Isabel Allende grew up in chaos. She was raised in an unhappy, dysfunctional household in Santiago, Chile, and was forced to flee her country as a political refugee during the coup d’état of 1973 after the assassination of her cousin Salvador Allende, the former president of Chile.
With all the turmoil she’s lived through, it’s a wonder how brilliant and consistent her work output has become. She starts writing every year on January 8 and has produced nearly a novel a year since 1998. Her latest, “Ripper,” is her first foray into crime fiction and tells the story of a teen sleuth in San Francisco trying to track down her mother’s killer. Allende gave a book talk at the Harvard Book Store this past Tuesday and also spoke with The Crimson by phone.
The Harvard Crimson: How did exile shape you as a writer?
Isabel Allende: Not just as a writer—it changed my life. I had to leave my country and live in Venezuela for 13 years. I think writing “The House of the Spirits” [her first novel] was a crazy attempt to recover everything I had lost—my house, my family, my country. I was beginning to lose my memories of the past. So writing the novel helped me recover all that. I don’t think I would be a writer if I had stayed in Chile.
THC: Why did you decide to write a crime novel?
IA: It wasn’t my idea. I had announced to my agent in 2011 that I was planning to retire. She panicked and told me to write a book with my husband, who’s a crime novel writer. But our styles and habits are very different, and we had been fighting like dogs. So on January 8, he went to his room to work on his sixth crime novel, and I went to my room to start my first.
THC: I hope you’re not actually retiring after this!
IA: No, I don’t think so, because I realize that people only like me when I am locked away writing.
THC: How did you approach the project?
IA: I don’t know anything about the genre, really—just what I have been hearing from [my husband] all these years. I couldn’t possibly take it seriously. In Spanish, the book is called El Juego de Ripper [The Ripper Game]. So that’s how I wrote it—The Game of Writing the Ripper Game. I was playing, like the kids in the novel are playing detective: they have imagination, intuitions, and they love the process.
L.L.BeanTwo in the morning. Friday night. The four of you have been to a movie, then to a party, but
Depth of FocusThis weekend I had the wonderful opportunity to watch The Battle of Chile, celebrated Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán’s epic three-part ...
"Ripper" Not Quite a ThrillerWhile “Ripper” is an enjoyable read and a generally successful novel, it is also an experiment with mystery writing—one that suggests Allende's prodigious talents are most effectively used in the genres with which she is most familiar.