Isabel Allende | Interview by Isabel Allende with Michael Toms

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Isabel Allende.
This section contains 5,142 words
(approx. 18 pages at 300 words per page)
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Interview by Isabel Allende with Michael Toms

SOURCE: An interview in Common Boundary, May/June, 1994, pp. 16-23.

In the following interview, Allende discusses her writing technique, how personal experience has affected her works, her literary influences, and her career as a journalist.

[Toms]: You began your writing career as a journalist. How did you become a fiction writer?

[Allende]: I didn't have a choice. I had been silent for a very long time, paralyzed by the experience of exile and the losses in my life. Then one day—it was January 8, 1981—I heard that my grandfather, who lived in Chile, was dying. When I was little, he was the most important male figure in my life. So I began a letter—it was a sort of spiritual letter—to say goodbye and to tell him that he could go in peace because I had all the anecdotes he had told me, all his memories, with me. I had not forgotten anything.

I started writing the first anecdote he ever told me—the story of my Aunt Rose, who everybody said was every beautiful. But the letter became something else. I started stealing from people's lives, and other characters stepped in. All of a sudden I was writing fiction. But I didn't know what it was; to me it was still a letter. When I had 500 pages, it didn't look like a letter anymore. Then my grandfather died, so he was never going to receive it.

When you realized you had a book on your hands, was it easy to get it published?

No, it was very difficult. I didn't know it was a book. I gave it to my mother, who said, "I don't know, but this looks like a novel to me." She helped me to correct and edit, and then I submitted it to several publishers in Latin America. No one wanted to read it. This was a first novel—a very long, very dirty manuscript. No one knew me, and I had a very political name, so it was a risky thing for any publisher.

Then one day a secretary in one of the publishing houses called me and said, "They are not going to publish this book here, but they're not going to tell you. I think it is good. Why don't you send it to an agent?" I didn't know that agents existed for books. I thought they were only for sports. So I sent the book to the person she recommended in Barcelona. The agent had the book published, translated, reviewed, and distributed. So I was very lucky.

You write in Spanish, don't you?

Yes, only in Spanish.

Have you tried writing in English?

No. I can write a speech in English, or a letter, but I can't write fiction. Fiction is something that happens to me in spite of myself. It happens in my belly, not in my mind. It's like making love or having children; it only happens in your own language, I suppose.

How do you start writing a book?

I always start my books on the same day—January 8—and I have a ceremony that has become more and more complicated. You know, writing a novel is a long pursuit; it can last two or three years. You have to be in love with it; you really have to befriend the spirits of the book. The characters have to walk into your life, into the space where you're going to write, and you have to welcome them. I need help and inspiration. My mother, my daughter, who died recently, and my grandmother, who died long ago, help me. In this ceremony I welcome them; I ask them to help. Every morning when I write, I light a candle for them. They're there; their spirits are with me.

I get in the mood by writing a letter to my mother every morning. Then I just open my heart. It sounds tacky, but that's the way it is. When I start a book, I write a first sentence. Usually I don't know what the first sentence is. Sometimes I think I know what I am going to write, but when I start I realize that something totally different has been growing inside me. So I let myself go; I'm very open to the experience. I pour out the story in a first draft that is very messy and very long; I don't know what the story is about until I print it and read it. Then I say, "Ah, this is what it is," and I start cleaning it up—eliminating, editing, correcting. When I think that it's more or less okay, I send it to my mother in Chile. She reads it and comes here with a red pencil. We fight for a month at least. Then she leaves. Of the 600 pages I had originally, I have maybe 15 left. Then I start working again.

Was your mother always an editor?

No. But she is a tough critic, and she loves me unconditionally and is very honest with me. She doesn't have to be careful; she can say anything she wants. I know that it's always with the best intention. Although I don't pay attention to everything she says, I know that if she doesn't like something, there is something wrong. She can say, for example, "I don't like the ending," but she can't say what would be a better ending. But if she doesn't like it, it's because it's not working. So I write it over and over again until I feel that I've found what is best—or better, at least.

Would you say your books have a message behind them?

No. I don't intend to deliver any sort of message, because I don't have any answers. I just have the questions, and these are the same questions that everyone asks. Maybe what a writer has to do is just tune in to the question and repeat it in such a way that it will have a ripple effect and touch more people. I'm always moved by the same themes, so by going over and over the same questions, I ask myself who I am. It's like a journey inside myself. I suppose people do that in therapy; I do it through my writing.

