Photographs by Lori Barra/isabelallende.com
Five years after our first conversation, famed writer Isabel Allende agreed to another exclusive interview, right after the tour dedicated to her latest book, “In the Midst of Winter.” The queen of magical realism, as we like to call her, talked about the challenges of writing, how she feels as an immigrant in the United States, about success, letting go and new beginnings.
We chose to publish this interview today, January 8th, because it is the date Allende is starting her new book. It’s the date on which, in 1982, she sat down to write a long letter to her dying grand-father, and that letter became her very first novel, “The House of the Spirits.” Allende has started all of her books on the 8th of January ever since.
Whether her books or in this interview, Allende always delivers.
What’s the feeling that you’re left with every time a book tour is over?
I’ve toured in 23 cities in the U.S. and, before that, I also did part of Europe and I had been in South America, so it’s been a crazy end of the year! But I feel relieved because I’m healthy, I’m full of energy, I didn’t get sick during the trip. I’m tired, but I’m fine and the book is doing well. Now the time approaches, in January, when I go into retreat. I won’t be talking to anybody, I’ll be just writing. That’s my preferred time.
Do you already know what you’re going to write?
I have an idea of what I want to write. I did research on a time and a place that I have in mind. That gives me a little information to get started with, but I don’t know the story or the characters yet. That comes slowly, in the first few weeks after I show up in front of my computer. Slowly, the characters will emerge, but I don’t have them right now.
I remember seeing you at the event that recently took place in Atlanta, where over 600 people came to meet you. How do you feel about people’s admiration and about your success?
You know, success is something that happens in a sort of external circle. My private life is the same, independently of the success that I have or have not. It’s true that I’m connected to my readers and I get a lot of emails, but I work many hours a day, I run my foundation, I have a private life and I have very few, but very close friends, I have my family and that’s it. I don’t live in the celebrity world at all. I feel very blessed to have the kindness and the love of my readers. But, for the most part, I see that only when I travel.
I did an event in Seattle and 2,500 people came, the Symphony Hall was full. I feel the energy and the strong connection we have, and I understand that what I do is important for some people. But writing is a very solitary pursuit. I write in a little room in my house, then the book is published, I close it out and I don’t see it again, unless I meet the readers. That’s the only good part about the tour: meeting them!
So you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how successful you are.
No, I don’t! (laughs) I’m a busy person and I have a lot of projects that I think about! I don’t have time to look back. Sometimes people ask me questions about “The House of the Spirits.” I wrote that book 35 years ago, I never read it again, I have no idea what the book is about! I forgot!
So, I don’t think much about my success. I definitely don’t feel entitled to it. I’m delighted and always very grateful. You know, many people do wonderful things and they don’t get the recognition I get! I’m very priviledged, very lucky.
Do you think there was something in the way you did things that brought you this recognition? Is there a strategy, a secret?
No, there is no strategy or secret. If there was one, people would use it. Some books touch people’s hearts and some just… don’t. Some books have a more intellectual approach, and the readers’ response is of the same kind. In my case, the responses are very emotional, because my stories connect to the emotional part of people.
In the process of writing, is there any aspect that you still find very hard to achieve, in spite of your experience?
I don’t find it very hard, but I find it hard to give the book a structure, so that it reads easily. In my new book, we have a main story: a snow storm, three characters, a body discovered inside of a car trunk, and a three-day adventure. But that’s not important. What matters the most is the back story of each one of the characters. To be able to weave those back stories into the main one, without interrupting the flow of the narration – that’s what is difficult.
Every book has different needs, different requisites. You can’t apply one formula that was successful in one book to another book. Unless you are writing in a particular genre. For example, crime novels or romantic novels, where you can repeat the formula. But in the kind of book I write, you have to find the tone, the right voice, because each book is different. This process usually takes me a few weeks before I can really get started.
Do you think a writer becomes better in time or tends to lose some of the energy as they they grow older?
I don’t know how it is for other writers, but I feel more confident. I’m not so scared anymore when I’m confronted with a blank screen on January 8th. I know that if I sit there long enough, I will be able to write a story. I’ve never abandoned a good story. I just keep going until it’s done. But I know that I still make mistakes. I try not to repeat the same mistakes, but I make new ones!
Each story, as I said before, will bring new challenges, and I’m not sure how I’m going to confront those challenges, but at least I have the experience now, after 35 of writing, that allows me to say: OK, calm down. Just breathe in, breathe out and the book will happen.
Then, I’ve learned a few tricks. For example, if a scene is not working, and I’m struggling with it and I’ve written it several times and it still feels impossible, it means it shouldn’t be there. The best solution is to just eliminate it. It’s a great thing to be able to delete on the computer, and I don’t save what I cut, I delete everything that’s useless, because I don’t want to recycle it. I want new, fresh ideas all the time.
Have you applied this principle in your life, as well?
Oh, yes, my dear, but in life, it takes me a very long time! It takes me years. I divorced twice. My first husband, who was a very good man and we’re still friends – I should have divorced him nine years before I did. It took me a long, long time to make the decision and say: Basta, it’s enough! Then, my second husband, Willie, and I, we divorced a couple of years ago, but of course, the marriage had ended long before. The marriage doesn’t end the day you divorce, it ends way before! I tried to patch it, I went to therapy, I did my best, really. But I realized that he wasn’t making any efforts because he wasn’t interested. So, yes, I do try to let go, but it takes me a while. And once it’s done, it’s done forever! I don’t recycle.
How do you know that a marriage is over?
You feel it in your bones! You feel the lack of energy. Everything is flat, and you can see the other person has no enthusiasm and no desire to fix anything. We would go to therapy and he would just sit there and check his phone! He wouldn’t even participate. Of course he was not interested, I would’ve had to be stupid not to know that.
