The Beatrice Interview

Elizabeth Gilbert

"I've got nothing against funny. I'm all for funny."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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 throats.

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 your articles--

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's not even rare, it just doesn't exist anymore that I read something just because it's beautiful.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Richard Russo | Complete Interview Index | Matthew Klam

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan