If you know Elizabeth Gilbert from her Eat, Pray, Lovereputation or from her books about rough men,
a birth-to-death novel about a Victorian-era woman who becomes a moss taxonimist--in spite of staying largely confined to her family's estate until she's 50--probably sounds like a surprisingly introverted turn. But The Signature of All Things is an earthy, elegant,
deeply sensual novel, dazzling in its breadth and passion. In the life of her heroine, Alma, we glimpse the workings of the whole cosmos, its infinate worlds
When I get to the end of a book I love, I always have the urge to immediately talk to the author, to tell them all my favorite parts and ask all the questions scrawled in my margins. Happily for me, Gilbert was in Seattle the morning after I finished this book, and we chatted for well over an hour (well, mostly she talked, and I listened enthusiastically).
This conversation was one of the highlights of my book-loving life, so I decided to post a lightly edited transpcript of our conversation, broken it out by topic, so you can listen in and jump to the topics that most intrigue you.
- On the Desire to Explore, Sublimated & Indulged
- On the Books That
Inspired The Signature of All Things
- On Inventing the Whittakers
- On Finding the Cosmos in a Bed of Moss
- On Victorian Passion,
Dutch Pragmatism, and Tahitian Battle Cries
- On Gilbert's Travels for the Book
Mari Malcolm: There's a persistent theme of exploration in your books"”of
yearning to become the person you need to be and going in search of it. When Eat, Pray, Lovecame out, lot of people had
the reaction of "I want to do that, but I can't go travel and have these
profound experiences because I don't have themoney, or I don't have the time, or I'm just not at liberty to go
anywhere." I felt like that experience of frustrated longing was really
beautifully explored in this book through Alma's life"”she figured out a way to explore,
despite her constraints. Was that conscious?
Elizabeth Gilbert: It was conscious, but not in the sense of being a direct
answer. That's a question I get a lot from people after reading Eat, Pray, Love: "I want to do that, but I
can't do that, so what should I do?" I completely respect the ways people are
bound in the lives that they have, whether it's because of forces outside of
their control or choices that they've made that they want to honor with their
own responsibilities and obligations"”taking care of people around them or being
a part of a community, or their work, or whatever keeps them in one place, and
those responsibilities may in conflict with desires that they have to get
divorced and move to India." [Laughs]
I was really interested in the idea of 19th-century
botanical exploration. There were so many great male botanical explorers, and
there were so many great female botanical illustrators, because they couldn't
go on the trips. But when the men would come home with their drawings and
sketches of these exotic plants, it was invariably the wives and daughters of
the explorers who did that work for them, especially the painting and the
lithography. And of course, women like flowers, and botany was the only science
that women could really participate in because it wasn't considered unladylike.
With Alma, I really wanted to explore what would happen to a
woman with a tremendous mind, with tremendous potential and curiosity, if she
couldn't leave her home. What do you do? I'm interested in how people sublimate
their desire for knowledge and exploration when they can't leave their house. Half
the book is about that.
And then it's so funny, because about halfway through the
book I fling her out into the world because even I couldn't take it anymore. [Laughs]
And I was like, ahhh, hell with it, she's going on an adventure! She's 50 years
old, and it's time for her to see the world. And her life as an adventurer
really begins at 50, which also fascinated me, because I see that happen a lot
for women who can't travel when they're young, and then their kids grow up and they
become amazing adventurers. Travel is not only for the young. Sometimes it's
wasted on the young.
MM: What sparked your obsession with botanical explorers?
EG: So this whole project came out of the rediscovery of a family
treasure, something I had always known about but had not touched in many years.
My great-grandfather was a book collector, and he had somehow"”probably around
1915"”acquired this exceedingly rare, very beautiful 1784, printed-in-London
edition of Captain Cook's Three Voyages
Around the World. And it's really a spectacular book. It looks like
something that should be on a magician's bookshelf, and we had it in our house
when we were kids, and it was one of the objects in our house that we could not
touch, 'cause it was really much nicer than anything that my family deserved to
have [laughs] in our farmhouse, on our Christmas tree farm. And because of the
fact that it was the biggest book in the house, and one that looked the most
exotic, and almost talismanic and hypnotic, of course I touched it all the
time, and recently discovered"”or my mother discovered"”that I had in fact scrawled my name in it as a child, when
I was four years old, misspelled, but I'd laid claim to that book.
book ended up in my hands because I was the person who'd destroyed its value,
so my parents were like, "Ah, you might as well have it." And I found, at the
age of forty, that I was just as fascinated with the book as I was at four. And it led me to look more closely at Captain
Cook and then very quickly to make that charismatic jump to Joseph Banks, who I
think is a more interesting character, and his scientific passion and botanical
exploration became the basis for the entire book.
