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Isabel Allende is a Chilean-American author who has published 18 books, including works of fiction, non-fiction, and memoir. She is one of the best-known female writers in Latin America, and[…]

A conversation with the novelist.

Question: Why did you choose to move to the U.S. and become a citizen?

Isabel Allende: Yes, I came to the United States because I fell in love and I forced my guy—I forced him into marriage.  And so I became a resident.  And then I realized that I couldn’t bring my children.  I couldn’t sponsor my children if I wasn’t a citizen.  So I became a citizen.  But by then, I had learned to love this country; I have received a lot from this country.  I'm very critical, but at the same time I'm very grateful.  And I want to give back.  I belong here.

Do you now consider yourself an American writer?

Isabel Allende: I’m a writer.  In Latin America they say I’m a Latin-American writer because I also write in Spanish and my books are translated, but I am an American citizen and my books are published here, so I'm also an American writer. 

Are you a writer in exile?

Isabel Allende: No.  Exile is something very specific.  Exile is when circumstances beyond your control, you were forced to leave your land and you cannot return.  That is very specifically to be in exile.  And I was a political refugee in exile for 13 years in Venezuela.  And then I moved to the United States and a year later we had democracy in Chile and I could return to Chile, but I didn’t because I was married, I had made the choice to stay here.  So, now I am an immigrant.  I’m not an exile.

Do you consider yourself a magic realist writer?

Isabel Allende: I think that life is very mysterious and there are many things we don’t know.  And there are elements of magic realism in every culture, everywhere, read Toni Morrison, read South African authors, it’s not only Latin-American.  It's just accepting that we don’t know everything and everything is possible.

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.

Question: What should the writer’s role in society be?

Isabel Allende: Tell stories.  Gather stories and tell them.  Personally, I don’t feel I have a mission that I have to preach about anything.  I write about things I care for, the things I believe.  And I just want to tell a story.  Why have I chosen that story in particular and not another one?  Why I have never chose a story about Wall Street, for example? Because it has nothing to do with me.  It doesn’t touch me in any way.  And 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. 

Isn’t your work with your foundation part of a mission?

Isabel Allende: But that is not my writing.  That is my life.  And you asked me about my writing.  And as a citizen, as a human being, as a woman, I think I do have an obligation and a mission to help my sisters.  I'm very privileged.  I had education, health care, I have a husband that loves me and I’ve never been beaten up, I have had a good life.  And I have had, of course, losses like everybody does, but my life has not been bad.  And in my lifetime, I have lived the struggle of feminism for 50 years.  And I see that not everything that we thought would be achieved by now has been achieved.  There is still a lot of work to be done and I want to be part of that work.  So, that’s what my foundation does.  We work in empowerment of women and girls in the areas of health care, protection, and education.

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.

Do you feel that male critics have been unfairly harsh toward your work?

Isabel Allende: I think that every writer receives criticism.  It’s impossible to please everybody when you do anything that is public you get good and bad reviews.  And I don’t pay much attention to the good reviews or the bad ones.  I write what I have to write.  So, I don’t worry about that. 

Now, there is some pettiness in my country, for example, in Chile, because if anybody, except a soccer player, is successful, everybody gets angry because they think that one is stealing space or oxygen from everybody else.  And the truth is that if a writer is successful, you gain readers.  It benefits all the writers.  It’s important for all the writers that as many of us as possible be successful.

Why do studies of Latin American literature focus chiefly on male writers?

Isabel Allende: Because it’s only recently that women writers have had a space in Latin America.  In publishing, editing, teaching in the universities, reviewers—all men.  And the writers were like clubs of... like male clubs where women were not accepted except if you were some kind of poet or wrote children's books.  Then that was... or cookbooks, that role was accepted in women, nothing else.  So, we were kept in silence for a long time and women have been writing in Latin America since Sor Juana Inés De la Cruz.  So, it’s really been a sort of conspiracy of the male patriarchy to keep women mute.  And now, more and more, because the publishers know that more women than men read fiction, more women authors are being published and now translated and their work is better known.  But this is a recent thing. 

When I published "The House of the Spirits" in 1982, I was... people were saying in the reviews everywhere that I was the only writer of the Latin American boom of literature.  Women have been writing forever, but nobody knew them.

Why did you choose to write about Haiti in your new book?

Isabel Allende: I wasn’t planning it.  I started researching New Orleans because I went there for another book, for "Zorro," in 2003, and I just fell in love with the city.  This was before Katrina. And I loved the French flavor, the voodoo, the streets, the jazz, the music, like we see everything was so different from the rest of the United States.  And much of that flavor comes from 10,000 refugees that left what was then a French colony and now is Haiti, it was called Santo Domingo, and there was a slave revolt.  The only slave revolt that has ever succeeded in history happened there at the turn of the 18th century.  And the whites that survived the revolt escaped and 10,000 of them came to New Orleans. 

