Elizabeth Gilbert first met Eustace Conway in New York City, on the sidewalk in front of her apartment. He'd traveled from North Carolina, dressed in handmade buckskin clothing and "carrying an impressive knife on his belt."
Gilbert, a regular contributor to GQ, was so fascinated by this modern-day mountain man that she wrote an article about him, titled simply enough, "Eustace Conway is Not Like Any Man You've Ever Met." The profile generated a flood of mail at the magazine, but the author felt she hadn't yet done service to Eustace. He was too big a character, too full of contradictions, to adequately portray in such a small frame.
In The Last American Man, she introduces her subject:
By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree. By the time he was ten, he could hit a running squirrel at fifty feet with a bow and arrow. When he turned twelve, he went out into the woods, alone and empty-handed, built himself a shelter, and survived off the land for a week. When he turned seventeen, he moved out of his family's home altogether and headed into the mountains, where he lived in a teepee of his own design, made fire by rubbing two sticks together, bathed in icy streams, and dressed in the skins of the animals he had hunted and eaten....
But his coolest adventure was probably in 1995, when Eustace got the notion to ride his horse across America.
He crossed from Georgia to San Diego in 103 days, setting a speed record in the process.
"But Gilbert is too good a writer to stop there," Heather Hewett commented, reviewing the book in the Christian Science Monitor. "She deftly dispels the fog generated by our Daniel Boone fantasies to show us what others cannot (or will not) see: Eustace Conway is not a simple mountain man leading a peaceful, nature-centered existence. Instead, he is a contradictory, driven individual who finds himself working nonstop in his attempt to single-handedly change the modern American lifestyle."
"I don't think of myself as a journalist," Gilbert explains of the style on display in this, her first book-length nonfiction. "I'm not a beat reporter covering Washington. I only know how to tell a story the way I know how to tell it, which is how I would tell it if we were friends sitting in a bar and I'd just come back from a week with Eustace at Turtle Island."
Dave: You've been writing essays, articles, and profiles for several years now, but this is the first time you've expanded one into a full-length book. Why this one?
Elizabeth Gilbert: There's so much to say about this guy. He's lived such a big life, done such extraordinary things. I almost think of him as a fictional character because his life has been led in something like perfect chapters, as if he were walking through the pages of the book in his own time.
I've met some extraordinary people, fascinating characters, but I've never met anyone who thought of himself as being a man of destiny - and lived every moment as though he were that. That makes for an enormous amount of material, just in terms of the strict biography.
Then there's the ambient noise that surrounds him, in terms of what he stirs up, what he reminds me of, and what he makes me reflect upon: about Americans, about men, about utopias, about need, about ambition, about families...all this stuff. He's enormous to me.
Dave: What was the focus of the original essay?
Gilbert: It was virtually the same idea: Eustace is the last of some great epic kind we used to see - or that we like to think we used to see - in this country.
But it's easier for me to say what the article wasn't about. For instance, there's no mention of his father. I never got into that. The essay was more Gee, look at this. Let me introduce you to this amazing person. It was called, "Eustace Conway is Not Like Any Man You've Ever Met." That was the focus, his unbelievability. It was a much simpler and more heroic portrait.
Dave: The book doesn't present an idealized portrait. In fact, one could argue that the whole book is breaking down the idealized portrait, telling people, "Stop, look closer."
Gilbert: I desperately didn't want to be his mouthpiece. He's so good at using people for his ends that I was really stiff-arming him a lot, telling him, "This is not the gospel according to Eustace Conway. I am not your disciple. I'm a critical person coming at this from the outside."
That said, Outside magazine did an article about him shortly after GQ did, and the woman who wrote it hated him. Everything that she said about him and all her objections, all her outrage at this guy, his narcissism, what she perceived as his misogyny, I could see and understand, but she only got that piece of it. She didn't give him credit for truly being amazing. I wanted to get both of those things. Yes, this is a larger-than-life person. Yes, he's a mess. But he's still amazing.
