Interview with Isabel AllendePosted by Goodreads on November 10, 2015
Personal experience has always inspired the Chilean American novelist and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient: Her debut novel, The House of the Spirits, began as a letter to her dying grandfather, and her bestselling memoir Paula deals with the 1992 death of her daughter.
Her new book, which spans both generations and continents, is no exception—love, loss, and aging are very much on the mind of the 73-year-old Allende following her recent split from her husband of 27 years. Despite this, The Japanese Lover moves at a sprightly clip and has many moments of levity and humor: Alma, when questioned about secretive trips from her retirement home, tells her grandson she's off "to experiment with the hallucinatory drug ayahuasca."
With her trademark candor, Allende, whose 20-plus works have sold 65 million copies worldwide, tells Goodreads about society's prejudice against the elderly, the importance of sex in old age, and how sorrow and loss can fuel creativity.
Read the interview in Spanish, translated by Mónica Neidermeier.
Goodreads: Talk us through your inspiration for The Japanese Lover.
Isabel Allende: The inspiration was a sentence that a friend of mine said, but I think the themes of the book had been with me for a long time. Love, romantic love, losses, aging, death, memory—those are more or less the themes of the book. The idea came when I was walking in the streets of New York with a friend, and she said that her mother, who was 80 years old and in a retirement home, had had a friend for 40 years who was a Japanese gardener, and I said, 'Oh, maybe they were lovers,' and of course my friend said, 'No, why would you say that?' Because we would never think that our parents would have a lover. But then I started thinking about a woman in her eighties in a retirement home—would she still be involved in a romantic relationship? So that was the seed for it. And the rest was what's happening now in my life. I am in my seventies, and this year has been a year of change, of losses. My parents are very old—my mother is 95, and my stepfather is going to be 100—so I see them getting very old and deteriorating, and I wonder is it worth living so long. Plus, I was married for 27 years and very much in love with my husband, and things started to go wrong three years ago, and then in April we separated. For me it was a huge loss. Although the marriage wasn't working, I'm a very romantic person, so I always thought, OK, this can be saved, and I would like to spend the rest of my life in a couple, not alone.
GR: How did you come up with the character of Ichimei Fukuda? Was he inspired by anyone?
IA: No, Ichimei's not based on anyone. But I imagined him that way because I imagined that a person who works with nature, who comes from that culture, from that time, would be a very introverted, quiet, calm person. What happens is, at the beginning the characters are very blurred, and then as I dwell more with the book and go deeper into the characters, they become alive, they have their own voices and their own stories to tell, and I cannot control it very much. Really, I can't.
GR: The book covers the Second World War in Europe and the United States, where Fukuda's family is sent to an internment camp. Presumably you had to do a lot of research?
IA: I always do when I write a book. I start with the time and the place: when did this happen and where, because that is the theater where my actors will move and have their lives. It's very important that that be as close to reality as possible because then I can construct fiction on it and the reader will believe it because the fundamental facts are there. I had no idea about the internment camps for the Japanese when I started studying the period of the Second World War. Then I learned that after Pearl Harbor, 120,000 people of Japanese origin—two-thirds of them were American citizens—had been in concentration camps. They did not call them that; they called them internment camps. And they cannot be compared to what the Nazis did in Europe, of course. But still those people were prisoners and lost four-and-a-half years and everything they had worked for. That first generation, the Issei, the ones who came from Japan as immigrants, they were so ashamed and felt so dishonored that they never mentioned it. And their children, they would not mention it, either, because it was taboo in the family. But the grandchildren, the third generation—they rescued the story from oblivion, and now if you look for it, the information is there.
GR: How did you decide on the time frame for the book?
IA: Well, the book would happen in the present in the Bay Area, in San Francisco, but if the woman is 80, I have to trace back what happened in those 80 years, so then I go to the past. But the setting is the present time.
GR: There's something very comforting and progressive about the book's view of aging compared with the fear that often surrounds death and aging in our culture. Was that something you were hoping to address?
