After college and a few years of travelling, Elizabeth
Gilbert came to New York City and made use of a connection at
Spin to get a short-lived job as publisher Bob Guccione, Jr.'s
assistant. "His assistant was going out of town on a skiing trip," she
recalls over coffee at Brooklyn's Boerum Food Hill Company, nearly
deserted for our late-morning interview. "At the end of three days,
he gave me $150 and said bye. I had no office skills at all, and the
whole time I was telling him that he should read my short stories
and let me write for him." She went back to bartending and
waitressing, but also kept writing, and when one of her short stories
was published in Esquire a few months later, she sent Guccione
a copy and a note. Soon after that, she was writing feature articles on
whatever struck her fancy.
Today, she performs the same duties as a reporter-at-large for GQ; we
met, in fact, about a week after Coyote Ugly, a movie based on one of her
articles for the magazine, had opened in theaters. But mostly we were there to
talk about her debut novel, Stern Men, a wonderful, charming novel
about Ruth Thomas, a young woman caught up in the tensions between the
fishing communities on two small islands off the coast of Maine, not to
mention her own complicated family situation.
RH: Did you know all along you wanted to write a novel
at some point?
EG: I never wanted to do a novel, even when I was doing it. I
certainly never would have done it if it hadn't been for the advance
that I would have had to pay back. So it was a chore. Now it seems to
have been worth it, but at the time, I thought, "Never, never again." I
was used to writing things because I was moved to, and this felt like
something that had to be done, like a business arrangement.
And it's difficult to go from a short story, which is just such a lovely
moment--not even a chapter, just a glimpse. You don't have to
provide more than a glimpse, and you can't get away with that in a
novel, though people try to.
RH: So it was a case of, "We'll publish your short stories,
but you have to come up with a novel."
EG: Exactly. A little devil's bargain. I was sitting in my agent's
office, and she said we could sell Pilgrims, but I had to come
up with a novel. Did I have one in mind? A week earlier, a friend of
mine had said, "You should write about lobster fishermen," because
he was from Maine, and he started telling me about lobster wars. So
there I am, and without knowing anything about the subject except
from that one conversation with my friend, I told my agent, "You
know, I've always wanted to write about lobster fishermen..." If
she'd asked me two weeks later, it would have been something else.
RH: Once you were committed to writing the novel, what
was your first step?
EG: Everything about it came backwards. The concept of the
novel came first, and then the setting, and then the characters. It was
years before I had the story.
I started doing research at the New York Public Library on 19th-
century lobster fishing and the history of the settlement of Maine,
fishing technology...and then I started going up to Maine, going to the
islands and asking people to help me, let me fish with them, hang out
with them. I was so embarrassed for them and for me, for the whole
situation. It's such a horrible idea, to sally out to one of these islands
and say, "I'm so fascinated by your culture." The people in Maine,
particularly islanders, particularly lobstermen, have a reputation for
being really xenophobic. Even I, who didn't know anything about
that culture, knew that much.
I'm usually very confident with people, and can put myself into
situations, but I was so skittish with them that my behavior was all
wrong. I was nervous and hedgy, didn't want to tell them what I was
doing, and all it did was make people wonder who the fuck this
woman was, hanging around the docks kind of not asking people
questions, but not going away, either.
I think in every closed community like that, the secret is that you
have to find the key person. For me, it was a woman named Bunny
Beckman, a 55-year old woman who I think of as someone right out
of a Shakespeare play: the bawdy, drunk, truth-telling, loving soul.
She took me under her wing and shoved me down everybody else's
RH: Why did you set the novel in the mid-1970s?
EG: Because of fishing technology, actually. Those cultures
have changed a lot in the last 25 years, with the advent of fiberglass
boats. Everybody's got sonar now, global satellite positioning
software...even lobster fishermen, who fish in fairly shallow waters,
are using that kind of technology. But with that technology, a type of
skill and intuition gets lost; now a 19-year old kid can go out and
make a huge amount of money lobster fishing.
That technology also speaks to a connection to the mainland, to the
rest of civilization, that's increased as well. The islands aren't nearly
as isolated as they used to be. 1976 was the verge of when stuff
started to come in, a turning point in that culture. If I wanted Ruth to
be a harbinger of change, I needed her to live in a time when those
changes hadn't taken place yet.
RH: Ruth's story came last, you said?
EG: It used to be enough, when you were writing short stories,
to write scenes, and let that tell a piece of a story, leave people with
a sense, an idea. And I wrote scene after scene, but I had no story. It
was important for me to find a template to build my story around, so
I ended up modelling the story after the Book of Ruth, from the
Bible, and also after Henry James' Portrait of a Lady. I took
certain things from both of them, and whenever I was lost for plot, I
would turn to my Bible (chuckles), read Ruth again, and turn
that plot to my semi-modern island situation.
