When Isabel Allende published her first book in 1982—The House of the Spirits, a novel loosely based on her clairvoyant grandmother and the political unrest of her embattled home country, Chile—she never imagined the wild success that would follow. Sixteen books later, her recognitions include honorary degrees from respected universities, literary awards, a Feminist of the Year award and even a coveted spot on Oprah’s Book Club for the novel Daughter of Fortune.
Forced to leave Chile in the 1973 coup led by Augusto Pinochet (who overthrew Allende’s uncle, President Salvador Allende), she fled with her young daughter and son to Venezuela, where she worked as a journalist and lived for 13 years before moving to the United States.
In 1992 her daughter Paula, 28, became ill while working in poor Venezuelan communities and died of complications from a typically manageable illness.
Allende’s world went black. But out of the tragedy’s ashes, she wrote the memoir Paula. Several novels later, Allende has returned with a new memoir, The Sum of Our Days—a catalog of her life in the years since Paula’s death.
The memoir exposes highly personal family issues, including her stepchildren’s struggles with drug addiction, which led to the death of a daughter; her son’s marital problems after his wife left him for another woman; and other intimate details of those in her “emotional compound.”
Allende is as outspoken and opinionated in person as she is in her writing, and here she talks openly about her life, her losses and her eclectic novels and memoirs.
YOUR NEW MEMOIR, THE SUM OF OUR DAYS, IS WRITTEN AS AN INFORMAL SERIES OF LETTERS TO YOUR DAUGHTER, PAULA. IS IT EASIER TO WRITE ABOUT YOUR LIFE WHEN YOU WRITE IN LETTER FORM?
Yes, because I’m used to it. I write to my mother every day, and of course in a daily letter you end up telling everything—stories, dreams, recipes, family, politics and the world. I never read them again. When I sit down and write while thinking about someone, the writing is much easier.
DO YOU EVER RUN OUT OF THINGS TO SAY TO YOUR MOTHER?
We’ve been writing for 30 years; I don’t think we’ll run out of things to say to each other. We don’t live in the same country. We have a platonic love that doesn’t go through everyday routines. It’s very spiritual. We’ve learned to accept each other as we are.
YOUR MEMOIR PAULA, ABOUT THE YEAR LEADING UP TO YOUR DAUGHTER’S ACCIDENTAL DEATH, WAS A WAY TO MAKE SENSE OF WHAT HAPPENED TO HER. YET, THE SUM OF OUR DAYS ALSO TALKS A LOT ABOUT HER. DID THIS BOOK CLARIFY NEW FEELINGS?
This book is about my recent family and what happened to us 13 years after Paula died. It clarified my role in the family and my role in life. After writing the book I realized I’m a matriarch. I feel that I’m like a big umbrella, and I try to protect my tribe.
Many years have gone by, but the feeling of loss [for Paula] is still there and there’s some sadness. I don’t want to get rid of that sadness; it’s part of who I am today. I feel like it’s a fertile soil at the bottom of my heart where everything wonderful grows—creativity, compassion, love and even joy; the joy of knowing that there’s a spirit I can connect to. At the beginning, the first few years were horrible. Now I know there’s nothing wrong with suffering. We live in a society where we don’t want to accept anything that looks ugly, like death, pain or poverty. We all want to be great, but that’s not what life is about.
YOU’VE SAID THAT IN WRITING MEMOIRS, YOU WORK WITH THE TRUTH AND THEN END UP LYING. CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHAT YOU MEAN?
A memoir is my version of events. My perspective. I choose what to tell and what to omit. I choose the adjectives to describe a situation, and in that sense, I’m creating a form of fiction. I realized this when I showed the manuscript to the people in my life before it was published. Everyone had a different version of the stories because their feelings were different. If you and I witness the same accident in the street, you’ll tell it in one way, I’ll tell it in another and maybe one of us won’t remember it in a week.
There’s basically an element of fiction in everything you remember. Imagination and memory are almost the same brain processes. When I write fiction, I know that I’m using a bunch of lies that I’ve made up to create some form of truth. When I write a memoir, I’m using true elements to create something that will always be somehow fictionalized.
MEMORY IS SO INSUBSTANTIAL. DID YOUR DAILY LETTER-WRITING PRACTICE HELP YOU WRITE THE SUM OF OUR DAYS?
Yes. I took 13 years of letters out of the closet and could go through and remember the events as they happened—not only the chronological events, but the feelings with a freshness they wouldn’t have had if I didn’t have the letters. I feel that if it’s not written down, I’ll forget it. I need to write everything that happens to me to make it real.
SO WHAT NEED OR IMPULSE DOES WRITING FICTION SATISFY FOR YOU?
