In her new novel, Elizabeth Gilbert wants to take away all your troubles
Elizabeth Gilbert still remembers the moment when City of Girls came together. She was interviewing a 95-year-old former showgirl, and the conversation took a turn. “I asked her, ‘Do you ever regret never getting married?'” the author, 49, recalls. “She said, ‘Who the hell wants to f— the same man for 60 years?'”
Such unabashed, candid hilarity is embedded in Gilbert’s delicious new novel. City of Girls immerses readers in the bustle of ’40s New York, where 19-year-old Vivian Morris moves after getting kicked out of college. She lands in the city’s theater scene and meets an endlessly entertaining group of artists. The product of years of research, Girls gave the Eat, Pray, Love author the chance to have some fun. The dialogue crackles, the costumes receive lush descriptions, and the plot moves like a perfectly escapist romp. It’s no wonder Gilbert calls Girls her “love letter” to the city she calls home. She may be best known for her best-selling memoirs, but here her knack for good old-fashioned storytelling is on full display.
EW caught up with Gilbert on researching her vibrant milieu, reclaiming stories about girls and promiscuity, and the painful story behind how she came to finish the book. City of Girls publishes Tuesday.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is your first novel in six years. What drew you back to fiction?
ELIZABETH GILBERT: The very initial inspiration was: I was at my great aunt’s house years ago, and she was getting rid of some old books. One of the books that she gave me was a collection of essays by Alexander Wolcott. It was just a collection of profiles he’d written throughout the 1930s and 1940s, of actors and actresses, that had been published in various places. It was so fascinating: all these people whose names I’d never heard. They were famous stage actors of their day. But it was also just the setting: He’s going to the Biltmore to interview some British stage actress who I’ve never heard of; he’s talking about her illustrious career and how excited New York is to have her. There’s something about dipping into that world that was so exotic to me, and exciting. I thought, “Oh my God, New York City in the 1940s with visiting British actresses in hotels? I want to write about that!” That’s really how it began. Obviously, it grew from there.
There’s a larger desire I’ve had for a long time, just wanting to write about promiscuous girls whose lives aren’t necessarily destroyed by their bad decisions, even if there are consequences. Those two things folded together. From there, the book was born.
There’s a lot going on in City of Girls: swirling storylines and dozens of characters, and plenty of easter eggs about the time period. How do you keep it all straight? How were you able to stay focused?
The setting is always the first thing I get. All I knew was New York City, theater, 1940s girls. That’s all I had. I start there and I really had to start casting such a wide net, when it comes to research, to even start to learn that world: going to the performing arts library, and reading old letters and playbills and reviews and memoirs and biographies of people from that time, and interviewing whoever is still alive. The characters started to be created by all of that, inspired by what I was reading. There’s something very simple about the structure of the book: There’s nothing easier than writing first-person memoir. As soon as I came to know Vivian in my mind and have her voice, it’s a very straightforward story. It starts in the beginning, it goes to the end; she just says what happened, and she’s writing it from such a distant vantage point — writing in her 90s about her 20s — that she has perspective on it while also wanting to be in it. It’s not a complicated story in that way. It’s very linear, taking you right to the present day. All I had to do was figure out the plot and let her tell it.
I was going to ask you about working fluidly between fiction and nonfiction, but it’s interesting, because this book does read like a straightforward memoir in a lot of ways.
It’s my fourth memoir! It just happens to be written in Vivian’s voice. [Laughs] It’s a very memoiristic voice and, in that way, it’s the easiest memoir I’ve ever written — telling a story conversationally is pretty easy for me. She’s a pretty engaging storyteller, so that was fun.
My general sense of the difference between fiction and nonfiction is that fiction is harder — it’s a lot more work to create it, especially the period stuff, where the setting and the place are very important. I have to do a big amount of research in order to create. I think fiction is harder but it’s more fun. Memoir is way easier because you don’t have to create the world; you’re just reporting the world. It’s emotionally much more strenuous. You have to be so rigorous in your integrity about making sure you’re being absolutely fair and honest. How do you write about other people? How do you write about sensitive things from your own life? You can put all of that into fiction — but you get to disguise it. You can write about sensitive things because no one in the real world is going to have their feelings hurt. It’s a lot more liberating.
You’re talking a lot about how easily this book flowed for you, so naturally, I’m wondering what about it was most difficult for you.
The whole book is written as a letter, an answer to a question. And the question is being posed to Vivian. She’s gotten a letter in the mail from somebody saying, “Will you please tell me after all these years what you were to my father?” We don’t know who the person is, who’s asking it at the beginning of this book. The reader doesn’t know who she is. I knew going into the book who Angela was, I knew who her father was, I knew who Vivian was. But I actually didn’t know what the stories of the girl’s father were to each other. For me, I decided to go ahead and write into it not knowing anything. For me, it was as much of a mystery as it was for Angela. Vivian knew, but she hadn’t told me to it. I just didn’t know. That sustained my curiosity through the book. It was nerve-wracking to be investing so much in the story and not knowing. That could have gone in many different ways. What I had to do was just trust that by the time we’d get to that point in the book…. I am such a control freak about my fiction, knowing where everything was going. I didn’t know where that was going. I just let the two of them tell me. Like, Okay guys, now it’s time for you to show me what you were to each other. It’s a little scary to do that. But I was very happy with how it turned out. I surprised myself — about what they were to each other.
