Q. Where do you get your inspiration?
A. I am a good listener and a story hunter. Everybody has a story and all stories are interesting if they are told in the right tone. I read newspapers, and small stories buried deep within the paper can inspire a novel.
Q. How does inspiration work?
A. I spend ten, twelve hours a day alone in a room writing. I don’t talk to anybody. I don’t answer the telephone. I’m just a medium or an instrument of something that is happening beyond me, voices that talk through me. I’m creating a world that is fiction but that doesn’t belong to me. I’m not God; I’m just an instrument. And in that long, very patient daily exercise of writing I have discovered a lot about myself and about life. I have learned. I’m not conscious of what I’m writing. It’s a strange process—as if by this lying-in-fiction you discover little things that are true about yourself, about life, about people, about how the world works.
Q. Which writers have influenced you most?
A. I belong to the first generation of Latin American writers brought up reading other Latin American writers. Before my time the work of Latin American writers was not well distributed, even on our continent. In Chile it was very hard to read other writers from Latin America. My greatest influences have been all the great writers of the Latin American Boom in literature: García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Cortázar, Borges, Paz, Rulfo, Amado, etc.
Many Russian novelists influenced me as well: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Nabokov, Gogol, and Bulgarov. The English writers who had a big influence on me during my adolescence were Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. I loved mysteries and read all of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. Also some American authors who were very popular in Spanish, like Mark Twain, Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others. I remember the lasting impression that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird had on me. I read that book again every decade or so. From these books I got a sense of plot and strong characters.
I discovered fantasy and eroticism in One Thousand and One Nights, which I read in Lebanon at age fourteen. At that time and in that place, girls didn’t have much social life aside from school and family; we didn’t even go to the movies. My only escape from a troublesome family life was reading. My stepfather had four mysterious leather volumes in his locked closet, forbidden books that I was not supposed to see because they were “erotic.” Of course I found a way to copy the key and get in the closet when he was not around. I used a flashlight, could not mark the pages, and read quickly, skipping pages and looking for the dirty parts. My hormones were raging and my imagination went wild with those fantastic tales. When critics call me a Latin America Sheherazade I feel very flattered!
The American and European feminists that I read in my twenties gave me an articulate language to express the anger I felt against the patriarchy in which we all live. I started working at Paula, a Chilean feminist magazine, sharpening my ideas and my pen to defy the male establishment. It was the best time of my life.
I have always liked movies, and sometimes an image or a scene or a character stays with me for years and inspires me when I write. For example: the magic in Fanny and Alexander or the story within a story of Shakespeare in Love.
Q. What happens when you start a novel?
A. When I start I am in a total limbo. I don’t have any idea where the story is going or what is going to happen or why I am writing it. I only know that—in a way that I can’t even understand at the time—I am connected to the story. I have chosen that story because it was important to me in the past or it will be in the future.
Q. When you talk about opening yourself up to the experience, are you opening yourself up to a magical world? Do spirits actually come in and suggest words, images, and scenes for you?
A. Yes. In a certain way. There is also an intellectual process, of course. But there is something magic in the storytelling. You tap into another world. The story becomes whole when you tap into the collective story, when other people’s stories become part of the writing, and you know that it’s not your story only. I have a feeling that I don’t invent anything. That, somehow, I discover things that are from another dimension. That they are already there, and my job is to find them and bring them onto the page. But I don’t make them up. Over the years things have happened in my life and in my writing that have proved to me that anything is possible. I am open to all the mysteries. When you spend too many hours—as many, many hours a day as I do—alone and in silence, you are able to see that world. I imagine that people who pray or mediate for long hours, or who spend time alone in a convent or another quiet place, end up hearing voices and seeing visions because solitude and silence create the basis for that awareness.
Sometimes I write something, and I’m practically convinced that it’s just my imagination. Months or years later, I discover that it was true. And I’m always so scared when that happens. I think, “What is this? What if things happen because I write them? I have to be very careful with my words.” But my mother says, “No, they don’t happen because you write them. You don’t have that power. Don’t be so arrogant. What happens is that you are able to see them and other people are not because they don’t have the time, because they are busy in the noise of the world.” My grandmother was clairvoyant. And although she did not write, she could guess things and tap into those unknown events and feelings. She was aware. I imagine that it’s just a question of being more awar
The unforgettable first novel that established Isabel Allende as one of the world’s most gifted and imaginative storytellers.
The House of the Spirits brings to life the triumphs and tragedies of three generations of the Trueba family. The patriarch Esteban is a volatile, proud man whose voracious pursuit of political power is tempered only by his love for his delicate wife, Clara, a woman with a mystical connection to the spirit world. When their daughter Blanca embarks on a forbidden love affair in defiance of her implacable father, the result is an unexpected gift to Esteban: his adored granddaughter Alba, a beautiful and strong-willed child who will lead her family and her country into a revolutionary future.
One of the most important novels of the twentieth century, The House of the Spirits is an enthralling epic that spans decades and lives, weaving the personal and the political into a universal story of love, magic, and fate.