MM: Which other books were essential?
LG: I read"”oh God, I read so much. For three years,
all I did was read for hours and hours and hours a day. Kind of ruined my eyes
on this. But there was this weird kind of 19th-century glory in
that, too, because all those guys ruined their eyes. They were always
writing in letters, "I've ruined my eyes, I've ruined my health from my
studiousness!""”they were such scholars. So I felt a kinship, like "I'm going
blind!" [Laughs] There's such a noble history in ruining your eyes by
I read hundreds of books, but some of the key ones"”there were
some great biographies of Alfred Russel Wallace that were really important in
shaping the end of the book. There were some writings of some of the wonderful
19th-century botanists. There was a woman named Mary Treat who lived
in New Jersey and was a correspondent of Darwin, and she corrected him on
carnivorous plants"”she was an expert on them because of living in the swamps.
So they had a long correspondence, and he really admired her. And there were
other greats as well.
But their letters: that's where you hear their voices. So
I read so many letters, and not just letters of naturalists and scientists of
the day, but there's a great journal that a lot of historians reach for, that a
late-19th-century Philadelphia housewife kept for her entire
existence, and it's become this kind of bedrock of Philadelphia history.
MM: Is that the journal you quote where she says that the
weather's backwards, during the Year Without a Summer? You reference in 1816 a
housewife's diary where she says "weather backwards."
LG: Yes. And that's where she says, "snowbells and bluebirds
in the same day," because there were these late snow storms. There's all this
very specific detail that comes from her. And also from Thoreau's letters and
Whitman's letters, and Emerson's and Dickinson's letters"”I read all of them
just to get a tone, a 19th-century tone of speech and writing that
would feel convincing. It was really important to me not to write a book that
would pass as a 19th-century novel"”I think about The Signature of All Things as a
contemporary book about the 19th century. At the same time, I wanted
to make sure there wasn't a word in there that wouldn't have existed at the
time, and dialogue that felt true. And that you can only get from letters,
because that's the closest you can get from overhearing a conversation.
elsewhere, on other continents, the important moments of each year. It really
placed their lives within a much larger context.
LG: And they would have known about those larger events in
the world"”they were people who really cared about the larger world. And when
the French were able to figure out that the chemical in the Cinchona tree that
makes people not get malaria was called quinine, they would have known about
that. When the first calculator was made, the first adding machine, that would
have meant a lot to them. These were people who were always on the brink of all
the great knowledge. And I think one of the things that so attracted me to the
19th century, and these sorts of people in particular, is that this
was one of the last eras where you could know everything. If you were somebody
who paid attention, you could know as much about literature as you did about
science. And they say that The Origin of
Speciesis the last major scientific work that a layperson can read. Darwin
reads like a novel, it reads like George Elliot. It's beautifully written, and
it's simple and elegant. So I couldn't write a book about 21st
century science"”it would be way out of my grasp. But I can write about 19th-century
science. I hope. [Laughs]
MM: Are the Whittakers entirely fictional?
EG: They are completely invented, but it also felt really
important to me to make sure they were absolutely plausible. My heroine is Alma
Whittaker, and her father is Henry Whittaker, and her story really begins with
his story to establish how it is that this family ended up with so much money
and so much power and so much intellect. So that's why I spent a lot of time
studying botanical history to find out if there was a fortune to be made in
some realm of botany between 1780 and 1800, by somebody very ambitious and
fearless, how would that fortune most quickly have been made? So that led me to
weed through botany: is it the spice trade, is it the cotton trade? Tea?
Coffee? There were so many money-making plants back in the day. But I decided
it would be quinine"”I was most interested in the fever tree. So I sent him down
to Peru to make his fortune and back to Philadelphia, and that's where Alma is
born to one of America's first millionaires.
MM: I loved that you gave so much of Henry's history,
because he's such an unlikeable character later, but I found myself still
rooting for him, just because I knew how much he'd struggled.
EG: I didn't feel like I could tell Alma's story without
Henry's. There were women who made names for themselves in botanical science in
the 19th century, but to"”I was going to say, to a man"”to a lady,
they were either the widows or unmarried daughters of really prominent
botanists. That was how they got their slipper in the door. There were none
that came fully-formed"”they had to come out of botanical families. And so the
idea of her being based in a family with really deep botanical credentials
seemed really important to me, so I felt like I had to really establish her
father and their wealth. Because the liberty that Alma has to be as educated as
she is, and later to travel freely, comes from that inheritance. So I really
needed to make it credible that this family was phenomenally successful. I
wanted to show that scrappiness, and Henry's journey from an impoverished sort
of London nothing to one of the richest men in the New World. And it was so
much fun to write about his ascension, and watch him just go kicking ass all
over the world. And once I was done with that introduction of Henry, I remember
having a little conversation with Alma in my mind, because she had not yet
shown up on the page, and we're 60 pages into the book already. I remember
having a sit-down with her and saying, "You have to keep up with your dad,
who's a pretty interesting character. You have to earn the right to have this
book be about you"”so come on, show up on the page in a big way!"
