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.
Question: 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.
Question: 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.
Question: 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
Question: 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