Elizabeth Gilbert: On Maine
The author of the bestselling Eat, Pray, Love learned an early lesson in writing - and life - on Matinicus.
Photograph by Deborah Lopez
Fans of Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the enormously popular memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, might not know that she set her first and (so far) only novel in Maine. Stern Men, published in 2001, is the story of the intense rivalry between lobstering families on two fictional islands. This month, The Telling Room, a nonprofit writing program in Portland dedicated to young storytellers between the ages of eight and eighteen, is bringing Gilbert back to Maine for the first time since Stern Men was published. She’ll be doing a benefit reading at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium and sharing some of the things she’s learned about writing — and life — since she first ventured out to Matinicus Island a decade ago in search of a story. [For the rest of this story, see the September 2008 issue of Down East.]
Gilbert has spent her life leaping into places and situations that were unknown to her. Right after college it was Wyoming, where she was captivated by the cowboy mystique. The product was a book of short stories called Pilgrims. In a bid to sell that book, she told her agent that she had an idea for a novel, something she had always wanted to write about: lobstermen.
In truth, Gilbert says, she was just jumping again into the unknown: “I had a really blunt friend, actually a very typically New England, sort of Yankee mentality guy who read my first book [Pilgrims] and said, ‘Yeah, okay, the writing is all right, but this whole cowboy thing is just finished . . . it’s so over and it’s so over-examined. It’s all so boring. If you want real stoicism and you want to see what real toughness is, you should come to Maine and write about lobster fishermen.’ And then he started to tell me about lobster wars that happened sometimes, and there was something so tribal about it. The idea that two islands would go to war against each other — it sounded more South Pacific than it did Down East, and I was fascinated by it.”
Gilbert’s father was a graduate of the University of Maine, and he introduced her to an old classmate who had grown up on a Maine island and who had returned after college to
become a lobsterman. The island was Matinicus [Down East, August 2008], and as it turned out, she says: “it really couldn’t have been a better place for me to go and begin to learn about that world.”
In the bestselling Eat, Pray, Love Gilbert writes about making a life-altering decision to leave her husband and the conventional life they were living to pursue her curiosity across two continents, trying to find some type of knowledge about something she didn’t feel she knew much about: herself. When she was researching Stern Men, she was still in the midst of that more conventional life, and it constrained what she felt she needed to do as a writer.
“What I wanted,” she says, “was a total immersion. I wanted to go live [on Matinicus]. But at that point in my life, I was already married to my first husband and working on a journalism career, and I had a life that had gotten too big for me.” So she began a series of visits, over several years, to an island that is often described as the most remote on the eastern seaboard.
It didn’t take Gilbert long to realize she would never understand island life unless she went in the off-season: “I mean anybody can go to a nice pretty Maine island in July and walk around and think, ‘I’m fascinated by this.’ But if you go in February and say ‘I want to go on your boat with you,’ [lobstermen] take you a bit more seriously.”
Over the next few winters she visited Matinicus and she went out on lobsterboats. And she discovered what it was like to live another kind of life, working on the frigid water. “I guess in my mind, lobster fishing and novel writing are inexorably linked,” she says. “I did both of them only once. To me, they are both filled with a lot of lonely, solitary, heavy lifting. Heavy-duty dangerous work is how I see both of them. Those dark northern months get really dark, and it’s dangerous work and people drink a lot and they fight a lot and it gets pretty real.”
She began to appreciate how hard and lonely life could become in such an isolated place, so many miles from the outside world: “You get sick of tourists in August,” she says, “but by February and March, you all want to kill each other. It’s brutal [on Matinicus] in the winter, the work on the water is really hard, the lives get really compressed, and I don’t know how people hold their mental health together.
“The thing that I was amazed about,” she continues, “was how ready people were to tell me their stories. I could always see myself through their eyes: Here’s this New York woman who comes wandering in like, ‘I just want to know all about your interesting customs.’ It’s so obnoxious, but I think that everybody has a story that would stop your heart, and on an island like Matinicus — as in most places in the world — if you listen, people want to share that story, and you tend to get a lot out of it.”
Young writers are often encouraged to write only about what they know. But researching Stern Men in Maine taught Gilbert the opposite lesson, one that would later lead her to travel to Italy, India, and Indonesia as she wrote Eat, Pray, Love.
“I’m much, much happier encouraging people to follow their curiosity,” she explains. “It’s all about the little pinpricks of intrigue, the little things that get your nose up in the air sniffing, asking: ‘What? What does that mean?’ It’s like a divining rod or dousing rod — there’s a little surge of energy when something comes to you that pricks that curiosity. You are obliged to pay attention to that feeling and not just cast it away. Your only job as a writer is to follow that feeling and see where it takes you, and that means always going to places you don’t know.”
But you needn’t be a writer to experience the insights that come from pursuing your curiosity and jumping into the unknown, says Gilbert. “Whether it’s literally getting on a plane and going someplace that you don’t know or whether it’s something a little bit more meta-physical than that. Everybody is invited to that no matter where they are.”
Elizabeth Gilbert will speak at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium on September 23 at 7 p.m. to raise money for The Telling Room, Greater Portland’s free writing center for young writers ages eight to eighteen. For more information about The Telling Room go to www.tellingroom.org. For tickets call 207-842-0800 or go online to www.porttix.com
- By: Ari Meil