So when I was doing the research, I stumbled on this fact and I said, "Oh, I have to find out what happened there."  So, I started researching about Haiti.  And that took over completely because it was such an incredible story.  It had all the elements of everything I love.  It had the passion, the violence, the brutality, and the courage and the magic and the spirituality and nature.  It had everything.

How did the earthquakes in Haiti and your native Chile affect you?

Isabel Allende: Well, very much because the Haitian earthquake was a horrible tragedy.  The death toll was appalling.  And it was exposed the poverty of the country and the lack of infrastructure and government.  And my foundation had been doing some work in Haiti, so we knew about part of that, but now it was all over in the news.  And aid has been poured into Haiti, and Haitian people want to do the work themselves.  They don’t want things to be given to them.  "Don’t give me the fish, teach me to fish."  And it was very different in Chile.  Because Chile is a country that has an infrastructure, a government that works. There is no corruption, to speak of, and we are prepared for this kind of catastrophe because we have them all the time.  Every 10 years or so, we have a big earthquake in Chile, or flooding, or some kind of thing, so to the point that when things—when nothing happens in four or five years, people get nervous.  We are, like, expecting it.  And when it happens, people know how to act. 

So right now, Chile has thousands and thousands of people who are homeless, they lost everything, they are living in tents, the winter began, it's raining, and the government is trying to rebuild the roads and the bridges and the hospitals.  So, it’s going to take a long time and a lot of money and a lot of effort, but there’s no sense of the despair that we saw in Haiti.
Why did you base “The House of the Spirits” and other books on letters you’d written?

Isabel Allende: Although in the book it doesn’t appear like a letter, I think in terms of letters because I write to my mother every day.  And I have been writing letters to my mother for... I don’t know, 40 years?  So, I have a closet full of her letters, and she gives me back my letters at the end of the year.  So, I have a record of life, day-by-day, in these letters.  So, for me it's so easy and natural to start telling a story to my mother, having in mind that we are, like, in the kitchen, and I am writing to my mother.  It’s much easier than if I think, "Oh my God, this is going to be published and millions of people are going to read it."  No, that’s scary.

Do you write to your mother at the beginning or the end of the day?

Isabel Allende: It depends.  It depends on the circumstances.  Generally, I do it at the beginning of the day and I tell her about the previous day.  That gets me in the mood of starting the day.  So, I have my coffee, and I go to my casita in the back of my house, and there I sit down and light a candle.  The first thing when I open the computer is my mother's letter.

What are we losing as letter-writing grows less common?

Isabel Allende: The beauty of language, to begin with.  Language has become... everything is summarized, contracted, and it is... the idea is to pass information that sometimes is useless.  Why do I need to know that you had a hamburger for lunch?  Who cares?  And so, Twittering and blogging and all that is fine, but there is no idea of how to phrase something beautifully; how to use language to create an emotion.  It’s just passing information and sometimes very superficial information. 

So in letter writing, it was an art.  You would learn handwriting beautifully, it had to be clear and beautiful, choosing the paper, you had... your mind would work with your hand to create a sentence that was balanced and beautiful, and my mother writes like that to this day.  I can’t do it anymore.  I can’t write by hand.

How has being a grandmother influenced your storytelling?

Isabel Allende: I wrote a trilogy of books for my grandchildren when they were in their early teens, or in puberty.  And now, unfortunately, I am suffering the empty nest syndrome because one of them is in college, the other is getting ready to go to college, and the three of them are emotionally detached.  They don't like me anymore—and I hate them, that’s the truth.  So, I’m so sorry that they are growing up.  So sorry.  But it influences my writing because they teach me all the time.  I learn about what’s happening in the world today, or how the world has changed, you know?  I’m not up-to-date with any of the technology that they were born knowing.
What differences do you notice between yourself and your American grandkids?

Isabel Allende: There are differences.  One of them is that I come from a place where family is very important.  We live in communities in extended families and we keep in touch.  I call my mother... if I don’t write, I call every day.  And so, we are always in each other's faces, which is maybe not good, but at the same time, very connected.  And that connection doesn’t end because the kid goes to school.  And here, the idea is that you are a self-made person and you are an individual—that's much more important than community.  And I see them... that my grandchildren can’t wait to get out of this Latin family.

Question: What advice would you give young writers?

Isabel Allende: I would say, write.  If you want to do sports, you train, every day.  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.  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. 

Recorded on May 3, 2010
rnInterviewed by Priya George