updated 08/13/2010 AT 9:40 AM ET
•originally published 08/13/2010 AT 11:00 AM ET
In the new movie Eat Pray Love, Julia Roberts steals the scene as Liz Gilbert, a globetrotting, hopeless romantic who takes off for Italy, India and Indonesia to find herself. But the character of Gilbert wasn’t a composite imagined in Hollywood – you just can’t conjure all that carb consumption.
Before you catch the chick flick, meet the real Elizabeth Gilbert, who penned the 2006 bestselling memoir based on her own soul-searching journey.
1. She’s Self-Taught
Although she took a few writing classes while attending New York University, Gilbert didn’t make her magic happen in a classroom. The author opted to create her own post-graduate writing program. The curriculum? Years of traveling (the country and the world), odds-and-ends jobs (from restaurants to ranches) – and lots of eavesdropping (for inspiration, natch).
“I became Bride-of-Writing,” she writes on her personal Web site. “I was writing’s most devotional handmaiden. I built my entire life around writing. I didn’t know how else to do this. I didn’t know anyone who had ever become a writer. I had no, as they say, connections. I had no clues. I just began.”
2. She Used to be (Coyote) Ugly
Before writing Eat Pray Love, Gilbert tended bar at the Coyote Ugly Saloon in Manhattan’s East Village. Her 1997 essay detailing her experiences at the downtown dive, “The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon,” was published in GQ magazine, and her article made the bar a household name. Coyote Ugly was later the setting for the 2000 romantic comedy, titled Coyote Ugly.
3. Julia Leaves Her Star-Struck
When Gilbert first met the actress who was playing out her story on the big screen, she couldn’t help but gush: “I feel so dorky, but there’s nothing to prepare you for Julia’s face,” she told PEOPLE in January. “For the first five minutes, I kept saying, ‘You’re really pretty!’ ”
And she wouldn’t have it any other way: “It’s hard to imagine that it could have been anybody but Julia because she’s so loveable, and you need to care about the character to want to watch her go through all that,” Gilbert says. “She’s good at making people care about her.”
4. She Married a Character in Her Book
There’s “Love” in her book title for a reason: The man Gilbert falls for at the close of her tome, Filipe, the hunky, charming Brazilian importer, wasn’t a fling. She and he (real name: José Nunes) tied the knot in February 2007, and the couple now run an antique store near their home in Frenchtown, N.J.
“I remember when I met my husband, and there came this kind of awkward moment in our burgeoning relationship that I was writing a book about everything that was happening to me this year and that he appeared to be happening to me, and how did he feel about me writing about this in the book?” she tells PEOPLE. “He’s such a private person. And he said, ‘What would it entail?’ I said, ‘Don’t worry – no one reads my books. Nobody will read this.’ ”
5. She Cried When She Saw the Movie
“I saw it a couple of months ago – it’s so lovely,” she tells PEOPLE. “I had asked [the studio] if we could watch it alone, just because I couldn’t anticipate what our emotional reaction would be, and I thought it would be better if we had some privacy. It’s a good thing we did because we were both really teary and kind of weepy.”
With reporting by MARY GREEN