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On “Why I Write”

“In every interview during the last few years I encountered two questions that forced me to define myself as a writer and human being: Why do I write? And who do I write for…?

“In 1981, in Caracas, I put a sheet of paper in my typewriter and wrote the first sentence of The House of the Spirits…. At that moment I didn’t know for whom I was doing it, or from whom. In fact, I assumed that no one would ever read in except my mother, who reads everything I write. I was not even conscious that I was writing a novel. I thought I was writing a letter – a spiritual letter to my grandfather, a formidable old patriarch, whom I loved dearly. He had reached almost one hundred years of age and decided that he was too tired to go on living, so he sat in his armchair… calling Death....

“I wanted to bid him farewell, but I couldn’t go back to Chile, and I knew that calling… was useless, so I began this letter. I wanted him to go in peace because all his memories were with me. I had forgotten nothing.

“For a year I wrote every night with no hesitation or plan. Words came out like a violent torrent. I had thousands of untold words stuck in my chest, threatening to choke me. The long silence of exile was turning me into stone; I needed to open a valve and let the river of secret words find a way out. At the end of that year there were five hundred pages on my table; it did not look like a letter anymore....

“In the process of writing the anecdotes of the past, and recalling emotions and pains of my fate, and telling part of the history of my country, I found life became more comprehensible and the world more tolerable. I felt that my roots had been recovered and that during that patient exercise of daily writing I had also recovered my own soul....

“…Maybe the most important reason for writing is to prevent the erosion of time, so that memories will not be blown away by the wind. Write to register history, and name each thing. Write what should not be forgotten.”

From: Zinsser, William, editor. Paths of Resistance the Art and Craft of the Political Novel. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. Pp 41-45.

 


 

On The Rituals of Writing, and on January the 8th

You start writing all your books on January 8. Why?
On January 8, 1981, I was living in Venezuela and I received a phone call that my beloved grandfather was dying. I began a letter for him that later became my first novel, The House of The Spirits. It was such a lucky book from the very beginning, that I kept that lucky date to start.

Can you speak about your ceremonies to write?

That day, January 8th, which is a sacred day for me, I come to my office very early in the morning, alone. I light some candles for the spirits and the muses. I meditate for a while. I always have fresh flowers and incense. And I open myself completely to this experience that begins in that moment. I never know exactly what I'm going to write. I may have finished a book months before and may have been planning something, but it has happened already twice that when I sit down at the computer and turn it on, another thing comes out. It is as if I was pregnant with something, an elephant's pregnancy, something that has been there for a very long time, growing, and then when I am able to relax completely and open myself to the writing, then the real book comes out. I try to write the first sentence in a state of trance, as if somebody else was writing it through me. That first sentence usually determines the whole book. It's a door that opens into an unknown territory that I have to explore with my characters. And slowly as I write, the story seems to unfold itself, in spite of me. It just happens.

I'm not the kind of writer who can have an outline, talk about the writing to anybody, or read parts of my writing in process. Until the first draft is ready - and that first draft can take months, and it's usually, very long - I don't know what the book is about. I just sit down everyday and pour out the story. When I think it's finished, I print it, and I read it for the first time. At that point I know what the story is about, and I start eliminating everything that has nothing to do with it.

From: http://www.isabelallende.com/curious_frame.htm

 



On One Hundred Years of Solitude and García Marquez

What relationship is there between your work and García Marquez’s narratives, especially Cien años de soledad [One Hundred Years of Solitude]? It’s been frequently pointed out that La Casa de los espíritus is strongly resonant of Cien años.

If you are talking about the family saga, I really wasn’t thinking of Garcia Marquez when I wrote La Casa de los espíritus. Or when I turned that letter into a novel. García Marquez is very important to Latin American Literature, and I think he’s a very powerful influence on me. Nevertheless, I wasn’t thinking about him, but rather of Henry Troyant, the French writer who left Russia after the Revolution and wrote the story of the many Russian families who lived that exile in Europe, especially in France. I was thinking of Stendhal. I was thinking of our very own Latin American families. I live in a continent where the family is very important, so it seemed natural to tell the story of a country and continent through the eyes of a family. My theory is that in my continent the state is generally my enemy It’s every single citizen’s enemy. You can’t hope for anything from the state…. Where is your protection, your security? In your family, and to that extent that you have your tribe around you, you are safe. That’s why the family is so important, and that’s why it’s constantly present in Latin American literature, not only in Cien años de soledad.

From: García Pinto, Magdalena. Women Writers of Latin America: Intimate Stories (translated from the Spanish by Trudy Balch and Magdalena Garcia Pinto). Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991, pp. 35-36.


Some have called your writing “imitation of García Marquez.”

Look, if you’re trying to be a dancer, and someone says it’s bad because you dance like Nureyev, wouldn’t you feel wonderful? That’s the way I feel when people say I write like García Marquez. I think he is the great writer of the century, so it’s wonderful if I’m compared to him –although I doubt he would like that.

From: Foster, Douglas. “Isabel Allende Unveiled.” IN Rodden, John. Conversations with Isabel Allende: Revised Edition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004, pp.81-82


...How much of García Marquez’s influence on your writing, do you believe, has to do with the fact that your were both journalists before you were writers?

