Issue 80 |
Winter 1999-00

Elizabeth Gilbert, Zacharis Award


Zacharis Award 
Ploughshares and Emerson College are pleased to present Elizabeth Gilbert with the ninth annual John C. Zacharis First Book Award for her collection of stories,
Pilgrims (Houghton Mifflin, 1997; Mariner, 1998). The $1,500 award -- which is named after the college's former president -- honors the best debut book by a
Ploughshares writer, alternating annually between fiction and poetry. This year's judge was John Skoyles, who is a
Ploughshares trustee and the chair of Emerson's writing department.

Elizabeth Gilbert was born in 1969 in Waterbury, Connecticut, and raised in Litchfield. Her father was a chemical engineer, her mother a nurse, and, in their spare time, they ran a small Christmas tree farm on their property. The family lived in the country with no neighbors, and they didn't own a TV or even a record player. Consequently, they all read a great deal, and Gilbert and her sister entertained themselves by writing little books and plays. "I took this writing to school and fell in with a geeky crowd of creative, overly emotional girls," Gilbert says. "We were all very dramatic. In fifth grade, I wrote, directed, and starred in a play called
Mona's Proof about a girl who goes back in time, but nobody believes her. It was a musical. There was one song in this play entitled 'No One Believes Me, No One Cares,' which I wrote myself and sang to the tune of 'Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal.' We put on the play for the whole school. It was a big success. After that, nothing could stop my ambitions."

Gilbert went to New York University, where she majored in international relations and took Russian classes, thinking she might someday join the Foreign Service, so she could travel. She knew she wanted to be a writer, but she resisted taking literature classes and writing workshops. "I never thought that the best place for me to find my voice would be in a room filled with twenty other people trying to find their voices. I was a big moralist about it, actually. I felt that if I was writing on my own, I didn't need a class, and if I wasn't writing on my own, I didn't deserve one." This philosophy extended to M.F.A. programs. "Instead of going to graduate school, I decided to embark on my own education, to travel and work wherever I could, and to set my own goals for producing stories. I didn't want to spend any time whatsoever on a campus. I couldn't think of anything worse. I wanted to go out into the world and meet every last person I could."

She moved to Philadelphia and worked in a greasy spoon diner. She'd save as much money as she could, then travel -- driving cross-country, flying to Europe, Mexico, Africa. When her money ran out, she would return to the diner. During this time, she kept journals, which served as background notes for the stories in
Pilgrims. The title story was bought by
Esquire in 1993 -- her first acceptance. When the story was published, she sent a copy of the issue to the publisher of
Spin magazine, whom she had met a few months before, and included a note: "You should give me a job." He did. She pitched the idea for an article about "buckle bunnies," groupies on the professional rodeo circuit, and she was sent to Texas for two weeks. For the next three years, she was a staff writer for
Spin, given free rein to create -- as Gilbert puts it -- the "off-beat beat, traveling to strange American places and writing about strange American subcultures." She carried that beat to
GQ, where she is now a writer-at-large. "It's a natural complement to writing fiction," she says.

The twelve stories in Gilbert's collection are marked by her facility for dialogue, her breadth of place and character, and her playful and forgiving vision of human nature. About the book, Gilbert says: "I was trying to run as wide a range as I could with stories about people of all ages, all backgrounds, all levels of life. I did not want to write a thinly veiled, autobiographical, memoirish book. I wanted to tell stories about other people besides myself, stories about the kind of people I love and feel for in this world. And the people I'm attracted to tend to be of a kind -- tough, smart, resourceful people who have fallen on hard times but who continue to do their best. People like my mom's relatives in Minnesota -- tough farmers who've been through it all. It's a kind of American identity I am really moved by. I think the people in
Pilgrims are joined by their desire to move their lives in a different direction, to relocate their entire selves. Hence the title. They're all looking for love or satisfaction elsewhere. They've been beat up a little, but they still have a sense of humor. And they are still capable of great acts of kindness to one another. They're shaky, but solid."

Gilbert's first novel,
Stern Men -- which covers a century of territorial wars between lobster-fishing islands in Maine -- will be published by Houghton Mifflin in the spring of 2000. Now living in New York State with her husband, Gilbert has started work on a nonfiction book,
The Last American Man, about a hermit in North Carolina who dreams of saving America by bringing people, one at a time, into the woods with him.