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Books by Isabel Allende:
- The House of the Spirits (1982)
- Of Love and Shadows (1984)
- Eva Luna (1985)
- Stories of Eva Luna (1989)
- The Infinite Plan (1991)
- Paula (1994)
- Aphrodite: Recipes, Stories and other Aphrodisiacs (1997)
- Daughter of Fortune (1999)
Though she claims to find interviews somewhat irksome and interruptive -- they keep her from the important work of writing, after all -- Isabel Allende proves to be a great interview. Disarmingly candid, Allende answers the briefest questions at length, considering each word carefully. She seems to weigh her sentences with a writer's scale: each word measured for impact, clarity and cadence. In fact, she is so clear when interviewed in English -- so well and carefully spoken -- that it's sometimes difficult to remember that Allende writes only in Spanish. Her work is then translated into almost as many languages as exist on the planet.
Since Allende's first book, The House of the Spirits, was published in Spain in 1982, her work has received international recognition. Born in Peru in 1942, Allende has been named author of the year or had one of her works named book of the year in Germany, Chile, Switzerland and Mexico. Allende herself has received honorary doctorates from Bates College, Dominican College, New York State University and Columbia College. She is a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France and was named Feminist of the Year by the Feminist Majority Foundation in 1994. I won't go on: suffice it to say that Allende must have a small room stuffed with trophies and certificates at the home she shares with her husband Willie in Marin County, California. And all of them written in a different language, or seeming to be.
This international celebrity is all a very long haul for the journalist daughter of a politically connected house. Allende was the niece of Salvador Allende, the Chilean president whose radical socialist reform brought Chile to a revolution that resulted in a military coup where President Allende lost his life: some say by his own hand.
Allende was a journalist at the time of the coup. "I wasn't a very good journalist," Allende says now. "Really, I was a lousy journalist." But, as a journalist, she found it impossible to fade quietly into the background: she'd seen too much. "I was threatened and I left in 24 hours."
At the time, Allende believed that her flight from Chile to Venezuela would be a temporary exile. "We thought -- my husband and I -- that I could spend a couple of months away and then return quietly." Allende found, however, that this was not to be. "Once you're on a list then they can get you anytime. So eventually my husband left too with the two kids and we reunited in Venezuela. Never thinking that we would spend 13 years in Venezuela. We always thought that a dictatorship in Chile would not last [in] a country that had such a long and strong democratic tradition, so we thought, 'This can't happen.' But it lasted for 17 years."
With this sort of history, it's perhaps not surprising that all of Allende's novels are peopled with exiles: "marginals," as she herself calls them. "Even if they're not exiles in the sense that they have to leave the country. They are exiled from the big umbrella of the establishment. I like people who stand on the edge and therefore are not sheltered."
Like herself, perhaps. As well as Eliza, the protagonist in her latest novel, Daughter of Fortune. Set mainly in and around San Francisco during the gold rush of 1849, Eliza is strong, intelligent, fearless and utterly enchanting. Released in English in October of 1999, the book quickly gained bestseller status in both Canada and the United States.
Allende is the author of six other novels and one work of non-fiction: Aphrodite: Recipes, Stories and other Aphrodisiacs, a work that she assigned herself when suffering writer's block after the novel she wrote about the death of her daughter, Paula. It is because of Aphrodite that Allende is perhaps most often linked with strong, sensual pleasures: food, love and the things that bind them.
January Magazine: If you weren't writing, would you be cooking?
Isabel Allende: No. I'd be making love or doing something that doesn't mean washing dishes. I'd be playing with my grandchildren. I would buy myself a dog.
I love to write. I love the process. And I never think of the outcome. I just love the time I spend alone in a room adding words one by one to create a universe that is mine. And that is what I like. Then after the book is published all this craziness starts. My books are published in many languages and each publisher wants the author there to sell the books one by one and it's impossible because there's no time for writing. Writing requires... it is as though you have some reservoir inside [and] you have to have it filled in order to be able to write. When you go around on a book tour you give away everything and you end up empty. It's a very strange feeling of exposure, of talking too much: talking too much about oneself. Trying to explain what is unexplainable. Because, why do we write? Who knows why do we write? Usually the explanation that the reviewers or the professors have for the book have nothing to do with why somebody writes.
Your work is frequently compared to Diane Ackerman's. Or maybe, her work is compared to yours. Is that something that you're aware of?
I think she hates me.
Isn't she the one who wrote the story of the senses?
Well, she wrote a terrible review of Aphrodite. She didn't like anything about the book.
Well, we won't pursue that then. But it's funny, because quite often in reviews of her books, your name will come up. And in reviews of her books, yours will.
I thought her book was great. And I really used her book for the research of Aphrodite. I think it was a beautifully written book. I really liked it. But she obviously hated mine.
What's your favorite of your own books so far?
