Isabel Allende’s Writing Process

Question: How long do books take you to write?
\r\n

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

\r\nQuestion:
Do you work on multiple projects at once?
\r\n

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

\r\nQuestion:
Is it true that you start each new book on January 8th?
\r\n

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

\r\nQuestion:
What do you envision first when you sit down to write?
\r\n

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

\r\nQuestion:
What does your desk look like?
\r\n

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

Recorded on May 3, 2010
\r\nInterviewed by Priya George

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

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