Intelligence Squared interview with Elizabeth Gilbert at Cadogan Hall

Ever since I was a child I felt drawn to older people-they were more fun, more fascinating, more appealing. I loved listening to my parent’s friends or to be part of get togethers at my grandparents apartment where the levels of energy were always contagiously exciting. And this fascination with smarter, older people still remains deeply rooted in me and I love listening to them and learning as much as I can.

Intelligence Squared, about which I already wrote this year, organised a sold-out event with Elizabeth Gilbert, the woman who wrote the bestselling ‘Eat, Love, Pray’and just followed it up, of sorts, with ‘Committed’. It took place on September 15th at Cadogan hall and just walking to it, looking at smartly or casually dressed women, waiting to get in, made me smile with the pleasure of anticipation. 

If I am honest, I actually resisted reading the book for a long time, because I don’t like to do what everyone does-whether that’s the consequence of growing up in the Communist superpower state or my own innate stubbornness, I don’t know. In this case, I did succumb to reading the book last year-a friend of mine, whose opinion I do value, recommended it to me and I just gave in and read it. I have to be honest and say that while I did enjoy reading it, it wasn’t an earth shattering experience for me and I doubt that I will re-read it, thought I really enjoyed the style of writing of the author-human, honest, self-depreciating and quite original as the author has the way with words that I wish I had .)

Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book ‘Committed‘ was published this summer and I started reading it recently, dipping in and out, as I wanted to get a fuller picture, if that’s at all possible, of a person who I never met but who I was going to listen to for an hour and a half. 

Cadogan hall was full of women of various ages and just a small smatterings of men by the time we found the seats and the lights got dimmed. Paul Holdengräber came on stage, followed by a slight blond and shyly (?) smiling woman. Elizabeth Gilbert wore a beautiful silk dress with flowers that was fashionably stylish but not in your face New Yorker .) but then what did I expect from a woman who not only chose her own path but was honest about her soul-searching journey?

She talked about working as a waitress and bartender, thinking that this will be her metier for the rest of her life but loving the process of writing and wanting in succeed in that field. What I found interesting in that part of the conversation is Elizabeth saying that one almost needs to go through the process of getting enough rejection letter to wallpaper a small room and she certainly received her fair share of those, before ‘Eat, Love, Pray’ happened.

She talked about her wonderfully erratic family and closely listening to grown-up conversations, while grown ups actually forgot that she was in the room. Her family members loved to drink-in a nice, relaxed way, which led, never-the less to incredibly wild evenings where outrageous stories came out. Elizabeth has a wonderfully mimicky face, which can light up a room and make everyone feel the excitement or sadness or any other emotions that she expresses, palpable. Elizabeth did say that confidence runs in the family and as an example told a story of her 93 year old grandfather who came into the room one morning stark naked, without realising that she was there and when he did, he ended up saying to his granddaughter: ‘Lizzard, if I knew you were here, I would have put my teeth in’ at which point the whole group of us just burst into spontanious laughter. She also talked movingly about her parents and sister, while wildly articulating with her hands.

Her early books were influenced by the eccentricities of her family and she told fascinatingly endearing stories about writing an essay on Tom Waitts, ‘the broken down saint’. Elizabeth holds the opinion that everyone is desperate to talk and I think that this is one of the secrets to the fluidity of her own writing.

Tom Waitts, thanks to Ms. Gilbert, sounds like a very romantic person who said things like ‘every song has a live spirit that needs to be caught’ or ‘some songs are like gum hidden under the table and some songs just don’t want to be written so they come to bug you’. I think Elizabeth is on a constant look out and exploration of her own facets of personality hence when she was younger she wanted to try ‘different voices’ when it came to her penmanship.

Success of ‘Eat, love, pray’ took her by complete surprise, as she was scared to quit her regular job and go and write about herself. Elizabeth said that she ‘felt like I was shooting myself in the foot’. It has always been her dream to work for New Yorker but her ‘consolation’ prize-travelling- was worth it in the end.

Ms Gilbert always loved travelling and she mentioned that she once met a fellow traveller-a girl-they ended up discussing their destinations and when the young lady mentioned that she was going to Albania-Liz, who was travelling somewhere too, instantly became ‘jealous’, wanting to travel to the place where the girl was going. However now, several years later, she seems to enjoy being at home in New Jersey and travelling just doesn’t seem like such a necessity any more, while all of her energy is going into one place-her town! She even goes to say that she has become a ‘root vegetable, a nice turnip’.

I think Elizabeth Gilbert has become more and more recognised by people since her appearance on Oprah and now the release of the movie ‘Eat, Love, Pray’ with Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem. Recently a woman stopped Elizabeth in JFK airport in NY and asked her if she was who she thought she was. She then went on to tell her companion that ‘that’s the girl that wrote a book based on that movie’. Elizabeth laughed and admitted that moments like that were sanity inducing and ‘Julia Roberts is welcome to be Liz Gilbert’. The experience is like smoke and mirrors for her, a misdirection of sorts.  

Elizabeth is grateful to Julia Roberts for being so passionate about the book, ‘launching’ it and fighting to make it into a movie. She did write a letter to Ms Roberts, enclosing the rosary beads which were an important part of her journey, wishing her to ‘have a great time’ thus releasing herself to be free and move forward. She now almost feels detached from the whole thing, even though she loved that everyone got ‘an upgrade’ on the movie. Her Brazilian husband bonded with Javier Bardem, who found the whole experience of this role ‘very healing.

Elizabeth was nervous about watching the movie surrounded by people who would be looking for her reaction so she did ask the producers for the private screening’ in order to compose herself, in case she didn’t like the movie and think of nice things to say when she went to the ‘real’ premier. In the end she started to tremble and shiver as soon as the lights went down and ended up being very moved by memories of her past experiences.

One of the most moving stories of the evening was the story about Elizabeth’s mother who used to council young women on abortion and even though I am not going to recap it here-you are better off hearing it ‘live’ from Elizabeth Gilbert on IS, I found it very very human and  wise.

I went home feeling that I have listened to someone very smart and very human, who has an innate understanding of the meaning of life in relation to herself, who is at peace with herself and the world around her, giving her inner beauty and luminosity that doesn’t shine from people around us that often.

 p.s You can watch the full interview with Elizabeth Gilbert on Intelligence Squared site:

p.p.s I read a while back in Vanity Fair that Fresh, a cosmetic company that I like, was releasing limited edition fragrances-three of them, aptly titled ‘Eat’ for Italy, ‘Love’ for Bali and ‘Pray’ for India and candles, so yours truly ran to the Fresh flagship store on Marylebone high street to ‘snif’ and possibly buy. The lovely sales girls smiled at me and told me that the items in question were completely sold out in NY and they weren’t even getting them into London. I did get to smell the perfumes thought, that came in small cute bottles and have to say that given the choice I would have bought the sweet smelling ‘Eat’ on the spot. Marketing of the smart kind by Fresh? Maybe. But of a nice kind for sure!

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