It’s 1940 and good-time gal Vivian Morris has just been expelled from Vassar, but she doesn’t much mind. Her parents, on the other hand, are less than thrilled, so they dispatch their dawdling daughter to New York to live with her aunt Peg—the charismatic proprietor of a past-its-prime theater that is home to a quirky, cobbled-together family of thespians and showgirls (whom you will genuinely miss when the last page is turned). Here, Vivian sets out to become someone interesting, and in short order commits a colossal youthful indiscretion that makes her interesting for all the wrong reasons. Elizabeth Gilbert has said that she wants City of Girls to go down like a champagne cocktail. (Mission accomplished!) But she slyly imparts some hard-won wisdom into this bawdy but bighearted novel, written as an antidote to the grief Gilbert was experiencing after the loss of her partner, Rayya Elias. Gilbert talked about that and more when we sat down with her recently.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Anyone reading City of Girls will understand how special New York City is to you…
New York to me is the great mother. That’s what I’ve always called it. It’s been my home on and off for 30 years. There’s a line in the book where Vivian says, "You only get to move to New York for the first time in your life once, and it's a pretty big deal." Of course, in her version it’s 1940 and in my version it was 1986. But the feeling doesn't change; the city changes, but the essence of it has not changed. Growing up in a small town in New England on a farm--restless, hungry yearning, craving--New York became the place that I got to go to where I could become who I actually was, and I think the city is still filled with people who went there to become who they actually are.
There's a character named Peg, she's the proprietor of the Lily Playhouse, and at some point she says: “People are suffering, life is hard, let’s put on a show.” For prospective readers out there, I say: People are suffering, life is hard, read this book because it's the injection of joy that we need right now. But what's so remarkable about that is, you didn’t write this novel from a place of joy…
No, I wrote it from a place of deep grief and loss. I started working on this book five or six years ago, doing research for it, and just when I was about to sit down and start writing it, my best friend, my person—really, truly, the love of my life--Rayya Elias, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic and liver cancer. I left my marriage to be with her as her partner and caregiver and spent 18 months just walking her to the edge of the river of death, and could not imagine ever caring about this book again. Like, who cares about showgirls and dancers and theater in New York City in the 1940s? But very shortly after she passed some great magnet in the sky told me that the best possible thing that I could do for my life would be to sit down and tell exactly that story, and to make it just as much of a champagne cocktail as I had envisioned it to be when I first sat down to write. It saved me, and it's been beautiful to see that people are responding to it in a positive way. The world is full of such anxiety right now, not dissimilar to how it was in 1940, and this is not a book that's going to cure the planet but it might give you a little respite. It gave it to me and I wanted to offer it to the world as a gift. Peg says it's important sometimes to take a break between catastrophes and I think that we have to be sure for our mental health to do that in various ways.
A vital part of your research was speaking with a woman named Norma. Tell us about Norma.
Norma was a showgirl. She was from a nice family and came to New York from Illinois at the age of 19 after a man in night club told her he’d make her a star. She worked at the Stork Club and led this incredibly sensual life. She never married, never had a family, had more lovers than she could count. At one point she was John Wayne's girlfriend; she dated Milton Berle for a while. I asked if she’d ever fallen in love and she said, “Oh yes, but you always have to leave the door open.” Anybody can come in, anybody can leave--that was her policy. I also inquired if she'd ever regretted not getting married, and this is a direct quote by a 95 year old woman: “God no. Who wants to f***the same man for 60 years!” And I was like, ok, well I now have permission to write this book because I want to write about exactly this kind of girl, exactly this kind of woman. A woman that the world has never really known what to do with.
The scene where Vivian loses her virginity is one of the most exquisitely awkward and funniest things I've read in a really long time. There's no way that you didn’t have a ball writing it.
That is my favorite scene I have ever written in my entire life; I did have a ball! I really cracked myself up writing it. But what I wanted to do is provide an answer to the trope of the story of the ruined woman—the sensual woman who dares to have a sexual adventure and then ends up under the wheels of a train, poisoned by her lover, cast out of society, destroyed…I mean, I love those stories. I read all those stories growing up. But the reality of women’s sexuality is more like this: You’ll do terrible things, you’ll do stupid things, you’ll make some horrible decisions. Some bad things will happen to you, but, you’ll survive it. And not only will you survive it, you may even become very seasoned by it; it may shape you into being a really interesting person. That is more of the actual reality. So when it came to Vivian losing her virginity, I feel like the only two virginity-losing stories that we keep being given again and again are either incredibly traumatic or unbelievably romantic. For the vast number of people, it's neither. It’s just sort of weird and awkward and something you just want to be over with, so I wanted to play-up that part of it.
