Novelist Isabel Allende is known for her magical realism and intensely accurate historical fiction. But she began her career translating the romance novels of Barbara Cartland into Spanish--though not just translating. By the time Allende was done with the books, the men had less bravado, the women were smarter and ended up in less trite situations. Cartland's readers were not happy.
"Of course somebody complained!" Allende told the Los Angeles Times. "You read that kind of book because it's safe."
Allende never wanted her books to be formulaic. Her family's prominent role in Chile--her father's cousin was the country's president before a coup in 1973--became the basis for her debut novel, The House of the Spirits. Another book, this time a memoir, recounts the death of her daughter Paula after a medical error put her in a coma.
Her latest novel, Maya's Notebook, tells the story of a California teenager distraught by the death of her grandfather. Her grief leads her to drugs and crime, and eventually on the run from authorities. She tells her story from a Chilean island, sent there to hide by her grandmother. Allende joins us to discuss her book on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Read an excerpt from Maya's Notebook.
Your book’s protagonist, Maya, is writing her story in a physical notebook, and I’ve read that you print out e-mail conversations between you and your mother. What is special about the physicality of the written word for you?
When she starts to write the book, she is in the island where she’s hiding. She cannot use technology. She cannot use Facebook. It’s such a departure for her. For me, it’s important because it stays. It’s like a document. Maya says this is her ninth notebook. And her grandfather keeps these. There’s something physical that you can touch about them.
You were very close to your grandfather--a letter you wrote to him when he was dying became the inspiration for your first novel, and you start new books on the anniversary of writing that letter. Describe your relationship with him.
I learned a lot from him. He was a tough Basque. He worked since he was 14; he thought that life was about effort and work, and discipline and performing. Everything was harsh about him. He was a great storyteller. He would not cuddle me or touch me but I knew that he loved me. My father disappeared when I was 3, so he was like the father substitute. But he was remote. He became a widower when I was young, and he dressed in black, and painted the furniture black. There was no music, no dessert, no parties. It was a house in mourning for eight years.
What kind of grandmother are you?
I’m short and mean. I don’t praise them if they don’t deserve it. When they were little, more than once, I slapped them around. Not to hurt them, but to get their attention. Their parents didn’t like that.
Are there any lessons from your grandfather that you’re passing on to them?
Reciprocity--you have to give back as much as much as you take.
Before you were a novelist, you were a journalist in Chile. What drove you to journalism?
I started as a journalist in a feminist magazine. I was young, I needed a job and I loved the idea of writing. It changed the culture of Chile. It was 1967 and Chile was very backward at the time, and a very patriarchal culture.
Did you have a specific beat?
I did all kinds of stuff except politics and sports. I wasn’t looking for scandal, but you might say I was looking for impact. One article that was famous in Chile, and to this day people remember this, I interviewed an unfaithful woman. Nobody cared if a man was unfaithful. But I interviewed a woman who was unfaithful for the same reasons men are; they have free time. I did not reveal her name. I promised her I would never reveal her name until she died. And she’s still alive, she’s 90-something.
While you were a journalist, I read you met Pablo Neruda. Could you tell that story?
This was in 1973, a month before the coup. He was living in a beach resort, but it was empty in the winter. This was in August, so it was winter in Chile. He invited me to his house, and I drove two hours to get there in the rain, thinking he wanted me to interview him. I got there and we had a wonderful lunch, and he had been ill but he had a very good day. I said, “OK Don Pablo, I’m ready for the interview.” He said, “What interview?” I said, “I came to interview you.” He said, “My dear, I would never have an interview with you. You are the worst journalist in this country. You lie all the time. You put yourself in the middle of the news. I’m sure if you don’t have news, you invent it. Why don’t you write literature, where all those defects are virtues?” A month later, we had the coup, and 11 days later, he died.
If it wasn’t for an interview, why did he invite you to his house at all?
I was also writing humor. I was the only person at the time who was doing humor. He loved those articles. I learned later he would photocopy them and give them away to friends.
Before you were a journalist, you translated romance novels into Spanish, and made the men less macho and the women more intelligent. You’ve said you were fired because readers wanted to read formulaic books, that they read that kind of book because it was safe. Is there anything wrong with safe books?
I don’t enjoy safe books. I don’t read romance novels because I know the formula. I want the surprise, I want to be smitten. When I read fiction, I want something that is unusual, where I’m never going to guess that it’s coming.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
WTTW also profiled Allende for its The Artist Toolbox series last year. The series interviews artists on their creative process and personal histories. Watch Allende's episode below: