The following interview took place shortly after writer Isabel Allende became the first Spanish-language author to receive the National Book Award’s lifetime achievement medal for her Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, joining previous winners, Toni Morrison, John Updike and Joan Didion.
I had met her once before. In 2014, I had the privilege of joining her onstage for a 90-minute conversation, the audience composed of “just” a few thousand of her most adoring fans. That night, she mesmerized me with her energy and humor, with the depth of her thought, with her occasional, but perfectly-timed, mischievous glance, but most of all with how romance and kindness ultimately lace her fierce sense of pragmatism and common sense. This time was no different.
I approached her as she dealt with the (then) imminent passing of a parent, promising to ask her only eight questions in honor of January 8, the date on which she begins every book, and so, we too, began:
Anjanette Delgado: You recently won the National Book Award in this, your adopted country. What did the award mean for you and what has been the place or contribution of awards, if any, to your writer’s life?
Isabel Allende: I am grateful for all the awards I have received but some are particularly significant, like the National Literary Ward in Chile, because it was recognition in my country of origin. It’s harder to be appreciated among your own people. The National Book Award in the United States warmed my heart. I have been an eternal foreigner and this incredible honor made me feel that I finally belong in my adopted country, that I have planted roots.
Anjanette Delgado: You have never played it safe. Every one of your books is a different adventure, as if you wanted to test yourself. What is behind the very different nature of every book you’ve published and what is, for you, the role of daring in a writer’s life?
Isabel Allende: Stories are like seeds. I carry them in my belly and some start to grow inside until I absolutely have to let them out, exorcise them in writing. I don’t choose the stories, they are in the air and some invade me. Every book is a challenge, an adventure that I have to tackle blindly. Each book has its own requirements, its way of being told, I can’t repeat a formula and most of the time I feel that I have learned nothing, that all has to be invented from scratch. The characters are real people to me. They demand honesty, precision, an open mind, respect on my part. Anjanette Delgado: What would you like to write about that you haven’t written about? Why do you think you haven’t yet? Isabel Allende: I want to write a book about my mother but it is a very difficult subject. How can I write about the most important relationship of my life with enough distance, without sentimentality, with truth? Anjanette Delgado: Have you learned to deal with heartbreak? And if so, can you tell me how you do it?
Isabel Allende: My daughter’s death broke my heart many years ago. When that happened, my mother said to me: You have gone through hell, nothing can happen to you in the future that will be worse than this. It is true. I have had some hardships, like everybody else, but compared to losing my child they have been bearable. When I am going through bad times I remember a quote by Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter I finally found in me an invincible summer.” I carry summer inside me and it is always ready to manifest itself if I give it a chance. Anjanette Delgado: If you were not Isabel Allende and you were a scholar assigning a place in the cannon of global letters to Isabel Allende’s books, which would be the five books you feel a reader would absolutely have to read in order to understand your work and the essence of you as a writer? Isabel Allende: The House of the Spirits, Daughter of Fortune, Paula, Island beneath the Sea, and maybe a short memoir called My Invented Country, because it explains from where most of my stories and characters come. Anjanette Delgado: You have always been a proud feminist. We talked about it when I interviewed you in 2014, a lifetime ago. Talk to me about your view of feminism today and if it has in any way changed post the #metoo movement. Isabel Allende: For a while I feared that feminism had lost its punch, that it had become complacent, that young women didn’t want to be called feminists because it wasn’t sexy. So you can imagine how delighted I am now with this new wave of young energetic, irreverent and smart women who are pushing the movement forward. Anjanette Delgado: Design with me a toolkit for today’s writer. And when I say today, I am thinking of all the hurdles of traditional publishing when one is unknown, but also of the opportunities of the digital age. What does a writer need in their toolkit if their goal is to be a real writer in their lifetime? Isabel Allende: I can’t answer this question honestly because I have been very lucky. I have had great publishers in more than 35 languages, so I don’t suffer the ordeals of most writers dealing with the publishing industry. I think that the first step, once you have a really good and thoroughly revised manuscript, is to try to find a literary agent to push the book. Working with an editor you trust is also important but don’t listen to too many opinions, trust your gut feeling. Anjanette Delgado: What is your recipe for the middle of a novel? The start is exciting, the end is a relief. But the middle, where so many novels die, is where your novels are at their fascinating best. How do you approach the middles in your work? Isabel Allende: To me the most difficult part is to get started, to find the tone, the rhythm, the narrative voice, the style. Once I think that I have all of the above, the rest is easy. I let the characters be themselves. To create a character I usually look for a person (or more than one) who can serve as model. I don’t plan the books, I don’t have a script, just a vague idea and a lot of research, which informs the story but doesn’t determine it. I meander, go back and forth, try one thing and another... really, I play with the story and dance with the characters.
Isabel Allende—novelist, feminist, and philanthropist—is one of the most widely-read authors in the world, having sold more than seventy-four million books. Born in Peru and raised in Chile, Isabel won worldwide acclaim in 1982 with the publication of her first novel, The House of the Spirits, which began as a letter to her dying grandfather. Since then, she has authored more than twenty-three bestselling and critically acclaimed books, including Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, Daughter of Fortune, Island Beneath the Sea, Paula, The Japanese Lover, In the Midst of Winter, Soul of a Woman, and the most recent, Violeta. Translated into more than forty-two languages, Allende’s works entertain and educate readers by interweaving imaginative stories with significant historical events. She has received fifteen honorary doctorates, including one from Harvard University, was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, received the PEN Center Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Allende the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, and in 2018 she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. She lives in California. Her website is isabelallende.com
Anjanette Delgado is an Emmy-award, and a Latino International Book Award, winning writer and journalist. She has written three novels and is the editor of the upcoming anthology Home in Florida: Latinx Writers and the Literature of Uprootedness. Her work has appeared in The New York Times’ Modern Love, Vogue, NPR, the Boston and many others.
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