This revised edition has been updated to cover Allende's three newest books—City of the Beasts, Portrait in Sepia: A Novel, and Daughter of Fortune. It includes four new interviews in which Allende discusses completing her trilogy of novels that began with House of the Spirits, as well as her ongoing spiritual adventure and political interests.
Foreword to the First Edition by Isabel Allende
Chronology of Isabel Allende's Life and Works
Note on the Selections
1. Pirate, Conjurer, Feminist (Marjorie Agosín)
2. Chile's Troubadour (Magdalena García Pinto)
3. Isabel Allende Unveiled (Douglas Foster)
4. Beginnings (Ilan Stavans)
5. "The Responsibility to Tell You" (John Rodden)
6. An Overwhelming Passion to Tell the Story (Elyse Crystall, Jill Kuhnheim, and Mary Layoun)
7. Love and Tears (Ignacio Carrión)
8. "Something Magic in the Storytelling" (Jan Goggans)
9. Writing from the Belly (Michael Toms)
10. Magical Feminist (Jennifer Benjamin and Sally Engelfried)
11. "Listen, Paula" (Alfred Starkmann)
12. After Paula (John Rodden)
13. "I Leave My Books to Their Fate" (John Rodden)
14. The Writer as Exile, and Her Search for Home (John Rodden)
15. "I Remember Emotions, I Remember Moments" (Virginia Invernizzi)
In September 1972, just a year before his death, Pablo Neruda invited thirty-year-old Isabel Allende, then a modest celebrity in Chile as a television and magazine reporter, to visit him at his seaside home at Isla Negra. A gracious host, Neruda praised her humorous pieces, telling her that he even photocopied them and showed them to friends. For her part, as Allende recalls in her memoir Paula, she "made meticulous preparations for that meeting; I bought a new recorder, wrote out lists of questions, I read two biographies and reread parts of his work—I even had the engine of my old Citroën checked so it would not fail me on such a delicate mission." Alas, unbeknownst to her, the feckless mission was doomed from the start:
After lunch it began to rain; the room darkened. . . . I realized then that the poet was weary, that the wine had gone to my head, and that I must hurry.
"If you like, we can do the interview now," I suggested.
"Well, that's why I'm here, isn't it?"
"Interview me? I'd never put myself through that," he laughed. "My dear child, you must be the worst journalist in the country. You are incapable of being objective, you place yourself at the center of everything you do, I suspect you're not beyond fibbing, and when you don't have news, you invent it. Why don't you write novels instead? In literature, those defects are virtues."
Indeed they are. And fortunately, Isabel Allende ultimately followed Neruda's advice: A decade later, she turned from journalism to fiction, and since then has acknowledged her meeting with Neruda as "a turning point" in her life. Equally fortunate for her readers—and especially pertinent to the contents of Conversations with Isabel Allende—she has "put [her]self through" hundreds of interviews in the last dozen years, a period that has witnessed her meteoric rise to the status of leading female literary voice from Latin America and best-selling female writer in the world.
The appearance in late 2001 of Allende's major novel, Portrait in Sepia, closed out the trilogy that began with House of the Spirits and marked the publication of Allende's ninth book. It became a top best-seller, as in the case of all her fiction. Indeed, Allende's books have topped the best-seller lists in Europe, Latin America, and the United States, selling an estimated eleven million copies in thirty languages (including pirated editions in Turkish, Vietnamese, and Chinese); her first two novels, The House of the Spirits and Of Love and Shadows, have already been filmed. Indeed, as several interviews in this volume make clear, in one sense Isabel Allende has merely switched roles since the distant day of her fateful meeting with Pablo Neruda: she has gone from celebrity interviewer to celebrity interviewee.
Isabel Allende is a disarming and often hilarious interview subject—and her humor, which is seldom remarked on by critics of her writing, is on full display in her interviews. For instance, she confesses her "passion" for writing, declaring that she prefers it over all other activities. Then she pauses: "Well, what I like most is making love! But then second: writing. Writing too!" Later, in a more serious vein, she responds to a question about critical assessments of her oeuvre: "I don't know how to answer in an intelligent, academic, scholarly way. I can only tell you how I feel. I write [my work] with feelings. . . ." (see no. 5).
Or, as a character in Eva Luna remarks about the art of stories and storytelling: "If you start analyzing them, you ruin them."
Although Allende's experience with and sophistication toward the role of interviewee have increased as the occasions have multiplied through the 1990s, her fundamental openness and straightforwardness as an interview subject are apparent in all the conversations in this volume. Such a collection is a kind of "biography on the pulse," both corresponding closely to the dominant events of the moment in her life and serving as a running history of her rapidly changing circumstances between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. As such, it is an invaluable complement to Paula, amounting in toto to an informal self-portrait that sheds further light on Allende's life and art: another, quite different and more spontaneous, oral form of storytelling by a master storyteller.
Or, as Allende herself puts it in a 1994 interview, explaining that her interviewing skills from her journalism days have proven indispensable to her as a fiction writer, and that she still occasionally conducts interviews to enrich her settings and enliven her character portraits: "Through interviews you can come up with things that you will never find in a book."
The same is sometimes true about Allende's life, as the interviews in Conversations with Isabel Allende testify. They variously provide biographical details, extended self-interpretations, or glimpses into states of mind and feeling not contained in Allende's own books: e.g., her heady life in the early 1970s as a Chilean celebrity, her struggles with anger and perfectionism, and her spiritual awakening in the aftermath of her daughter's death in 1992. Thus, the interviews collected here supplement and complement Paula, sometimes filling in "gaps" not addressed in the memoir or even (as yet) transmuted into art in Allende's fiction.
But should we take everything that Allende says in her interviews at face value? Paula was released as "fiction" in Germany and the Netherlands; and perhaps even Allende herself is unsure of its genre. As she remarked of Paula in one prepublication interview: "It's a sort of memoir. I think it's nonfiction; however, it reads like fiction." And Allende issues the interviewer a warning:
If you ask me to tell you my life, I will try, and it will probably be a bag of lies because I am inventing myself all the time, and at the same time I am inventing fiction, and through this fiction I am revealing myself.
