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Beyond the drama: Five questions for Elizabeth Gilbert

By Jill Martin Wrenn, CNN
updated 8:52 AM EDT, Mon October 14, 2013
When her best-selling memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" went from page to screen, Elizabeth Gilbert's profile skyrocketed. She was played by Julia Roberts, seen here, in the film adaptation. Click through the gallery for more examples of authors portrayed by big-name actors. When her best-selling memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" went from page to screen, Elizabeth Gilbert's profile skyrocketed. She was played by Julia Roberts, seen here, in the film adaptation. Click through the gallery for more examples of authors portrayed by big-name actors.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" sold an estimated 10 million copies
  • She chose fiction for her latest book, which follows a 19th-century female botanist
  • The author says you can't invent drama when you're living drama, which she was
  • Gilbert says she's enjoying her 40s much more than any other period in her life

(CNN) -- "Eat, Pray, Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert returns to her roots with her latest foray into fiction. Literally.

In "The Signature of All Things," Gilbert focuses on a 19th-century female botanist who specializes in moss. She says it took more than three years to research and write the novel, which spans generations and continents.

In her free time, Gilbert stays loyal to the passions she immortalized in her best-selling memoir: yoga, travel and her husband, played memorably by Javier Bardem in the movie version of "Eat, Pray, Love."

The 2006 book about her journey through Italy, India and Indonesia brought her fame and fortune. She followed it up with "Committed," an exploration of the institution of marriage, inspired by her decision to wed the man she met during her travels, after a contentious divorce and swearing off matrimony.

She spoke to CNN about her new book, and its famous predecessor, in her familiar voice. Below is an edited transcript.

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Author Elizabeth Gilbert
Author Elizabeth Gilbert

CNN: How does it feel as a writer to have your books compared when they're so completely different?

Elizabeth Gilbert: It's inevitable that readers who came to know me, and who know my passions and my interests, will see aspects of me. If they're looking for it, they'll find me in there. They'll find some familiar themes. It's about a woman's journey of discovery. It's about a woman who's passionate about her work. It's about a woman who's passionate about the world. All that stuff will be familiar to readers of "Eat, Pray, Love." It doesn't bother me. I'm not offended by it, because I'm not writing this book to try to get away from "Eat, Pray, Love." I'm writing this book to try to do something entertaining for myself and for my readers. It's OK. It's cool.

CNN: How did you decide to go back to your roots as a fiction writer?

Gilbert: To a large extent, what I did writing "Eat, Pray, Love," and certainly a bit with "Committed" as well, all of that was so that I could do this. My life had gotten so messed up in my early 30s, after my divorce and this period of depression that I went through, that the idea of being the creative writer that I always wanted to be just fled from me. I think the simplest way to describe it is that you can't invent drama when you're living drama. One of the things that I wanted to do by getting my life in order was to return myself to a place of calmness and stability, where I could do something like take on a book of this scope. So in many ways, this book is kind of a celebration of the result of "Eat, Pray, Love": the result of finding a good relationship and getting out of my own way and clearing out all that space so that I could be the writer I've always wanted to be.

CNN: How did you go about doing all the research on the places and the time?

Gilbert: I just got so lucky after "Eat, Pray, Love," I had all these resources and all this freedom to be able to fund whatever I wanted to do with my life. And so I was able to throw myself into three years of study about 19th-century botany. For me, that's joyful and exciting and interesting. And it felt like a real tribute to the freedom that I had to be able to do that. And it was intimidating, because I didn't really know that much about the period, and I didn't really that much about the plant adventures of that day. But on the other hand, I'm such a geek. I just got to really full-on geek out about learning all that stuff, which was very exciting.

CNN: Did the joy in this writing process come from your personal life?

Gilbert: I'm getting smarter as I get older. I'm enjoying my 40s so much more than I enjoyed any other period in my life. I had a friend who told that me your 40s are such a wonderful time because you start to get out of your own way and get over yourself. And that has certainly been the case for me. I don't have much nostalgia for my 20s and 30s. It's just a really nice time. I'm in a really supportive marriage. My husband is a great champion of me and my work. This book was also probably one of the sweetest intimacies of our marriage, because I wrote it in several months in a big burst, and every night, he would come into my office and sit down with a glass of wine, and I would read to him what I had written that day. I felt his excitement, and that compelled me to write faster. And it became this lovely private thing that we were doing together. And I think his influence shaped the book as well.

CNN: What's your next project?

Gilbert: I think I'm going to stick with fiction. I had such a good time with this, I don't want to let go of it yet. Having been in the corseted, buttoned-up, repressed 19th century, I want to move into the early 20th century and write a novel about girls behaving recklessly. Take off those corsets.

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