Isabel Allende’s Writing Process

What the “Island Beneath the Sea” author’s desk looks like and why she starts each new novel on January 8th.
  • Transcript


Question: How long do books take you to write?

Isabel Allende: You know, every idea is like a little seed that is inside me and I suppose that I have many seeds.  When some of them start to grow and bother me and then they become like an obsession, and then I know that I will probably write about that. Now, what is the book going to look like or what is the story going to be like, I don’t know.  If it’s an historical novel, I will do the research.  If it’s not, if it’s just an idea of some kind, I sit down on January 8th and start writing.  I write between eight and 14 hours a day, sometimes.  So, how long does it take, if the research takes very long, I don’t even count it.  I would say that in a year I should have a book done.  Now, how much work I have done before, I don’t know.  A lot.

Do you work on multiple projects at once?

Isabel Allende: I work with one thing at once, writing.  But I can be writing, for example a memoir, and researching about Haiti to write "The Island Beneath the Sea."  And that’s exactly what I did with my recent book.  And in order to write the book I needed a lot of research.  I had done two years of research, I thought I was ready, and then on January 8 it realized it wasn’t there yet.  And so I wrote in between a memoir.  But I continued researching for the book. 

Is it true that you start each new book on January 8th?

Isabel Allende: Well actually, I started my first novel, "The House of the Spirits," on January 8, 1991 because I was living in exile in Venezuela and my grandfather was dying in Chile.  And I could not return to be with him, so I started a letter for him that turned into "The House of the Spirits," my first novel.  And it was a very successful book.  So, out of superstition and Kabbalah, I started the second book on the same date.  But then my life got really complicated with book tours and press and correspondence and fan letters, and, you know, it’s complicated.  And so now, I have a foundation also—so I have to run a foundation, a family, and my office, plus writing.  The way I do it is very schizophrenic.  I divide the year in half, and the first half of the year, starting January 8, is my inner time, the time of writing; it’s a quiet, silent time of solitude.  And then the rest of the year I do what I have to do.

What do you envision first when you sit down to write?

Isabel Allende: The story.  I love stories and I do research, let’s say about for my latest book, "Island Beneath the Sea."  I researched what is today Haiti and New Orleans, the Caribbean.  And then that leads me to research about the American Revolution and the French Revolution and what it was happening with the pirates of the Caribbean.  It’s like pieces that I sort of put together.  And then I sit down on January 8th with all this research and all of these pieces and I know that I’m going to write about a woman slave, that's all I know.  And I sort of see the woman, I know who she is.  Now, what’s gong to happen to her, her story, I don't really know it.  As I write, it starts to unfold, and then when the characters that are unexpected for me, then I know that the story has its own course that's flowing.  And how do the other characters come?  As I need them.  If I have a slave, of course I need a master, and I need a family, and I need other slaves, and I need people who will help the slave to find her freedom.  I need someone who falls I love with her.  So, all of that comes in the process.

What does your desk look like?

Isabel Allende: My desk is like a “U”, so I have my computer and lots of dictionaries because I write in Spanish and I live in English.  And in the case of my latest book, everything happened in French, you know, in a French colony, so I have books in French, I mean, dictionaries in French and English and Spanish, and I work like that.  And then I have all of my research around me and my office has all the walls covered with my first editions, and photographs of the people I love, dead and alive, and that’s it.  It’s messy.

Recorded on May 3, 2010
Interviewed by Priya George