Let us heed that warning and, rather than approach an Allende interview as prosaic journalistic reportage, conceive it as a literary genre in its own right, featuring "Isabel Allende" as protagonist (see no. 6). For Allende is not only drawing on memory and expressing opinion, but also engaging in imaginative acts of self-transformation: they are part of the performative repertoire of a prose fabulist and unprosaic romancer.
Indeed, Allende's mythic sensibility—or mythomania (or "bag of lies," as she calls it)—is part of her Romantic sui generis project of endless self-reinvention—whereby even her confession about "lying" may itself be a "lie": still another of the tale-teller's telltale tricks. Implicitly confirming Pablo Neruda's judgment of her, Allende has readily admitted to interviewers her irresistible urge to embellish, recalling her experience in a Santiago publishing house as a translator of Barbara Cartland-style romances:
I changed the dialogue a little bit at the beginning so that the heroine wouldn't be so stupid. Then I changed the plot a little bit. By the end, I had the man helping Mother Teresa in Calcutta and the heroine selling weapons in Algeria!
Allende sometimes gives different interviewers different versions of major events in her life—versions that also differ from her account in Paula. One example: her "different stories" of how she first met her second husband, William (Willy) Gordon, which range from her jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge to save him from drowning to her walking up to him at a restaurant table and asking him to dine with her. Or, as Allende puts it in Paula, speaking of her first night of lovemaking with him: "I am tempted to invent wild erotic rites to adorn my memoirs, as I suppose others do, but in these pages I am trying to be honest." Still, she adds: "We can invent memories that fit our fantasies. . . . [Paula's death] has given me this silence in which to examine my path through the world . . . to recover memories others have forgotten, to remember what never happened and what still may happen."
So Allende's claim that she is indeed the Latin American Scheherazade—"In a weird way, Eva Luna is me or I am Eva Luna" —should thus be taken not just as biographical testimony (Eva Luna—C'est moi! Or ¡Soy yo!). It is also yet another warning to the unguarded or ingenuous interviewer. As Eva Luna herself puts it: "One word from me and, abracadabra!, reality was transformed."
Should Conversations with Isabel Allende itself, therefore, be classified as "fiction"? Acknowledging the relevance of the question, the careful reader may, I think, suspend an answer and move on to enjoy Allende's performance as interviewee. Whatever their genre, the interviews in this volume offer, at a minimum, rich insight into the evolving self-images of Isabel Allende as storyteller, fabulist, exile, writer, memoirist, woman, wife, and mother. I hope that they will also assist the scholar-critic's understanding of the relationship between Allende's life and work—and meet the general reader's desire to know more about the lives of authors: the author as heroine in her own life drama. The interviews in this collection address both of these purposes: they enrich our appreciation of the autobiographical aspects of Allende's art and reveal the woman behind the literary characters.
Organized chronologically by date of publication—to highlight both the development of Allende's literary career and the evolution of her political and social thought—the eighteen interviews in Conversations with Isabel Allende divide themselves roughly into four periods.
The first period covers the mid-1980s and is represented by a pair of literary interviews by well-informed scholar-teachers of Latin American literature, both of whom are frank admirers fascinated by Allende's rise to international success. Living in exile in Venezuela during this period, Allende published La casa de los espíritus (1982; The House of the Spirits, 1985) and De amor y de sombra (1984; Of Love and Shadows, 1987).
A second group of interviews spans the late 1980s to 1991, which might be termed the "Eva Luna years." These years witnessed the publication of Eva Luna (1987; Eva Luna, 1988) and Cuentos de Eva Luna (1989; The Stories of Eva Luna, 1991) and coincide with Allende's second marriage in 1988, her relocation to San Rafael in California, and her transition to American life. Interviewers' questions during this period turn increasingly biographical, now that Allende has become not only a literary celebrity, but also an American resident.
A third phase of interviews opens in 1992, and it continues until the mid-1990s, with emphasis on Allende's relationship to her daughter Paula, the appearance of El plan infinito (1991; The Infinite Plan, 1993), and the publication of Paula (1994; Paula, 1995). In this period, interviewers focus above all on Allende's relationship to Paula, who died in December 1992 of a rare metabolic disorder. Quite often, the interviews from these years are not just biographical but frankly personal, even intimate; Allende reveals that she wrote Paula, a mother's heartrending memoir about her existence before and after her only daughter's death, partly to assist other families who have suffered similar overwhelming losses—and that she regards the sharing of herself in her interviews and public engagements as a chance to aid her readers.
Finally, a fourth stage of interviews emerges in 1995, as Allende returns from her book tours for Paula to her San Rafael home and attempts to cope with the enormous loss of a daughter's death. Allende fears that she may never write again—or, at least, never write fiction again. Ultimately, she recaptures her lust for life and regains her literary gifts by writing another work of nonfiction, Afrodita: Cuentos, recetas y otros afrodisiacos (1997; Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, 1998). Its bawdy mix of food and sex whets her creative appetites. She breaks through her writer's block and writes a swashbuckling epic in the form of a nineteenth-century historical romance, Hija de la fortuna (Daughter of Fortune, 1999), which immediately becomes a best-seller. Her own fortunate recovery is complete when the novel is selected by TV host Oprah Winfrey as the March 2000 selection for Oprah's Book Club. Allende quickly follows it up with the third and final epic novel in the "Spirits" trilogy, Portrait in Sepia, whose success incontrovertibly establishes Allende's re-arrival as a major international literary figure.
1984-1987: A Latin American Literary Celebrity is Born
Isabel Allende's first book, The House of the Spirits, created an immediate sensation on the international literary scene in the early 1980s, and by the time of its German translation in 1984 and its English edition in mid-1985, Allende's novel had occupied the best-seller lists in Spain and Latin America for more than a year. In the United States, it was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and given a royal welcome by the New York Times: "With this spectacular first novel," began Alexander Coleman in his rave review, "Isabel Allende becomes the first woman to join what has heretofore been an exclusive male club of Latin American novelists." During these years—the early and mid-1980s—though she traveled frequently and even accepted a guest appointment for a semester's teaching at Montclair State College in New Jersey, Allende was still living in Venezuela.