Your latest book deals a lot with the theme of immigration. You said several times that you will always be an immigrant in the U.S. I was wondering, after so many years, do you still feel like an immigrant?
Yes, I’m a first generation immigrant, a foreigner. But most people in this country descend from immigrants, except for the Native Americans and, of course, the African Americans who were brought here in slavery. But the rest, we’re all immigrants, and we tend to forget that. Now, the second or third generation immigrants tend to forget that, they feel like they belong to this place, because they were born here. I was not, I came when I was 45. I had to learn English and adapt, so I’ve always felt like a foreigner, but it’s not a bad thing. It’s good for a writer. It forced me to observe things carefully, to pay attention, to listen, so that I can understand things that other people take for granted.
So it doesn’t hurt you anymore, the fact that you are an immigrant?
No, it doesn’t hurt me, it just makes things different. But I am a very priviledged immigrant: I am a citizen, I won’t be deported. I work with undocumented immigrants and I know they live in terror. We’ve had some terrible fires recently here, where I live, in California. Many of the people who suffered the most because of those fires were poor farmers, people who have come here as undocumented immigrants, many of them, to work in the wineries. All the agricultural work is done by Latin Americans coming from Central America or Mexico. Those people lost everything they had, and they would not go to the shelters, because they were afraid they could be deported. So they didn’t get any help. That gives you an idea of how bad things are for them.
How do you feel about the way the government deals with this crisis related to immigrants?
I think that Trump has encouraged hatred, xenophobia, rasism, anti-immigrant sentiments, because that is what his base feels. He has harvested that and given it a megaphone, so that it’s now the official law of the country. I think it’s very dangerous and it’s evil. However, governments pass and people stay, and I think we will get through this crisis. I hope that Trump will not destroy our institutions and our sense of decency.
What was the hardest time for you as an immigrant in the U.S.?
When I had just arrived and I didn’t know anything about this country. I didn’t know how the country worked. I came from Venezuela. In Venezuela, to give you a minor example, the mail doesn’t work, it has never worked well. The fact that you would put a check in the mail to pay a bill was unheard of! I remember when my then husband said: We will put a check in the mail for that, and I said: What?! What are you talking about? Everything was new to me, everything was different. Plus, my English was very, very poor, so I couldn’t work, I couldn’t watch TV, I couln’t go to the movies or follow instructions of any kind. It took me a while to get acquainted with the country, to understand the rules of the game and learn the language.
Then, I came here because I fell in love with Willie, and Willie had the most disfunctional family in the world: three biological children and all three of them drug addicts. It was a nightmare. I didn’t have anyone from my family, I couldn’t bring my children, because I needed to become a citizen to be able to sponsor them. That took five years!
What helped you the most in the process of adaptation to this new country and this new life?
People. Try to connect with people. Try to belong to a community, to be of service, to work with others. Human connection got me through the first year, which was the hardest, especially because I didn’t have any family here, and I’m used to having an extended family.
A “tribe” as you like to call it!
Exactly, a tribe! I didn’t have them here, so I relied on other people.
What was the most unexpected thing that ever happened to you?
Success. Nobody was expecting it, let alone myself! When I wrote a book and it became successful – that was completely unexpected!
Is there a dream that has always eluded you?
Not really, but there are dreams that I keep struggling for. I became a feminist when I was a kid, a child really. The dream of equality, the dream of freedom and respect for women has always been with me. And I know that we have achieved a lot in the years of my life, but not enough. That is one dream that has not eluded me, but that I keep pursuing.
Is it important to have at least one dream to pursue?
It is, and I have several dreams to pursue, because I have a foundation, and my foundation is directly related to my idea as a feminist: empowerment of women. I work for peace, I work to stop domestic violence, I fight for reproductive rights and to give girls an education so that they can become financially independent. All those things keep me going and motivate me very much. For example, in the latest book, “In the Midst of Winter,” Evelyn Ortega, that Guatemalan girl, was inspired by one of the undocumented cases at my foundation.
It’s unbelievable that this character actually exists in real life…
Oh, yes. I had to leave out some of the details, because they were so awful that it would have turned the readers away. There’s only so much that you can write. Fiction needs be believable, while reality seldom is.
What have you found to be the secret of living a good life?
To not be afraid. To not be scared of suffering, of stress, work, relationships. I just confront whatever comes with a sense of adventure and curiosity. Sometimes, of course, I make horrible mistakes and things happen to me that I don’t want to go through. But that’s better than closing myself in a safe life.
The character of Richard in my new book is a person who has a perfectly safe little life. Everything is measured, everything is organized in such a way so that nothing can happen to him. Therefore, he’s half dead. When he opens his heart and takes a risk, he sees how things begin to happen to him: friendship, solidarity, humor, adventure and, eventually, love! That’s how I think I’ve lived my life, with a sense of adventure. No fear of risk!
It seems to me that this is the same way you pursued love, even now, with your new partner.
Yes. What’s the worst that can happen? That I suffer, and so what? That he suffers. Well, it’s his risk, also. We are not going to not live our lives because of all kinds of reasons: Oh, we are too old! Oh, this is too risky! No way! We are going to live it intensively for as long as it lasts!
The motto of your latest book is Albert Camus’s famous quote: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” What has helped you keep your invincible summer alive?
The willingness to live with an open heart. I’m living my summer now because I took the risk of love.
Isabel Allende’s latest novel was published in the U.S. in October 2017 and can be found here.
Many thanks to Mrs. Chandra Ramirez for making this interview possible.Semnat de Corina Stoica