When I was reading City of Girls, I couldn't help but wish that in some alternate literary universe, Alma from The Signature of All Things could have had a night out on the town with Vivian. She was all bottled-up sensuality and desire, and it would have rocked her world…
Me too! In a way, this book also is an answer to The Signature of All Things, which is a novel about a woman who never gets to have sex, who's a very sexual being but just because of her time and her place and her circumstances in the 19th century, is a very isolated spinster of privilege--but the kind of privilege that keeps you away from people, and intellectual isolation as well. After reading the book, a number of people said, Could you please not ever do that again? Can you please give us female characters who get to actually have sex?
Rest assured, readers, City of Girls is the antidote to that. But there are consequences for Vivian's appetites that are uniquely and frustratingly female, and those consequences actually make the book feel very current, and like it's speaking to the cultural moment right now. Was that intentional on your part, or were you thinking: It’s 80 years later and we're still dealing with this double standard. It’s a bit different, but it’s still happening.
Yes, we are absolutely still dealing with it. I think you're probably referring to #MeToo movement which I passionately support. I see it as a long-overdue explosion of very well-earned female rage, and it was really at its peak of explosion last summer when I was writing this book. It was interesting because I had started working on it years before and I had to give consideration to that, and it was important to me to actually not have the ideals of the #MeToo movement infiltrate this novel in any significant or conscious way in the characters, because as a reader I don't like historical novels with female characters who are prematurely woke. Like, you can't have an 18th century scullery maid who talks about the unfairness between the sexes as though she has a master's degree in Women’s Studies from Barnard. You can have her be strong and fierce in her own way, but she can't have ideas that she would have never heard of. And so when Vivian is severely rebuked, she doesn't realize how unfair that was until decades later, and I think that's the case for many women of that generation. It wasn’t on their minds because that was the norm.
I want to ask you about Olive--long-suffering Olive, the foil to all the fun--because she's such a fascinating character, and ends up having a very pivotal role in the book.
I knew I needed to have one grown up in the room because this is a book about people behaving with tremendous irresponsibility, and it’s not just the young characters. It’s Peg and her on-again off-again husband, Billy, who just does what he wants and let the consequences be damned. But for Vivian, she’s in a place where there are no rules and nobody is monitoring her behavior, and she runs wild. Olive is the drag who’s always worrying about where the money is going to come from, and how the lights are going to stay on, and who's at rehearsal…She’s also the only one who's worrying about the war that's coming. She's the only one who's noticing that the world is actually falling apart, not just the theater. So I wanted there to be one person in this book who could model, in her own way, what honor actually looks like, because I don't think Vivian could begin to become an adult until she had tasted dishonor.
They say that fiction can be a less constrained version of memoir. What did you learn about yourself after writing City of Girls?
They do say, if you want to write an honest memoir, write a novel, and that all novels are memoirs. Having written a couple of memoirs, the amount of care you have to give in order to be as fair and as honest as you can be, and recognizing that it’s just your perspective…It can all be very labored. But then, my experience with writing novels is, all of my novels have been memoirs. The Signature of All Things is also a memoir. You want to know about me, meet Alma. You want to know about me, meet Vivian. You will find out more about me by reading those two books than anything you would find out in the nonfiction I’ve written.
City of Girls is a book about a lot of things, but one of the main things that I'm working out in this book is: What are you to do with your shame? What are you as a woman to do with your sexual shame? What are you to do with your shame about having behaved in a way that hurt another human being who now will not forgive you? What do we do with those parts of ourselves that are awkward and don’t have a place? Where do you put it? And especially where do you put it when it won't be absolved externally? You know, the ideal thing, of course, is to make amends and be forgiven but that does not always happen There’s a line in the book where Vivian says, "After a certain age every single one of us is carrying a body that's made of some secrets and some shame," and one of the mythologies of youth is that time will fix everything eventually. One of the sobering realities of the maturing process is to realize that, oh, that's actually not true. So how do you forgive yourself for the parts that others can't forgive? So, I did a lot of healing of my own in the writing of this book. I would love nothing more than to someday be what Vivian becomes: an older, wise, seasoned, intelligent woman of sensuality and perspective who has realized that life is not orderly and that’s okay. And that, she is not perfect but that, as she says towards the end: You don't have to be a good girl to be a good person.
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