Interview with Isabel Allende

Posted by Goodreads on May 2, 2010
Chilean-born author Isabel Allende may live in California, but her work has a worldly—almost otherworldly—flavor. Her books are filled with vivid female characters and morsels of magical realism, and a few have been made into movies, such as The House of the Spirits and Of Love and Shadows. As a working writer, Allende has lived in many locales: Chile as a journalist, Venezuela as a political exile, and now the United States. Along the way, she's written 17 books, including a heartbreaking memoir completed while her daughter, Paula, lay in a coma, and the fictional best-seller Daughter of Fortune.

South America will always be near and dear to Allende—she still writes all of her fiction in Spanish—but her latest novel transports readers to colonial-era Haiti and follows the story of a slave girl with moxie named Zarité. She shares with Goodreads her thoughts on Haiti and discusses the role of feminism in her writing.

Goodreads: Early reviews of Island Beneath the Sea on Goodreads repeatedly refer to Zarité as a "strong woman." History is so often told by those with power, yet Zarité has no freedom; she is enslaved by her percentage of African blood and her status as a human commodity. Why did you decide to place a young slave girl at the center of the story?

Isabel Allende: I am obsessed with the theme of freedom, especially for women. Women are abused, raped, exploited, sold; they are the poorest of the poor. They need to be strong and clear minded to overcome the multiple obstacles of their destiny. That makes for a great story! Most of my female characters are enslaved in one way or another, but until Zarité I had not written about a slave. Her case is extreme.

GR: Your books have taken readers to myriad locales, including your native Chile and your current home, the San Francisco Bay area. What moved you to write about colonial-era Haiti in Island Beneath the Sea?

IA: I had no idea I would end up writing about Haiti. I went to New Orleans a couple of times to research for my novel Zorro and fell in love with the city, its French flavor, and the African American culture. I said to myself that one day I would write a story placed in New Orleans, probably about pirates. In my research I found out that 10,000 refugees came to Louisiana in 1800, running away from the slave revolt in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today Haiti). I was fascinated by the history of the island and the plight of the slaves.

GR: What kind of research did you conduct to represent 18th- and 19th-century Saint-Domingue, Havana, and New Orleans authentically?

IA: I read history books about the Caribbean, Haiti, Europe, and the United States. All were connected. I also read a couple of biographies of Toussaint Louverture and the wonderful trilogy by Madison Smart Bell, an expert on Haiti's history and a great writer.

GR: The Isabel Allende Foundation seeks social and economic justice for women, a cause close to your heart. Your female characters are often marginalized by their gender, yet they can be passionate, practical, and tenacious. What place does feminism hold in your storytelling?

IA: I have been a feminist long before the term reached my country, Chile. I have always been aware of gender inequality, I have always wanted to be independent. Feminism has shaped my character, my decisions, my life, my writing, and my foundation.

GR: Melissa asks, "Where do you begin a novel—with a plot idea, a character idea, or a piece of history?"

IA: It depends. Some books begin with a vague idea, like Island Beneath the Sea. My first novel, The House of the Spirits, started with characters—most of them modeled after members of my family. My second novel is based on a real crime committed by the military in times of the dictatorship in Chile (1973). Other books are historical novels, like Daughter of Fortune, which was inspired by the California Gold Rush of 1848. In others I have researched a theme, like Aphrodite, which is about aphrodisiacs, lust, and gluttony.

GR: Lyn says, "I am a fan of magical realism in fiction, and I really enjoyed The House of the Spirits. I've read several of your subsequent novels, and you haven't used this literary device to the same degree. How does it figure in your new book?"

IA: There is a lot of magic in Island Beneath the Sea. It's impossible to explain the slave revolt in Haiti without vodou and the spiritual empowerment that religion gave to the slaves. It was truly magical. In their religion they were "mounted" by the Loas. While in trance they had the power of the Loa, and that gave them incredible courage and strength. They fought with machetes against the cannons of Napoleon because they believed that for every black man in the battle there were 10,000 spirits that had risen from the Island Beneath the Sea (Paradise, Guinea, the Other World) to fight with him.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing and any unusual writing habits. Do you still start every book on the auspicious day of January 8, when you began The House of the Spirits? Has the day's luck held for you over the years?

IA: January 8 has been a lucky day for me. I have started all my books on that day, and all of them have been well received by the readers. I write eight to ten hours a day until I have a first draft, then I can relax a little. I am very disciplined. I write in silence and solitude. I light a candle to call inspiration and the muses, and I surround myself with pictures of the people I love, dead and alive.

GR: What's next?

IA: Another novel, this time placed half in the United States and half in Chile.

