"I can tell you absolutely it's the lightest, funniest thing I've written out of the darkest grief," Liz Gilbert says about her upcoming book, City of Girls, which she finished writing after the death of her partner
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Credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Elizabeth Gilbert is still grieving after recentlylosing her partner to cancer, but she hasn’t given up her search for joy.

In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, the Eat, Pray, Love author reveals that her upcoming novel, City of Girls, is one of her “funniest” works yet — even as it provides “redemption for female desire.”

“I can tell you absolutely it’s the lightest, funniest thing I’ve written out of the darkest grief,” the 49-year-old author says of the book, which will release in June 2019. (See below for the cover reveal.)

Gilbert is best known for her 2006 hit memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, which recounts her travels throughout Italy, India and Bali, during which time she met and fell in love with her real-life second husband José Nunes. The book went on to sell more than 10 million copies and inspired the eponymous movie starring Julia Roberts.

In September 2016, just over two months after announcing her separation from Nunes, Gilbert publicly shared on Facebook that she’d found love again with her best friend of 15 years, Rayya Elias, who had been diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer. Gilbert took care of Elias, also an author, until her death in January 2018.

Elizabeth Gilbert Rayya EliasCredit: Elizabeth Gilbert/Twitter
Elizabeth Gilbert and Rayya Elias
| Credit: Elizabeth Gilbert/Twitter

Gilbert explains that she stopped writing City of Girls to serve as a “round-the-clock” caretaker. Only after Elias’ death did she start writing the novel again — this time in the house that they’d shared.

“I went to the house that we lived in and I was like, ‘Okay, let’s do this together now,’ ” she says of the writing process. “It was just this sense of, ‘I’m so sorry that you weren’t here in person to do this, but I’m going to make this just as joyful and fun and sexy as you would have wanted it to be.’ ”

Set in the New York City theater world in the 1940s, City of Girls is told from the perspective of an older woman as she reflects back on her life story. It’s a love story that revels in female sexuality. And, for Gilbert, serves a balm for her grief.

Elizabeth Gilbert - City of GirlsCredit: Riverhead Books
Credit: Riverhead Books

“This book is different from others that I’ve written in that it came from a place of me wanting a tonic for my own life to make me happy,” she says. “And I offer it that way, as a tonic. I told my editor I want this book to go down like a gin fizz.”

Continue reading for more details about the book, Gilbert’s views on female desire, and how she intends to embrace life despite her loss.

What was the inspiration behind City of Girls?

[For a long time,] I wanted to write a novel about female sexuality and female promiscuity where the characters aren’t destroyed by sex. It’s difficult to find a story like that and it’s very difficult to find stories about women who aren’t either traumatized or ruined by sex… I really wanted to write about female desire and about this idea that there might be seasons in a woman’s life where she’s really on the hunt for her pleasure, for her desire, for her excitement and is willing to take all kinds of risks in order to do so… [The book] takes place in the 1940s in the New York City theater world, and they’re really wild girls, but they survive their wildness.

How does the perception of female sexuality during the 1940s translate to our current culture?

We’re at this incredibly explosive moment of female anger and resistance, in terms of abuse against women. It’s a necessary moment and it’s a profound moment. It’s happening right before our eyes and it’s important and it’s vital. In that though, what I don’t want to see lost, [is] the idea of women pursuing sex because it’s something that they want to have…

What I’ve experienced in my life as my own female desire, which a lot of other people I know have [experienced], is a woman going out in the world and saying, “I’m going to ask for that thing. I’m going to hunt that down, I’m going to go look for that and ask for it by name.”

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Is there one particular person who inspired the novel?

I had this one amazing conversation with this woman named Norma, who was a show girl in the ’40s and ’50s… [She] never married and had never had kids… She’s everything that the girls I’m writing about are. Unabashedly curious and explorative about sensuality and sex… I said to her, “You never wanted to get married?” And she said, “Who wants to f— the same guy for 60 years?” In that moment it felt like my entire book became possible. I think the past is sometimes shrouded in a sort of modesty that might not necessarily have been the case.

Did your own love story impact your writing?

Well, there’s a love story for me to tell about Rayya and this isn’t it. It will come someday when I have recovered enough to tell that story… I see places all over the book where Rayya is, but I don’t think anybody else will see them.

Could you have admitted your love for Rayya before her diagnosis or was it the diagnosis that made everything clear to you?

I always knew [I loved her]. I always saw it, but I wasn’t going to uproot and disrupt my life or her life or my husband’s life. I loved all of us too much to do that. I just lived with it, but not in a suffering way. Life is so strange, love is so strange. It’s like, okay, “You love her, so love her. Love her with all of your heart, that’s all you can do.”… With the terminal diagnosis I was like… “I cannot let this person go to her grave without letting her know what she is to my heart.”

How was your time together?

…We had a lot of joy. It was like she used to say, “I can’t believe I’m dying of cancer, I’ve never been happier.” We had a lot of joy and then we had a lot of horror because cancer is horrible and death is traumatic. So it was a lot of everything, but there’s no place else in the world that I would rather have been…

What is your vision for the future? Or are you living each day as it comes?

What I’m trying to convey, as I’m making my way through my own grief, is that there’s a life that I could only have had with her, and I can’t have that life now…

What I’m really interested in, and I beg people who are suffering from loss to be brave enough to ask this question, “What is the life that you can only have without that person?” “What is the life that I can live now, doing things that I never would have done… because we would have gone in a different direction?” [I want to] have the courage and the curiosity and the creativity to go figure out what that life is…

I don’t see it as a betrayal, I see it as continuing the really huge life-affirming spirit that she brought to me and the world.