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Isabel Allende: From "House of the Spirits" to Haiti

"I prefer fiction because in fiction I do whatever I want," says Chilean-American author Isabel Allende, who has published 18 books of fiction, non-fiction and memoirs over the past three decades. "Whatever I do is my responsibility and that's it. In a memoir, it’s not only about me; it’s also about the people that live with me.  The people I love the most.  And I have to ask myself, 'What is mine to tell and what is not mine to tell?  Am I invading somebody else's life or privacy?'"

Allende, one of the best-known female Latin American authors, is known particularly for her debut novel "The House of the Spirits," a major commercial hit. In her recent Big Think interview, Allende talks about her habit—partly borne of superstition—of starting all of her books on January 8th.  She says that she devotes the first half of every year to quiet contemplation and writing, and the second half to all of the other distractions and social commitments of her life. Allende's advice to young writers is to treat their craft the same way an athlete would: by practicing diligently. "If you want to compete you have to train, and nobody sees the training, and nobody cares much about the training, but if you don’t do it you’re not prepared for the competition to play the game," she says. "The same as a writer.  You have to write every day and train.  For every good page you would have written 20 pages that end up in the trash.  That doesn’t matter, that's your training."

Allende also talks at length about how she fell in love with New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit, and with Haiti before the earthquake hit. She says that the earthquake in Haiti was a far greater tragedy than the recent one in her native Chile because the island nation was so unprepared for a disaster of that magnitude. "It’s going to take a long time and a lot of money and a lot of effort," to rebuild what was damaged in Chile she said, "but there’s no sense of the despair that we saw in Haiti."

While in her personal life Allende has fought for the rights of women around the world, she doesn't think that a writer needs to have a "mission" in the work that they do. A writer's role is simply to "tell stories," she says. "I write about things I care for, the things I believe.  And I just want to tell a story. ... I chose stories of strong women, of marginal people, of violence, and death, and loss, and love, and friendship, because that’s what really has been important in my life.  So, the person I am and what I think sort of filters in through the lines. But I’m not trying to deliver any kind of mission, and I don’t think I have a mission, except telling a story."
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