It strikes me that your work emerges from deep feeling. Do you see your work coming out of your own pain, your own anguish?

I think that every book is triggered by a very strong emotion that has been with me for a long time; usually that emotion is painful. However, the process of writing is so joyful—it's like an orgy—that I can't complain. I have a great time writing. I can write 14 hours a day and not eat anything in that time, and yet I feel wonderful because the process is so exhilarating. But what triggers it is painful. I often cry when I write.

Do you think that's true for most writers, that one has to suffer in order to be creative?

No. I think that you are more creative when you have free time, when you have met your basic needs, when you have affection and support, and when you are free. I think that's the best creative mood.

You're a great believer in solitude for writing. Tell me about that.

Writing requires concentration and silence, and I can only get that in total solitude. If I don't have a sort of womb where I work, where I can retreat completely, then I can't write. I can write journalistically, I can write letters and speeches, but I can't write fiction because fiction is like embroidering a tapestry. You go little by little with a very fine needle, with threads of different colors. You need concentration because you don't know the pattern, and you can't leave any threads loose. You have to tie them all, and that requires that you have everything in your mind. Maybe other writers have an outline and follow it, and in that way they don't need this kind of concentration. But I'm incapable of doing that. Writing happens one line at a time. So I have to keep in mind the previous line and the first line that I wrote three months ago so that the whole story will be clean in the end.

I recall a story you told about one of the accounts in one of your books. You wrote about a mine where peasants had been murdered. There was a kind of psychic thread that moved through your writing process.

That story is from Of Love and Shadows. What triggered that book was anger at the abuses of Chile's dictatorship. They had killed many people. Many had disappeared. The story you are referring to is of a political crime that happened in 1973. Fifteen peasants were murdered, and their bodies were never found. Five years later, the Catholic Church opened an abandoned mine and found the bodies. No one knows how they got the news and how they opened it before the police could stop them. It was in the media, and there was a trial; that is how I learned about it.

When I wrote the story, I had some partial information, but only what the Chilean government released. I had to fill in the gaps with my imagination. When I finished the story, my mother read the book and she said, "This is totally unbelievable. The fact that a priest learns in confession that the bodies are in the mine, takes his motorcycle, goes to a place that has been closed by the police during curfew, opens the mine, finds the bodies, photographs them, and brings the photographs to the cardinal—that's impossible!" And I said, "Well, Mom, it's a literary device. I have no other way of solving the plot."

The book was published in 1984. In 1988, I was able to return to Chile. While I was there a Jesuit priest came to speak with me, and he said he had learned in confession that the bodies were in the mine. He had gone there during curfew on his motorcycle; he opened the mine, photographed the bodies, and took the photographs to the cardinal. That's how the Catholic Church opened the mine before they were stopped by the authorities. He asked me how I had known, because the only people who knew about this were the cardinal and himself. I said, "I don't know. I thought I had made it up—but maybe the dead told me."

So it's like you are tapping into another level of consciousness, another reality.

I had the feeling with that book that the women in the story, the women who were looking for their husbands, sons, and brothers, forced me to write the story. There was a clamor that I heard, and that's why I wrote it with so much anxiety and anger. Often during the writing, I had the feeling that people were telling me things. I heard voices—not real sounds, just voices in my mind—and I would have dreams related to the story. I suppose that always happens when you are very concentrated on a project; you end up hearing things.

For example, when my daughter was sick for a year in a coma, I took care of her at home. She couldn't communicate in any way and was totally paralyzed. Yet I had the feeling that I could hear her voice, especially when I was asleep. I could hear her talking to me; I could see images. I knew exactly when she was going to die, because the communication became very strange, very foggy, blurred. I realized that she was just drifting away, although nothing had changed—there was no infection, her lungs were clear, and the doctor thought that she could live a long time. I knew that was not the case. The day she died, I knew the moment had come. She actually died the next day at four o'clock in the morning.

When you're concentrated on something—when your energy, your mind, and your emotion are focused on something—then you become aware of other signs, other languages, that maybe are always there, but you don't realize it when you are busy in the world.

How was that process for you being with your daughter while she was in a coma?

