dickens was a big part of my life early on. We had an old copy of "A Christmas Carol," and we brought it out and read it every Christmas. So not having TV worked out well for my sister and me, even though we resented it at the time — and even though, whenever I'd go to a friend's house, I'd turn on "Gilligan's Island" as quick as I could.
Q: What's your favorite Dickens novel?
A: It's probably "Great Expectations." I also love "Bleak House," although maybe I admire it more than love it. I'm always dazzled by the way he manages to have something like 250 characters in that book, and never once do you lose track of who they are. .
But I think his most emotional book is "Great Expectations," at least for me. I think the opening to "Great Expectations," the scene in the graveyard, is pretty much the best opening of a novel ever. It's incredibly dramatic and terrifying and exciting; it's almost like he's saying, "I dare you not to continue reading this book."
Q: Did you have other touchstone writers from that period — Jane Austen, maybe, or George Eliot?