I don't have a favorite book because I don't think of the book as a product. It's almost like an ongoing experience. It has an echo of something that has happened in my own life. But I would say that the most important book in my life is and will be Paula. Because it saved me from suicide. It saved Paula from oblivion. In a way, it's a celebration of life. A celebration of the things I care for: family, life, love. It's not about death, really.
Do you have a character that still lives with you that you engage with?
I have certain characters that creep in different books. Not all the books, but different books. And I don't know where that character comes from. In Eva Luna he was an Arab merchant. In Daughter of Fortune it's Tao Chi'en. It's a character that is a sort of father or older brother figure that can become a lover or not. And it's always a savior. Someone who is defeated by compassion. A person who will do anything to help somebody else. Now, where do I get that? I think it comes from an uncle that I had when I was growing up. My Uncle Pablo, who was like that. He's a doctor in House of the Spirits and he keeps coming back as these sorts of saviors.
One of the things that I found striking in Daughter of Fortune was that I've read a lot about that period of history: the gold rush and the 49ers. But I'd never seen it written from a non-American perspective. And that was so cool. That was so fun. Because it's so often glamorized...
... always a white male perspective.
If you read history of Africa written by the white scholars it has a totally different angle than the real things that happened there. And the same in the gold rush. First of all you have to know it was Mexican territory until nine days after they discovered gold. People spoke Spanish there: it was a place that was totally Hispanic until Mexico lost the war against the United States and lost Texas, Arizona, Utah, half of Colorado, New Mexico and California. So, at the beginning, in 1848, it was mainly people of color who were mining. And then the 49ers came and they took over and it became an American territory.
I have a grandchild in fourth grade and he's studying the gold rush. The teacher read my book and she asked me to come to the school and talk to the school. So I went and they had from third grade up: everybody there. Because the teacher said that they had never read the story from the perspective of the immigrant and the people of color. The losers. Not the people who conquered and took over. But the ones who had been there and lost everything. And there were a lot of Chileans and Peruvians. The whites made many rules against the people of color. Especially against the Chinese. The worst abuses were against the Chinese.
And where did I research all that? Well, half of it in Chile. Because the Chilean miners who came to the gold rush, after the first year they were kicked out. The mines were taken away from them and the gold was taken away. So they returned. But they wrote letters home and they kept journals. And one of them wrote a book. So researching from that perspective is very interesting. Also the letters of miners who went to the gold rush and wrote home. That is very interesting too because there you discover that a glass of milk was more precious and more expensive than a bottle of Champagne because liquor was all over but there was no one to milk the cows. A loaf of bread was the most precious thing because there was nobody to bake.
What sent you on the journey of this book?
I moved to the United States in 1987 because I fell in love with a guy and I thought I would get him out of my system in a week. Well, that was 12 years ago and five books ago. So there.
Life has a way of doing that.
Yes. I wrote a book about this guy's life and I had to research because I knew nothing about California when I moved to California. Then I discovered that San Francisco is only 150 years old. And I thought, how come this very sophisticated, elegant society -- so complex and contradictory in many ways -- could just come out of nothing in 150 years? I realized it was the gold rush that brought people from all over the world there. And then, at the very beginning, it already had the same diversity and was as cosmopolitan as it is today.
You are one of the most celebrated authors in the world.
Thank you. My mother should hear that.
How does that feel?
My books are called long sellers. They're all in print and they're required reading in high schools and colleges and universities all over so that keeps them going. I've been very lucky in that sense. I remember when I wrote The House of the Spirits everybody was talking about the book. And my agent said, "Don't get any ideas. It's only time that decides if something is good or not. The fact that it's selling now and everybody wants to read it doesn't mean anything, because in a year or so it could be totally forgotten." So it's time that really determines if something will be transcendent or not.
Was it a surprise to you?
It has surprised me because I was not expecting anything. I didn't know if my book was ever going to be published. When I wrote The House of the Spirits I didn't know what it was. I had written something, but I didn't dare call it a novel. And then my mother said, "You know, I think this might be a novel." She offered it to a few friends who were publishers and editors in Latin America. Nobody wanted to read it and it was rejected everywhere until the receptionist in a publishing house called me and said, "I took the manuscript home and I read it and I don't know anything about literature but one thing I know is that this book is not going to be published here. Why don't you find an agent?" And I said: What? I didn't know there were agents for literature. And she told me that without an agent it was practically impossible for a new writer to get started. She gave me the name of an agent in Spain. I was living in Venezuela. And I sent the book to this person and in three months the book was published and I was in Europe, promoting the book.
So everything happened very quickly and everything was a surprise. Everything.
There is a theme of exile throughout your books.
I would say that my protagonists and most of my characters are always marginals. Even if they're not exiles in the sense that they have to leave the country. They are exiled from the big umbrella of the establishment. I like people who stand on the edge and therefore are not sheltered. And that is when you have to bring out all the strength that you have inside and if you live sheltered you never use it, because you don't need it. But when you go to a situation that is extreme -- like a war or whatever or when you're a martyr -- then you need all of that strength and you realize that you have this incredible source of energy inside. That it's there when we reach for it.
