Elizabeth Gilbert makes a triumphant return to fiction with The Signature of All Things, a sweeping saga that covers centuries and continents, and stars a singular heroine: brilliant scientist Alma Whittaker.
It's been a while since you wrote a book that wasn't based on your own life! Was it hard to turn back to fiction, where the storyline is only limited by your imagination? Did you find that freedom exhilarating, or frightening? Or both?
Exhilarating! Liberating! Emancipating! Joyful! (Are there any other words I can use, with exclamation marks, to get this point across?) I got my start as a writer of literary fiction, and always assumed that fiction would be my life's path but then—all through my 30s—I felt that I needed the craft of writing to serve a different purpose for me (namely, to help me sort some stuff out, in a rather intimate and self-searching manner.) Now that, thankfully, my life has an even keel again, it really felt like it was time to go back to fiction, back to my heritage. And once I began the novel, I felt awash in such a sense of thrill—I had utterly forgotten the pleasures and freedoms of invention. I loved every minute of it.
Tell us about the significance of the title.
"The Signature of All Things" is the title of a 16th century botanical/divine theory posited by a German shoemaker-turned-mystic named Jacob Boehm, who believed that God so loved the world that He had hidden in the design of each plant on earth some clue for humans as to that plant's usefulness. (For instance: Walnuts are good for headaches, and are also—helpfully—shaped like brains. Sage is good for the liver, and its leaves are shaped like livers. Etc, etc.) It was such a wild and idealistic and wacky notion, and it was already well out of favor by scientists of the 18th and 19th century, but I used it for my title both because one of my characters still espouses it, and also because I love the imagination that would conjure up such a magical kind of taxonomy. What's more, every single character in my novel is still, in their own way, searching for The Signature of All Things—trying to find the code, trying to crack the secret behind the botanical world (whether through science, religion or art).
This is an old-fashioned novel in the best sense of the term: Sweeping, expansive, epic, and set in exotic locales. Do you feel it falls in a particular literary tradition? What books inspired you?
Anyone who reads even two pages of this novel will recognize its inspiration from the big 19th-century novels of Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, Stevenson and—especially in the careful telling of a woman's emotional and geographical journey—Henry James. That's my team, those big, expansive writers—those are the books I have always most loved and the writers I have always worshipped. I wanted to try my hand at such a book, in homage, and also as a dare to myself, and lastly as a way of entertaining myself. Most of all, I think you should always write the book you would most want to read —and this is the sort of book I love reading. Hilary Mantel's two most recent novels (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) were also inspiring, since she managed to figure out how to write a novel about the 15th century without pretending that her novel had been written DURING the 15th century. That's a subtle but vital distinction, and I tried to do the same with my book. In other words, it's a contemporary novel ABOUT the 19th century—not a book that's trying to pass as one written by George Eliot.
"As a woman whose life and dignity have also been saved many times by my love and passion for my work, I understand this sort of character completely."
What do you admire most about Alma Whittaker, your heroine?
Her passion for her work. I do not think there have been enough novels written about women who love their work (unless, oddly, it happens to be detective work or police work—interestingly, there are plenty of those!). This novel has romantic love in it, as well, but mostly it is a book about a woman who adores what she does (namely, the study of botany) and who is willing to give over the entirety of her towering intellect toward her studies. That love, that desire for knowledge (for its own sake), is the central guiding thread that runs through her life, from earliest consciousness to her final days.
As a woman whose life and dignity have also been saved many times by my love and passion for my work, I understand this sort of character completely. I was so excited to give her an education, a library, a laboratory, a means of publishing. And the great thing is, she is not historically implausible. I had no trouble finding real-life Almas in 18th and 19th century history—tremendously productive sisters of science. This book is also a tribute to them.
What research did you do for this book?