I never know why I’m writing a book (with a few exceptions), but in general I have no idea why I’m obsessed with a subject until months after the book has been published. Then, journalists start asking questions and slowly it becomes clear to me how it’s connected to my life. Everything I write has to be connected to my life. One of the things that always comes up in my writing is the search for freedom, especially in women. I always write about women who are marginalized, who have no means or resources and somehow manage to get out of those situations with incredible strength—and that is more important than anything. I’ve learned to trust the ideas. If I have the seed inside me and it’s growing, now I trust it.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO LEARN TO TRUST YOUR IDEAS?
By the fourth book I started letting go of control. I was scared at the beginning. Every book was like a gift that fell from heaven into my lap, which I feared would never come again.
I’m not the one who invents the stories; I’m like a radio that picks up the waves. Somehow, if I move the dial very carefully, I’ll pick up the wave and get the story. But the story doesn’t belong to me; it’s somewhere out there floating. That’s very liberating.
YOU’VE WRITTEN 18 BOOKS—NONFICTION, HISTORICAL NOVELS, YA FICTION, AN ADVENTURE NOVEL AND EVEN A BOOK OF RECIPES—AND YOU USED TO WORK AS A JOURNALIST. DOES ONE OF THESE FORMS APPEAL TO YOU MORE THAN THE OTHERS?
Historical novels, because everything is given. When you study a period and a place, you have the theater in which the characters can move. Everything is given to you by history and by the place. You just have to move the characters within that context. Why am I attracted to a certain period? I have no idea. I don’t think I could write about the Roman Empire, but I can write about slavery in the Caribbean. I think of the human condition at the time. I find it easier to write from the perspective of a person of color, usually a Latin American woman.
HOW LONG DO YOU RESEARCH A BOOK?
For Daughter of Fortune, I researched for seven years, but I didn’t mean to. Things happened; my daughter died and I went into a writer’s block. Often, I research a book while I’m writing other books. I’ve been researching the book I’m writing now for five years. I’m researching all the time.
WHAT DO YOU READ FOR PLEASURE?
Fiction in English. All summer I read fiction because you must read for the pleasure and beauty of it, and not only for research. I don’t read thrillers, romance or mystery, and I don’t read self-help books because I don’t believe in shortcuts and loopholes.
YOU WRITE YOUR BOOKS IN SPANISH, AND THEN THEY’RE TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY YOUR TRANSLATOR, MARGARET SAYERS PEDEN. THEN, YOU GO BACK AND REVISE THE ENGLISH TRANSLATION. DOES MUCH CHANGE IN THIS PROCESS?
I read it line by line, but it would be very presumptuous to try to correct her English. Sometimes we work together on some irony, humor or subtlety that we could tighten up a bit; often after I read the translation, I change the Spanish because I realize if it’s not working in English, it isn’t working in Spanish.
HAS SHE DEVELOPED A SENSE OF YOUR TONE AND STYLE?
Absolutely. She knows the kind of adjectives I would never use, for example. She has translated everything I’ve written, except for my first book. It’s like a psychic connection. She said, “Be careful what you write because it will happen to me.” And she asks for happy endings, which I can’t provide, really.
YOUR FATHER WAS THE CHILEAN AMBASSADOR TO PERU. YOUR UNCLE, SALVADOR ALLENDE, WAS CHILE’S PRESIDENT. IS THERE A POLITICAL BONE IN YOU THAT COMES THROUGH IN YOUR WRITING?
I don’t think it comes from my family, but in 1973 we had a military coup. After that we had 17 years of a brutal dictatorship under Pinochet and I had to get out. I lived as a political refugee in Venezuela for 13 years. Then, I moved to the United States. The military coup made me aware of how important politics are. You can’t say you’re not interested in politics; it affects everything.
In all my books there are political and social interests, just as there are feminine issues. This is part of my life; I can’t write about anything else. Every life of a character is within a context. If I write detached from a social and political background, my story looks like a soap opera where everybody is indoors, not working and living off their emotions.
It was important for me in writing this memoir to write about what was happening in the country and the world. I had to mention Sept. 11. My American editor said, “Everybody knows about this—why do you have to write about it?” My books are translated into 30 languages, and they don’t all know about it or remember it. The American audience isn’t my largest. I was most interested in how it affected my family for this book.
DO YOU GET IN TROUBLE FOR WRITING ABOUT YOUR POLITICAL BELIEFS?
I think that I’m entitled to have ideas about this country that are influenced by what I see abroad. We’re very insular here, very provincial. We only look at our belly buttons and don’t contemplate the rest of the world.
WHAT IS THE MOST USEFUL PIECE OF WRITING ADVICE FROM YOUR ILLUSTRIOUS CAREER THAT YOU WOULD OFFER TO NEW WRITERS?
When in doubt, cut without mercy. Read everything aloud so you will notice tone, rhythm, repetitions, clichés, etc. Write a thousand drafts if necessary.