IA: No, I don't try to deliver a message. I write from my own experience and what I see around me. We live in a culture that is oriented toward youth and success. People who are not youthful and successful are outcasts. If you are disabled, if you are fat, if you are a poor person, if you are old, you are out, you are not part of the culture. So it's very hard because we are all going to get there sooner or later; it's unavoidable. To deny the fact that we are aging day by day is absurd. Now I have reached my seventies, I know that inside I am the same person I always was. I have energy, my brain is working, nothing has collapsed yet, not even my breasts. I feel very alive, full of curiosity and enthusiasm. I don't feel where the culture places me—as an old woman, alone. I don't feel that way at all. Many don't. My new neighbor is 87, a widow, and she has a lover who is 14 years younger who visits on Thursdays and spends three nights with her, and they, I presume, have good sex and keep each other company. But neither of them is planning to move in together or get married. What they have is perfect for them. So all this is possible; it's not common, but it is possible. And when I tell young people my son's age that sex is important at any age, he is horrified. He doesn't want to visualize something like that, not with his mother, of course. But it is important. It is part of being healthy and feeling alive, like everything else, like sense of humor, curiosity, being engaged with a purpose and a mission in life. All those things are important, and I address them in the book, but not with the idea of delivering a message or convincing people of anything. This is what I have seen. This is my experience.
GR: Yes, because I enjoyed many of Alma's comments, such as "the truth is that the older I get, the more I like my defects" and her view that there "were too many old people on the planet…who lived much longer than was necessary for biology and possible for the economy." Were these things you could identify with?
IA: Yes, I'm not Alma at all, but I identify with many of the things she says.
GR: How did you go about creating the character of Alma?
IA: I knew that the woman would be Jewish because when my friend told me about her mother, I knew that her mother was Jewish. So I thought what would have happened during her life, where did she come from, how did being Jewish influence (or not) her destiny? Was she wealthy or not wealthy? That also determines much of her character. Was she a spoiled brat or not? I wanted to create as much distance and difference between the two people who are in love so that their love is full of obstacles. Insurmountable obstacles. The fact that there is race, religion, social class, wealth, culture—everything works against them, works to separate them. Plus, at that time you couldn't marry a person from another race; it was illegal, so that was also something to contemplate in the book.
GR: At Lark House, the eccentric retirement home where Alma lives, marijuana is dispensed and euthanasia is discussed freely. Is it based on a real place?
IA: Yes, the real place is called the Redwoods, and it's here in Mill Valley, a retirement home that is very much like the one I describe. It has attracted leftists, liberals, artists, hippies, and all these old people are wonderful and very alive. They have a cultural community, and they go out and they protest against the government, against the CIA. Every Friday you see them in their wheelchairs marching against something.
GR: Elective suicide, or elective death, is discussed in the book. Is that something you have a view on?
IA: Yes, of course. It's in the air right now. California has just approved assisted death in certain cases, and I think that by the time I need it, it will be available everywhere. One of the many things the baby boomers have changed is the idea of aging. Before, when you were 30, you were a mature person. When you were 50, you were already old. Now it's been pushed until 90. And now the baby boomers are confronting elective death because they see their parents getting very old and disabled, and health care is not prepared for this wave of very old people who live too long. Doctors have been trained to keep people alive no matter what instead of being trained to sustain life and quality of life for as long as possible but not extend life for the heck of it. Because it doesn't make any sense. Why would you have an old person who is in pain kept alive on a ventilator? It's crazy.
GR: The book also tackles some disturbing topics, such as sex trafficking and child pornography. I suspect there is no subject matter too dark for you when it comes to your writing. Is this true?
IA: Mostly. But I do it carefully. It's explicit without saying exactly what happens. Because I don't want to put ideas in anybody's mind. There are so many psychopaths out there. It's the same when I talk, for example, about torture or about slavery. I can write about it, but I am very careful not to go into the details. It's not necessary. You can create the atmosphere of fear and violence and terror without going into the details. And I think it usually works better. It's the same with eroticism. It's not necessary to explain who put what where. No, you can talk about the smells, the feelings, the texture, what you hear. That is much more erotic than the hydraulics of it.
GR: Was it significant that two of the main characters, both Alma and Irina, a young care worker, are immigrants from Eastern Europe?
GR: Goodreads member Alison asks, "I would like to ask about the role of feminism in The House of the Spirits. The female characters are definitely more soft-spoken than the male characters but are able to achieve change in unexpected and lasting ways. Do you view your books as a means to empower women around the world?"
IA: In all my books there are very strong female characters. Usually they are the protagonists. They fight against all kinds of obstacles, and they are able to make a life for themselves. I have always been a feminist. Of course feminism has changed, it's not the same as it was in the '70s or '80s or now, but I have a foundation, and the mission of the foundation is empowerment of women and girls in the areas of education, health, and protection. So many of the stories I tell come from the cases that we deal with in my foundation.
GR: You mentioned earlier the separation from your husband. You once said in an interview that "sadness is the fertile soil at the bottom of the heart where the best things grow." Do you feel that good things, creatively, will come of this for you?