Marginal in the sense that, for example, my protagonists are either foreigners, immigrants, exiles, homosexuals, thieves, uneducated and poor women, orphans: people who are not born in privilege. Ever. And if they are born in privilege like in The House of the Spirits there is something in their lives that makes them marginals. They don't fit in. People who don't fit in.
So on the margins of society?
What did you think of the movie [of House of the Spirits] ?
I liked the movie. But, of course, it's not Latin American. It's a very Scandinavian movie. But I liked it. I thought it was interesting and I enjoyed it. When I saw the movie, I realized what my book was about. [Laughs] I actually didn't know before. I think, in most of my books -- but especially the first one -- I didn't know what I was doing. Then for years people would ask: What's your book about? And to me all the stories in the book had the same level of importance. All the characters were protagonists. I didn't know who was the main character and who was the secondary character. I didn't know which of the stories was the main story. But then I saw the movie and someone else had chosen what was the main story. And I said, OK. This is what the book is about.
Have any of your other books been treated for film?
Of Love and Shadows is a movie. It's in video now. And they're writing the screenplay for Eva Luna and several short stories. I have a couple of proposals for this one [Daughter of Fortune ] but I'm not going to do that yet. I'll wait a bit.
Are you working on anything now?
I'm not working on anything right now. I hope that on January 8th  I will be sitting somewhere with a chastity belt on, working. I hope.
I read that your first book actually started as a letter.
To my grandfather who was dying in Chile. And I was living in Venezuela and I could not return to Chile at the time. So I started a letter but I think that very soon I realized first that he was never going to read it and, second, that it wasn't a letter. It was something quite different. Something that had been growing inside me for years and years. I just wasn't ready to write it or I didn't have a good excuse.
I was writing at night only because I had a day job; I worked in a school. And I had two shifts, from seven o'clock in the morning until one o'clock. And then from one o'clock until seven o'clock in the evening. So it was 12 hours, the day job. No lunch break. And I could write a book at night. So when my students sometimes say, "Oh, I don't have time to write," I say, Get up earlier. Stay up later. There's always a way to do it if you want to. It's like when you fall in love, there is always a way that you will get together, even if it's behind a door.
You said you were working in a school. What were you doing?
I was administering a school. I dealt with banks and money. I was terrible with all that, but that was my job for four years and a half.
Then the book came, and was the change in your life quite rapid after that?
Oh, no no no. Then the book came and of course I didn't quit my job because I didn't know it would make a living. I didn't think it could. And then I wrote a second book and I still had my job and still working at night. I was living in Venezuela. The first book I wrote with a little portable typewriter on the kitchen counter. The second book I organized a little office in a closet and I bought an electric typewriter. And for the third book my son said, "You need a computer." After my third book I quit my job.
The third book was...?
Eva Luna. But I didn't think that I could support a family just writing. It was like something on the side. My books were already being translated and they were bestsellers and all that. But I was still very insecure. I didn't have the feeling that I could write another book. This happens every time but now I have learned to trust that it will happen again. But every time when I finish a book I have the feeling that it happened by chance. That I tapped into the story by a sort of miracle and the next time it may not happen. So it's a feeling of uncertainty. And now I trust -- although I don't have any idea in my heart or in my mind on January 8th -- I trust that if I sit down there long enough, something will happen. But what, I don't know.
Where do your stories come from?
I don't know how it happens. Somehow it has to do with memory. It has to do with the person I am. With the experiences I have had in my life. It has to do with the world around me that interests me because I could not write a thriller, for example, because I'm not interested in that. Or a book about the corporate world. It's about the world that I feel is interesting. But I'm not in control, and I don't know if it will happen.
I have this feeling very strongly because after I wrote Paula I was in a writer's block for a long time. I would sit in front of the computer day after day and nothing would come out. I would have stories. I would even write the outline of the story and then I couldn't write the story because it just didn't happen. What is it that you need? I don't know. Maybe some playfulness or some good luck that I didn't have. I was depressed and I was trying too hard. Who knows?
You said you were blocked for a long time. How long?
That's a long time. Then what happened?
I gave myself a subject. I remembered that I'm a journalist by training and if I'm given a subject and enough time to research I can write about almost anything. So I gave myself a subject that would be as removed from death as possible. And I decided to write about food and sex, love: a celebration of life. I chose to write about aphrodisiacs. In the research I think I came back to my body.
So I know now that, if on January 8th I'm blocked or not inspired or whatever happens, I can always do non-fiction and start a project that is non-fiction.
Do you have a subject that you're currently interested in?
I would like to write about beauty. I'm not so scared because I have that resource. I'd rather write a novel, of course. In a novel I'm free to do anything I want. And in a book that is non-fiction I must stick with the facts. I wasn't a very good journalist. Really, I was a lousy journalist. I would lie all the time. I could never be objective. And if I didn't have a story, I would make it up. So as a journalist I wasn't any good. But all those things are allowed in fiction. | November 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.