Comments Showing 1-30 of 30 (30 new)

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message 1: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Walters I've started the book...[my SIGNED copy:].....and its wonderful!

GREAT interview---and a FABULOUS author and human being!!! Isabel Allende is juicy & fun, too, with a heart of gold! ----and need we say...'smart & wise' as can. I'm forever inspired by this woman!

It was a honor to meet Isabel Allende --listen to her speak in Mountain View. ---I loved how she talked about "The Island" ....beneath the Sea!

message 2: by Zyusuf (new)

Zyusuf Have read almost all of Allende's books and enjoyed them. My favourite (purely from a pleasurable point of view) is 'Aphrodite'. Look forward to reading 'Island beneath the sea'
Zohra Yusuf, Pakistan

message 3: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Walters Hi Zyusf, (new friend)! Thanks for sharing and connecting! I was in Pakistan in 1973. I went to Israel, Greece...then overland to India... [what an adventure:]...
Did you read Isabel Allende's memoir called "The Sum of Our Days"? I liked that book a lot, too---because it gave us a deeper personal look at 'Isabel' herself.
It was warm-funny-'wonderful' all her books....
and yes...I wish I still had kept my copy of "Aphrodite". I gave it to somebody and never got it back!
Best to you!

message 4: by Zyusuf (new)

Zyusuf Nice to hear from you, Elyse! Yes, I did read her memoir. Plan to read 'Aphrodite' again. It's sensuous & feminist (at least I think so). Interesting to know you were in Pakistan in 1973. Sadly, a much-changed country now. Strangely enough, the country has produced some excellent writers in English: Mohsid Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, among others. All the best to you! Zohra

message 5: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn I'm not really a fan of Allende's, but I'm fascinated by the topic. I'll be adding this one to my "to-read" shelf.

message 6: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Walters yes....interesting topic, *Carolyn*! ---[strong woman in the book, too!:]....

oh....and *Zyusuf*: Another book I read which you might like is called: "The Museum of innocence" by Orhan Pamuk --He lives in Turkey

message 7: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn Hi Elyse,
"The Museum of Innocence". I'll check it out. I started reading the other book by Pamuk. What was it..."Snow" or something like that. I didn't finish it, but it's on my list. Thanks for the recommendation.

message 8: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Walters Hi Carolyn, I didn't read 'Snow'....[but its sitting on my shelf since I just found it in a used book store in good condition:]...but other so many other books seem to be 'calling' me...(lol), before 'Snow'....

but I couldn't put down "The Museum of Innocence". It was 'painful'...(obsessive love), at times----
yet--so 'different' in ways, too......

I liked it!

I just finished a 'non-fiction' "The Big Short"....because a man in San Jose, (the city I live in) in the book...[a genius:]....
Its the number # best non-fiction best seller right now. Its no accident my husbands business has been suffering this past year.
oh well!

So great to meet you, Carolyn!
come visit ANYTIME :)


message 9: by Zyusuf (new)

Zyusuf Hi, Carolyn & Elyse! Have 'The Musuem of Innocence' on my book shelf & have read 'Snow'. Beautifully evocative. My Pamuk favourite is 'My Name is Red'. Would recommend it to you.

Cheers! Zohra Yusuf

message 10: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn Hi Zohra and Elyse,

just added both Pamuk's and will look into "The Big Short". I'm also into non-fiction, especially memoir. I'm finishing up my own. Check out the first chapter on my author's page if you want to. In the meantime, thanks for all the suggestions. Who says reading isn't an expensive hobby?

message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

Hi all,
I've read all of Allende's works except Paula and La isla bajo el Mar. And if everything's allright, my Indonesian translation of La casa de los espíritus will be published next month :)

For "a deeper personal look at 'Isabel' herself", you guys may also check this: Isabel Allende: Vida y espíritus, a very intimate long interview with her. And also read the chapter by Allende in Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel. I think this is her strongest statement about the political aspects of her works.

message 12: by Zyusuf (new)

Zyusuf Thanks, Ronny. Will certainly look up the recommended chapter. Paula is rather sad - it's about watching her daughter die. A brave book, nevertheless. All the best for the launch of your translation of 'The House of the Spirits'.

message 13: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Walters What I liked about 'Paula' was reading about Isabel Allende's childhood in Chile.
Towards the end of the book, it was really sad when the family was gathered around Paula's death bed in S.F.

and thanks for the 'tip' Ronny!

message 14: by Carol (new)

Carol Isabel Allende is a favorite of mine. I enjoyed your interview with her .

message 15: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Walters Carolyn wrote: "Hi Zohra and Elyse,

just added both Pamuk's and will look into "The Big Short". I'm also into non-fiction, especially memoir. I'm finishing up my own. Check out the first chapter on my author's pa..."