Mostly, I just read hundreds and hundreds of books, for hours and hours a day, over the course of about three years. I read books about 18th and 19th century botanical exploration, about the early days of the evolution debate, about the founding of the city of Philadelphia, about missionaries in Tahiti, about the first pharmacists in America, about Victorian pornography, about transcendentalism, spiritualism, hypnotism, abolition, whaling . . . and so on. I also "borrowed a brain"—by hiring my friend Margaret Cordi, an old college friend and contributor to Harpers Magazine, to help me, and to fill in the blanks in my own investigations. (I would send her emails like, "Find me all the first-hand accounts you can of the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia!" and a week later she would send me an amazing dossier.) I also traveled to Kew Gardens in London, to look at their herbarium, and also to the Hortus Gardens in Amsterdam. I went on a pilgrimage to meet the greatest living female moss scientist in America, in order to test out my ideas about mosses and evolution upon her. And I took a big trip to the South Pacific, to get a sense of color, light and sound there—for the part of the novel that takes place in Tahiti. But mostly, I just read until my eyes turned to custard. There's really no other way to do it.
One refreshing thing about this book was that, though it stars a woman and features a marriage plot, Alma's central pursuit in life is not love but knowledge. Was this something you particularly wanted to write about?
Indeed! And I decidedly did not want to write a novel where the woman can only have one of two possible endings to her life (the two 19th-century endings for all heroines, I mean)—which are 1) you are lucky enough to marry the landed gentry and end up happy, or 2) you are unlucky enough to make a sensual error and then end up punished for it with poverty, ruin or death. Don't get me wrong, I love Lizzie Bennet (ending #1) and Anna Karenina (ending #2) but these are not the endings most women get in life. (Neither then nor now.) Most of us end up somewhere in the wide in-between—neither a fairy tale, nor a tragedy. And the most interesting women to me are the ones who do not necessarily get everything they wanted in life, but who manage to build dignified and fascinating existences in the world, nonetheless—and at the end of their lives have the satisfaction of saying, "Well, that was all very difficult, but certainly satisfying and worth doing!" Alma is just such a person, and it is her passion for learning that brings her that dignity, that satisfaction.
The debate between science and religion that was launched during Alma's lifetime continues today. What about it has changed? What hasn't? Do you think it's a conflict that can ever be resolved?
I think we are a long way from solving it, and I think something terribly important to humanity has been lost in the battle. For most of Western civilization, there really was no difference between being a man of science, a man of god, and a man of the arts. Science, divinity and artistic endeavor were three strands of the same braid—and all of them pulling toward the same beautiful desire (to want to understand the workings of this curious and beautiful world). But in the 19th century, they all broke apart, and went their separate ways—to the point that Science, Divinity and Artistry even hardly talk to each other anymore, are rarely seen in the same room, and still fight over the custody of the children.
The biggest tragedy to me is that we now live in a world full of scientific minds who are absolutely absent of devotion, and religious minds who are absolutely absent of reason. (And the artistic minds are just flailing around somewhere in the outskirts, often seeming to have totally lost BOTH reason and devotion.) Somehow we have to find a way to pull that braid back together again, because that's the magnificent triumvirate that pulls us forward into wonder and majesty. It seems simple to me (I have plenty of room in my mind for God, for science and for art) but that sort of unity only works when everyone sheds their dogma. So maybe not so simple, I guess?
You and your husband also run a small business. How do you balance that work with your writing?
The business—an import store in New Jersey called Two Buttons—was a great escape for me at times during the height of the Eat, Pray, Love tsunami. It was such a balm at times to just disappear into the really mundane work of sorting out jewelry, or pricing statues, or ringing up people's furniture purchases. And I love traveling with my husband to Southeast Asia on buying trips. But assuredly, while the business is in both of our names, it is truly his baby. It takes up very little of my time, other than the time that I want to give over to it. For me its a hobby, but for him, it's a passion and a full-time career. It works out nicely—he has his world, and I have my own.
What are you working on next?
Another novel! It will be a while before I can turn my attention it, because I'm doing a lot of travel and touring for The Signature of All Things, but I want to stay with fiction for a while because it's such a pleasure. I think— after the buttoned up world of my 19th-century female characters—I want to write a novel about girls behaving recklessly. It will be a release, I think, to let somebody go wild.