Q&A: A Conversation with Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is the California Book Club’s March 2023 selection.

isabel allende

When Isabel Allende published The House of the Spirits in 1982, it was widely regarded as magical realism. This, Allende suggests by email, was a product of the time rather than any intention on her part. “The boom of Latin American literature,” she observes, “was still present in the world.… Few novels escaped that label.” Forty years later, she continues, “we can say that it is a historical novel.” Allende’s right, but the book is also the portrait of a family, as well as a pointed political critique. Recently, Allende and I corresponded about the novel.

This article appears in Issue 22 of Alta Journal.

The House of the Spirits is your first novel, but you had previously written two books for children and a collection of columns. How did that change of focus, of intention, come about?
In 1969, in Chile, I started working for a magazine called Paula. I did reports, interviews, and a couple of humorous columns with a feminist slant. I also published two children’s books that I never count among my accomplishments because what really mattered were the illustrations. So, I can say that my life as a writer started with The House of the Spirits in 1981. The shift from journalism to literature happened almost by chance. I had left my country in 1975, during the military dictatorship, and was living in exile in Venezuela, where I could not find work as a journalist. When I started writing my first book, I had no idea what I was doing. Was this an interminable letter? A memoir? A novel? It didn’t matter, really. For me, it was an exercise in nostalgia; I was trying to recover the world and the family I had lost.

So much of your writing grows out of an engagement with family.
In most of the world, family and community are the only safety nets in times of need. Belonging is more important than individualism. In some societies, the worst punishment is ostracism, to be expelled from the group. I grew up in an extended family, and I lost it when I had to go into exile. So, my books are family sagas. I am interested in relationships, in the interaction between the individual and the community, in people helping each other as if they were family, although in most cases they are not. Family is not about blood connection; it’s about solidarity.

The House of the Spirits began as a letter to your dying grandfather and went on to stand against the Pinochet dictatorship. How much was planned?
I wrote with no script, no plan, no intention of any kind. I wrote for the pleasure of telling a story. The characters emerged from the shadows of the past and occupied my life entirely. I had no idea what they would do next. They surprised me on every page. Most were modeled after members of my crazy family. The political aspect was not intentional; it was inevitable. What happened in the country determined the life of my family, so naturally it also determined the lives of my characters. My stories don’t happen in limbo; they are rooted in the real world, where politics matter.

Is it your sense that creative work is inherently political, a force for liberation, so to speak?
In times of political repression, creators are always targeted because they expose the truth. Art and literature are the pulse of a society. Creators are one step ahead; they are able to see what is hidden, to explain what is chaotic, to preserve what authorities try to erase from collective memory. Sometimes a poem, a song, or an image can summarize a moment in history: for example, the photo of the naked girl running from a napalm explosion in Vietnam. When I write fiction, I don’t intend to deliver a political message, but my experiences and beliefs inevitably appear between the lines. Maybe that’s why my writing is considered political.

Why do you write? Have the reasons changed over your career?
I write because I love the process, and that has never changed. Since I turned 80, I am often asked when I plan to retire. Why would I do that? I will retire by force when my memory and attention fail, or when my bones won’t hold me straight in a chair in front of my computer. Stories are like seeds in my belly. They are dormant for decades until one starts to germinate. Slowly but surely, the seed invades my mind and my dreams; then it’s time to plant it on the page and nurture it. All my books are different. I don’t see a lineage, just a few recurrent themes or obsessions: strong women, absent fathers, love, organic justice, courage, death, power.•

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David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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