There were stages, different stages. At the beginning, I had hope and struggled like a samurai to bring her back to life. Then I slowly gave up. I first gave up her body and said, "Well, she's not going to be the beautiful, graceful, wonderful girl she was." Then I said, "It doesn't matter. We still have the rest." Then I gave up her mind. When I learned that she had severe brain damage and that she would never recover, I said, "Okay, the mind is not so important. I'll take care of her. We have her alive; she's still here." Then I gave that up also and said, "Okay, she can go, and I will not love her less for that." I told her that she could go, that I loved her very much, and that I was going to be with her here and somewhere else in the future. She died and I had some ashes, and then I didn't even have that.

Is there something else that you'd like to say about your daughter?

I get very emotional when I talk about this, but I know that many people have relatives or people they love who are dying or are very sick. My experience may be useful to them: After a while you lose the fear of death, not only that your daughter will die, but that you yourself will die. You realize that death is like being born. It's like a threshold that you cross into another world. You don't carry any memories with you; that's why it's so frightening. But there is nothing frightening in the fact that you die.

Paula died in my arms. I got in bed with her and held her for a day and a night until she died. When it happened, I had a feeling of peace so profound that I fell asleep. I still remember the dream I had when I was holding her and she was dead. My son woke me up because Paula was already rigid, and he said, "We have to dress her and clean her," and we did that. Then I said, "We are not going to take her out of the house until her husband comes." Her husband was in Chicago. So Paula's body stayed with us for two days. In those two days, I got acquainted with death. There's nothing frightening about it. It's painful for me now to know that I will never talk to her again and never hear her laugh. But she exists; the spirit exists and is connected to mine. I'm not scared of her death or mine.

That's a powerful experience. I don't know what I can say other than I can imagine another book or two coming out of the experience you've gone through.

It's difficult for me to write when I'm in the middle of a hurricane. Literature needs ambiguity, irony, distance. Right now I don't have any of those.

But you think it is important to tell stories. Why is that?

I think that stories are to the society what dreams are to individuals. If you don't dream, you go mad. Dreams somehow unclog your mind and keep you tuned in to the unconscious world, from which you can draw experience and information. I think that's what stories do. There are hundreds, thousands of stories, but we always repeat the same ones. All the great plots have already been told innumerable times. We can only tell them again in a different way. Every time we do that, we tune in to the myth and somehow we make society dream.

The power of storytelling is amazing. Just try saying, "Once upon a time …" in an elevator. No one will get off. They remain until you finish the story.

At one point you wrote or said something about the contract between the reader and the author. Can you talk about that?

In Sudan, the storyteller sits in the center of the village and says, "I'm going to tell you a story," and the people say, "Right," She says, "Not everything in the story is true." They say, "Right." But then the storyteller says, "Not everything is false, either." "Right." They have a contract, you see. She tells the story, and the listeners know the rules. Not everything is believable, but we are going to pretend that it is. Well, that's how I feel with my reader. I'm proposing something I'm saying, "Hey, this is the story I'm going to tell. Not everything is true, not everything is false, but maybe in this bunch of lies we can find some particles of truth. Let's both enter into this dimension of literature, which is similar to reality but not altogether real; let's pretend it is and find our way together." That's what writing is. I can't imagine writing for myself, or writing and not publishing, because I feel that a book doesn't exist in itself. It's not an end; it's a way of communicating, a bridge. If I don't have a reader and I don't find someone to hold my hand and explore the space and time of the book, then I'm not interested. I would rather do something else.

Do you think about the reader as you write?

I think about one reader. I don't think of large audiences or millions of copies. I want to touch one person's heart; I want to grab that person by the neck and say, "I'm not going to let you go until the end of the book. You will read until the last page." That's important, very important.

Are there any Latin American writers who have influenced your work?

All of them. I belong to the first generation of Latin American writers to be brought up reading other writers from our continent. The previous generation grew up reading European and American writers in translation. But I was influenced by all of them—by García Márquez, by Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, José Donoso, so many of them—some of my own generation, like Eduardo Galeano. It's easy for me to write because I don't have to invent anything. They already found a voice, a way of telling us to ourselves, so it's easy.

What about Pablo Neruda?

I don't know if he influenced my writing, but he's a big influence in my life. Pablo Neruda is a poet of the senses. For example, I think of his "Ode to Oil." You may have used oil all your life, but you've never seen the transparency or the color, felt the texture, smelled it; you don't know where it comes from or how it's made. The beautiful nature of oil becomes real when you read Neruda.

