‘My roots are in my memory’: Isabel Allende

Feminism is the most important revolution of all time because it involves the fate of half of humanity, says Isabel Allende

Published - February 12, 2022 04:00 pm IST

Born in Peru in 1942 to Chilean parents, literary powerhouse Isabel Allende is the author of 25 books including The House of the Spirits, Of Love and Shadows, The Stories of Eva Luna, A Long Petal of the Sea, The Japanese Lover,and, most recently, Violeta. Her work has been translated from Spanish into more than 42 languages and has sold more than 74 million copies worldwide. She was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004 and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2014.

Allende lives in California, U.S. Excerpts from an interview:

You are one of the most prolific authors in the world. What motivates you as a writer? What keeps you going?

Writing is not work for me. I love to tell stories. I read a lot and I am a good listener, so I will never run out of material. The air is full of stories, voices and presences, I just have to tap into all that fabulous noise. Creating a story is fun, but I also like research, correcting, editing, etc.

Your first novel, The House of the Spirits , was rejected by more than one publisher before it became a bestseller. Did the rejections dent your confidence?

I had no expectation of ever being published when I wrote my first novel, but my mother, who thought it was a good book, sent the manuscript to several publishing houses in South America. No one was interested. Somebody suggested that I should find a literary agent and gave me the name of Carmen Balcells in Spain. She sold the book to every European language publisher in less than a week. The success of The House of the Spirits was a surprise for everybody involved, most of all, myself. This happened 40 years ago and the book is still in print in many languages. A miracle, really.

In My Invented Country , you say that your writing is “a constant exercise in longing” and that nostalgia is your “vice”. Could you elaborate?

I have always been displaced. I was born in Peru, raised in Chile, travelled in my adolescence because my stepfather was a diplomat, went to Venezuela as a political refugee after the military coup of 1973 in my country, and eventually ended up as an immigrant in the U.S. My roots are in my memory and in the hearts of the few people I love. In my writing, I am always looking at the past. I have written much about Chile, although I have not lived there for almost half a century. I have an idealised Chile in my mind and my heart.

Gender politics and gender justice preoccupy you as a writer. Is there any real hope of smashing the patriarchy and building an equitable world?

We have come a long way but the journey is long and difficult... The fact that we have not replaced the patriarchy with a new, equitable civilisation doesn’t mean that we have failed. It means that the struggle continues. And it doesn’t mean that it can’t be achieved. I know that it will happen but not in my lifetime. Hopefully, my granddaughters or their granddaughters will get there. Feminism is the most profound and important revolution of all time because it involves the fate of half of humanity.

When writing historical fiction, are you wary of research overwhelming fiction?

You are absolutely right! The danger of drowning the story in too many facts is always present. I am very thorough with my research, I really do my homework, but when I start the book — always on January 8 — I put it aside, breathe in and breathe out, relax, and attack my keyboard. I have to let the characters speak for themselves and the story to unfold organically.

The research gives me the foundation but should not be noticeable on the page. At the end, when I edit and correct, I check that the facts are accurate. This method has served me well, because I have never had complaints from historians.

What is the inspiration behind your latest novel, Violeta , the story of an extraordinary woman spanning a century?

My mother died shortly before the pandemic. She was my best friend and confidante. We wrote to each other every day for many decades and I collected the letters. In my garage there are 24,000 letters in plastic boxes.

People suggested that I should write about my mother, not only because our unusual relationship was well documented in those letters, but also because she witnessed almost a century of history. I tried but I couldn’t do it. I was too close to her. Instead, I created a character like her and called her Violeta. Like my mother, Violeta is born in 1920, she is beautiful, smart and talented. The difference is that she could support herself and had control over her life. My mother did not.

The interviewer is the author of A Happy Place and Other Stories.

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