Friday, May 17, 2013

Books and authors: an evening with Isabel Allende

This week I had the pleasure of seeing Isabel Allende at iconic Bay Area independent bookstore Kepler's Books, Menlo Park. Allende is on tour promoting her latest novel Maya's Notebook, and a signed copy is now sitting by my bedside table.

I furiously took notes during her talk so that I could share the many insights she offered into the writing process, her novels and her life.

Before opening up the floor to questions Allende asked for a show of hands from the Latinos in the audience. There were many and appropriately the first question asked on the night was in Spanish.

On the writing process:

Allende described novel writing as an organic process: "The novel starts like a vague feeling in the womb." She sits with this feeling, and sometimes it develops.

She says she starts out with "no idea": "I just show up everyday in front of the computer and then something happens . . . It is happening in spite of myself."

Allende is the very opposite of a plotter or a planner. "You don't plan from one point to the end. It just happens."

Sometimes she struggles with the ending for months, and then out of nowhere - in the middle of a conversation about something unrelated - it just hits her. Other times she writes a sentence and knows it is the last, the ending.

Allende says that "if you write you have to write everywhere." To write Of Love and Shadows "I emptied a broom closet and put up a board and a lightbulb."

Allende now has that longed for room of her own - the pool house - and her disciplined approach to writing means no internet access, in fact nothing but her computer and dictionaries.

"I start all my books on January 8th. So can you imagine January 7th in my house. If I sit down and wait for inspiration it will never come."

On becoming a writer:

"I always liked to tell stories but I was growing up in 40s Chile. That was like the Middle Ages."

"I was a great reader. The women I read were all dead."

While in exile in Venezuela she received a call telling her that her grandfather was dying. She began writing him a letter which became the basis for her first novel The House of the Spirits.

On whether she will ever write a biography:

Allende made an interesting distinction between memoir and biography. She said "I don't have facts in my head. I have no idea where I've been." She prefers the memoir and has written two.

On her mother:

Allende has kept forty years of correspondence, letters and now emails, between herself and her mother who write to each other almost daily. What a gift to future biographers!

Asked if she shared her writing with others: "My mother was my only editor. She would fly to San Francisco" and "take out all the sex parts so I ignore."

She said that both her and her husband talk with each other about what they are currently writing but don't read each others work: "I don't read his because I don't want to fight with him."

On being a professor:

"I am a lousy teacher. When teaching I start to plagiarize my students."

And her advice to her undoubtedly lucky students:

"I tell them to write a bad novel. That frees them. How are you going to write a novel if you don't write."

On addiction:

Allende's spoke passionately about drug addiction, a central theme of Maya's Notebook, and the folly of criminalising drugs.

"The fact that it is penalised, criminalised makes it so much more dangerous. This is not a war we can win with bullets. This is a public health issue."

Allende spoke of her own experiences, three stepchildren who are all addicted to drugs, two having lost their lives to addiction. She shared with the audience that her family is currently grieving for a step-daughter who died only a month ago.

Maya's Notebook is about an American girl growing up in Berkeley with a Chilean grandmother (who she jokes is very much based on herself). She talks about watching her own grown children raising teens: "I saw their parents losing their hair trying to protect them."

Like all of her books, the novel was written in Spanish and later translated into English.

On her husband:

Allende elicited huge laughs every time she made reference to her husband - Willie Gordon - who decided on retirement from lawyering to take up novel writing.

She says "I was really pissed off" and told him that if he could be a writer then she would become a lawyer when she retired from novel writing.

Unfortunately her husband has been successful, with six books in print and - she told us with a dismissive flip of her hand - he was currently at a book festival in Brazil "or somewhere". She was reluctant to give us his name in case we decided to try his books which are crime novels all set in San Francisco in the 1960s. When pushed she said he would no doubt send us 'free copies'.

She decided to make her latest novel a crime novel to show that she could do this too, and better!

An ill-fated attempt to co-author a novel with her husband lasted all of an hour. She says she can focus for 11 hours, he for 11 minutes. Cue uproarious laughter.

On favourite authors, Allende graciously made reference to only one, the author of The Kite Runner and One Thousand Splendid Sons, Khaled Husseini, who was in the audience with his family.

While I waited for my row to be called to join the queue for book signing I entertained myself with some literary star gazing, all the while cursing the lack of zoom on my fruit phone. Husseini has a new book coming out soon and will be appearing at Kepler's (I promise to share and bring the 'good' camera for this one).

Asked if she has started thinking about her next novel, incredibly prolific Allende revealed it has already been written.


  1. You lucky thing, I would love to hear her talk. Thanks for such a great recount of the evening.

    1. Thanks so much Janine. I did feel very lucky! So glad you enjoyed my account.

  2. Thank you Michelle, loved reading that. I always am fascinated on hearing about the writing process and how it differs from writer to writer. It makes sense to me the ideas 'just happen' for her...such a magical thought, much like her books :)
    I love attending such things, food for the soul...lucky for you. xo