Elizabeth Gilbert's partner died in 2018 at the dawn of the new year. Fifteen months later she still loves to talk about her, invoking the name of her beloved at every opportunity. It's what grief compels us to do - to rehearse the disaster over and over, to tell stories, to keep the flame burning.
A friend I hadn't seen for 20 years once tracked me down and spent an hour on the phone giving a detailed account of her husband's illness and eventual death. I guessed she had run out of sympathetic listeners closer to home.
Gilbert has no such difficulty. Since the publication of her bestselling, post-divorce memoir Eat, Pray, Love in 2006 and subsequent books - a treatise on marriage, a self-help manual, a novel about a 19th century female plant hunter - she has had millions of fans and followers hanging on her every word. ''Dear Ones,'' she addresses her online friends, ''May your heart have mercy today on your poor, tired mind. Offer yourself some grace.''
On Twitter and Instagram, in Ted talks and the Moth hour, she memorialises her ''epic, magnificent, rebellious'' friend and lover Rayya Elias - ex-addict, ex-con, punk artist, hairdresser, who got clean for 20 years then died of pancreatic cancer, nursed by Gilbert.
''I honour Rayya by telling stories about her,'' says Gilbert when we meet. She is just off a flight from New York, looking pale and nursing a chest cold with ginger and honey. How has she reconciled herself to the loss? ''What got me through the grief, and continues to do so, is a tremendous pride in knowing what I did, what I sacrificed, what I gave up.''
When Elias' cancer was diagnosed, Gilbert left her husband of nine years, Jose Nunes, whom she met during the writing of Eat, Pray, Love, to be with her. ''I saw a vision of her in the last moments of life,'' she tells me, ''I imagined her dying without knowing how much I loved her. My soul was appalled by that vision. I couldn't let it happen so everything, the whole life I had created, had to change accordingly.''
The two women had known each other for 17 years, since Gilbert was recommended to Elias for a hair makeover. Was Nunes included in the friendship? ''Yes,'' says Gilbert hesitatingly and then, in a rare moment of discretion, adds, ''but I don't want to talk about that too much out of loyalty to my ex-husband.''
Elias lived for 18 more months, defeating expectation: ''She was the comeback kid,'' says Gilbert, ''in her previous life as a heroin addict she'd died any number of times.'' The couple moved to Detroit to be near Elias' family and, towards the end, Elias' ex-wife and a former lover came to help: ''Rayya took us on the wildest ride,'' says Gilbert, her eyes shining, ''she was such a tornado, it took three of us to care for her.''
She pauses, a look almost of rapture on her face: ''In all the sorrow and loss there is a sense of great achievement. She died knowing she was loved.''
Gilbert returned to New York, to an apartment she had bought for herself in anticipation of being alone, and threw herself into writing again. ''It was a novel I had promised my publishers - a fun, sexy story. I'd dropped it for the 18 months I was with Rayya, now I needed a restoration project and it brought me back to my vitality. I don't know how I would have survived without work.''
The result is City of Girls, a light, witty romp of a book, the first half set in a down-at-heel theatre in a poor area of New York during the 1940s. Vivienne, a Vassar dropout from a small-town conservative family, arrives with a suitcase and is given a job sewing costumes. She pals up with showgirl Celia and the two of them cut a swath through the city's nightclubs, inhaling serial cocktails, loftily rejecting advances from men, having dodgy sex with others and weaving home at dawn, high heels in hand.
Gilbert's last book was The Signature of All Things, a weighty tome exploring the intersection of science and faith in the early part of the 19th century, admired by high-minded critics. It featured Alma Whittaker, a self-made botanist and plant hunter with a disappointing sex life. So after that was Gilbert ready for a bit of frivolity?
''I was ready for sensuality,'' she nods, ''So much of the last book was about a woman's frustrated desire; I wanted to strip the corsets off, to make an addition to the Western literary canon by creating 'bad' girls who are not destroyed by enjoying sex and having a lot of it. The wages of desire need not be death, ruination and shame.''
Soon after Vivienne's arrival at the theatre, Celia and her fellow showgirls discover she is a virgin and insist on arranging for her deflowering at the hands of an obliging doctor they all know. The curious episode, narrated by Vivienne from her prone position on the doctor's marital bed, is exquisitely funny.
''I thought how do I write about a woman losing her virginity which is neither romantic nor traumatic,'' says Gilbert, ''it's usually one of the two. So what about comically, clinically ridiculous?''
Vivienne is now ready to hit the town, but though she loves dressing up, and the novelty of discovering her sexual power, it is clear that the end game - fumbling and sometimes threatening encounters in alleyways and strange hotel rooms - is not always enjoyable.
''It takes a long time for a woman to figure out how to create her own pleasure,'' says Gilbert, ''and yet Vivienne got pleasure out of the chase, the idea that she was doing something deviant. By the time she's in her 50s, she's got this down.''
At this stage Vivienne is single, wised up, running her own successful business - a wedding gown atelier - and sleeping with a lot of men. A friend asks if this makes her happy. ''It makes me satisfied,'' she says, ''I have a certain darkness within me ... and being with all those men - it satisfies that darkness.'' Without it, she adds, she would become unhappy.