Trying to walk that line constantly...It's funny because I was so determined not to speak for him that I wouldn't let him preach to me when I was doing this. I didn't want to know about his philosophies. I wasn't interested particularly in the details of what it is that he believes and what he's trying to espouse. So I wrote the whole book, and I handed it in, and my editor said, "Wow, great, amazing book. But what is it exactly that this guy believes?"
Eight years after I met Eustace - and after three years of working on this book - I had to call him up on the phone and say, "Hey, listen, one last thing, kind of a weird question: What do you stand for?"
Then he gave me his whole spiel, and it was only then, after I'd reassured myself that I wasn't going to be his mouthpiece, that I could really hear it. And I was so moved by it. Even after all my disenchantment with him, I was so stirred by his song and dance about the decline of the soul from our disenfranchisement from nature. I completely rewrote the first two chapters.
I didn't want to be a pamphleteer, but I also didn't want to rip him apart because I think in many ways he's extraordinary and should be recognized for it.
Dave: You compare his marketing savvy to that of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, but then near the end of the book you discuss with Eustace the possibility that perhaps he should just live the life he espouses and stop spending so much of his time away from it in order to bring his values and ideas to others. There's a real conflict there. He could stay in the woods...
Gilbert: ...but then the world would be destroyed. That's his vision of it. And there's a case to be made.
I didn't get into this as much in the book as I'd originally imagined I would, but he's always reminded me of Thomas Jefferson: this guy who wanted nothing more than to live at Monticello, be completely away from society, be in his books and invent things, but came to be dragged back into Washington to rescue a country that desperately needed him. George Washington was the same way. He had his idyllic view of how a man should live, surrounded by his orchards and books, but he had to be a statesman and politician.
I think what makes Eustace a great epic character is that these age-old conflicts are just bigger in him than in most people, his contradictions are so much more glaring. On one hand, he's the most compassionate, incredible person, who can reach and touch anybody. On the other hand, he's so brutal and such a complete tyrant to people.
The same thing you just brought up: what is our obligation on the earth? Are we obligated to live a life in harmony as we would like, or do we have an obligation to our community to change the world, especially if we've been gifted with the charisma to do it? He has yet to solve that. Few of us have.
How well you can negotiate that difference - between what you want to do for yourself and what you feel obligated to do for others - is a measure of how little or how much the world is going to chafe you. It chafes him enormously because he hasn't figured that out yet. But he's not the only one who's struggling with it.
Dave: Alongside the profile of Eustace, you explore the history of utopias and various visions people have pursued to create perfect societies....
Gilbert: All those books that I got at Powell's. All of them, from the Utopia section, which is great.
Dave: Well, I'm not deaf to what Eustace is saying. I like to spend time in the outdoors, go backpacking and camping in the woods. Still, Eustace's vision of saving the world is so naïve to me. It's just not grounded in reality.
Gilbert: Sure. There aren't a thousand acres of pristine wilderness for everybody.
Dave: But even beyond that, most people can't - or don't want to - live this way. A weekend camping trip: maybe. Living in a teepee: absolutely not.
Gilbert: I think when he was seventeen and eighteen years old he absolutely believed that his vision of perfect concordance with nature was the only hope for humanity and that he would be the vessel of change. Everyone would move back into the woods. After twenty years, and failure after failure after failure to shake peoples' worlds, I think he's modified that slightly. I think he's modifying it even as we speak.
Now I think he has a much more realistic use for himself. He sees himself as a vehicle of awakening, to tell people, "Alright, you don't have to have a thousand acres of wilderness, but you can question your life. You can live in some way that isn't what you're being fed by the great marketing machine of twenty-first century American culture." It's more like a nudge rather than a radical transformation and awakening. Is there anything that you've always wanted to do? That you're thinking you can't do because you're handcuffed to whatever life you need to have in order to pay for the stuff they tell you that you need to buy? Is there some way to slip off the grid?