MM: Did you always know that Henry needed to start at Kew?
LG: Yeah. I was sort of fascinated with Kew, and Kew really
is the intellectual center of the botanical world, through the 18th
century especially. And you wouldn't have been able to get onto one of those
voyages if you weren't coming out of Kew. But I didn't want him coming up through
legitimate sources, so he came up through his thievery and his cunning, rather
than through connections.
MM: One of my very favorite parts about the book is when
Alma has her revelation about the moss, and how essentially a whole world is
contained in this patch of moss. The way that you describe it is almost like a
religious conversion. It made me think of that E.O. Wilson quote from Biophilia: "I offer this as a formula of reenchantment to invigorate poetry and
myth: mysterious and little known organisms live within walking distance of
where you sit. Splendor awaits in minute proportions." I felt like
that was what Alma realized there. I know you've had moments of creative
revelation, where you felt like an idea was unfolding through you. When did you
have moments like that in telling this story?
LG: Yes. I felt really guided by excitement, more than
anything. I had such a freedom in writing this book, more than I've ever had
before. It's a freedom that's born of a number of factors"”it's just sort of a
lucky star moment, you know. I don't feel like I have anything to prove, so I
felt like I could write a book that I just really felt like writing, for no
other reason than it would be a joy to spend so many years in its company, and
in the company of its research. As a woman who doesn't have children, and
someone who"”to be very honest, Eat, Pray,
Love made me self-sufficient to an exponential degree, so I have the liberty
to go literally to the ends of the world to chase ideas. And I'm healthy. So I
just thought, "This is the moment to do the big one, to not hold back. You want
to write a book that requires you to go to the most obscure islands in French
Polynesia? You do it right now!" [Laughs]
Alma is so familiar to me as a person because she thrills to
the world. From her earliest childhood, she's extremely excited about
everything she's learning, and I totally get that, because I live in that
place. And yet her life is so much more constrained than mine was. So it was a
challenge to try to figure out a way to bring something to her that she could
study with full excitement and unfettered joy and total devotion that was
literally within walking distance of her bedroom, because she was confined to
the family estate. Moss was the answer there.
And then, as I began to study moss in-depth and realize just
how perfect that was for her, that it is a universe contained"¦. There's a
moment at the beginning of the novel where William Herchel, this famous astronomer,
comes to the family estate for a party and creates this kind of celestial dance
of Philadelphia high society on the lawn, imitating the movement of the
planets, and Alma's brought into this idea of the galaxies that swirl outside
of her life"”
MM: And her father says, "Give her a place!"
LG: "Give her a place! Give the girl a place in this
galaxy!" Right? And when she discovers moss, there's a moment where she says,
this is Herchel's universe seen in detail. You can either look into a
telescope, or you can look into a microscope, and either way, you're going to
find cosmos. So for Alma"”and, I think it's kind of a metaphor for the constraints
of women at that time"”she goes small. Rather than becoming an astronomer like Herchel's
sister, who was a great astronomer of the day, she becomes a microscopist"”a
great microscope user. [Laughs] And it's almost like needlework! She goes deep,
deep into the forests of moss around her house.
MM: You have this wonderful TED talk about people's concept
of genius and how that's evolved. And you lament at one point how sad it is
that so many people are afraid to do the work that they're put on this earth to
do. And I thought that Alma's not afraid of doing the work, but she keeps running up against shame about who she is in
other ways"”and not just her, some of your other characters get caught up in
cultural constructs that make them feel deeply ashamed about their basic
biological desires. Is that something you consciously thought about? Have you
watched BrenÃ© Brown's TED talk on shame and vulnerability?
LG: I love BrenÃ© Brown! I love her. I get to meet her soon.
I'm very excited--she's a big hero to me. Not to give away too much about the
book, but one of the things I was capable of exploring that George Eliot and
Jane Austen couldn't is sexuality. And that's why it doesn't read like a 19th-century
novel. There's stuff in there that they could allude to in very opaque ways,
but they could not touch on as directly as I could.
MM: Anias Nin, maybe.
