Elizabeth Gilbert: City of Girls

**As originally seen on Walmart Favorite Reads**

Eat Pray Love was an international bestseller, translated into over thirty languages, with over 12 million copies sold worldwide. In 2010, Eat Pray Love was made into a film starring Julia Roberts. Gilbert has written several other critically acclaimed titles, including Last American Man, which was nominated for the National Book Award in non-fiction, a sequel to Eat Pray Love titled Committed, and widely-read self help book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Her latest novel is City of Girls — a rollicking, suggestive tale of the New York City theater world during the 1940s. In 2008, Time Magazine named Elizabeth as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. A Connecticut native, Elizabeth divides her time between New York City, rural New Jersey, and everywhere else.

Gretchen Tarrant: What inspired you to write about this time frame? How much did you know before writing and how much did you need to research?

Liz Gilbert: I wanted to write about the New York City theater world in the 1940s because I think it was such an impossibly glamorous moment in history. The glittering lights of Broadway, the live music, the fashion, the snappy way of speaking…all of it captivated my imagination. I have always loved New York, and have lived there for more then 30 years, but hidden in recent history was this OTHER New York, that I wanted to explore. I spent five or six years working on the research for this novel, in order to feel like I completely understand that world, and could create a story that was not only fun, but believable.  

Eat Pray Love book cover

GT: Each of the characters, especially Vivian, is quite unique and does not necessarily fit the typical mold of the time period. As Vivian notes at the end of the book, they were decades ahead of their time. Can you walk us through how you reconciled your draw to this period in time with your selection of somewhat alternative characters?

LG: What a great question! It helped that I set my book in the theater world, which has always been filled with eccentric, progressive characters. (As you may even remember from high school — the theater kids are always the odd ones!) The theater world has always been ahead of the “normal” world in terms of what it will accept in people. Homosexuality, for instance, was always common among theater folks, as were unconventional marriages, and looser attitudes about sex, romance, and the role of women. And so it was plausible for me to create these characters whose ethics and morality and world view was quite different from what was happening in the larger culture.   

Big Magic Creative Living Beyond Fear, book cover with bright colors

GT: You have written multiple bestsellers— how, if at all, was your process with City of Girls different?

LG: There’s a level at which the work is always the same — whether I am writing novels, memoirs, or essays. For me, the bulk of the work is always going to be preliminary research — making sure that I REALLY know what I’m talking about, before begin writing the first page. But I have to admit that writing this book was a lot more fun than anything I’ve ever done before. I told me editor, “I want this book to go down like a champagne cocktail” — and so there was a natural effervescence that I experienced, creating a story that had so much lightness and joy in it. 

GT: How did you decide to write the story in the format of a letter to Angela?

LG: I wanted Vivian’s voice (my narrator) to sound as natural and conversational as possible. I somehow guessed that if she was talking TO somebody, very directly, we would be able, as readers to really hear her true human voice, with no formality at all. 

GT: Who is your favorite character in City of Girls and why?

LG: Can I say two characters? I love Aunt Peg and Uncle Billy, as a couple. I love the complexity of their relationship — how unconventionally they love and accept each other — and the way their dialogue is so sparkling and funny and teasing. But there is a real pathos in both of them, too. They will always long for each other’s company, but they know they aren’t able to sustain anything healthy over the long run. I just adored them, and the way that they adore each other. 

GT: Without giving away too much about the ending, did you expect to draw early characters back into Vivian’s path or did this evolve as you wrote?

LG: I did plan to bring characters back into Vivian’s life from the past. In my experience, nothing will disrupt your existence more than a reappearance of somebody complicated from the past! 

GT: Much of the novel explores desire, both sexual and otherwise. What message about desire did you most hope to convey through Vivian’s experience?

LG: The world has never known what to do with female sexual desire. In fact — for many women ourselves, WE don’t even know what to do with our sexual desire. It’s a force that is not always tidy and not always manageable. But female lust has a beautiful, muscular energy to it, and I wanted to write about that. There are often seasons in a woman’s life when she goes on the hunt for sexual excitement, and when adventure and exploration becomes more important to her than safety. Women are often depicted as being passive and frightened about sex, but that has not my experience, or the experience of a lot of women I know. I also wanted to write a book about how women can learn, over the years, to survive their own shame, regret, and mistakes. This is why I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of a woman in her 90s, looking back on her checkered past. Sometimes it takes decades to understand the choices we made when we were younger, but it is possible to look back at our decisions with a certain fondness toward our younger selves — rather than regret. 

GT: Do you most enjoy writing fiction or non-fiction? How has your writing style and relationship to your work changed since your breakout title Eat, Pray, Love?

LG: I’m glad I don’t have to choose between fiction and non-fiction! I need to have the whole world of literary possibility laid out before me, so I can choose — project to project — what is the best way to proceed. But I have to admit…writing novels is a tremendous amount of fun. I don’t think my relationship to my work has changed that much since EAT PRAY LOVE. I have always been very fortunate in this regard — although other aspects of my life may be, at times, chaotic and confusing, I have always had a peaceful and loving relationship toward writing. Thank goodness! My work has always been the most stabilizing force in my life. 

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