That's one of the gifts that Latin American writers give to us who live in North America. There's a quality that reminds me of the rain forest, the richness and luxuriant quality of the rain forest.

But I think that you find that in many North American writers, especially minority women—black women, Chicano, Chinese American, Japanese American, Native American. You find that kind of writing all the time. It's the WASP literature that is dead.

In The Infinite Plan, you have a chapter about Berkeley in the '60s. You weren't here then; how did you find out about Berkeley?

I have a friend who was in Berkeley in the '60s, and she took me back there. We walked the streets and talked to the street people who have been there for 20 years. She told me her story and allowed me to write about it, and many other people in the street told me their stories, too, so it was easy.

Vietnam was more difficult. I wrote the chapter about Vietnam twice…. I felt that I was ready to eliminate it from the book because all the information was there, but no real feeling. I can't relate to the experience of war. Being a woman and being so antimilitaristic, it's very difficult to understand that. But I'm lucky. At the point when I was ready to take it out, a Vietnam veteran walked into my life and gave me the wonderful gift of his experience. I recorded it, and my job was only to translate it into Spanish.

You've described yourself as an insatiable story hunter. What do you mean by that?

I'm always stealing other people's stories. I meet someone, and I want to know what has happened in their lives and why. I always ask the wrong questions, but I am lucky and I ask them to the right people, so I get stories.

So the people who appear in your books are real people?

I always write fiction, but I can't trace the boundary between reality and fantasy anymore. The stories are always based on real people or real life. But I turn them around and twist them and deform them, so it ends up being fiction.

You do this with your friends? You take their stories?

Yes. I take my friends' stories, but I'm careful not to betray them. For me, a person is always more important than a character. I never use another person's story unless I've been authorized to do so.

So you tap into other people's stories.

Yes. But again, it's fiction. I take many things. For example, I have taken some parts of my husband's life, but Gregory Reeves [the main character in The Infinite Plan] is not my husband. Now, fiction is sometimes more powerful than reality. Who knows? Perhaps my husband will start believing that he is Gregory Reeves. That happened with The House of the Spirits. When I wrote the book, my relatives were very angry at me. But then the book became very popular, and they started playing the roles. The book has replaced the family's real memory. Now they talk as if these things happened. But movies are more powerful than books, and as soon as the movie is released everybody will think that Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons are my grandparents.

You're talking about the movie of The House of the Spirits.

Yes.

Tell us about it.

It's directed by a Danish director, Bille August, who directed Pelle the Conqueror and The Best Intentions. He has done a super production. He filmed all the exteriors in Portugal because at the time when he started the negotiations, he could not do it in Chile. We still had a military dictatorship, and this is a very political movie. The interiors were filmed in Copenhagen. The movie will be in English, and the cast also includes Glenn Close, Vanessa Redgrave, and Winona Ryder. I have a wonderful photograph of myself sitting on an armchair surrounded by the stars in costume.

How about your other books? Do you see those getting onto film as well?

Well, they started shooting Of Love and Shadows in July 1993 in Argentina. It's an American production with an American director. Betty Kaplan. I'm signing the contract for Eva Luna and have some offers for The Infinite Plan but don't want to rush it.

Do you see any more Eva Luna stories emerging?

In every reading, someone from the audience asks that question. Writing short stories is very difficult. I find them much more difficult than a long novel. A short story is closer to poetry. You need inspiration, and I don't feel very inspired right now.

What advice would you give to someone who'd like to write a novel?

I don't know. I can't give any advice, but I tell my students that writing is like training to be an athlete. You're never going to break the record if you don't train every day. There's no way that you will write a novel by chance. There's a lot of daily work involved.

Then I think you have to be very cruel with the editing. Don't have any compassion for what doesn't work. Even if you've spent months working on a chapter, just eliminate it. The best advice I ever received is, "Cut, cut, cut." You do that in journalism all the time. You are looking for an adjective, and all of a sudden you realize that you don't need it; you leave the noun alone. You can do the same with a sentence, a chapter—with a lot of stuff. Cut.

Speaking of journalism, I once heard you say that you were a bad journalist because you always got too involved with your stories. How can anyone write about anything without being involved in it?

