Elizabeth Gilbert talks about life after ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ — USA TODAY, 1/5/2010

FRENCHTOWN, N.J. — Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the mega-selling travel memoir and bible of female emo known as Eat, Pray, Love, may have moved to this tiny restored mill town on the banks of the Delaware River only three years ago, but she appears to know everybody.

Marching over snow and ice while playing tour guide, Gilbert chats about recipes with a restaurateur, commiserates with a store owner about slow Christmas sales, and asks a little girl if pink is her favorite color — and is suitably impressed when the answer turns out to be orange.

Suddenly, Gilbert’s boast in Eat, Pray, Love that “I can make friends with anybody (and) if there isn’t anyone else around to talk to, I could probably make friends with a 4-foot-tall pile of Sheetrock” seems less far-fetched.

She’s equally uninhibited with a reporter, opening up about everything from why she chose not to have children to being insecure about her wispy hair.

“I’m not a very private person,” says Gilbert, 40. “I share stuff with people when I’m standing in a grocery line.”

Translate that winning emotional candor into print, and you may have the answer to why Eat, Pray, Love became a publishing phenomenon with its own acronym. Published in 2006, EPL has sold more than 6 million copies in the USA, plus an additional 1 million overseas. It was already a word-of-mouth sensation and book club fave when Oprah Winfrey called and invited Gilbert on to her show twice in 2007.

EPL is the tale of how Gilbert — then a thirtysomething broken-hearted New Yorker — fled a bitter divorce and messy love affair for Italy, where she ate pasta. Then she headed to India, where she prayed in an ashram. She ended up in Indonesia, where she found love on Bali with a Brazilian charmer she calls “Felipe.” (To protect his privacy, Gilbert does not use his real name — José Nunes — in her writing.)

If possible, the EPL juggernaut is poised to get even bigger this summer when the film version, which stars Julia Roberts as Gilbert and Spanish smolderer Javier Bardem as Felipe, arrives on Aug. 13.

Bureaucratic odyssey

But first, Gilbert has a new book to promote —Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage (Viking, $26.95), on sale today. A sequel of sorts to EPL, it has an announced first printing of 1 million copies.

After the success of EPL, Committed totes some big sales expectations. Can it meet them? Maybe, says Carol Fitzgerald, president of TheBookReportNetwork.com. “There is a built-in audience just waiting for this book. … For many women, Gilbert has become a character for them and they want to see what happens next in her life.”

Early reviews have been mixed. Entertainment Weekly gave Committed a “C” and wondered whether the subject matter — marriage — “perhaps combined with sophomore jitters after such a phenomenal publishing success, has spooked the author.” Publishers Weekly was more positive. While disliking the part-history, part-travelogue structure, the reviewer concluded that “Gilbert remains the spirited storyteller she was in EPL.

In Committed, Gilbert explains how she and Felipe, both veterans of divorce, ended up violating their sacred vow never to marry.

The Cupid of this story? Homeland Security. In spring 2006, the couple flew into Dallas/Fort Worth from a trip abroad. Felipe, who is Brazilian by birth, was an Australian citizen who had lived primarily in Bali but traveled frequently to the USA because of his gemstone-import business. He and Gilbert were renting a house in Philadelphia. He had to leave the country every three months, then apply for a new 90-day U.S. visa upon each return, which raised red flags.

Felipe was interrogated for six hours by “Officer Tom” from Homeland Security. Before sending Felipe back to Australia, the officer (who is thanked on the last page of Committed) told the frightened couple that the only way they’d be able to live in the USA was to get married.

Committed is more than just a bureaucratic odyssey that concludes in February 2007 with the pair being married by Frenchtown’s mayor. Gilbert examines marriage and divorce around the world through a historical/sociological prism. She also shares her own family’s history, focusing on her parents’ marriage of 40 years and her grandmother’s life as a mother of seven.

“It’s a journey of the heart and the mind,” Gilbert says. “To be honest, it is not an advice book on how to have a happy marriage.”

Committed is Gilbert’s second go-round on the topic. She had written nearly 500 pages, but as she was about to send the manuscript to her publisher, “a sickening feeling that it wasn’t any good” gripped her.

She was trying for the breezy tone of EPL. But five years had passed. “I’m quite a different person now, and we all know trying for girlish charm into middle age can be a little tragic.”

‘A giving tree’

Once a devoted New Yorker, Gilbert is no longer EPL‘s footloose freelance writer but a married woman putting down emotional and financial roots in this New Jersey town. “EPL has turned into a giving tree,” she says. “Thanks to EPL, I can help people. It’s been a great boon creatively and financially.”

She chose Frenchtown to be closer to family.

For Committed, Gilbert spent a lot of time reading and thinking about marriage — “institutionalized intimacy,” as she puts it. Her research convinced her that creating an extended community is vital for any marriage, hers included.

Her new husband, for example, needs his privacy. So Frenchtown won’t be hosting a literary variation on Jon & Kate starring Liz and Felipe. Not even an invite from The Oprah Winfrey Show could lure him into the spotlight.

Felipe, who is 17 years older than Gilbert, operates Two Buttons, the couple’s Asian import shop, in Frenchtown. He has two adult children from his first marriage. Gilbert says her decision not to have children has helped foster an easy relationship with Felipe’s kids.

In EPL, her growing doubts about having a baby with her first husband, Michael Cooper, left her sobbing on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night.

Her willingness to detail her ambivalence about marriage, love, career and children is one reason Gilbert connects with readers. “I’m a bridge between Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed (a history of feminism) and Sex and the City,” she says.

Her biggest fear for Committed: “It will be filed away under chick lit.” Gilbert finds it ironic that she sometimes gets that dismissive label, considering she began her career writing for men’s magazines.

Before EPL, she had published a collection of short stories, a well-received 2000 novel called Stern Men and a biography of naturalist Eustace Conway. She is working on a new novel.

EPL is not the first piece of writing Gilbert has sold to the movies: Coyote Ugly was based on a GQ article she wrote about bartending in New York City. Gilbert isn’t involved in the movie version of EPL (the screenplay is co-written by Glee‘s Ryan Murphy, who also is directing).

Despite its millions of fans, EPL is not without its detractors. Alynda Wheat, who a couple of years ago wrote a “Loathe It” piece about EPL for Entertainment Weekly, belongs to a not-insubstantial group who find the book’s popularity mystifying.

“Not only did (Gilbert) end this marriage to a perfectly lovely man and take a year off — a vacation most people can only dream of — she got paid hugely for it,” says Wheat, who calls EPL “self-centered.”

“And now she gets to be played by Julia Roberts!”

She has no plans to read Committed; Wheat says she’s more interested in the memoir Gilbert’s ex-husband is writing.

No looking back

On that topic, Gilbert says, “it will be what it will be.” Ask her about the accusation that EPL is self-indulgent, and she shrugs: “If people didn’t like it, I’m sorry to hear that.”

Underneath Gilbert’s charm, there’s real New England flint (she grew up on a Connecticut Christmas tree farm). Forget the starving-artist cliché; Gilbert proudly points out that she has been contributing to her retirement fund since she worked as a waitress after graduating from NYU. In Committed, she describes how she and Felipe hammered out their prenup.

“I’m not the type of person to end up like Nicolas Cage or Mike Tyson,” she says. “I was raised by parents whose greatest fear is that their daughters would be dependent on anyone or anything.”

Standing in the middle of the Two Buttons shop, Gilbert makes it clear that she’s not dependent on Committed scaling the heights of EPL.

With a sunny but determined smile, she says, “I have no expectation that any of my future books will succeed like EPL.” And she seems just fine with that.