Carolyn wrote: "Hi Zohra and Elyse,

just added both Pamuk's and will look into "The Big Short". I'm also into non-fiction, especially memoir. I'm finishing up my own. Check out the first chapter on my author's pa..."

message 16: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Walters very *YOU* write, Carolyn!!!! I'd love to read your memoir!
I'm rushing right now ---getting ready for our Friday night community soak: [check it out--see our photos in my yard...wish you could join and tell me more about yourself....
the entire world of book lovers are welcome!

Also: Happy Mother's Day!!!!!!!!!!!

love elyse

message 17: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn Hi Ronny,
an Indonesian translation? Wow! Much success with the launch. Also, thanks for the recommendations.

message 18: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn Hi Elyse,

If you'd like, I can add your name to my list of readers who'd like to be informed when the book is released.

What is a warm water soak social? It sounds intriguing. Hope you have a wonderful Friday night!

message 19: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn Hi Elyse,

happy mother's day to you, too.

message 20: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Walters yes....please add my name!

'Warm-water-soaks' is a community gathering in our yard for relaxation and social enjoyment, [we have a sauna, outdoor shower, and cold dipping pool, too:].

I don't allow drinking or drugs --no sexual activity--but clothing optional is ok--
We use wonderful saline water--(very clean), its in a garden setting.
I also have woman gatherings and Watsu-water massages are done in this pool.

message 21: by Sally (new)

Sally I cannot wait to read Allende's newest novel. Long a fan of hers, I read her novels for pleasure. When I began my critical paper for my MFA, Allende popped to the surface. What a pleasure to reread her novels from a writer's perspective. Somehow the act of writing always finds its way into the lives of Allende's fiesty female characters.

message 22: by Naima (new)

Naima I love Isabel Allende, she's definitely one of my favorite authors - I especially love Paula and Daughter of Fortune. And I just finished reading Island beneath the Sea which I drank in. Though I continually enjoy her story telling and her thorough imagination - I was a little disappointed in her portrayal of certain characters. I guess I expected a lot from this book, and wanted to feel a certain empowerment in Blackness in which she doesn't often write about (certainly because she doesn't write about many Black characters). But since this is her first true story about Black people and Black revolution, I was disappointed by its constant glorification of White beauty and whiteness.

Also a little disappointing was its abrupt ending. But a pleasure to read nonetheless and such a rich rich history!

message 23: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn Just got my copy of of Island beneath the Sea and can't wait to open it up tonight. Very interesting comments, Naima. This would have been a wonderful book for me to deconstruct had she written it when I was still studying Latin American literature. I was always fascinated by the representations of black women, which were usually stereotypical at best. Knowing Allende's writing, and based on the comments on this one I've been reading, I'm afraid it's a rewrite of a novel that Cuban author Alejo Carpentier wrote about Haitian independence. Stop....I'm not going to judge a book....

message 24: by Naima (new)

Naima Haha, I'll be interested to hear what you think after you read it!

message 25: by Carol (new)

Carol Allende is by far, one of my favorite writers. I wonder how relevant Island Beneath the Sea will be given the current events in Haiti today. I can't wait to jump in and start reading it, but I've made a vow to finish the book I'm reading now, before moving on to my next treasure. I actually enjoyed Ines of My Soul, also a historical novel. It's about the founding of Chile.

message 26: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne I also have The Museum of Innocence on my bookshelf.

I have never read anything by Isabel Allende, but I just started her book Island Beneath the Sea. It drew me in instantly. It made me wonder why I've never picked up her books before. I'm also glad that I read this interview. As a result, I'm sure that I will notice things in this book that I wouldn't have been aware of before.

message 27: by Lynnette (new)

Lynnette Yes, Inez (Ines?) of My soul is a very interesting
historical read of Isabel Allende's. Looking forward
to the new book and will have to try "Aphrodite" that
others mentioned. Lynnette

message 28: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn I've read the first 100 or so pages, and so far I'm hooked. I'm a bit ambivalent about the stock characters, but Allende is an excellent storyteller, and I can barely put the book down. Carol, this book is so relevant to the state Haiti's in today. Few would believe that it was once the wealthiest of the New World colonies, even though the way it rose to prominence left a lot to be desired.

message 29: by Manal (new)

Manal Hi every one..
Isabel Allende is one of my favorite writers,
I'm relly glad to know About this novel ..
hope to have it soon ..

message 30: by Suzanna (new)

Suzanna Fonaryova Interesting Interview! Thanks!

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