Isabel Allende: “The creative process is one part inspiration and three parts just work and discipline.”
Andreea Chebac: How did you get inside of a teen’s mind for the book Maya’s Notebook? Was it hard?
Isabel Allende: I have three grandchildren. When I wrote the book, the youngest one, Nicole, has gone through a very difficult adolescence. Fortunately, she didn’t get in trouble like Maya, but I always worried about her; she was wild, with no common sense, beautiful and had a boyfriend from hell. Her parents and me, as her grandmother, had to watch her constantly. Now she is 20, captain of her volleyball team at New York University, she is doing very well and she has a kind and smart boyfriend who adores her. My fears about Nicole inspired Maya. It was easy to get in the mind of the character because I was very close to my granddaughter.
AC: Why did you choose to present the dark side of youth?
IA: I have three stepchildren, my husbands’ children with his first and second wife. Two of them have already died of drug related causes and the oldest, who is now 50 years old, is still doing drugs. His life is wasted, he looks terrible and for my husband’s sake, I pray that he will not die during his father’s life. I have seen the devastation of drugs to the addict and everybody around him or her. I needed to write about it. A teenager like Maya is constantly exposed to drugs, violence, prostitution, and petty crime, so it seemed quite natural that a girl in trouble would suffer those experiences in the novel.
AC: The book contains many descriptions of native ceremonies and celebrations. Have you seen them in childhood? How do you remember them?
IA: Those ceremonies are mostly set in Chiloé. I have been there many times and I did a special trip to research for the ceremonies.
AC: The book contains the phrase: „Under the pretext of terrorism, the US government monitors our every movement”. Is this your personal opinion or just the opinion of the character?
IA: It is my opinion.
AC: What made you address the issue of dictatorship and torture in a novel about a teenage girl?
IA: Half the novel is set in Chile. Maya comes from Chilean refugees that had to flee from the dictatorship. There is a mystery about her grandfather. How could I not deal with those issues in the book?
AC: How did you create the plot of the book Maya’s Notebook? Did you have the outcome in mind or did it come to you in the process of writing?
IA: I never have an outline when I start writing, not even with my latest book, Ripper, which is a crime novel. In Maya’s case I had a vague idea of the main character when I began the book and I knew that the girl would end up in Chiloé. I had done some research and as I was writing I continued to research, that was very inspiring. I didn’t have an ending in mind, usually I wait until I have told the whole story and then let the characters decide the ending.
AC: How did you get the idea of a book with your own quotes about love?
IA: I suppose that those quotes are in my heart and my mind, they are part of my personality, so they keep up coming in different books.
AC: Are you considering publishing similar books, but with quotes on other themes?
IA: Not for the time being. The truth is that I don’t know what I will write in the future, each book comes to me from some mysterious place. I don’t choose the story, it chooses me.
AC: What did you feel when you wrote Paula and The Sum of Our Days? Do you consider one of them to be your best book?
IA: How can I judge my own books? That is the job of critics, professors and readers. Writing memoirs has been tricky for me because in both Paula and The Sum of our Days I exposed not only my life, but also the lives of other people, members of my family and friends. I had to be careful; on one hand I did not want to betray them and on the other I wanted the truth. There is a fine line between what is mine to tell and what is not mine to tell. I solved it by showing the manuscripts to everybody that was mentioned in the books for their approval. Only one person, one of my stepsons, did not want to be in The Sum of our Days, so I had to rewrite the book and eliminate him.
AC: I know that you start to write every new book at a certain date. Do you happen to have blockages?
IA: For me it is easier to have a day to start because I can plan my whole year around the writing time. I need several months of silence and solitude to write a book. If I don’t fell inspired on that particular date, I just show up every single day in front of my computer for as long as it takes. Sooner or later the muse will visit me. The creative process is one part inspiration and three parts just work and discipline.
AC: Why are most of your main characters women?
IA: I find them interesting, I know them well, I am surrounded by strong women and I have a Foundation to empower women and girls. Through the Foundation I have met many extraordinary women who have survived the most horrible experiences and yet they have not been broken. They stand on their feet, they become leaders and the struggle to save other women and girls from the fate they have endured. They inspire me.
AC: Are the magic and the inexplicable a part of life or just a part of literature?
IA: I don’t how it is in Romania, but I come from Latin America and I live in California, where the mysteries of life and the universe are not only accepted but embraced. We do not have all the answers, we just have unending questions. Personally, I believe that there is spirit in everything that exists and open to the inexplicable.
AC: Why did you wait so long to write your first novel and where did all the need for writing go to until then?
IA: Before becoming a writer I had been a journalist for many years in Chile. In Venezuela, where I lived as a political refugee after the military coup in Chile from 1975 to 1987, I did all sorts of odd jobs and ended up administering a school. I needed to support my family, so writing was out of the question; very few writers can make a living with their books. In l981 I started writing a letter to my dying grandfather, who was in Chile, and that letter became my first novel. I did not quit my day job until my third book, when I was sure that I could support my children with my writing.
AC: Can you reveal us something from you next book?
IA: No, sorry. I never speak of book in progress.
AC: As a writer, what is your dearest memory?
IA: Writing the first sentence of the House of the Spirits. I still remember it, more than thirty years later: Barrabas came to us by sea. Those words opened the door to literature and changed my life.
AC: It is hard to create funny characters ?
IA: For me it is not so hard because I wrote humorous columns for magazines and newspapers for many years. I tend to have an ironic view of reality, that helps me to cope with the absurdity of people and the world.
AC: You wrote an autobiographical novel. How much do you think the public needs to know about the life of a writer?
IA: Some readers like memoirs, others don’t. My memoirs have done well, so I assume that the readers are interested. I have no problem telling the public about myself and my life. It is not the secrets we share that make us feel vulnerable, it is the secrets we keep.
AC: How do you relate to criticism?
IA: I don’t mind it. Anybody who does something public is exposed to positive and negative criticism. Why would I be an exception?
Foto: Lori Bara
Author Isabel Allende is 71. Her husband is 76, her parents are in their late 90s and her dog, Olympia, is 16. So she’s confronting the issue of aging head-on and thinking hard about how to live passionately through the process.
“Society decides when we are old, usually at 65,” says Allende. “But really, we start aging at birth. We’re aging right now.”
She brings up some of the aging women she admires — Sophia Loren and Olga Murray, who at age 60 started working for the good of children in Nepal and now, at 88, has saved 12,000 girls from being sold into slavery. Also on her admiration list: the Dalai Lama. “The Dalai Lama is someone who has aged beautifully,” says Allende, “but who wants to be vegetarian and celibate?”
Allende asks, “So what have I lost in the last decades? People, places and the boundless energy of my youth. I’m starting to lose independence and that scares me.”
But there is also much that she has gained. ”Freedom. I don’t have to prove anything anymore. I’m not stuck in the idea of who I am, or who I should be … I feel lighter. I do not carry grudges, ambition, vanity, or any of the deadly sins that aren’t even worth it. It’s great to let go—I should have started sooner.”
That said, “For a vain female like myself, it’s very hard to age in this culture. Inside, I feel charming, seductive, sexy. Nobody sees that. I’m invisible. I hate to be invisible.”So how can she be sensual when she doesn’t feel desired? Her answers: To use her imagination and enjoy the sensory moments of life, like a hot shower. And how can she stay passionate? Her answer: She trains by saying yes to new experiences and practicing staying in love.
“In Spanish, the word for retirement is jubilación. Jubilation. Celebration,” she concludes. “I have chosen to stay passionate with an open heart and I’m working on it every day. Want to join me?”