IA: Absolutely. Of course. I feel that I have to go through the dark times and come out to the light. And whatever sadness or loss I may have, I will get over it. Not that I will forget—'get over it' is not the right expression. I will assimilate it, it will be part of the fertile ground where I stand and where all the creativity comes from. If I had a happy and uneventful life, what would I write about?
GR: Goodreads member Kelly asks, "Which of your novels required the most effort?"
IA: I think the most difficult to write was the second one [Of Love and Shadows] because the first one had enormous, sudden success, and that is frightening, and everybody else is expecting you to write even better. I remember my agent Carmen Balcells, who just died, told me when she received my manuscript for my first novel, 'This is a good book. I'm going to do everything in my power to have it published. Anybody can write a good first book because it contains everything you are, everything you have lived, your family, your memories, everything. The second book proves the writer.' And it's true: Writing the second book was very difficult. And then I also found it very difficult to start writing again after my daughter died. I went through two or three years of writer's block.
GR: Does writing help you recover from, or process, heartbreak and loss?
IA: Writing is wonderful because writing is a very slow process, and I have to choose how to describe things, what are the highlights, what are the lowlights, what are the grays in between that nobody cares for? How am I going to describe something to give it the right tone? I can tell you my life with dark, negative, pessimistic adjectives, and it will be a terrible life, and I can tell the same life with the same words but choosing different adjectives, and it will be a life in Technicolor, a brilliant, wonderful life. So it depends on the choice of tone, the choice of words. When I write, I try to organize the confusion of life and make it clear. Every book is like a map, a map of part of the journey. For me writing is a wonderful way of overcoming and learning.
GR: What's your average writing day like? Where do you write?
IA: Right now my life is upside down, so I have a new house and I am installing bookshelves. All my books are in boxes. But by January 8 [the date that Allende wrote the letter to her grandfather that became The House of the Spirits and now the date on which she begins every novel] everything will be ready to get started in this new place. To write I need a place where I can be silent and alone and quiet. And I will have it in this new house. I work many hours a day, usually starting in the morning. I'm much better then than in the afternoon or the evening. So I get up, have coffee, walk the dog, and then go to my studio and try to work for as long as I can handle it.
GR: Which authors or books have inspired you the most?
IA: I belong to the first generation of Latin American writers to grow up reading other Latin American writers. Because before the boom of Latin American literature of the late '60s, '70s, and '80s, the writers were published in their own countries but their work was not well distributed. So if Carlos Fuentes was writing in Mexico, I wouldn't get his books in Chile. And then the publishing houses in Barcelona picked up these Latin American writers and starting publishing them, and that created this boom of Latin American literature that took the world by assault. I don't belong to that generation; I am considered postboom. But the fact I grew up reading these writers influenced me enormously because they created a chorus of very different but harmonious voices to describe our reality, not to the world as much as to ourselves. They were a mirror for us to see ourselves, and in that sense I think they were the greatest influence on my writing.
IA: Right now I'm reading Jonathan Franzen's Purity, and I just read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.
GR: There are a few mentions of ghosts and spirits in The Japanese Lover. Several readers wanted to know if you were ever going to return to magic realism more fully.
IA: Like doing more magic realism? I don't think that magic realism is a literary device, or like salt and pepper that you can sprinkle it everywhere. No. Some stories call for that and many don't at all. So if I'm writing a trilogy for young adults, of course there are elements of magic realism; I can't write fantasy, but I can write about magic realism. But if I'm writing a story like a crime novel, it doesn't apply. So it depends on the story. But I don't try to force it into a story. It doesn't work that way.
GR: Do you have any idea what you will write next?
IA: I don't have any idea for fiction. I might write another memoir. But I'm not sure. I still have three months to think about it.
GR: Goodreads member Rachel asks, "Have the reasons you write changed over the years—your motives for writing?"
IA: [For me] it's not about making a living, it's not about trying to be recognized in any way. I love it. I just love telling stories. And when I'm telling a story, I'm so involved and engaged with the process that nothing else matters much. So it's a wonderful journey into an unknown territory.
Interview by Catherine Elsworth for Goodreads. Catherine is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She previously worked as a reporter and editor for the UK's Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph for 13 years and was the Daily Telegraph's Los Angeles correspondent from 2004 to 2009. She has also contributed to Tatler, Stella, and Condé Nast Traveller. In 2012, she was a semifinalist for the 21st annual James Kirkwood Literary Prize for fiction.
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