As a young girl, Elizabeth Gilbert was forbidden to touch a family heirloom that belonged to her great grandfather, a 1784 edition of Captain Cook’s voyages around the world. “Of course I used to touch it all the time,” Gilbert confesses. “It was a sort of talismanic object in my childhood. I came upon it again [recently] and got really stirred by the idea of the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment explorers.” That led her to Joseph Banks, the English naturalist and botanist who traveled with Cook and introduced hundreds of plant specimens to the Western world. “These people were bringing taxonomy and order to the world through the study of plants. I became completely overwhelmed by their endeavors, and wanted to write about that.”
Her latest novel, The Signature of All Things (Viking, Oct.), centers on the Whittaker family—starting with Henry, a London-born member of the lower class who makes his fortune in the quinine trade. His daughter, Alma, born in 1800, becomes a botanist who falls in love with a painter named Ambrose Pike, and with them the worlds of art and science collide. Gilbert spent three years doing research before beginning to write. She read contemporary, scholarly books about the Age of Enlightenment, as well as diaries, journals, and letters from that time. “I did a lot of research in the New York Botanical Garden library,” she says, “and I also read a lot of letters by naturalists and botanists. But I also read the letters and journals of people in the 18th and 19th century who were not in those fields, Abigail Adams’s letters, Walt Whitman’s, anybody I could get at, really, Emerson, Thoreau. They wrote a lot about nature and the spirit, but they also brought you into the language of the time.”
Gilbert is aware that whatever she writes, she will always be associated with Eat, Pray, Love, which made her a household name. She tells Show Daily, “It’s been a tremendous boon in my life—not just the success of that book but the writing and the living of that book. I agree with everybody in terms of it being a significant event in my life, but it doesn’t mean that I’m finished doing my work.” She adds wryly, “It may mean that I’m finished doing work that sells 10 million copies, but that’s all right, too.”
It’s been about 12 years since she’s written fiction, so Gilbert has high hopes for her novel. “I wanted to write in the spirit of the great 19th-century novelists who I’ve always loved. I want readers to have that wonderful feeling that somebody’s taking you by the hand and saying, ‘Come with me, we’re going to go on a really long trip together. It’s going to be amazing.’ That feeling of throwing yourself into an author’s hands like that with such trust is what I hope people get from The Signature of All Things, and that from the first page they’ll join me on an emotional voyage, and on a voyage through time.”
This is Gilbert’s first time at BEA. She signs galleys today at 2 p.m. in the Penguin booth (1521). Tomorrow, 1:30–3 p.m., in Room 1E12/1E13, she and Wally Lamb will be participating in a discussion presented by the Huffington Post and Bookbliss.com entitled, “Creating the Ultimate Book Club Experience.” Andrew Losowsky, senior book editor at Huffington Post Books, will moderate.