As the New York Times review suggests, the American as well as European press took immediate note of Allende: author profiles in Spain's El País and Germany's Der Spiegel led to major feature stories in American weeklies such as People; Vogue, the American women's magazine, even serialized chapters of The House of the Spirits. Because most of the interviews from the mid-1980s were conducted by academics and published in literary or scholarly journals, however, the literary interview—rather than the personal or celebrity interview—predominates, with questions focusing on the imaginative worlds of The House of the Spirits and Of Love and Shadows, or the relationship between the novels and Allende's family history.
Broadly speaking, two related themes pervade interviews from this first period of Allende's reception: her status as a successful female writer and as a relative of former Chilean president Salvador Allende.
For instance, in the opening interview in this volume, Allende herself emphasizes that one of her major goals is to write to and for women—and as a Latin American woman. Speaking to Marjorie Agosín, a Chilean-born poet-critic and professor of Latin American literature at Wellesley College (see no. 1), Allende emphasizes the femininity of her feminist characters: "I chose extraordinary women who could symbolize my vision of what is meant by feminine, characters who could illustrate the destinies of women in Latin America." Noting that The House of the Spirits had already been reprinted twelve times by 1984 in its original Spanish edition, Agosín asks probing questions about Allende's family background and literary imagination, so that her interview serves as an excellent introduction of the novelist to her growing international public.
Conducted in 1984, Agosín's in-depth interview—which was translated into English even before the publication of the novel in English—is characteristic of the expertise exemplified by scholar-interviewers in the mid-1980s. Here, in the Agosín interview, as well as in subsequent conversations, Allende discloses the autobiographical dimensions of The House of the Spirits as she reminisces about her childhood in her grandparents' home and reflects on how her maternal grandmother served as the model for Clara del Valle in The House of the Spirits. Nor is Allende reticent here about making political pronouncements, predicting that "Pinochet and the evil ones who are with him" represent merely "an accident in the long life of my country. They will go into history as a misfortune that darkened the sky, but they will go."
Such political statements constitute the most controversial elements of Allende's interviews during the mid-1980s, which were conducted before the 1988 plebiscite that removed General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte from power in Chile. In these interviews, Allende's ideological/feminist critique of Latin American power politics revolves around a cluster of attributes, among them "feminine solidarity," the "military mentality," and machismo. Commenting on themes that soon would be apparent in her second novel, Of Love and Shadows, Allende elaborates on these interconnections in an interview published in 1986: "I have two obsessions, two recurrent phantoms: love and violence, light and darkness. . . . They are always present in my life like two antagonistic forces." Allende asserts here that her "natural tendency" is "toward socialism." As a member of "a privileged social class," she insists, she feels "a double responsibility" to campaign for social justice.
As Allende became a more visible figure in the United States, above all in American university departments of Spanish and Latin American literature, and also a more available one—especially after ending her twenty-five-year marriage to Chilean engineer Michael Frías and publishing Of Love and Shadows in 1987—U.S. interviewers addressed themselves to Allende's political responsibilities deriving from her dual status as an Allende family member and a now-famous woman writer. Increasingly, interviewers cast her not just as a feminist voice but as a spokeswoman for Latin America. Challenged in 1987 by two conservative student journalists to advise U.S. youth on how to approach Latin American culture and politics, she replies: "Try and be open-minded . . . because I'm a very intolerant person. I have only become tolerant after suffering. And probably you will never suffer that much."
As this pronouncement suggests, Allende occasionally rose to the invitation extended by her interviewers to speak as a political authority or Latin American voice. The line of interviewers' questions discloses how utterly Americans were fascinated, from the very outset of her literary career, both by the Allende surname—which functioned as a brand-name tag to endow her with the aura of Revolutionary by Blood Connection—and by her conception of the political legacy she had thereby inherited. The glow from Allende's family heritage radiated outside left-wing academic and political circles into the literary sphere, where, by the mere fact of her being an "Allende," critics and reviewers occasionally treated her with awe, lavishly praising her work as comparable to that of Cervantes, James Joyce, and Edith Wharton, not to mention Gabriel García Márquez. Or they approached her as if she were the incarnation of Salvador Allende himself, a phoenix arisen from the ashes to hurl down verbal thunderbolts on the murderous Pinochet tyranny.
Most academic interviewers did not treat her with such awe. Quite accurately, they presented her as the newest addition and only woman in the "exclusive male club" of first-rank Latin American writers of the postwar "Boom," a literary movement whose members combined realism and fantasy to produce what became known as "magical realism" (e.g., Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa). Unfortunately, especially in later years when journalists have subjected her to variants of the "celebrity" interview, many interviewers' questions tend to cast Allende less as a serious writer than as a "personality"—a famous exile, the "niece" of a fallen Marxist hero, the first and only woman writer in Latin America who has ascended to international prominence, or the only Latin American feminist writer who has employed magical realist techniques to depict her continent's history.
It is an index of Allende's "star status" that dozens of popular periodicals—such as Vanity Fair and People—have published celebrity profiles of her. Because such interviews usually cover the same ground, only less substantially, as do those in the literary and scholarly quarterlies, I have omitted them from Conversations with Isabel Allende. But these celebrity profiles have undoubtedly widened Allende's appeal and rendered her more accessible to a vast international reading public. Whether deliberately or not, such celebrity interviews—given that they typically portray her as larger than life, interpret her story against the backdrop of the great historical sweep of her real-life drama, and narrate her chronology as if it were the saga of The House of the Spirits—have helped confer upon her an outsized, even mythical image that the scholars and serious readers too have had to confront.
It also bears noting that, in the literary interviews in this volume, Allende frequently addresses the topic of her public image (see no. 4). Already by the mid-1980s, Isabel Allende was known not just as Latin America's leading female voice, but in some circles—quite exaggeratedly—as a socialist (or even quasi-Marxist) spokeswoman and feminist revolutionary.
The interviewers' comparisons between Allende and the Latin American Boom writers also reflect, however, the interesting topic of her literary debts and writing habits. Allende conducted several extensive, searching conversations on these matters during the mid-1980s. Speaking with an interviewer in Caracas in 1986, Allende addressed the influences on her of García Márquez, of the family sagas of writers such as Russian-born Henri Troyat, and of Neruda. Asked whether she is "bothered" by the frequent comparisons between her first novel and García Márquez's Cien años de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970)—an analogy soon to be so relentlessly voiced that it would indeed annoy her in later years—Allende says, "Not in the least. I admire him. I love him dearly."