I was struck by how much fun you seemed to be having in this book, too. There’s a lot of humor, and a general lightness. Did you enjoy letting loose a little more?
For sure. The characters are savvy in a way that other characters I’ve written haven’t been. They’re sophisticates. Particularly fun for me was writing the attraction and the dialogue between Aunt Peg and her husband. Just letting them fire off — I saw them as Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, or like His Girl Friday. That kind of a tone. It was so, so fun to be able to do that. In fiction, [characters] can’t sound smarter than they are. They can’t be more sophisticated than they are. I’ve written a lot of fiction about people who may be intelligent and resourceful and resilient, but they may not necessarily be sophisticated. It was great to be able to unleash that. They could be the wittiest people in the world, because they are — they’re New York City theater people and they’re Hollywood people. They’re worldly and they’re drunk. You throw all that together.
You mentioned doing a lot of research. Was any aspect of that particularly illuminating for you?
I was really intimidated by getting 1940s language right, but I was surprised at how similar our worlds were. It’s not that long ago. The last historical novel that I wrote started in 1800, in the 1780s — that’s a whole language that you have to learn how to speak. It’s slightly different here. Where you really get it is reading letters and journals. People write a letter in a way they speak, and they write in their journals the way they speak. Reading letters from that time was invaluable. But I was like, “This isn’t so different from our language.” There’s a lot of people living today who spoke that way! This is recent history. I was struck by how similar New York was in 1940 compared to now, in that regard. I’ve lived in New York myself for 30 years. I felt more at home in that world than I thought I was going to.
You also spoke to many of those people, of course.
One amazing piece of research is I did try to talk to old show people. There was a former showgirl in her 90s. Her candor about her sexual life was incredible for me to behold. Part of my problem going into this book was trying to think, “How am I going to get women in their 90s to tell me about what sex was like in the 1940s?” She was more than happy to. She was incredibly candid about her satisfying and dissatisfying lovers, what it feels like to have never been married, never wanting to have kids but having had abortions, where she got her venereal diseases treated, the birth control that was available to her but that she just didn’t use. It was amazing. Every generation thinks they invented sex. But there has always been that kind of girl. [Laughs] When I asked her, did you ever regret never getting married, she said, “Who the hell wants to f— the same man for 60 years?” It was just incredible to hear it come out of her mouth. It was the last peg in the building of this book for me, the last piece of permission that I needed — these women that I created could’ve existed, did exist, and will always exist.
Would you describe City of Girls as your love letter to New York?
Absolutely. Unabashedly. Vivian’s feelings about New York are exactly my feelings about New York — her sense of it being the place where she got to become herself is how I’ve always felt about New York. She’s exiled from New York at one point, and then is able to return; to me, the homecoming of that moment, where she gets to come back and she gets to try again, is one of my favorite moments in the novel. It’s very personal to me: I’ve left and returned to New York a number of times as well, and it always felt on that return like, Thank God it’s still here. I’m back. This is the great mother. This is the place that always takes me back, even if I screwed up somewhere else.
Between the research and interviews and actual construction of the narrative, I imagine this book took some time. What was your process? What was the writing experience like, this time around?
With fiction, I find that 95 percent of my labor on the book is before I write a word of it. I do so much research and then I do so much outlining and so much character development. I really do have it blocked out and ready to go. But that takes years. Three or four years of just that. Just when I was about to sit down and write it was when my partner, Rayya, died of cancer. I set the book aside for 18 months to take care of her while she was dying and didn’t think about it. It seemed like the least important thing in the entire world to me. I honestly thought I’d never write it because I just couldn’t imagine caring. Shortly, after she died, I don’t know — I just got a message from the mothership somehow. Something came to me very clearly that said the best thing to do for yourself is actually go back and write that book now.
It seems so crazy to write such a lighthearted romp of a book during a time of grief, but it turned out to be just exactly the medicine that I needed to get through that time. I wrote it really fast. But that’s also because I needed something to do, you know? I was very happy to sit at my desk for hours a day. I wrote in a shockingly short amount of time — probably just a few weeks. I was more than happy to have the distraction. In a way, for me, Aunt Peg’s idea of theater — this idea that people need something to distract them, and it should be fun and life, and real life is hard and that’s what show business is for — really worked for me too, in telling this story. I was the audience member who needed it. I want to offer it to the world as that as well — I hope this takes you out of your troubles for a little while, because it’s a troubling moment to be alive right now.