Julia Roberts isn't the first person who comes to mind when I think of Elizabeth Gilbert. This summer, America's Sweetheart will appear on screen as the protagonist in an adaptation of Gilbert's bestselling 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love. But the real Liz is way more Jodie Foster or Cate Blanchett than Julia: a resilient, self-aware, resourceful and smartly humorous broad who can drink the boys under the bar and then get up and teach her niece how to perfect a downward dog.
There's something dissonant in describing Liz in any sort of Hollywood terms, since she's not much of a fan of celebrity or the distractions of modern life. After spending her 20s and much of her 30s in the swirl of Manhattan, a few years ago she bought a house an hour south of the city, in rural New Jersey - from New York's perspective, the least glamorous area possible.
Ten years ago, I went with Liz and a bunch of her friends to the premiere of the rock-chick flick Coyote Ugly. It was paint-by-numbers dreck, very loosely based on a dazzling piece she'd written for GQ about working in that East Village dive when she was a newbie to New York. At the after-party, as the stars frolicked in the VIP area, Liz and her friends happily mingled with the masses and laughed at the ridiculousness of the spectacle, then headed down to the real Coyote Ugly for a shot of true grit.
It is exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me Elizabeth Gilbert
Liz has made her career chronicling the offbeat and gritty. While a writer-at-large for GQ magazine, she turned down the chance to do a cover story on Kevin Spacey and instead wrote a profile of Hank Williams III that was nominated for a National Magazine Award.
Which is why it's so odd that Liz is now a celebrity herself. Three years ago, when we met for lunch just as Eat, Pray, Love was becoming a cultural phenomenon, I mentioned her publisher had sent out a press release touting her as an expert in such subjects as romantic love. "I'm just wincing at the idea that I'm being sold as someone who can talk knowledgeably about anything," she replied.
She feels these pressures. She also feels the weight of what she calls "my freakish success." When Liz appeared at the TED Conference last year, she told the crowd, "It is exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me. So - Jesus, what a thought! That's the kind of thought that could lead a person to start drinking gin at 9 o'clock in the morning."
Because really, all she ever wanted to do was write well about the human condition. "There's nothing more interesting to me than a human life," she said to me, "and the attempt of people to find their place in their own skin and the tragedy and gorgeousness of that process."