In the mid-1980s, Allende also reflects, with mixed emotions, on the new impact of literary fame on her work life. Feeling both excited and ambivalent, she acknowledges that she is starting to get frequent invitations to travel, and that this involves the challenge of balancing writing against other activities. "Literature is like love, a full-time occupation. It does not accept distractions." Allende also discusses her workmanlike, journalistic sensibility, noting that she has no fear of writing blocks. And she mentions work habits that she applied during the composition of Of Love and Shadows—habits that continue to intrigue her interviewers to the present day. Among them are what she terms her "research method"—clipping bizarre stories from newspapers and popular magazines—and her self-admitted "superstition" that January 8, the date on which she began composition of The House of the Spirits and thereafter started to write all her books, is her "lucky day" (see no. 3).
And here too, as yet another Allende interview crosses self-reflexively into the subject of interviewing itself (e.g., no. 6), Allende stresses the importance of interviewing to gather "research" for constructing her fictional universes. To write The House of the Spirits and Of Love and Shadows, she made use variously of letters to her mother, old diaries and notebooks of her grandmother's, journalistic articles and recordings from her days as a reporter, and conversations with fellow Chilean exiles in Venezuela.
While following Neruda's advice and becoming a novelist, therefore, Allende nevertheless has also remained a journalist—and even an interviewer.
1987-1991: The Eva Luna Years
"I try to live my life as I would like . . . like a novel," says the title character of Eva Luna, a TV soap-opera heroine, near the novel's close.
Eva's creator has often said that her own life resembles a novel—or, indeed, a magical realist telenovela (soap opera). Never was this truer than in the annus mirabilis of 1988, when the plot twists and character changes in Isabel Allende's own dramatic life took a radical new turn—and world events impinged, oddly and yet again, on her personal history. "Out of Venezuela" might serve as a suitable title for a memoir of Allende's life during these years.
How much Allende maintained a "narrative control" over these narrative leaps is hard to say, but fueling the headlong changes was her love life: Ironically, just a few months before the Chilean plebiscite of December 1988 that ended Pinochet's rule—and which would have facilitated Allende's return from her self-imposed exile to Santiago—she fell in love with William Gordon, a San Francisco attorney. Although she could easily go back home now and live in a more hospitable political climate, surrounded by her extended family and old friends, her life suddenly seemed elsewhere—in California, El Norte. Choosing love over politics, she married Gordon in July 1988 (after sending the lawyer "a contract, listing all my demands, and the few concessions I was willing to make"—and giving him twenty-four hours to think it all over). And then, Allende—despite her publisher's worries that her imaginative juices would desiccate in California suburbia (see no. 3)—resolved to build a new life in the United States as a writer, wife, and stepmother of Gordon's two young boys.
Allende's relocation to the United States ushered in a second, more biographically oriented phase of interviewers' concerns. This shift was also induced by the Spanish publication in 1987 of her third novel, Eva Luna. Prompted by the similarity of Allende's own whirlwind romance to her title character's epic love adventures and storytelling gift, critics soon dubbed the author the "Chilean Scheherazade." Allende's life at this time changed radically, and the focus of interviewers' questions altered accordingly. This period—which I am terming the "Eva Luna years"—featured numerous explorations of Allende's relationships to her characters, especially Eva Luna herself, and reflected the international acclaim in 1989 through 1991 that greeted the appearance of Allende's first story collection, The Stories of Eva Luna. Approaching her work as "woman's writing," interviewers highlighted her treatment of the complex relations between feminism and femininity. American press interviewers—no longer were most of her interviewers Latin American literature specialists—hailed her work as much for what it said directly to Americans, especially to women (who comprise Allende's chief audience, as she herself notes in these interviews), as for its relationship to Latin American politics and history.
Because her transition to American life was so hectic and her professional and family responsibilities so many, Allende did not immediately attempt to write another novel, but rather limited herself to stories, which could be written in short bursts of concentration. She began writing the exotic tales that eventually would form The Stories of Eva Luna. Permanently settled in the United States, she now also felt that invitations to teach and lecture in the United States did not greatly interfere with her work; during 1988-1989 alone, for instance, she taught at the University of Virginia, Barnard College, and the University of California at Berkeley. One also notes her increasing comfort with English during this period; after 1990, even with native Spanish speakers, she conducts most interviews for English-language publications in English, preferring to speak English rather than have her words translated from Spanish.
A central theme in Allende's interviews is the consequence of her new American life for her international status as a Latin American voice. In a Mother Jones interview in late 1988 (see no. 3)—conducted when she was halfway to completion of The Stories of Eva Luna—Allende identified three major practical changes in her daily life entailed by her move to the United States, all of which posed immediate and significant challenges for reorganizing her work life: her new role as a suburban housewife and mother, without the benefit of the inexpensive live-in household help that she enjoyed in Santiago and Caracas; her sudden accessibility to the American media and academy; and her "split life" linguistically, i.e., as a day-to-day English speaker and Spanish author.
Allende chose to stress the last two issues, seeking to transform them into opportunities: More consciously and deliberately than before, she would embrace the role that fate had granted her and address Americans on political and social issues. She would step up to the world stage and, standing on the raised platform of literary fame, speak out on the topic of "politics and the writer" in a Latin American versus North American context.
One representative example is her statement in the immediate aftermath of the 1988 Chilean plebiscite. Asked if she has "something special" to say to U.S. readers, Allende replies:
Yes. You do not live in a bubble. You are not privileged. You are very spoiled. You think you will be saved when this globe explodes. You will not. We all share the same planet; this is a rock lost in space. We are all parts of it. There are no superior races. . . . [Latin Americans are] not [living on] another planet. They are not on Mars. It's our planet. It's our land, and these borders are just illusions. We trace them on a map, but they don't exist. We all share the same planet. (no. 5)
Or, as she declared to a left-oriented U.S. interviewer in 1991, responding to a comment that the American public suffers from a Disneyesque outlook whereby everything always must have a happy ending: "The attraction of Disney is undeniable. . . . I have been living in the U.S. for three years and what I really miss about my Latin American culture is the sense I had there of belonging in a common project, of being part of a coherent group, with a common set of values. . . . Due to our history we have a sense of fate, or destiny, that the U.S. lacks."