Gilbert once identified herself as a seduction addict: ''Seduction was never a casual sport for me,'' she wrote, ''it was more like a heist, adrenalising and urgent. I would plan the heist for months, scouting out the target, looking for unguarded entries. Then I would break into his deepest vault, steal all his emotional currency and spend it on myself.''
She addressed this monkey on her back through therapy and tells me now: ''Like most women I know I've had a rich, complicated sex life - wonderful encounters and regretful ones. But even the worst mistakes - we all got through it. That's what this new book is about.''
Since the global success of Eat, Pray, Love and her non-fiction book, Big Magic, exhorting readers to release their creative mojo, Gilbert has become something of a guru. She long ago stopped replying to fan mail, explaining at the time: ''They want to know what they should do about their drug addictions and tragic marriages and bladder infections and which city to visit in Italy, and I was becoming everything from travel agent to psychiatrist and, with respect, I am not capable of being all that.'' These days she gives talks and lectures and runs workshops on creativity.
''I've come to love it,'' she admits, ''I have two vocations, writing and speaking.'' She is a polished performer, in turns confiding, shocking and amusing, with a fine sense of timing.
''I'm comfortable on stage,'' she says, ''though it's a high-wire act and it's never not scary.'' Her chief demographic is middle aged women and she is on the corporate speaker circuit too.
''The first few times I went to talk to Silicon Valley types I thought, what can I tell them? But they are all humans, struggling to understand relationships, addictions, worries about kids, health issues. Once I stopped thinking about them as business people I just talked to them the same way I talk to 45-year-old divorced ladies.''
Initially giddy with the wealth attendant on success, she gave money away and set friends up in properties. It didn't always work out. ''Mother Theresa said give till it hurts, but the guru I studied with in India told me: if you give people more than they are capable of receiving, they will hate you for it. I didn't understand it then, but I do now. The answer is not to stop giving, but I am not as reckless a giver as I was.''
A favoured recipient of her largesse is Row New York, a youth program for girls based at a boathouse in the Bronx.
''They take these 13-year-old girls from the tenements and projects and put them in boats on the river,'' she explains, ''They work out all day, then volunteers come in to help with their homework. They get into private colleges, usually on a sporting scholarship, and the volunteers support them through the four years so they don't drop out.''
Gilbert encourages other donors by offering match funding - up to $25,000 a pop - and does fundraising gigs. ''I go out and give a speech to some Fortune 500 company, they write a huge cheque and I give it to Row NY.'' Like Robin Hood? She smiles. ''It's about creating opportunities for these girls.''
She is guided by Elias, she says. ''I talk to her, write to her, receive answers from her, I still rely on her. She had been a derelict for so long, she understood that sometimes people are trapped in dreadful behaviour. I learned humanity from her: mercy and clear boundaries.''
Last year she and fellow authors raised $US1.4 million ($A2 million) in 24 hours to support migrant children detained under President Donald Trump's family separation policy. ''This presidency is a catastrophe,'' she says, ''I'm shattered that 54 per cent of women voted for Trump; I can't bear it but I'm hopeful that this appalling business of separating children has awakened even those women to his inhumanity.''
Trump has to go, she says: ''but an impeachment would mean a Mike Pence presidency, which would take us out of the frying pan into the fire.''
I wonder if she has seen the recent report about Irish PM Leo Veradker's meeting with the notoriously homophobic US vice-president. Veradker was accompanied by his male partner and made pointed remarks about being judged for his politics rather than his sexual orientation.
''We are all God's children,'' he said. Gilbert hasn't seen it but is delighted: ''Oh, oh, oh,'' she beams, ''that's beautiful. Right in front of Pence. Everyone's doing their part.''
Impeachment is anyway too good for Trump, she says: ''I want to see him voted out, it would hurt him more.'' She frowns: ''There is still the ancient fantasy of the strong man who is going to come and take care of you, yet history continues to prove that the strong man hurts you and hurts others.''
She sighs: ''I keep begging that a hero will rise. I think maybe there is a collective hero - all these female senators voted in at the mid-terms; womanhood could be the hero rising. It is a discernible trend and there is always hope in the young.'' She gives a wan smile, adapting a Simon and Garfunkel lyric from Mrs Robinson: ''A nation turns its hungry eyes to you.''
Shortly after this interview, there was a surprising development. Gilbert announced to her 739,000 ''Dear Ones'' on Instagram that she had a new sweetheart - Simon MacArthur, a British photographer who was a beloved friend of hers and Elias' for many years. ''Of late, Simon and I have found our way to each other's arms. And now here we are, and his heart has been such a warm place for me to land. I share this news publicly despite the fact that our love story is so new and young and tender...''
Gilbert continued, in her happiness, to offer inspiration for others: ''SO ... if you have lost a loved one to death, and you thought you would never feel love again, but you are feeling the pull of attraction toward someone new, and you're not sure if that's OK? Let me normalise it for you. Let me say: It's OK ... Do not let your gorgeous loyalty to the deceased stop you from experiencing the marvels and terrors of your short, mortal, precious love. It's OK to live, and to love.''
Elizabeth Gilbert's new novel City of Girls will be published by Bloomsbury on June 4 ($32.99).