Texarkana, TX 65° Thu H 85° L 62° Fri H 88° L 67° Sat H 87° L 70° Weather Sponsored By:

How latest book saved 'Eat, Pray, Love' author

How latest book saved 'Eat, Pray, Love' author

June 16th, 2019 by Moira Macdonald /The Seattle Times in Features
"City Of Girls" by Elizabeth Gilbert; Riverhead (480 pages, $28). (Penguin Random House/TNS)

"It saved me," says author Elizabeth Gilbert, best known for the best-selling 2006 memoir "Eat, Pray, Love."

She's walking down a New York street during an animated telephone interview last week, talking about her latest novel. "City of Girls" is set in a carelessly glamorous 1940s Manhattan world of showgirls, musicals, ratty theater seats, flirty rayon dresses and youthful exuberance—it's a book whose very lightheartedness pulled her out of deep personal grief. Early last year, Gilbert's romantic partner and longtime best friend, Rayya Elias, died of cancer at the age of 57.

You might expect someone famous for exploring her own life through memoir to process the aftermath of loss by writing nonfiction—and it's what Gilbert herself expected. She had begun research on "City of Girls" before Elias' illness, but after the diagnosis "couldn't imagine ever caring about this novel again." The problems of New York City showgirls seemed trivial, and Gilbert fully expected to never resume work on the book.

Then, shortly after Elias' death, Gilbert felt compelled to dive back into "City of Girls"—"I felt like I got a message from the mothership, saying that the best thing I could possibly do was write this book. I'd been in so much pain, so much grief, it was as if the cosmic scale needed to be righted by going in the exact opposite direction." It was life imitating art, with Gilbert using fiction the way her character Aunt Peg—a director of cheerfully tatty musicals—uses theater. "People are suffering, life is hard, let's put on a show. That was very much the spirit with which I approached the book."

Gilbert began exploring ideas for the book about six years ago. She was intrigued by the idea of centering a novel on a young female character—Peg's 19-year-old niece Vivian, who arrives in New York fresh from being kicked out of Vassar—who is sexually free, but whose life isn't destroyed by those choices. "So many stories of women's desire end with the ruination of the woman," said Gilbert—among them Hester Prynne, Anna Karenina, Daisy Miller, Emma Bovary. That's not to say Vivian's behavior doesn't have consequences—it does—but it doesn't bring about her downfall.

And the 1940s setting came to her after reading a collection of essays by Alexander Woollcott, a midcentury critic for The New Yorker, in which he profiled a series of prominent actresses. The period had "an impossible glamour," said Gilbert, sending her off on a deep dive into authors writing about that time: John O'Hara, Mary McCarthy, Maeve Brennan. And she researched numerous letters from the era—"that's the only way you can get people's actual voice."

A few real-life names appear in "City of Girls"—Walter Winchell makes a cameo appearance, as does socialite Brenda Frazier—but the main characters are fictional; if you Google showgirl Celia Ray, as Gilbert tells me readers have done, you won't find her. She and Vivian are informed, however, by interviews Gilbert conducted with some now-elderly former showgirls; one former Stork Club dancer, now in her 90s, cheerfully told Gilbert about her affair with John Wayne.

"I thought, I need to talk to some women who were there, but I need to talk about sex and I'm not sure I can get them to talk to me about it," Gilbert recalled, laughing. "With her, I didn't think I could get her to stop!" Aunt Peg was inspired by a nearly 100-year-old woman Gilbert met who was a former Tin Pan Alley songwriter and radio producer. "There was an urgency, as I was researching the book—I had to get to these people quickly," Gilbert said. "There aren't that many 1940s showgirls left."

Edna Parker Watson, a legendary actress created by Gilbert for the book, is a composite of many performers of the time, particularly Katharine Cornell. Watson's inimitable way of dressing, in beautifully tailored jackets and trousers, had a more modern inspiration: her style, greatly admired by Vivian, was borrowed from the novelist Donna Tartt. "I'm always so dazzled by the way Donna dresses," said Gilbert, who described herself as, unlike budding designer Vivian, "not fashion driven." Tartt, she says, enters the room, "and everyone else looks wrong."

Now that "City of Girls" is finished and out in the world, Gilbert isn't sure what she'll write next; she tends to alternate between fiction (the 2013 novel "The Signature of All Things") and nonfiction (her latest was 2015's self-help volume "Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear"). But she's hoping the upbeat spirit of "City of Girls" will make its way to the reader.

"It was a joy to research, and a joy to create," she said. "Writing it made me feel a lot better; maybe reading it will make you feel better."

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Texarkana Gazette Comments Policy

The Texarkana Gazette web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Gazette web sites and any content on the Gazette web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Gazette, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Gazette web sites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Texarkana Gazette
15 Pine Street
Texarkana, TX 75501
Phone: 903-794-3311
Email: webeditor@texarkanagazette.com