Such political outspokenness has elicited sharp and sometimes condescending rebukes, especially from a few conservative critics, who deride Allende's politics as black-and-white and simplistic. It is easy to see how her summary of the history of the Pinochet regime could contribute to such dismissals: "All the violence, repression, and brutality came from the military. And the people responded with nonviolence, pacific protests, solidarity, and organization." But Allende is unfazed by critics' hostility toward her work, whether political or literary. Responding to charges that her work is kitschy, she says: "What do I do with my truth? I write it" (see no. 5). Indeed, she even goes so far as to run through a dismissive catalog of her critics' complaints:
Contradictory things are said all the time. I couldn't please everybody, and I shouldn't even try. . . . One "bad" thing people say is that I discovered a very attractive mixture of melodrama, politics, feminism, and magical realism and I throw it all together. . . . Another "bad" thing is that I'm very sentimental and that I'm not detached, I'm not cold; therefore I can be very kitschy, very campy sometimes. What other bad things can I remember? Oh yes, that it resembles García Márquez. (no. 3)
Despite her cooperativeness with individual critics, Allende makes it clear that she takes a dim view of them as a species:
Critics are terrible people. They will label you no matter what, and you have to be classified. I don't want to be called a feminist writer, a political writer, a social writer, a magical realism writer, or a Latin American writer. I am just a writer. I am a storyteller.
Allende acknowledges in interviews after 1988 that her transition to American life has put her at a mental as well as a geographical distance from political events in Latin America. But she holds that "exile" yields literary advantages. In general, exile is advantageous for a writer, Allende believes, precisely because it generates imaginative space and multiplies perspectives—and because one learns to "understand that your roots are within yourself." Allende herself possesses a "double perspective" by living in the United States and writing from her Latin American past; she says she now has a valuable distance from both places. Another advantage of "exile" is, however paradoxical it may sound, the upheaval it creates in one's life. Allende says that her own crises have shaken her complacency and made her a more questioning, self-aware person and artist (see no. 14).
Not only U.S. but also Latin American interviewers have addressed the topic of Allende's adaptation to life in California. Indeed, it is interesting to see the changing response of selected Latin American interviewers to Allende after her relocation to the United States. In some cases, they begin to look upon her less as one of their own than as a cultural mediator and spokeswoman for U.S.-Latin American relations—i.e., they start to treat her much as did the American press in the early 1980s. For example, asked for her opinion on such nonliterary topics as the future of Latin America, Allende says that the continent has an important role to play in the evolving "collective consciousness" of the world.
Related to the Latin American motif during this second period of Allende interviews is the topic of her feminism and what might be termed her "personal mythology." The publication of Allende's two Eva Luna books gave both U.S. and Latin American interviewers the opportunity to explore Allende's fantasy life as a real-life Scheherazade, a spinner of magical Latin American stories. Interviewers therefore express curiosity not only about Allende's family background, but also about her powerful and compelling identification with her autobiographical heroine, Eva Luna.
As we have already seen, Allende freely acknowledges that she identifies with Eva Luna. She has often described how she used to read stealthily what her family ordained to be "forbidden literature"—above all, the Arabian romance A Thousand and One Nights—all of it stashed in her stepfather's closet in Beirut, which was off-limits to her. (In Eva Luna, the heroine herself carries a copy of the romance with her, deeming it "essential baggage for my travels through life," and The Stories of Eva Luna begins and ends with quotations from A Thousand and One Nights.) To several interviewers, it does indeed seem as if Allende's tumultuous life were a seamless story, reality transformed; i.e., from reading about Scheherazade as a girl to becoming the "Chilean Scheherazade" as an adult woman.
Allende is well aware that her image as a humorous, ironic Scheherazade accounts in part for her tremendous international following, particularly her high standing with educated American women. Diffidently yet forthrightly, she explains that her U.S. popularity is "partly due to the great interest that there is here for women's literature," partly attributable to the Anglo-Saxon and Northern European fascination with magical realism, and partly because her work is not "baroque" and is therefore "easy to read in comparison to other Latin American novels"—all of which has led to her books being "read and studied in universities."
By 1991, Allende had published five best-sellers in twenty-seven languages. Asked later to explain her phenomenal international reception, Allende generously, and with a touch of humor, attributed it to her excellent translators, whom she credits with improving her books (see no. 13). (Allende's regular English-language translator, Margaret Sayers Peden, is a close friend.) Commenting on her popularity in Germany and Scandinavia, where her books have consistently topped the best-seller lists, Allende jokes:
There's nothing much to do, after all, in Oslo or Hamburg except read!
The northern [European] countries generally like my books more, except Britain. . . . If I were living in Germany or Scandinavia, I'd be a national celebrity. Most of my royalties come from there. I'm really popular there.
Why? Probably because they think Latin America is exotic—and with Germany, it probably also helps that there were close ties during the Communist era between East Germany and Chile. I sign copies of my books for German booksellers—four thousand copies. People in Germany read books! (no. 13)
While interviewers of the early 1990s are chiefly concerned with the topics of Allende's feelings in the present and her adjustment to U.S. life, they also plumb her past more deeply than in the previous decade. Much of the curiosity stems from the simple desire to know who Allende was before she metamorphosed—Abracadabra!—into the Eva Luna of San Rafael and began weaving her Scheherazade-like fantasies.
Where did this extraordinary woman come from? readers now wanted to know. Some interviewers, therefore, concentrate on Allende's background, inquiring about Allende's Chilean days, i.e., the years before her international celebrity; for example, they inquire about her writing before the 1973 coup, including her activities as a playwright. Or they address her participation as a contributor to and staff member of publications such as Magazine Ellas and Paula, the latter of which was the first Chilean publication to address taboo social topics such as abortion, divorce, and drugs; and also her involvements with the children's magazine Mampato and her TV programs and short films. Already at the age of twenty-nine, in 1971, Allende had a much-discussed play, El embajador ("The Ambassador"), performed in Santiago, along with a play titled La balada del medio pelo ("The Parvenu's Ballad"). These interviewers showcase the wide variety of expressive gifts that Isabel Allende had developed long before her rise to prominence with La casa de los espíritus, especially those theatrical and literary activities that she herself would later discuss in detail in Paula.
