For Elizabeth Gilbert, best-selling author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” life in recent years has been a series of odd coincidences that inspired and destroyed one book before finally giving her the right story for her upcoming novel, “The Signature of All Things.”
When she came to the Malibu Civic Theatre on Sunday as part of the inaugural Malibu Library Speaker Series, life handed her another surprising coincidence. “The Signature of All Things,” was inspired by a childhood interest in Captain James Cook, the 18th century British explorer who expanded the Western map with his journeys to the Pacific Ocean. Sitting just a few rows from the stage in the audience were two direct descendants of the British explorer.
Sisters Sarah Cook and Kristina London, a teacher at Webster Elementary School, said they hadn’t known their ancestor had inspired Gilbert’s novel.
“It was one of those cosmic things of being in a certain place at a certain time with certain people,” Cook said.
Gilbert’s ability to tell compelling stories captivated the audience of more than 200, drawing both sympathy and laughter at all the ventured from as far away as New York to hear her speak. right moments from fans who
She recalled seeing the film adaptation of her memoir “Eat, Pray, Love,” starring Julia Roberts, which recounted her journey across Italy and India following a painful divorce, during an audience Q & A. Gilbert said she cried through the film when she first saw it.
“I forgot how desperate, sad, confused and lonely I was at that point in my life,” she said.
But, true to her nature, she put a positive spin on the experience.
“I loved watching me make out with Javier Bardem.”
During her talk, Gilbert traced the evolution of ideas in her work, from the initial spark of inspiration to the eventual version that goes to print.
“Ideas, before they come to us, are living, animate things,” she explained. “When [an idea] wants to work with you, it gives you that signal. It asks, ‘Will you do this with me?’”
A few years ago, she said “yes” to an idea for a novel based on a failed attempt to build a highway in the Amazon. Her plans changed when her “Brazilian sweetheart,” Felipe, who “Eat, Pray, Love” fans know as the man she met in Indonesia, faced deportation. The only way to stay together would be to marry. Swayed, she wrote another work instead, “Committed: A Love Story,” and the Amazon spark disappeared.
“If you don’t come to [an idea], it will leave,” she said. “That’s how we open up the New York Times and see someone else has written our book.”
In this case, Gilbert’s friend wrote her book. Around the time she lost the spark for the Amazon story, Gilbert met Ann Patchett at a panel for the American Library Association, in what proved to be a momentous meeting.
“I went up to her and said, ‘Ann, I have to tell you, I love you and I want to have you in my life,’” Gilbert said. “She grabbed me and gave me a huge kiss right on the lips.”
Their friendship grew through letter writing, sharing details of their personal and professional lives. Patchett went on to write the best-selling “State of Wonder,” which happened to be set in the Brazilian rainforest. A few years later, they met again and Gilbert finally learned the details of Patchett’s mysterious Amazon novel: It was almost the exact novel Gilbert had lost.
“We charted the moment of conception,” Gilbert said. “We actually think it might have been in the kiss.”
Rather than accusing her friend of stealing the idea, Gilbert fell back on her optimistic attitude.
“All it felt like to me was the best miracle,” she said. “It was evidence that all the stupid stuff I’ve ever believed in, all the magic is true.”
Inspiration for a new novel finally took hold when Gilbert and her mother found a 1784 book about Captain Cook’s voyages that Gilbert loved as a child. She “felt like it was supposed to be” hers after finding her own signature on one of the pages.
She brainstormed a few books about applying Cook’s travels to her own, but found that they had all been written already. She didn’t let it discourage her, and kept searching for the story.
“All these near misses were just on the scavenger hunt, taking the wrong turn,” she said. “You have to go back to the last time the trail was hot.”