I think that it has much more to do with the fact that we were both raised by our grandparents. He tells the stories that his grandmother told him, and I do the same. Also, remember that most Latin American writers have been journalists, so for many of us, the past with journalism has determined the way in which we write, and the way in which we see things.

From: Invernizzi, Virginia. “I remember Emotions, I remember Moments.” IN Rodden, John. Conversations with Isabel Allende: Revised Edition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004, p. 255.


Critics have drawn comparisons between your works and other Latin American writers. They readily compare Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude with your novel The House of the Spirits. Some feel that it is a remake of Marquez’s novel replacing patriarchal authority with emphasis on matrilineal strength. How do you respond to that?

I belong to the first generation of writers in my continent who have been brought reading other writers of Latin America. They previous generation, which we have called the Boom generation, included such writers as García Marquez, Jose Donoso, and Carlos Fuentes. The phenomenon of the Boom started in Barcelona. I was very privileged to be part of the readers of that time. I grew up reading them, and when I started writing, I think that all those wonderful words, those images, that tone to narrate our continent was so deeply rooted in me that it just came right out in a very natural way. It was not my intention at all to create anything ironic about One Hundred Years of Solitude because I really admire that novel very much. I have read it a long time ago, and I don’t remember it very well. But comparing One Hundred Years of Solitude in the way that it is compared is totally unfair.

From: Iftekharuddin, Farhat (ed). Speaking of the Short Story: Interviews With Contemporary Writers. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1997, p. 1.


On Paula

In Paula, I find your honesty incredible…. Most people couldn't write about things like that. Was that hard for you? Did it take courage?

When I started writing that book, it was supposed to be a letter for my daughter, Paula, and I didn't find it difficult to write for her. Then six months later, I realized that she was never going to wake up. But I went on writing because I couldn't stop, although I wasn't writing for her so much anymore. I began writing letters to my mother.

After Paula died, and my mother came to the funeral, she brought all the letters I had written to her that year — 190 letters in all. I had been writing practically every day. She asked me to read them in chronological order so that I could realize that the best thing that could happen for Paula was to die. She was in limbo between life and death, between heaven and earth.

When I read my mother's letters and the letter I had written to Paula, I realized that only thing I could do was to make it into a book. That would be my way of mourning her. But I didn't have the intention of publishing it; I thought it would just stay in the family, because I hadn't changed any names or events. But when the book was finished, my relatives read it - like my son and Paula's husband - and it became a family decision to publish it. At first, I was going to eliminate some parts and change some names before it was published, but I found I couldn't do it. It would mean betraying the very essence of the book. Then I sent the manuscript to all the people who were involved in the book, to see if they had any objections, and no one objected.

From: Lee, Virginia. “When Magic Met Reality: An Interview With Isabel Allende.” Common Ground On Line, viewed March 5, 2004, at http://www.commongroundmag.com/allende.html.

 


On the Overthrow of Salvador Allende’s Government, and Isabel Allende's Years in Exile

La Moneda Building after the coupe in 1973

©Alejandro Stuart. Used with permission of the photographer.

In her 2003 book My Invented Country, Allende comments on the overthrow of democratically elected government of her uncle Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973 and its impact on her life. All that “absolute liberty” she had had as a journalist to ask questions “ended abruptly with the military coup of 1973, which unleashed uncontrolled forces. Overnight I became a foreigner in my own land, until finally I had to live because I couldn’t live and bring up my children in a country where terror reigned and where there was no place for dissidents like myself. During that period curiosity and boldness were outlawed by decree. Outside Chile, Chile I waited for years to return once democracy was restored…. ”

From: My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile, p. xv


La Moneda after the coupe in 1973
©Alejandro Stuart. Used with permission of the photographer.

Even if exile, as an unfortunate reality throughout Latin American history, forced her to uproot her life and that of her children, she has often spoken positively about the years living away from her native country: “…we’ve been very lucky in Venezuela, much luckier than other exiles in other parts of the world. We were welcomed with generosity and hospitality in that warm green country, where you can put down roots and make another home…. We live in a democracy, in a warm green land, where we feel free, where we belong, which we love like a homeland.”

From: Women Writers of Latin America: Intimate Interviews, p 27.

 


 

Links to Other Interviews (limited to online interviews).

John Rodden’s book, listed in the bibliography, provides more extensive texts compiled from various sources, in some cases appearing in English for the first time.

Baldock, Bob and Dennis Bernstein. “Interview with Isabel Allende.” Mother Jones, September-October 1994.

Flanders Laura. “Interview With Isabel Allende.” Working for Change: Working Assets Radio.

Hendry, Kim. “Of Exiles and Healers.” The Guardian. April 15, 1989.

Holt, Pat. “On Stage With Isabel Allende. Part I.” Holt Uncensored. December 18, 2001.

Holt, Pat. “On Stage With Isabel Allende. Part II.” Holt Uncensored. December 21, 2001.

Lee, Virginia. “When Magic Met Reality.” Common Ground Online.

Moore, Steve. “A Conversation With Isabel Allende.”

Richards, Linda. “Interview With Isabel Allende.” January Magazine. November, 1999.

Zapata Whelan, Carol. “The Difference Between Fantasy and Imagination: A Conversation with Isabel Allende.” Margin: Exploring Magical Realism.



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