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Author Wed Nov 06 2013

Elizabeth Gilbert Dazzles @ Printers Row

Photo by Megan Bearder for the Chicago Tribune

On Wednesday, Oct. 30, Elizabeth Gilbert visited Trib Nation's Printers Row to promote her new book -- and her return to fiction -- The Signature of All Things. The event took place in the Grand/State ballroom at the Palmer House Hilton and Gilbert was interviewed by Manya Brachear Pashman, the Chicago Tribune's religion reporter.

Signature tells the tale of Alma Whittaker, a 19th century botanist. At the time, botany was one of the rare sciences to which women, society's own beautiful flowers, had access. However, it was also the science of explorers, men who risked life and limb on the high seas to bring back plants from the darkest corners of the earth, especially tropical orchids. Whittaker, however, specializes in the decidedly unsexy study of moss. That's right. Moss. Gilbert realized that as a single woman, Alma wouldn't have had the freedom to travel to exotic locales. So she arranged for Alma to stumble on a great scientific discovery right outside her father's door, something that was "manageable and also enormous" and eventually allows Alma to reach the same conclusions about evolution as Charles Darwin before Darwin ever published his theories.

The novel's title is borrowed from a book by 16th century writer Jacob Boehme, who believed God created codes in nature to help humans lead healthier lives. For example, walnuts, with their brain-like appearance, were known as a headache cure, while sage leaves, shaped like human livers, were used for liver ailments. Gilbert also believes "the artistic, scientific and religious quest by humankind is the signature of all things."

Gilbert, whose mother is a master gardener and who gardens herself, spent three years studying 19th century botany -- almost enough time to have earned a bachelor's degree. "Actually, I studied a great deal more than when I was in college," she mused. She acknowledged that the success of Eat, Pray, Love allowed her the luxury of time and financial resources to conduct such in-depth research. It also relieved her of the uncertainty of having to pitch an idea to a publisher who may or may not have agreed to produce her book.

But uncertainty was never part of the plan. When asked if she wrote the book in chronological order, Gilbert answered "[I]t was a paint-by-numbers thing." Her three years of research were followed by six months of putting the book together from a 70 page outline. While most details were meticulously planned, there were some happy coincidences. Gilbert selected the name Alma partially because it was Latin for "soul." She later discovered that the Hungarian translation of the name is "apples," which ties in to a key plot point involving the character's grandfather.

After the personal nature of Eat, Pray, Love, moving to fiction was a deliberate choice. However, Gilbert was quick to note that even when writing fiction, authors unconsciously leave a lot of themselves on the page: "Whenever you're writing a memoir, you're writing fiction. And when you're writing fiction, you're accidentally writing a memoir." Gilbert purposely chose the 19th century time period to further distance herself from the subject matter. ("I'm from the future!" she announced gleefully.) However, she soon learned that is impossible for a writer to stay out of the story. Gilbert likened it to "the sloppiest crime scene ever because you're the sloppiest criminal. Your hair is everywhere. Your blood is everywhere. Your friends are like 'There you are, there you are, there you are!'"

While she used to write everyday (and as she advised aspiring writers to do), Gilbert described her current writing process as seasonal, with seasons for inspiration, research, writing ("the most beautiful"), editing ("the crappiest"), touring, and, finally, a season for "staring at the wall." Currently in the midst of her international book tour, Gilbert's next project is still in the inspiration phase, something that she is "working on by thinking about it."

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