The main outcome of the "Eva Luna years" for Allende herself was that she came to feel more comfortable with herself as a woman and as a writer. As she confides in a 1988 interview, the writing of Eva Luna vouchsafed her "a new attitude about being a woman": "I had to finally accept that I was always going to live in this body with this face and be the person I am." And she had taken significant steps to confront and cope with her "anger" toward her grandfather and the oppressive patriarchy of her Chilean years (see no. 3). In a 1991 interview, she speaks of an "enraged intimacy" between herself and her maternal grandfather (the model for Esteban Trueba, the family patriarch of The House of the Spirits). "We never agreed on anything but we adored each other. I saw him every day while I was in Chile, until 1975." She had also refused to take her husband's family name because of her anger. "My anger towards male authority . . . continued even after my marriage. And it endures even today." This is another topic that Allende takes up at greater length after Paula's death (see no. 14).
Allende also affirms that Eva Luna led to her self-acceptance as a storyteller—and to her conviction that a "storyteller" could be a respectably professional creative writer. With Eva Luna and The Stories of Eva Luna—and just as she is starting to write The Infinite Plan—Allende finally judges her apprenticeship as an imaginative writer to be over. With increasing confidence, she speaks out on a range of literary topics and discusses her own evolution as a writer. Responding to interviewers' concerns, she admits her strong admiration for the work of Borges and Cortázar, rebuts critics' speculations that she deliberately parodied García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, acknowledges the subtle achievements of experimental novelists such as Carlos Fuentes and Manuel Puig even as she defends her realistic plots and traditional fictional forms, concedes the admittedly limited capacity of writers to affect world events, and replies to feminist critics who find her female characters stereotyped or weak. She also admits in a 1991 interview that life in an English-language environment is affecting her writing: "My sentences are shorter, there's less ornamentation, fewer adjectives. The language is more straightforward, and . . . the text is more restrained." Working on The Infinite Plan in 1991, Allende notes that, as she has switched from Latin American and Caribbean settings in her first four works of fiction to a California setting in The Infinite Plan, she has moved away from magical realism to a more straightforward literary realism.
One final comment of Allende's about her writing merits emphasis here, a comment that leaps out at the reader and makes it seem as if, once again, Allende's life of upheaval were a seamless story that reflects a storyteller's careful design. As though Allende were anticipating her daughter Paula's tragic fate and her own decision to write Paula partly to cope with the loss, she speaks in May 1991—fully five months before Paula falls ill and is hospitalized, and with no awareness of her daughter's impending sickness—about writing (in the characterization of her interviewers) as an "act of remembering to forestall death." Thus does the topic that will dominate interviews of the mid-1990s arise explicitly here for the first time: spirituality. "I believe that there is a spirit, a spirit of life in everything that surrounds me," Allende says. "I try to be in touch with that" (no. 6).
1991-1995: Paula and the Beyond
But the spirit of death was to envelop Isabel Allende and her family first. On December 8, 1991, while attending a Barcelona book party for the publication in Spain of El plan infinito ("The Infinite Plan"), she received word of a cataclysmic event that would alter her life abruptly: her twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Paula, who had fallen sick on December 6 and entered a Madrid hospital, had slipped into a coma. Paula would die precisely one year later to the day. Like Alba in The House of the Spirits—who followed the advice of the spirit of her grandmother Clara, and wrote to "survive" the ordeal of her rape and her family's anguish—Allende coped with Paula's death by heeding the counsel of her mother, who told her: "If you don't write, you'll die." Allende explains of the note-taking that led to Paula: "I was not thinking of publishing . . . my only goal was to survive; that is the only time that I have written something without thinking of a reader."
The interviews from this third period focus on Allende's personal life and on her loss of Paula; even the interviews conducted before the 1994-1995 appearance of Paula devote attention to Allende's loss. Indeed, given that Allende's two books during this period are based on her husband's life (William Gordon is the model for Gregory Reeves, the protagonist of The Infinite Plan) and on Allende's relationship to her daughter, it is unsurprising that interviewers highlight Allende's roles as wife and mother. What emerges is less the outsized heroic, even "magical realist," portrait of the feminist and socialist in the mid-1980s, or the exotic Chilean Scheherazade of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but rather a more subdued, humanized figure.
Put another way, it is as if we see Allende close up in this most recent round of interviews, rather than against the giant mural of Latin American history or through the gossamer fantasia of Eva Luna. The mid-1990s mark what might be called the "family period" of Allende's interviews. Some of these interviews have a familiar, even confidential, tone, making them truly "conversations"; more so than in earlier years, we encounter the private woman behind the public persona. Allende says several times in these interviews that the death of her daughter had "changed" her; one interviewer remarks that Allende's recent experience had "erased all the unnecessary barriers that separate human beings." During my own interviews with her in April and May 1995 (nos. 12, 13, and 14), I found Allende to be a noticeably different woman—more reflective, less goal-directed, more self-revealing, less guarded—than I had in my earlier interview, conducted in 1988. At fifty-two, Isabel Allende seemed suddenly to have taken a mystical turn—and discovered a new "House of the Spirits."
And with that discovery have come "lessons" that Allende has drawn from the harrowing year of Paula's sickness: the words destiny, trust, acceptance, and openness come up again and again in her interviews after Paula's death. Indeed, the whole cast of her conversation shifts to the spiritual realm:
Life is like a very short passage in the long journey of the soul. It is just an experience that we have to go through, because the body has to experience certain things that are important for the soul. But we shouldn't cling to life and the world so much: we shouldn't cling to the material aspects of the world, because you can't take them with you. You will lose them no matter what. (no. 9)
Throughout her book tours of 1994-1995 to promote Paula, Allende spoke about learning to "let go" (see no. 14). As she put it in one interview: "When I said, dead, [Paula's death] became real and I could deal with it" (no. 8).
