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Elizabeth Gilbert On 'City Of Girls'

Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert has a new novel. NPR's Scott Simon talks to the best-selling writer about City of Girls.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Elizabeth Gilbert's new novel is about the equality of desire. "City Of Girls" is about 19-year-old Vivian Morris, who begins the book flunking out of Vassar and ends it in her 90s writing a long letter to the daughter of an old flame, one of scores of old flames. And that might. out of you to explain her life. Much of it is set in the early 1940s of Manhattan, a time of nightspots, showtunes, highlife, Toots Shor's watering hole, malls, gams, wise guys, and Walter Winchell - comes out just in time for summer. And Elizabeth Gilbert, one of the bestselling authors in the world, including the book "Eat, Pray, Love," joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

ELIZABETH GILBERT: Thanks, Scott. It's lovely to be here.

SIMON: Vivian has an Aunt Peg who owns a kind of rundown theatrical troupe. What does she find in that rundown theater that was missing from her life?

GILBERT: She finds life itself. This was a girl who was raised in a very conservative, WASP-y environment where her path had been set for her by her parents. And the expectation was you'd go to the Emma Willard School for girls. And then you go to Vassar. And then you marry somebody appropriate. And then you create more WASPs (laughter). And she had just been sort of stupefied and bored and lost. And she falls in with a group of showgirls who introduced her into a world of sensuality and risk. And let's say that these are girls who are experimenting with the limits of their powers and beauty on the men of New York. And Vivian starts to do the same.

SIMON: Lots of colorful characters - there's Aunt Peg herself, Billy (ph), her ex, whom I love by the way, Edna (ph), the aging British actress, all of the stage managers - actually, we should go on - but also Toots Shor's and El Morocco, The Stork Club. I mean, you've got details down to the price of a baked potato in 1940. How did you capture all those details?

GILBERT: I had so much fun doing research for this book. I wouldn't even call it work. But I spent about five years before I even started writing just immersing myself in New York of the 1940s, reading John O'Hara novels, going back and reading every single talk-of-the-town review that you could possibly find of theater, every Walter Winchell column - just immersing myself in that.

SIMON: And that was fun.

GILBERT: It was so much fun.

SIMON: I'm glad you bring up Walter Winchell. And we need to explain these days. He was once not just a popular - he was popular in a way newspaper columnists are not popular anymore.

GILBERT: He was a king, a kingmaker, literally. I mean, there's a line in the book where there's a scandal. And they're petitioning him to try to take this off the front pages. And somebody says, you can't petition Walter Winchell. He's more powerful than the president. And at that point, it was certainly true. There are people who argue that the reason FDR won his second term was because Winchell told his millions of followers who to vote for. And they followed his orders.

SIMON: And he used that enormous power to warn the United States about Adolf Hitler...

GILBERT: He did.

SIMON: ...Anti-Semitism and Charles Lindbergh and appeasement when a lot of Americans didn't want to hear it.

GILBERT: Yeah.

SIMON: And he also used that power a few years later to build up Senator Joseph McCarthy...

GILBERT: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Which harmed innocent people. How did you wind up seeing Winchell?

GILBERT: I decided to put him at the peak of his power when he was a wolf who was not yet a danger to every sheep in the country. At the time of my writing when he's sitting at his nightclub table, which was his office from 10 o'clock at night till 5 o'clock every morning when everyone would come and feed him gossip, he still wasn't a menace to society. He was a menace to the starlets whose lives he was destroying by gossip. And he was a menace to Hitler quite seriously. But he got so degraded over time. And I guess I didn't really want to follow that. But I did want to show him when he was dangerous in a sexy way, not dangerous in a tragic way.

SIMON: Let's get to the sex. And there's a lot of sex in this book. And in fact, Vivian says she's good at two things - sewing and sex.

GILBERT: Yeah.

SIMON: But even Vivian discovers it can have consequences and cause pain to someone she...

GILBERT: Oh, for sure. You know, I wanted to write a book about promiscuous girls whose lives are not destroyed by their sexual adventures because, in the annals of Western literature, it's very hard to find a story about a woman who experiences desire and then is not immediately killed - you know, a suicide, cast out of society. The wages of female desire have always been so brutal. And I wanted to answer to that with a book. But I also didn't want to write a fake, sex-positive book that pretends that there are no consequences to that promiscuity. And so there are consequences. And Vivian feels them. It's a sting that lasts her entire life. However, I also wanted to tell the story of women being able to survive their most shameful errors. All of us have made terrible errors, some of which we can remedy and some of which we can't. And a lot of the book is about, what do you do with the shame that you can't fix because somebody won't forgive you for it? So I wanted to write a sort of fizzy, joyful, sex-positive book while, at the same time, allowing for the fact that desire is messy and ungovernable just as much in women as it is in men.

SIMON: I'm glad you said fizzy. You wrote in a note, my goal was to write a book that would go down like a champagne cocktail, light and crisp and fun.

GILBERT: Yeah.

SIMON: And look. I don't want to sound like Cotton Mather. But by the end of the book, I was thinking, you know, that's just the first glass or two.

GILBERT: Yes (laughter).

SIMON: You can get stupid drunk on good champagne, too...

GILBERT: Yes. Yes, you can. And...

SIMON: ...And do things you'll regret.

GILBERT: And yet the girls in this book are more concerned about being free than they are about being safe. And there has always been that girl. That girl came to New York when she was 19 in 1940. She came in 1840. She showed up in New York last week. That girl will always exist and, at a moment, where, once again, there's a sort of sanitizing of sex happening. I just wanted to remind everybody that that girl will never go away.

SIMON: Is there a sanitizing of sex going on?

GILBERT: Well, I'm referring - and I say this with the highest regard and respect for the #MeToo movement, which I'm completely behind. And as a feminist, I feel like it's long overdue, and there's something wonderful for me about the fact that, at the age of 50, I'm now for the first time seeing a world where the patriarchy is on the defensive. I've never seen that world before. So there's something spectacular about it. And - this isn't a but - it's an and. I don't want the only conversation about female sexual desire to be about consent. Consent is incredibly important, but it's not the only word. There is also such a thing as female desire that has its own impetus. That's not just about a woman waiting for a man to come to her and ask for something, and the woman decides whether she will give it or not. Female sexual desire is a muscular, dangerous, dark - and I don't mean sinful - I mean primal - urge that is just as difficult to grapple with as male sexuality. And it exists. And efforts to sanitize that are going to be futile, I feel.

SIMON: Elizabeth Gilbert - her new bestseller is going to be "City Of Girls." Thanks so much for being with us.

GILBERT: Thank you, Scott. I love talking to you.

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