LG: Henry James, more. Edith Wharton, a bit more. But their
hands were tied about what they could just come out and say about desire"”and
their hands weren't tied in a hot way. In a literary way. I wanted to be able
to discuss these people as full people, including what they yearned for. And
one of the things a Victorian-era, carnal woman and a gay man would have had in
common is shame, and the wrongness of what they want. And then what do you
sublimate your passion into? There's been a lot of research come out just
recently--in the New York Times there
was a story about how the longer men stay in the closet, the more successful
they are in other parts of their lives"”they sublimate it into becoming the very
best at something. What do you do with passion when it can't be passionate?
Alma that in her, you know: she's a very earthy, hungry,
passionate, sensual person who can't express that in any other way than to
spend her life studying moss in great detail. There's something both sad and
noble about that, I think. It's sad that she doesn't get to feel those things
in partnership with another human being. But it's noble that she refuses to
live a life that isn't passionate.
One of the things I really want this novel to convey is that
women are capable of enduring a tremendous amount of disappointment and still
have a good life. And I think in the models for 19th-century novels
with women characters, you really only get one of two endings: you get the
good, satisfying marriage, or you are under the wheels of the train, or you are
shamed or destroyed because of a passionate mistake, or you're in an asylum.
Generally speaking, that's good drama"”the marriage plot or the tragedy"”but the
reality of women's lives is that most of us don't get what we wanted, and most
of us find ways to have really interesting lives anyway. I want Alma's life to
have been a victorious life despite not having "won." She has a really good,
satisfying life, and she doesn't get almost anything that she wanted.
MM: Well, and she's very clear-eyed. There are a couple
moments when she assesses her life, and realizes "All these bad things have
happened to me, but I'm actually not unhappy," and it seemed like a freeing
feeling. Almost a Pema ChÃ¶drÃ¶n moment. [Laughs]
LG: Dutch Pema ChÃ¶drÃ¶n. I think of it as Dutch pragmatism,
because she gets a lot of that from her mother, and her housekeeper, who just
instills in her, like "Who told you that you were here to get what you wanted?"
MM: Yeah, just grind that disappointment under your boot
LG: Keep moving on. It's a combination of that and something
that's sort of Zen, by the end of her life. And that's something that's worthy,
that I aspire to.
MM: Well, she moves beyond fear.
LG: Yeah. That's a good way to put it. And regret and shame.
And all the heavy things. There's a great acceptance that this is not how she
thought this story would end, but here we are. I think most women in their 80s
have that. [Laughs] I've always wanted to write a birth-to-death novel, and
this is even a pre-birth-to-death novel. And by the end of her life, there's a
tremendous peace and satisfaction at how well she's handled what's come to her,
and what hasn't come to her. And that perhaps more than victory, dignity is the
MM: One of my favorite parts is how she adopts that Tahitian
rallying cry about her lineage, when she really needs to assert herself.
LG: To mobilize herself, yeah.
MM: Do you ever do that?
LG: I kind of do. Yeah. And you know, I'm trying to pass it
on. I had a conversation with my 14-year-old niece recently that I really felt
was almost a Vince Lombardi moment, but also sort of what Alma does, too. I
took my niece out to Minnesota to meet her grandmother, who she'd met when she
was very young, but my grandmother just turned 100, and she's the person I
dedicated the novel to. And I felt like it was really important that my niece
meet her, and know "This is who you come from, and it's important that you know
that you come from women who are really survivors. When you feel like life is
too difficult for you, you have to remember your bloodline. Like, these are
people who got on a boat from Sweden and came and made farms in northern
Minnesota, and lost babies and buried them in the winter and moved on, and handled
their disabilities and their disappointments and their poverty"”this is in you!
It's in you, and you have to know that." I just remember driving down this
highway in Minnesota and almost shouting it at her. I just loved that idea of
the Tahitian shouting of your lineage. There's a character in Tahitian history,
a person who"”the only possible English translation of it is the haranguer. And
the haranguer runs alongside of you in battle and shouts at you who you are,
like "You are the grandson of So-and-so who was the great warrior who killed
this person!" I feel like we all need to be that in our own lives sometimes.
MM: That literally can help in struggle to survive"”and in
the larger picture, it can help your line, thinking of those larger
evolutionary themes. It seems like that's an adaptation of those people who are
LG: Yeah, the book is about that. It's about endurance,
people getting through it to the other side so that can be passed along. How
that has shaped the world. There's no way I was not going to have a moment
where Alma has to rise up and claim her lineage and fight. Especially as Henry
Whittaker's daughter. There's no way the daughter of that guy isn't going to
lift a spear in the air at some point, and be like, "I exist! I will not be
ignored! I will not be defeated!" And I also like that there are a couple
moments in her life where the older women in her life kind of knock her around
a little bit, they really challenge her to not sink into defeat. They just
don't tolerate it. There's a lot of tough love.