Elsewhere Allende has spoken of another, more mundane, "death," or form of "clinging," with which she also still copes: literary ambition. "Ambition is like a bottomless pit," Allende says. After the publication of The House of the Spirits, she "had the sensation that I had done something in my life and I could now die in peace," but soon the hydra-headed monster returned to haunt her: "One becomes ambitious and wants more and more."
Asked in other interviews to sum up what she has learned as a result of Paula's passing, Allende makes her spiritual discovery even more explicit:
Your approach to the world is different. . . . You become more detached. . . . You gain a sort of spiritual dimension that opens up completely your world. (no. 10)
I've asked myself countless times: Why her? Why her and not me? If I pray, maybe it will happen to me and not her—that's sometimes what I thought. I asked, Why didn't she die at the beginning? Why did she stay for a year in a coma?
It was tragic, but I learned a lot in that time. It would have been much easier if she hadn't fallen into the coma. The pain was much greater because she stayed a year.
Because Paula stayed, I learned a lesson. My destiny was to lose a child. . . . I did all I could to save Paula, and I could not protect her from her condition and from the world. I believe we are not just body and mind. We are spiritual too. . . .
I'm less passionate now. . . . I've already changed a great deal. I'm letting things happen more, not forcing them. I'm not as goal-oriented as before. . . . I used to live a great deal in the future, with plans and dreams and goals. But I came to realize that life is now. (no. 12)
Or, as Allende put it in another interview, "I finally understood what life is about; it is about losing everything. Losing the baby who becomes a child, the child who becomes an adult, like the trees lose their leaves. So every morning we must celebrate what we have."
Allende is speaking about learning a different kind of exile—a leave-taking of the temporal world—and it seems that she is approaching the sense of peace and acceptance implied in the words told to Eva Luna just moments after the death of her mother: "Everyone dies, it's not so important."
For Allende, the death of Paula eventually became both all-important and "not so important." The contradiction is only apparent: it is a paradox resolved by surrender and acceptance. Allende closes Paula on a note of affirmation: "Godspeed, Paula, woman. Welcome, Paula, spirit." Paula Frías had merely gone to her spiritual home, joining those intrepid women who govern the Trueba mansion—or, even better, those beneficent ghosts that watch over them.
But perhaps Allende's spiritual turn has not occurred quite so suddenly as it might appear, nor been precipitated by Paula's death alone. For Allende was already discovering in her fiction the "lessons" that the harrowing year of 1991-1992 would bring home conclusively. Indeed the lessons from Paula's death that Allende draws in her interviews—destiny, trust, acceptance, openness—are all thematized (though treated somewhat skeptically) in the quasi-New Age evangelical Christianity propounded by preacher Charles Reeves in The Infinite Plan. (Allende borrowed the title from that of a book written by her new husband's itinerant-mystic father, upon whom the character of Charles Reeves is based.) Reeves proselytizes and peddles "The Infinite Plan, or the Course That Will Change Your Life," a package of lectures designed to put the recipient in tune with "Cosmic Forces." Listeners flock to Reeves, and are "comforted by the certainty that their misfortunes [are] part of a divine plan, just as their souls [are] particles of universal energy." And indeed, when Allende speaks in the interviews about "karma" and "fate," it is as if she is sometimes quoting Charles Reeves—but this time sincerely, not ironically or parodically. It is as if she were preparing herself for the news about Paula—and the writing of Paula.
"I believe that there is a destiny. I also believe that you can do much to modify it," Allende remarks in one interview. And so she ultimately comes to an opposite conclusion from that of her protagonist, Reeves's son Gregory, who says at the novel's close to the Allende-like author-narrator:
I realized that the important thing was not, as I had imagined, to survive or be successful; the most important thing was the search for my soul. . . .
[I never imagined] that one day I would meet you and make this long confession. Look how far I've come to reach this point and find there is no infinite plan, just the strife of living. . . .
I have the impression that Isabel Allende might today say instead: "Look how far I've come, only to realize that there's more to life than the strife of living—there may even be some infinite plan!" I find her openness to a change of heart in matters of the spirit both courageous and refreshing.
Allende's "courage" resides, I think, precisely in her heightened awareness and commitment to relinquish tight self-control and open herself to the possibilities of a providential design beyond her own will. And such a change does seem to be one of "heart" rather than "head"—or rather, a form of growth reflecting a greater capacity to connect her heart and head. For, by the time of composing The Infinite Plan, Allende already seems to have possessed the cognitive ability to recognize the existence of an infinite plan; Gregory Reeves reports that the Allende-like author-narrator had countered his chastened conclusion that "there is no infinite plan, just the strife of living," with words of hope: "Maybe . . . maybe everyone carries a plan inside, but it's a faded map that's hard to read and that's why we wander around so and sometimes get lost."
Allende's courage and openness have also extended to a greater capacity for self-disclosure about her private demons. Fearlessly yet modestly, she now abandons reticence in her interviews and discusses her struggles to renounce perfectionism, to nourish intimacy, and to silence her stern, unrelenting conscience and "inner voices" of authority.
I've always been a very demanding person of myself and in some ways that tendency only increases when I perform well and have a great success, because then I expect even more of myself. I want to do even better the next time.
. . . . Despite everything I've said about learning to let go after writing Paula, I still struggle with this critical voice inside me. It has to do with my drive to succeed and the way in which I've increased my demands on myself.
. . . . A lot of it has to do with my upbringing.
. . . . I now see that my upbringing is the source of my success, but it's also something I need to grow out of. I want to let go of some aspects of great responsibility and independence that are linked to a reluctance to trust. (no. 14)
In Allende's interviews of the mid-1990s, readers gain a deeper understanding of the paradoxical woman behind the work: a woman who, though private, likes to be seen and noticed; who luxuriates in solitude yet possesses a flamboyant, extroverted sensibility and lives life intensely; who is a careful planner yet glories in the moment; who has a steadiness and an iron will dedicated to work, and yet also a spontaneous emotional life and a tendency to act on impulse; who has a shrewd pragmatism and keen sense of responsibility, and yet is ruled by passion and does not wait for life to happen, but rather provokes her destiny.
And yet: What also about the other Allende—the writer behind the woman? How has she been affected "after Paula"—and after Paula?
