by Deb Aronson
Anyone who has read Isabel Allende’s novels will not be surprised that she has what she describes as “an ear for stories.”
“I can’t remember my children’s names, but I never forget a good story,” she says with her deep, warm, belly laugh.
And the world is a richer place thanks to Allende’s ear for stories, or “mythomania,” as her stepfather used to call it. Allende, the author of 15 books, recently completed a trilogy for young adults (“I had promised my grandchildren that I would write a book for them and I ended up writing three”), and an adult historical novel titled Zorro, based on the popular legend.
Unlike many published writers, Allende does not have an abandoned early manuscript tucked in a bottom desk drawer. Her first novel, The House of the Spirits, was published when she was 41 years old and met with instant success.
“I was lucky, the first book just hit a chord,” says Allende, who will be the Opening Banquet speaker at NCTE’s Annual Convention to be held this year in Pittsburgh from November 17 to 20 (post-convention workshops: November 21–22).
And luckily for Allende, she loves the process of writing. “The only hard thing about writing is sitting down. The rest is so easy and so wonderful,” she says. “I don’t say ‘I’m going to work,’ I say ‘I’m going to write.’ It’s not the same thing. Work is making bricks. This is not work.”
But it wasn’t until her fourth or fifth book that Allende developed confidence in her storytelling ability. Before that she felt that each book was given to her, like a “gift from the beyond” and that it wouldn’t happen again. Allende, a native of Chile, went into exile in Venezuela after a CIA-assisted military coup in 1973. She writes metaphorically about the politics of that region. Her books tend to have strong female characters, many of whom have strong connections to the spirit world. However, one of her best-known books is a memoir. Titled Paula, the book is a wrenching account of the year Allende spent nursing her daughter, Paula, who had fallen into a coma and later died.
Allende still writes all fiction in her native Spanish. Her work is translated into numerous other languages.
“I can write a speech in English, or non-fiction, but I cannot be funny in English. Language is like blood, it’s so personal. In fiction, what matters is the tone, and to establish the tone you have to have total control of the language.
“Anybody who speaks a second language can say that, that they are different in that second language. Something changes when you express yourself in another language. In a way it’s like wearing a costume, or a wig or something. It’s not exactly you, it’s you under the wig, but it’s not you. All the irony is lost, the word play that you can’t translate.”
Allende did not speak English until she moved to the United States in 1987. She had fallen in love with an American, William Gordon, who had come to a reading she did for Of Love and Shadows. They have been married 18 years.
Allende has enjoyed the challenge of learning to speak a second language. She says speaking English and living in the United States have influenced her writing style. Even writing in Spanish, her sentences have become shorter, she uses fewer adjectives, and gets to the point more quickly.
“My husband says he can tell if a letter is in Spanish or in English before he opens the envelope because the Spanish letter will always be heavier,” says Allende. “They can say the exact same thing, but an American needs a paragraph; any Latin person will need two pages to say exactly the same thing.”
Allende describes her early education as “hectic.” Her parents were diplomats and they moved a lot. She didn’t go to college, but she always was a voracious reader. The reading habit has stayed with Allende. When asked what she is reading these days, she rattles off five books without stopping to think—the books, for those who are interested, are Blue Angel and Changed Man, both by Francine Prose; The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing; Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich; and Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden.
“These are just for the last few days. You know there is nothing more horrible than being in the airport without a good book,” she says.
Allende writes because she loves to tell a story and she loves the writing process. But ever the pragmatist, she acknowledges that she also writes because it provides her with a secure livelihood. “I have worked all my life to support my family. I’m very fortunate that I am able to work at something I love, and because otherwise, I’m utterly unemployable, you know,” she adds, with a laugh.
Allende’s friends describe her as passionate, generous, bossy, and impossible to keep up with because of her energy.
“Willie panics when I finish a book,” she says. “He says I am like a hurricane in a bottle. The minute I finish a book, I unscrew the bottle and the whole family panics. “For example, I will want to paint the walls purple, but I’m not going to do it, they’re going to do it. I’m going to tell them how to do it. Or I’ll change Willie’s wardrobe, I’ll decide that he doesn’t look good in his clothes anymore and then I will throw everything away and buy him new clothes. He hates that, absolutely hates that,” she says with obvious glee.
Luckily for Allende’s family, she has another book in the works. This one will be another historical novel based in Chile, which she has been preparing and researching for years. She put that project on hold because Zorro “jumped on my balcony and I had to stop and write about him.”
Deb Aronson is a freelance writer for The Council Chronicle.