LG: There were a lot of pilgrimages that were necessary for
this book. I went to Kew Gardens and met with their librarians. I have to say
that I have such a crush on the librarians at Kew Gardens. [Laughs] I'm like,
"Ah, you work in the herbarium at Kew Gardens! Curator of ferns? You have the
best life in the entire world!" So I really geeked out there. And also just to
be shown some of Darwin's own pages from his herbarium"”you kind of need to go
roll around in that, if you're writing a book like this. I went to Amsterdam,
to the Hortus Botanicus, which is one of the oldest botanical gardens in the
world, and it's right in the center of Amsterdam. There's a tree in the Hortus
Botanicus that I saw in the very beginning of researching this book, that I
knew would become a character in the book, and it shows up in the last sentence
of this whole journey. I met that tree and we had a moment, and I was like,
"You're going into show business!" [Laughs] "You walnut, transplanted from
Then I went to Polynesia, to this Island called Raivavae,
which is one of the most remote ones. That's one of the amazing things about
going to these places"”realizing the scope of the distances of what this culture
embodied, an oceanic continent the size of Europe, where 3,000 miles away from
each other over the open seas they were speaking the same language and
worshiping the same gods, I mean it's an extraordinary culture. And the most remote
one is Raivavae. I went there because it's where Polynesian culture is still at
its purest. The missionaries got there, but it was the native missionaries, not
the Europeans, so they allowed them to keep a lot of their own ways. So you go
to Christian church services, but they are singing in polyphonic verse that
just puts chills up your spine because it's so ancient and rich.
Then closer to home, I spent a lot of time snooping around
Philadelphia, and trying to find the perfect location for the mansion that Alma
Whittaker grew up in would have been. I found a really wonderful one that
suited the purpose and spent a lot of time poking around the basement and attic
and carriage house. And the New York Botanical Gardens, of course. So it was
fun! It was good adventure.
If you can, you have to go touch those things, so you can
have experiences"”like when I was on that island of Raivavae, waking up in the
middle of the night, and the island has this extraordinary lagoon that kind of
surrounds it, so it doesn't have any surf, and I woke up and walked to the
beach and saw something that ends up being in the novel: two heavens. The
lagoon was so still, and the starlight, I mean, you're never going to see
starlight like that except in the middle of nowhere on a moonless night.
Numberless stars, I mean just dazzling stars, but not just in the sky,
reflected perfectly in this glassy, still ocean. So heavens in the sky and
heavens in the sea, and it's something you can't really imagine until you've
seen it. And once you've seen it, Alma's gotta see it. [Laughs] It just brings
you into that place. And staying in this little hostel there, waking up in the
middle of the night to a scary dog in the room with me, who became Rod the dog,
who's a very important character in the book as well. So you just have to go to
these places to find these scenes and characters.
And I spent time with Dr.Robin
Wall Kimmerer, who's one of the foremost moss experts in the
United States, who weirdly lives 20 minutes from my grandfather in upstate New
York. Visiting her was the last pilgrimage I did. She wrote a beautiful book
called Gathering Moss, and I'd read
that book and consulted it so many times. Three years into this project, I
finally had the nerve to write her a letter, and ask if I could visit and run
by her the whole central theme of my novel, and ask, is it plausible that
someone could have discovered the theories that Alma discovers just through the
study of moss? If she had said no, I don't know what that book would have ended
up being about, because I had really been banking on that being possible. So I
didn't want to see her until I had the whole thing planned out. And I sat in
her farmhouse and spent an hour telling her the whole novel, and she said, "Yeah!
Sure." [Laughs] And I was like, "Yaaaaay!" It just felt like Merlin had given
me this blessing. And then I sent her the manuscript, and she checked all the
moss stuff. And she took me in the woods and we did a bunch of moss
I've never met a proper new age botanical explorer, but it
would be cool to go on one of those forays. The age of discovery isn't over.
Elizabeth Gilbert is
the author of The Signature of All Things and Eat, Pray, Love, as well as the
short story collection Pilgrims--a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and
winner of the 1999 John C. Zacharis First Book Award from Ploughshares.
Pushcart Prize winner and National Magazine Award-nominated journalist, she
works as writer-at-large for GQ. Her journalism has been published in Harper's
Bazaar, Spin, and The New York Times Magazine, and her stories have appeared in
Esquire, Story, and the Paris Review.