I think the ultimate lesson of Eustace Conway - and I believe this earnestly about him, he brings this to people who want to hear it - is that he looked on the world and saw a world that wasn't to his liking, so he created his own. He's not the only person who has that opportunity. Actually, we all do. Whether that means that you have to be eating roadkill or whether it just means there are things you can say no to and risks that you can take on your own quest is up to every individual to decide.
Dave: For all his skill in the wild, Eustace is still very much struggling with relationships. You draw an analogy of him "heading off into the wilderness of intimacy...like the chubby suburban guy who just bought out the Orvis catalogue for a weekend hunting trip: overpacked, underskilled, and scared to death."
Gilbert: In his office, where his telephone is - it's the one bit of electricity in the whole place, where he works at night to manage his whole career - he's got tons and tons of books about basket-weaving and Aboriginal societies, and these gorgeous old books about Native Americans. It's practically a library.
I looked up one day and saw Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. His girlfriend, Patience, had given it to him, and he read it dutifully. (His brother Judson says, "It's more like this: Eustace Conway is From Mars, Everybody Else is From Venus.")
The effort for him to get a self-help book that's so elementary when his skills and his mind operate at such a high level...it was one of the most heartbreaking things I ever saw. He said, "I thought there were some really interesting ideas in there."
This was the first time he'd ever been introduced to these ideas. It's all brand new to him. He's a stumbling novice. It's very endearing in a way.
Dave: What's next for him?
Gilbert: I think the whole process of this book has been an entirely new kind of adventure for him. I'm unbelievably impressed with how he's handled it. It's one thing to ride your horse across America or to kayak across Alaska, but it's another thing to open up and give your entire life to a person who's going to expose it to the rest of the world - all your dreams and your hopes, and also every single one of your failures and flaws - and to do it with a real spirit of let's find out who I am. I don't use this word very often or lightly, but that's really inspiring to me. That's true courage.
At the age of forty, looking back on the fact that he's had all these failures and still can't seem to relate to people, I think that's the only thing he's interested in learning about now. I think it was a real revelation to him to sit down and read this book, to see it in black and white, the evidence of that incompletion. He doesn't like to be incomplete.
So he's just kind of chilling out. He's not taking on new apprentices. He's not going out into the public. He's making some money off the book, which is nice. He called me recently and said, "I spent the whole day yesterday alone in bed. I just decided, 'You know what? I'm taking today off, and I'm just going to sit here and think.'" For me to hear that - the idea of Eustace taking a day off to reflect! Of course he was back the next morning digging fence posts again, but still that's a huge change.
Dave: Stern Men, which I really enjoyed, is fiction, but it's not much of a departure from the kind of stories you're telling in nonfiction. The same type of characters and settings.
Gilbert: It's exactly the same stuff.
Dave: Are you going to write another novel?
Dave: Why? What will bring you back to fiction?
Gilbert: I don't know. It's weird. I think the language is more challenging in fiction. One thing that's happened, as a journalist - and I definitely saw it happening with this book - is that I'm getting too comfortable with my style. I know how to do this now. I feel like I've honed it down to This is how Liz Gilbert tells a story. I actually had a dream in which someone was critiquing my writing, telling me, "This is how all your paragraphs go: introduction, blah blah blah, big middle intellectual idea, followed by the reassuring don't-worry-I'm-not-an-intellectual-and-we-can-all-understand-this bit, then the joke. Da da da!" I was horrified. It's that obvious?!
In fiction, you can be challenged much more to stretch sentences in a different way. I think how I write really works for what I do for GQ, and I like that job, but the reason I want to write another novel and take my time with it and listen more carefully to the sentences is that I want to bust out of my habits. I think fiction is a way to reach a little more.
Dave: Years after its publication, what stands out to you about Stern Men, about having written a novel, now?
Gilbert: In terms of the process?
Dave: Well, there's this novel out there with your name on it.
Gilbert: Just that I have an enormous amount of pride in it, probably more than in anything else I've done, because it was so hard. I had no idea how to do it. I'd only been writing short stories and short magazine articles, so to craft a beginning, a middle, and an end of a huge multigenerational book without knowing the first thing about it...also, to do it about a place I knew nothing about, to have to learn the culture and tell this story...