Yes, that's true, but there are limits. My limits were farfetched. I think I was a lousy journalist. I was always putting myself in the middle of everything, writing in the first person, never being objective. I lied all the time. If I didn't have any news, I made it up; that's a bit too much.

But don't you have to immerse yourself in something to be able to understand it? How can you distance yourself?

You have to pretend that you are objective. I was never able to do it. But I loved journalism. What I loved about it was the feeling of participation; you're in the streets talking to people. That feeling of belonging is wonderful!

How does it feel to be away from your home country?

It was terrible when I couldn't go back, but now I go every year. My mother is there. I have the feeling that I have one foot there and one foot here. The terrible time was when I was living in Venezuela and felt that I could not return. Maybe I could have returned, but I was afraid. Fear is such a strange thing. It makes you totally irrational; you make the weirdest decisions because you are afraid.

I once wrote a story of two people who are tortured. They find out when they are making love that both have had the same experience. One of the characters says, "Fear is stronger than love. Fear is stronger than death, than hatred, than everything. Fear can make you do the most awful things." When I wrote that story, I thought that was true. Now I would change that. I don't think that fear is stronger than love. I think love is stronger.

What created that change?

Paula, my daughter.

Life is amazing, isn't it?

Yes It's very complex and wonderful. But I have the feeling that life is like a very short passage in the long journey of the soul. It is just an experience that we have to go through, because the body has to experience certain things that are important for the soul. But we shouldn't cling to life and the world so much; we shouldn't cling to the material aspects of the world, because you can't take them with you. You will lose them no matter what; you will lose your own body.

Do you see that tendency more in the United States than in Latin America?

I see it everywhere. But I think there's a change. I'm very optimistic about the '90s. I think that there's more awareness, more sense of community. I tried to portray that in The Infinite Plan. My protagonist goes through life running after the materialistic American Dream. The '80s betray him, and he ends up on his knees. He has to start all over again; he has to find his roots and go back to basics, and he does that. I feel that's what's happening to this society. We've reached a point where violence, crime, loneliness, and despair are so terrible that people are looking for answers in other places now.

You're hopeful.

Oh, yes, very hopeful. I don't think that we're going to destroy ourselves with the ozone layer or a nuclear holocaust. I think that we're going to survive and be better.

What about community? Do you see community taking a new form in the '90s?

Allende on North American Culture:

One of the characteristics of North American culture is that you can always start again. You can always move forward, cross a border of a state or a city or a county, and move West, most of the time West. You leave behind guilt, past traditions, memories. You are as if born again, in the sense of the snake: You leave your skin behind and you begin again. For most people in the world, that is totally impossible. We carry with us the sense that we belong to a group, a clan, a tribe, an extended family, eventually a country. Whatever happens to you happens to the collective group, and you can never leave behind the past. What you have done in your life will always be with you. So, for us, we have the burden of this sort of fate, of destiny, that you don't.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both situations. In the United States, the fact that you can start again gives a lot of energy and strength and youth to this country. That is why it's so powerful in many ways, and so creative. However, it has the disadvantage of loneliness, of individuality carried to an extreme, where you don't belong to the group and where you can just do whatever you want and never think of other people. I think that's a great disadvantage—a moral and spiritual and ethical disadvantage.

Isabel Allende, in Mother Jones, September/October, 1994.

I think that humanity's capacity for survival is amazing. When we reach a point that we are going to destroy ourselves, we somehow wake up and make changes. I think that there are new forces in this society that are leading to change. More and more women have been able to get away from the cultural pattern that they received when they were children. These people are raising children who are different. So I'm hopeful, very hopeful.

What about urban violence?

In a lab, if you have too many rats in a cage, even if there is enough food, they will kill each other. So there is a point when we will have to divide the big cities into small villages. We are going to do that, because there is a point when these mega-cities destroy life and the environment. Mexico City has 19 million people who live in chaos. You can't live there. The birds fall dead from the sky because of the pollution. So we have to find solutions for that.

Where do you see your work taking you?

I don't have any plans for the future. I may die tomorrow. That's what I told my husband when I met him. It was October, and he said, "I'm going to visit you in Venezuela in December." I said, "What are you talking about? December? I may be dead by December." He said, "Why? Are you sick or something?" I said, "No, but who knows? I can be dead." That's how I feel. I feel I can be dead tomorrow, so I don't have any plans. I want everything now.

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