Fiction Shall Set You Free

In memoirs, the author must decide "what is mine to tell and what is not mine to tell." But in fiction, "I do whatever I want."
  • Transcript


Question: How has your journalism background influenced your fiction?

Isabel Allende: In many ways. It’s good for a writer to come from journalism because it gives you the tools.  I learned to use language effectively; to look for a good noun that would replace three adjectives; to be precise, direct, clear; to keep in mind the reader.  A journalist knows that he or she can lose the reader in six lines, so try to keep the attention of the reader.  Also, you learn to research, and to conduct an interview—to extract from the person whatever you need from that person.  So, all that has been really useful, plus the fact that a journalist always works with a deadline. And if I didn’t give myself a deadline I would be procrastinating forever.  So, that’s why I give myself January 8th to start and work until I finish a first draft.

Are aspects of your fiction autobiographical?

Isabel Allende: A lot.  I have written memoirs that are completely autobiographical, but I think that in my books, there... even sometimes I don’t know that it is autobiographical until after the book is published and someone points it out to me that, for example, this story that I thought was about the Gold Rush is really about feminism and it’s about my own struggle for liberation. Or... I have very strong mothers and I have absent fathers, that’s because I didn’t know my father.  I have many elements of my own life and my own emotions and sentiments.

Is your process different for fiction and nonfiction?

Isabel Allende: Yes.  I prefer fiction because in fiction I do whatever I want.  And 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?  And so I need to write taking that in mind, and then I have to give the manuscript to each person in the book so that they will read it before it's published.  Except in one instance, I have never had a problem.  People usually are very kind and are very willing to be in a book.  But it is a longer and more complicated process. 

Also, in memoir, it’s very hard to lie because you will be caught—and, in fiction, I can do whatever I want.

Recorded on May 3, 2010
Interviewed by Priya George