This vintage WD Interview from June 2002 features novelist Isabel Allende sharing her approach to starting a new novel, both in terms of the actual schedule, and the feelings and stories behind the idea for the book.
In the June 2002 WD interview, novelist Isabel Allende shared the method she takes for starting each new novel with then Features Editor Kelly Nickell. It’s an interesting approach in both its pragmatism of keeping to a schedule, and its superstition. Allende’s new novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, is out this January. For more of Isabel Allende, read her 2008 interview with WD.
Chilean author Isabel Allende has spent much of her life living on memories—memories of her homeland and of loved ones lost. As a relative of Chilean President Salvador Allende, she was forced into exile when he was overthrown during a 1973 coup. Away from her country and much of her family, Allende began writing to remember her life, and the lives of those she loved.
Ten books later, including such best sellers as Daughter of Fortune (a 2000 Oprah pick) and Paula, a memoir written in 1994 for her dying daughter, Allende has developed an almost ritualistic love for the writing process.
She begins each book on Jan. 8—the same date she began work on her best-selling debut novel, The House of the Spirits, more than 20 years ago.
“It’s a superstition, but it’s also discipline,” she says. “I really need to organize my life around the writing, so during the first months of the year, I don’t travel, I don’t have any social life, I don’t lecture anywhere. I just write.”
Those intense first few months are marked by repetition and progress. The 59-year-old author gets up each morning, has a cup of tea, and then adjourns to her office—a little house in the backyard of her San Francisco home. She lights a candle to “call inspiration and the spirits” and begins her work. Aside from an occasional afternoon walk, Allende writes until dinner. And at night, when she sleeps, she returns to her characters in dreams so vivid that they often influence the novel’s course.
As for outsiders, they are not welcomed into her writing room—they may disturb the world she’s working to create.
“I try to keep my space very, very contained, because I feel that inspiration and the spirits and the story and the characters live there for as long as I’m writing,” she says. “Writing is a very quiet and slow process. It is very much like meditating. When you go into the space of the writing, and you enter that universe of the novel, you start seeing connections—you have all the threads in your mind somehow.”
She wasn’t always so meticulous about her writing space, though. The House of the Spirits—which began as a letter to her dying grandfather—was writing from her kitchen. Living as an exile in Venezuela at the time, she spent her days working as a school administrator and her nights writing. Closets, cars and coffee shops also have served as makeshift writing spaces.
“I can write anywhere really,” she says. “The idea is that if you really want to do something, it’s like making love, you know, you did it behind the door.”
The years she spent in exile have had an indelible influence on the author’s fictional creations. Much of Allende’s work is autobiographical, with the eccentric family members playing various roles and real life events, such as the military coup, shaping plot lines.
In addition to her autobiographical writing style and seamless stream-of-consciousness prose, Allende’s novels are known for their invoking first lines which “grab the reader by the neck” and hold him until the end.
“I always try to write the beginning of the book in a very organic way that comes more from the heart or from the womb than the mind, because that sets the tone for the rest of the book,” she says.
“It’s like a door that opens into the dark space where the novel lives. And slowly, day by day, I sort of illuminate that darkness and bring out the characters.”
When it comes to endings, however, the author’s technique is less defined. She simply gives up, and trusts in the story to reveal its own ending.
“That happened with my novel Daughter of Fortune,” she says. “I wrote the story, and one day the last sentence was, ‘I am free now.’ The next morning I came to finish the book, to write the last chapter, and when I opened the computer and read that sentence, I realized that that was the end of the book, that it didn’t need the last chapter.”
For an author who trusts in the spirits for guidance and embraces the unexplainable mysteries of life, not even dreams can be discounted. Allende says she’s been recording her dreams for years and is now able to recognize the symbolism as it relates to her work.
“I dream of babies when I’m writing and only when I’m writing,” she says. “So, I know that the book is a baby and what happens to the baby in the dream is what is happening to the book in real life.
“If I dream the baby is crying an old man’s voice, then I have to revise the narrative voice in my book because there’s something that is not working that I have not noticed when I’m awake.”
So much mysticism finds its way into Allende’s novels that critics have deemed much of her work magic realism (although she insists this applies to only a few of her novels). Instead, she says it’s her openness and life as a “wanderer” that contribute to the other-worldly contexts found in her novels.
“I feel that my stories have a sort of epic breadth to them because I’m not very local—it’s hard for me to write a very intimate story that happens between two people in a house,” she says. “All my novels have this … they incorporate social issues, political issues, feminine issues.”
Her years as an exile may inspire the expansive flair her novels possess but Allende says it was her “unhappy” childhood that first sent her into the realm of make-believe. And it’s for those lonely years that writing now acts as a sort of joyful therapy.
“I think the first six years of one’s life are very important. You carry with you for the rest of your life the feelings and many of the events and memories from that time. Even if you don’t’ remember exactly, it’s inside you and that shapes you as a person later.
“I had a very solitary childhood. I was always scared … I have tried to exorcise all of my demons from childhood in the process of writing, to recreate the memories that may have been lost.”
Letters also have shaped Allende’s life as a writer. Each day, she and her mother, who lives in Chile, exchange letters via fax or mail. E-mail’s practicality, she says, is detrimental to the art of writing: “People write e-mails the way they talk on the phone—there’s no concern for language or for meaning or for anything.
“My mother has a closet full of [my] letters—45 years of letters—in Chile, and I have her letters here. It’s like keeping a journal but somebody’s reading it, so there’s a witness to your life, which is very important.”
Order your copy of Isabel Allende's newest novel, out in January 2020.
As for her latest project, which she started on Jan. 8, 2002, Allende’s working on the second book of a young adult trilogy. The first, The City of Beasts, will be released in the United States in October. While she finds the young adult genre inventive in many ways, she looks forward to returning to her first love.
“There’s something about the richness of the language for an adult novel that you cannot do for kids,” she says. “With children, if you go too much into adjectives and long sentences and whatever, they get bored. Another limitation is that you don’t use sex, so there’s a whole aspect of life that is not included.”
Spirits and magic aside, it’s dedication and talent that have brought the author so much success. And fueling the many hours she spends alone in a room with a computer and burning candle is her love for the creative process:
“Writing is like training to be an athlete. You have to do it every day. No one sees the training, but it’s necessary. You have to read a lot and then write one good page a day. Get up earlier, skip lunch, go to bed later, but just write that good page. And by the end of the year, you have 365 pages; that’s a book.
“People think that they will sit down and produce the great American novel in one sitting. It doesn’t work that way. This is a very patient and meticulous work, and you have to do it with joy and love for the process, not for the outcome.”
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