"All sorrows can be borne," Isak Dinesen is said to have written, "if you put them into a story or tell a story about them." In advising Allende to write about the agony of Paula's dying, Allende's mother seemed intuitively to have grasped Dinesen's insight—and indeed, writing the story of her confrontation with Paula's death has not only led to her spiritual transformation, but altered her experience of writing. The most telling change, she notices, is that she finds herself enjoying the activity of writing more and worrying less about the literary "product" (see no. 14).
Before, I always wanted things to get done. Fast and well. I always wanted a finished book. I wanted to come to the end and to have something. Now I enjoy the process far more. I've discovered in a much deeper way the joys of writing itself. I've really learned to enjoy writing, which means to enjoy living and being present to it. . . .
. . . . Rather than focus on the finished product, I'm enjoying each moment in the process. . . .
Nothing will ever be more significant than this loss. And now I know: I could die tomorrow. (no. 12)
In several interviews of the mid-1990s, Allende is, understandably, in a backward-looking, pensive mood—not only because she is discussing Paula, but also because she has built a substantial body of work, six books in a dozen years, an oeuvre that she feels drawn to assess, especially now that she has learned to grant herself the honorific title "writer." Summing up her first decade of literary development, Allende told one interviewer that "each one of my books corresponds to a very strong emotion." She associated The House of the Spirits with "longing," a desire to recapture a lost world; Of Love and Shadows with "anger" in the face of the abuses of dictatorships; and Eva Luna with "accepting myself, finally, as a person and a writer."
The early and mid-1990s were also a time for Allende to reflect in her literary interviews on both her vocation as a writer and her literary successes and shortcomings. Implicitly conceding the force of some critics who found the politics of her second novel intrusive, Allende says: "If I were to write Of Love and Shadows again, I would do it differently. It is not subtle enough and I feel it is too direct." Although she says that it is easier to be a woman in the United States than in Latin America, since the feminist movement has advanced farther in the United States, Allende tells her feminist critics: "I don't invent characters so that they serve as models for radical feminists or young women who want to be feminists, but I simply tell how life is. Life is full of contradictions." More extensively than before, she also discusses the autobiographical background of The Infinite Plan, particularly the similarities between her second husband, William Gordon, and the novel's protagonist, Gregory Reeves. Gordon served as the "model" for Reeves, who "is a survivor. In real life Willie is too. . . . The people who bend but never break are always fascinating to me" (no. 8).
In the aftermath of the American publication of The Stories of Eva Luna in 1991, Allende was often asked about her plans to write more short fiction. She tells one interviewer that she's not going to write any more short stories. "I would much rather write a thousand pages of a long novel than a short story." And also: "I'm scared of short stories, very scared" (no. 8). Allende confesses that she has difficulty writing "erotic" scenes. "Every writer of fiction," Allende asserts, "should confront these three challenges: write short stories, an erotic novel, and children's literature." Allende has already written a story collection and a children's book; although she has certainly written several erotic scenes in her fiction, and devoted an entire work of nonfiction (Aphrodite) to sex and food, the challenge of the erotic novel remains. "I really would like to write erotic novels. Unfortunately, I was raised as a Catholic, and my mother is still alive, so it's difficult. However, I feel that there is a part of me as a person that is extremely sensuous and sexual" (see also no. 8). As so often, Allende's tone is overtly quite sober—and yet also slightly playful. The reader is not certain how seriously to take her—which is doubtless the way she wants it.
A related topic that engaged interviewers was Allende's response to the film versions of The House of the Spirits and Of Love and Shadows. Unlike many reviewers, Allende admired and enjoyed both productions.
I loved the movie of The House of the Spirits. It's not a Latin American movie, but it works as a story. The problem is that people think it's supposed to be exotic. The director [Bille August] went to Uruguay and Chile, but the film doesn't have a Latin American feel. . . .
Of Love and Shadows was a hugely successful movie in Latin America. It was filmed in English because of the big English-language market, but the accents of the characters are very strong. . . . I think it's a great movie. (no. 13)
Another, more personal, reason why Allende probably enjoyed the films so much was that, unlike the critics, she was less concerned with the artistic excellence of the adaptations and more engaged with her own flights of imagination unleashed by her contact with the film's star actors. Allende's statement to one interviewer on seeing the film version of The House of the Spirits attests again to her necromancer sensibility:
Now the fiction has replaced the real story of the family, and we live this sort of fantasy that these things happened. When I saw the movie, I realized immediately that the fiction of the film is ten times bigger than the fiction of the book. Very soon, we will have the photographs of Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep on the piano. They will be my grandparents. I will have all these famous people as my relatives.
Like Eva Luna, Allende also said that she would one day like to try her hand at writing screenplays herself. But, for now, prose fiction—novel length—is enough. And through all the vicissitudes of her romantic and family life, given her new capacity for a relaxed approach toward writing, the crafting of her novels becomes a great solace and tonic for Allende. "Writing is never a burden," she says. "It is pure joy. Life tends to be a burden, because it has very grave moments, with a very heavy karma." But she still jokes that she'll never discuss work in progress—as if such a lack of reticence might also boomerang with karmic vengeance: "It's like boasting about a boyfriend—someone may take him away from you."
Edited by John Rodden
John Rodden, of Austin, Texas, is the author and editor of eight books, including Performing the Literary Interview, Lionel Trilling and the Critics, and The Worlds of Irving Howe.
From reviews of the first edition:
". . . Allende has led a life full of drama, passion, and history—one that is a novela in its own right. Now a book, Conversations with Isabel Allende, gives fans the inside story as told by Allende herself. . . . This is worthwhile reading for anyone who wants to know what makes a good writer tick." —Latina
"Notoriously cavalier about the lines between fact, memory, and the storyteller's urge to keep the listener going, Allende embellishes or withholds wherever she pleases. Serious subjects are discussed and dealt with seriously, but there is plenty of laughter and evidence of the woman's appealing optimism and sense of play, whimsy, and charm." —Bloomsbury Review
"[This] is a rich, entertaining, and informative look at the life-in-progress and work of an extraordinary woman." —Virginia Quarterly Review
"[Readers] will find themselves enthralled with the fascinating story of a politically committed and dedicated writer, mother, and wife." —School Library Journal
"Her fans will love the Isabel who comes across so well spoken here." —Booklist