This should be the end of my Amazon jungle story. But it isn’t.
Just around the same time that the idea for my novel ran away—it was now 2008—I made a new friend: Ann Patchett, the celebrated novelist. We met one afternoon in New York City, on a panel discussion about libraries.
Yes, that’s right: a panel discussion about libraries.
The life of a writer is endlessly glamorous.
I was instantly intrigued by Ann, not only because I’d always admired her work, but because she is a rather remarkable presence in person. Ann has a preternatural ability to render herself very small—nearly invisible—in order to better observe the world around her in safe anonymity, so that she can write about it, unnoticed. In other words, her superpower is to conceal her superpowers.
When I first met Ann, then, it is probably not surprising that I didn’t immediately recognize her as the famous author. She looked so unassuming and tiny and young that I thought she was somebody’s assistant—perhaps even somebody’s assistant’s assistant. Then I put it together, who she was. I thought, My goodness! She’s so meek!
But I’d been fooled.
An hour later, Ms. Patchett stood up at the lectern and gave one of the most robust and dazzling speeches I’ve ever heard. She rocked that room and she rocked me. That’s when I realized that this woman was in fact quite tall. And strong. And gorgeous. And passionate. And brilliant. It was as if she’d thrown off her invisibility cloak and a full-on goddess stepped forth.
I was transfixed. I’d never seen anything quite like this complete transformation of presence, from one moment to the next. And because I have no boundaries, I ran up to her after the event and clutched her by the arm, eager to catch this amazing creature before she dematerialized into invisibility again.
I said, “Ann, I realize we’ve only just met, but I have to tell you—you’re extraordinary and I love you!”
Now, Ann Patchett is a woman who actually does have boundaries. She looked at me a bit askance, unsurprisingly. She seemed to be deciding something about me. For a moment, I wasn’t sure where I stood. But what she did next was wonderful. She cupped my face in her hands and kissed me. Then she pronounced, “And I love you, Liz Gilbert.”
In that instant, a friendship was ignited.
The terms of our friendship were to be somewhat unusual, though. Ann and I don’t live in the same area (I’m in New Jersey; she’s in Tennessee), so it wasn’t as if we would be able to meet once a week for lunch. Neither of us is a big fan of talking on the phone, either. Nor was social media the place for this relationship to grow. Instead, we decided to get to know each other through the all but lost art of letter-writing.
In a tradition that continues to this day, Ann and I began writing each other long, thoughtful letters every month. Real letters, on real paper, with envelopes and postage and everything. It is a rather antiquated way to be friends with someone, but we are both rather antiquated people. We write about our marriages, our families, our friendships, our frustrations. But mostly we write about writing.
Which is how it came to pass that—in the autumn of 2008—Ann casually mentioned in a letter that she had recently begun working on a new novel, and that it was about the Amazon jungle.
For obvious reasons, that caught my attention.
I wrote back and asked Ann what her novel was about, more specifically. I explained that I, too, had been working on an Amazon jungle novel, but that mine had gotten away from me because I’d neglected it (a state of affairs that I knew she would understand). In her next letter, Ann replied that it was too soon yet to know precisely what her jungle novel was about. Early days, still. The story was just taking shape. She would keep me informed as it all evolved.
The following February, Ann and I met in person for only the second time in our lives. We were to appear together onstage at an event in Portland, Oregon. The morning of our appearance, we shared breakfast in the hotel’s café. Ann told me that she was now deep into the writing of her new book—more than a hundred pages in.
I said, “Okay, now you really do have to tell me what your Amazon novel is about. I’ve been dying to know.”
“You go first,” she said, “since your book was first. You tell me what your Amazon jungle novel was about—the one that got away.”
I tried to summarize my ex-novel as concisely as possible. I said, “It was about this middle-aged spinster from Minnesota who’s been quietly in love with her married boss for many years. He gets involved in a harebrained business scheme down in the Amazon jungle. A bunch of money and a person go missing, and my character gets sent down there to solve things, at which point her quiet life is completely turned into chaos. Also, it’s a love story.”
Ann stared at me from across the table for a long minute.
Before I continue, I must give you to understand that—decidedly unlike myself—Ann Patchett is a true lady. She has exquisite manners. There is nothing vulgar or coarse about her, which made it even more shocking when she finally spoke:
“You have got to be fucking kidding me.”
“Why?” I asked. “What’s your novel about?”
She replied, “It’s about a spinster from Minnesota who’s been quietly in love with her married boss for many years. He gets involved in a harebrained business scheme down in the Amazon jungle. A bunch of money and a person go missing, and my character is sent down there to solve things. At which point her quiet life is completely turned into chaos. Also, it’s a love story.”