There was not one bit of it that was pleasurable. There's blood on every page of that book. It was awful. The only reason I finished it was because I decided that I'd be more humiliated to be a person who couldn't finish a novel than to be a person who wrote a bad one. I got a chip on my shoulder as I was writing it, as if I was speaking to my critics: "Well, screw you! You write one! At least I did it!" That was the only thing that got me through it. I just wanted it done.
I'm really proud of the fact that I endured something so unpleasant. It took me four years to write that thing. I'd go through six-month periods where I wouldn't even look at it. I remember sitting at my computer one time and accidentally opening the file. I literally shrieked. Like, "Get it away! I don't want to see it!"
When I finished it I thought I would never do it again, but now I almost want to go back to that place of something being so hard. It's scary, but it's a tremendous way to grow.
Dave: You went out on lobster boats to research that story and those characters. So do you think you'll do something based in research again or will you write something a little closer to home?
Gilbert: I want to write about New York City. I've lived there for so long, and I've never written about it. I want to write about my neighborhood; I live in Hell's Kitchen. So far this is all I know: I want to write about drug addicts, nuns, cops, the Yankees, God, death, and sex. And have it set in Hell's Kitchen.
Even if I can just get the Yankees across, that would probably be good, but if I can get to God that would be even better.
Dave: The Yankees suck, though. Maybe no one has told you recently. Honestly, I almost wore my Yankees Suck t-shirt today. I can't believe now that I didn't.
Gilbert: I'm so glad you didn't!
Dave: Do you know how long I had to keep that thing in the closet after 9/11?
Gilbert: I loved that weird side effect of 9/11, that even the most rabid New York critics had to be a little gracious, maybe even kind of hope the Yankees would win the World Series because it would have been so nice for us.
Dave: Everything but the Yankees winning the World Series, sure.
Gilbert: Wasn't there a part of you?
Dave: No. I'm from Boston. If they hear that I've been rooting for the Yankees they'll never let me ride the Green Line again.
Gilbert: I'm so glad you didn't wear that shirt.
Dave: Maybe next time, when you're here to talk about the book set in New York.
You're not a writer to hide outside the frame of your nonfiction. You place yourself within it. In this book, certainly, but for instance also in the article selected for Best American Magazine Writing 2001 about Hank Williams III, "The Ghost," you're right in the middle of the action, on the bus with Hank assimilating into his rock and roll lifestyle.
Gilbert: I don't know how to do it any other way. I can't even begin to pretend objectivity, especially because I tend to get very close to the people I write about. That line becomes blurred so fast that I don't even want to go there. I couldn't even imagine an objective third-person voice about some of the people I write about. I feel like it would be such a lie.
With this book...I'm so close to the Conways. I have years of complex, intricate relationships with them. I wouldn't have known how to tell the story without my relationship to them as part of it. And I also think, particularly about this book, that I'm standing in for the reader in terms of my journey with Eustace. The evolution of my interpretation of him is one I've seen repeated in a lot of people: that arc of God, this is the most fascinating person I've ever met to Gee, I'm so disappointed and coming back around at the end to Well, he's still the most fascinating person I've ever met and maybe the contradictions only make him more interesting. I felt like I could stand in for the reader to ask their natural questions.
I don't think of myself as a journalist. I'm not a beat reporter covering Washington. I only know how to tell a story the way I know how to tell it, which is how I would tell it if we were friends sitting in a bar and I'd just come back from a week with Eustace at Turtle Island. You're my friend, and I'm like, "Dude, listen to what happened this week." I think sometimes people take issue with that voice; they might find that it's too casual, but then they should go read somebody else.
It's funny though. I did a story last summer for GQ about the world's best matador, a Spanish nineteen-year-old name El Juli. I made a concerted effort to not put myself in the story. It was hard. It helped that there was a language barrier and that I didn't become friendly with the guy, but I was capable of doing it once, in one six thousand word piece.
Dave: And you didn't come out of the experience feeling like it was a better way to write an essay.
