Isabel Allende’s books have been translated into more than 42 languages and have sold some 75 million copies worldwide. Her career spans fiction and non-fiction, and she also established the Isabel Allende Foundation in memory of her daughter (who died in 1992), working to empower women and girls around the world. Her new novel, Violet, spans 100 years and chronicles the turbulent life and times of its South American heroine. Allende, 79, born in Peru and raised in Chile, spoke from her home office in California, where she writes daily.
How did you Violet to start?
The idea started when my mother passed away, just before the current pandemic hit. She was born in 1920 when the flu pandemic reached Latin America, so it was almost natural that the two bookends in the novel were pandemics. When I write, I don’t have a plan and I don’t have a message – I just want people to come with me, to tell them a story.
Is her eponymous heroine based on your mother?
Violeta was born into my mother’s social class, around the same time, in a place that many readers will identify as Chile. My mother was like her in the sense that she was beautiful, talented, visionary, but my mother was dependent. Violeta is someone who can earn a living, and that makes a huge difference. I’ve always said there’s no feminism if you can’t provide for yourself and your children, because if you’re dependent, then someone else gives the orders.
Violet is an epistolary novel, and your beginnings, The house of spirits, was born from a letter to your grandfather. Are you a great letter writer?
I used to write to my mother, and she would write to me, every day for decades. My son hired a company to digitize the letters, and they calculated there were about 24,000. It’s all there, my mother’s whole life, and also my life. But now that I don’t have my mother, I don’t have a daily record of the life I lived each day, and I find that my days go by very quickly.
How did you find the pandemic?
I was able to do a lot. In two years, I published a feminist non-fiction book [The Soul of a Woman], I wrote Violet, and then I wrote another novel about refugees which is being translated and published in 2023 probably. I have three things that all writers want: silence, solitude and time. But because of the work my foundation does with people at risk, I have been very aware that there is despair, violence and poverty. The first to lose their jobs were the women, the migrants.
You say in The soul of a woman that you were a feminist before you even knew the word.
I was aware very young that it was not in my interest to be born a woman, but also I was very aware of social injustice. I was furious because the world wasn’t fair.
Does injustice always make you so angry?
Sure! I have the same rage that I had then. I try to be as calm as possible and meditate – it doesn’t work at all.
What is the greatest unfinished task of the feminist movement?
The main unfinished business is to replace the patriarchy. We nibble on bits – too slowly in my opinion, because I won’t see it, but it will happen.
What do you think of the recent elections in Chile?
Happy. The new president says everything I want to hear about inclusion, diversity, justice. He is 35 years old, he could be my grandson, and it is fantastic because it is finally a new generation which takes over.
How is it to live largely in English and write in Spanish?
You know, I find that I forget how to speak in Spanish, because there are certain things that I only say in English. I can write non-fiction in English, but fiction, no, because fiction flows very organically. It happens more in the belly than in the brain.
What is the main difference between off-page and on-page love?
In real life, all the inconveniences sometimes outweigh the conveniences. If you get married so late in life, like I did, there’s a lot of baggage that you carry around, but also a sense of urgency that makes the relationship, and every day, very precious.
Your recent marriage is your third. Did you expect that?
Do you think anyone expects to get married at 77? No! But then this man heard me on the radio and fell in love with me. The only reason we got married is because for him it was really important. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when her granddaughter, who was seven at the time, went to the school librarian and said, “Have you heard of Isabel Allende? And the librarian said, “Yes, yes, I’ve read some of his books.” There was a pause, and then Anna said, “She’s sleeping with my grandfather.”
Tell me about the decision to start writing all your books on January 8…
It was a superstition at first but then my life got very complicated and now it’s discipline. I burn sage, light my candles and spend my day with the door closed. Usually when I go out people send me flowers, emails and boxes of dark chocolate covered orange peel. It gives me strength and joy.
What books are on your bedside table?
I’m reading Anthony Doerr’s book in print Earth Cuckoo Cloud. I’m listening to Alice Hoffman’s audio The marriage of opposites. And then I have in my Kindle a book that I should have read a few years ago called The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason. It’s a war story and I don’t like war stories but this one is amazing.
How do you organize your books?
I do not. I give them.
The only book I kept is the first present my stepfather gave me when I was 10, The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I read it as a story and have had it ever since.
Is there a classic that you are ashamed of not having read?
Probably The Karamazov brothers. I was bored.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
I belong to a generation where there was no television, the radio was banned by my grandfather because he said she had vulgar ideas, and we never went to the cinema, so I I have always been a very good reader. In my teens, when I was so lonely and so enraged, my escape from everything and myself was reading.
Did a particular title stand out to you?
I remember very well when I was around 13 and we lived in Lebanon. The girls weren’t going anywhere – school and home, that was it. To give you an idea, I heard about Elvis Presley when he was already big, so I skipped all that rock ‘n’ roll and stuff. But my stepfather had a cupboard that he kept closed because there was whiskey, chocolates, and I think Playboy. My brothers and I would open it; my brothers ate whole layers of chocolates and I went straight to four volumes of Thousand and one Night, kept there because it was supposed to be erotic. It was erotic, but I didn’t understand because it was all a metaphor and I didn’t know the basics. But I liked this forbidden reading in the closet so much that one day I will have to talk about it.