RH: That's interesting. You've been compared to a lot of
authors, but not Henry James, as far as I've seen.
EG: No, I didn't think anyone would notice it. (laughs)
He's a lot harder on his characters than I am. I love Ruth too much to
let her be disgraced and ruined as he let Isabel Archer be. But I was
fascinated by Mr. Ellis and his dominion over her and her fate;
Portrait of a Lady was my model for the way in which Ruth,
even though she's so powerful, was in the grip of forces beyond her
control. James had to make his character pay, but I couldn't. Ruth
had to be both controlled and in charge for me to be happy
with her destiny.
RH: One of the comparisons people do seem to be making
a lot is between your comic, eccentric characters and those
in Dickens novels.
EG: I read a lot of Dickens when I was writing this. I read
Bleak House so carefully to try to understand how you build a
story across time, across generations. But, you know, I don't think of
Stern Men as a comic novel. I took it so seriously. Maybe
because it caused me so much pain. My influences were so serious.
There's no ha-has in Ruth or Portrait of a Lady. So I just felt,
with those models, how could I do anything but a serious book? I
didn't intend for it to be hijinks; I actually thought it was a pretty
serious tale. I've got nothing against funny. I'm all for funny. But...I
betcha if I'd set out to write a comic novel it would be a humiliation,
decidedly not funny.
RH: Now that it's out and people love it...are you stuck
being a novelist now?
EG: I don't make proclamations and not follow through, I
pretty much do what I say. And I really, seriously said, "I will never
do this again. There will be no more of this." But it's like women
having their first kid and screaming at their husband, "I'm never
doing this again! This is an only child!" and then a couple years later,
you start thinking, it'd be nice if little Johnny had a playmate.
So...there's a possibility little Johnny might have a playmate
someday. Maybe not a novel that's so much work. I was so
unconfident about my ability to tell a story, I had to fill the novel
with stuff--facts, information, knowledge, and expertise--to fight my
own insecurity. So maybe the next one won't be such a labor.
RH: You're fortunate in that you have a journalism
career, so you're already writing.
EG: I don't think of it as a day job, or as something I do
because I need to have a job. I think of it as writing, and something
that I really like. It suits my nature. I don't think I'm a novelist by
temperament, I couldn't sit in a study all day thinking about ideas. I
really need to get out in the midst of everthing.
RH: As you cover these stories all over the country, have
you ever been working on an article and realize that it
would make a great story?
EG: I'm so limited in how I think that however I start
something is what I think is the right way to do it. Although there
were times writing Stern Men when I would think that maybe
it should have just been a magazine article... (chuckles) The
good thing about the stuff that I do is that any of it could be
anything. Most of the articles I've done could've been short stories or
vice versa. It just depends on how you decide to play with it.
RH: You've had the experience recently of having one of
EG: --turned into a fabulous motion picture! (laughs)
Yeah, that's sort of true.
RH: Hmmm. Sounds like a real hands-off experience.
EG: Hands, feet, everything...yeah, it was about the most
hands-off thing that ever happened. The whole thing to me is just
funny. It was such a weird thing to have happen, and I never once
believed that it would happen. I didn't believe they'd buy the option,
I didn't think they'd write a script, I didn't think they'd get a
director, I didn't think they'd shoot it, I didn't think they'd release
it... So I didn't take it very seriously, which is why I didn't get
involved. And I couldn't see the point. I didn't think there was a
movie there. I guess there is one.
RH: Who are some of your favorite short story writers?
EG: I have to admit I don't read very many short stories. I
love Dylan Thomas' short stories, I like George
Saunders a lot. It's been so long since I've read short fiction. I
stopped reading a lot of it when I was reading it, just because I
didn't want to be confused by it. I totally stopped reading it when I
was working on the novel because I was just reading Dickens and
Trollope and James and Stendahl, trying to get my mind around big
stories. Now I've completely stopped reading fiction altogether,
because I'm working on a nonfiction book, and any time I have time
to read, I'm doing research for that.
It's called The Last American Man, and it's about a man I
wrote an article about, Eustace Conway, a mountain man who lives in
North Carolina. He's endlessly fascinating to me, which is good, since I
have to write a book about him now. He's an incredibly complicated,
contradictory, epic sort of guy who lives in a tepee and makes fire by
rubbing sticks together but has a grandiose vision of changing
America. He's crazy and brilliant at the same time.
I feel like I've been working so hard, and after this book, I just want to go
someplace and read some books. It's so rare...it's not even rare, it just doesn't
exist anymore that I read something just because it's beautiful.