Gilbert: It didn't feel like my voice as much. And I like that familiarity. I think my writing goes down easy because the last thing I ever want to do is write something that anyone who can read can't understand. I get so excited about these people I write about that I want to introduce them to everyone, and I want to be perfectly clear about why they're exciting and interesting. I think my conversational tone is helpful.
Dave: It is conversational, and it does go down easy, but also the tone generally reflects the subject. For instance in the Hank Williams article, the voice telling that story is clearly of that strange punk-country music milieu. That's not so common, necessarily: not every writer can wear a different outfit with each story, one that suits the subject.
Gilbert: I think my gift, far beyond whatever gifts that I have as a writer, my gift as a human is that I can make friends with people very quickly, and not in an insincere way. I'm interested in almost everyone I've ever met. I'm lucky.
But you'll notice that there are certain kinds of people you won't see me writing about. There are certain kinds of people that I wouldn't even begin to know how to talk to. I was a bartender for a long time. I just loved it until I left my job at this dirty, rat-hole kind of place where I could relate to people and took a job at a place on Madison Avenue where advertising guys in suits were coming in. Then I was a mute. A person like that isn't someone I think I could celebrate, and I don't feel like writing about someone I can't celebrate.
If it feels like I'm comfortable with the people I'm writing about there's also a certain element of predestination in that I've chosen people I knew I'd be fascinated with.
Dave: I also bartended for a number of years. I didn't think of it as a career decision at the time, but I honestly don't think I'd be sitting here talking to you, talking to anyone with a tape recorder on, if I hadn't worked behind a bar. That's where I learned to talk and, more importantly, to listen.
Gilbert: Everything I learned about being a journalist I learned by being a bartender. The most exquisite lesson of all is that people will tell you anything. Want to. There's no question you can't ask if your intention is not hostile. And it's not like entrapment; it's more like a gorgeous revelation. People want to tell the story that they have.
Dave: What have you been reading lately? Tell me about some good books.
Gilbert: Have you read Adam Johnson? Check him out. The book is called Emporium. It will blow your mind. It's unbelievable, not like what anyone else is doing - but I'm not usually very current about what's going on.
I'm so research-driven as a writer. When I wrote Stern Men all I read was Dickens and Trollope and Henry James because I was studying the structure of a novel. It was all homework. Then of course books about fishing and lobster history and Maine. When I was writing this book, forget it, all I was reading was American history and books about utopias and biographies of great American men and stuff about families and fathers.
Homework, homework, homework. Those books are all about information; the sentences are there to get the point across. Now that I don't have any homework, I just want to read great language, so I've been reading a lot of poetry lately, which is very new to me. A lot of Sharon Olds and Donald Hall. Jim Harrison. I'm learning about contemporary American poetry, which is something I didn't know anything about. Also Whitman and people I haven't paid attention to.
I'm also catching up for all that I missed while I was doing homework. A couple weeks ago I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I wanted to call my friends up and say, "Hey, have you heard of this Dave Eggers guy? I think he's got talent." So I'm a little behind. I love Martin Amis. I liked Judy Blunt's book, Breaking Clean.
Also, Darin Strauss I like a lot. He's a friend of mine. Chang and Eng is a wonder to me, and his new book is great, too, The Real McCoy. Darin is a soft-spoken, unassuming guy, but his writing is so powerful and muscular. I'm always reading it and calling him to ask, "Darin, who's writing this? There's nothing in me that can connect this to you." It's so amazing when people can do that. I like anyone who tries to stretch.
Elizabeth Gilbert visited Powell's City of Books on May 29, 2002. At age seventeen, Eustace Conway moved out of his house to live off the land, in a teepee of his own design. Since then, he's crossed America on horseback, taught students how to skin and cook roadkill, and established a thousand-acre wilderness where he lives and mentors apprentices. Brilliant but tormented, stunningly successfully and entirely unfulfilled, as Elizabeth Gilbert explains in The Last American Man, Conway is not like any man you've ever met.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State