I heard that you grew up on a farm with no television and started writing short stories very young.
We had no television and no neighbours. There was no other way to entertain ourselves, so my sister and I would make up stories for each other. That’s how we had fun.
Is it the absence of popular influence as a child that gives a clean slate to your writing?
That is how I started to write, and the purist in me would say I had an unadulterated imagination. However, the Calvinist in me believes that if you were destined to write, nothing will stop you. Then again, I have friends who had a regular urban upbringing and they are great writers. Technology is like the sun or money, it is a tool with no intrinsic morality. You can really do with it what you choose.
Why did you choose to make your lead character a botanist?
I grew up on a farm and while I’d sworn I would get as far away from it as I could as a child, I was brought up knowing quite a bit about nature and plants. So, it was something I could write easily. The trigger came when I discovered an original manuscript by Captain Cook dated 1764. It was a family heirloom and I knew I had to write this book.
The story is set in 19th century Philadelphia and gets in to a fair deal of science (botany). Were you worried readers might have a hard time keeping up?
I’m not a scientifically-inclined person. I realised that if I got the concepts, so would readers. It took three years of research to understand the time, how women conducted themselves then and what were the scientific discoveries of the time but that was the last point in history when an average person could read a science journal and understand it. Today, science is too specialised and if I were to base the story in contemporary times, it would work. The Victorians would also pride themselves on being up-to-date.
You’ve included Captain James Cook and other historical characters like botanist Joseph Banks in the book.
I wanted to write a historically plausible book that was accurate to events of the time. I needed the characters to be familiar but not too well-known. That was the idea, yet I did not want them to be the central characters. At the same time, I didn’t want to throw in unbelievable characters. No Isaac Newton or Abraham Lincoln jumping out at you.
For readers who were introduced to you via Eat, Pray, Love this is a longer, slower read. Were you concerned?
The readers will recognise my voice and my themes. This book, like the others, talks about what a woman’s life is like.
It has explorations, vast travel adventures, love, mysticism and disappointment. I’m a democratic writer, open to discovering new territories.
Your books talk a lot about spirituality. Are you a spiritual person?
I am. I’ve always spent my life in wonder and awe. Eat, Pray, Love was a memoir about a trip where I explored spirituality and myself. It came from my travels and what it taught me. If there is belief, you also find mysticism in what you discover along the way.
Do you travel to write or do you write because you travel?
Characters in my books travel a lot. In this book, it was difficult, but I did kept my lead character in her family estate for the first 50 years. After that, I wanted the character to have an adventure, travel to exotic places and see the world.
So, I sent her to the South Seas. Of course, I had to see it for myself, so I went to the French countryside and visited the Polynesian islands. Oh! What a horrid job I have (laughs).
Are the characters in your book in any way inspired by your family members?
There is a little bit of me in all the characters. I’m incapable of writing about emotions that I have never experienced. I do not simply invent a character entirely from my imagination.
There are elements and mannerisms which I may pick up from family and friends. That said, I’ve never lifted an aunt and put her in the book. That’s because the book is also about a family and all the characters in the fictional family need to relate to each other.
How does life change when you are working on a book?
I go from one writing project to another rather quickly. So, I shut myself out quite a bit. Except for close friends and family, I’m isolated. Research gives me the confidence to start writing and then I work fast. It’s a tight rope on which I have to run. If I take too long, I lose the story.
Not a lot of people know that the film Coyote Ugly was based on a story of yours.
Before I was a writer, I was a struggling writer. While I struggled to break into the industry, I lived in New York and at nights, would work as a bartender at the Coyote Ugly Saloon. I was in my twenties. I wrote about my experiences of working there for GQ magazine.
It was a scummy place. The film somehow managed to spin that into a tale of empowerment for young women who come to the city in search of a new life. It was funny, but I still think it was a scummy place to work.
So Eat, Pray, Love wasn’t your first piece of writing to be adapted into a film. Were you surprised by the success of that book?
My previous books didn’t do too badly but with Eat, Pray, Love, I honestly did not see it coming. I still don’t fully understand the craze, but I’m not complaining.
For a lot of fans, your current husband will always be referred to as ‘the Brazilian guy’.
(Laughs) Yes, I’m married to ‘the Brazilian guy’. He is just lovely. From the moment we met, to falling in love, it was easy to pour my heart out in the memoir. But I’m glad I maintained just a little bit of anonymity and changed his name. Of course, I let him read the unedited version to check if he was okay with me divulging so many intimate details of our relationship but he was very supportive.
Does he (the Brazilian guy) give you an honest opinion about your work?
He is my biggest fan. He is older, so he says, ‘I’ve had my ambitions, this is your time and I will do what it takes to make you happy’.
He reads every bit of my writing and most often loves it, so in a way, he gives me that boost of confidence to take it out to the big bad world. With this book, because it is a serialised Victorian novel, every night I would read out what I had managed to write during the day. I fed off his reactions and responses to make the plot stronger.