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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.
THC: What were the challenges of writing within the genre?
IA: For a crime novel, I’ve been told, the author has to have a very neat plan and be very logical, and start from the end of the story. My mind doesn’t work that way. I never have a plan: I sit down on January 8 and just open a vein. Day by day, the story somehow unfolds, the characters appear, and become people. I live their lives. The story started to happen, and then I had to go back and plant the clues and write in the characters I needed. It’s not a very logical way to write the story. But it’s the only way I can do it.
THC: You’re acclaimed for carrying on the magical realist tradition of Borges and García Márquez. Are there elements of so-called magical realism in this novel?
IA: The mother in the novel is a healer: she does crystals, meditation, aromatherapy. Whenever things like that happen in Latin America, it’s called magical realism. If they happen in California, it’s holistic medicine, or whatever. I think that magical realism has become a label for everything Latin American, but you find the same stuff everywhere.
THC: Can you tell me about your infamous encounter with Chilean poet Pablo Neruda?
IA: Neruda called the place I was working, a magazine, and said he wanted me to visit him. I thought, “If the Nobel Prize winner calls me, I must be the best journalist in the country!” So I bought a new tape recorder and drove all the way to the beach. It was windy and rainy and gross. We had lunch, and then I asked to interview him. He said, “I will never be interviewed by you. You are the worst journalist in the country! You lie all the time, you make things up, you are never objective. Why don’t you switch to literature, where all of your defects become virtues?”
I didn’t pay any attention then: that was ’73 and I wrote my first novel in ’81. But I realized that he was right. I was a lousy journalist.
THC: Do you have any advice for college writers?
IA: Write a bad novel. If you try to sit down and write the great American novel, you will never get anything done. Like sports, writing needs discipline and work, but also joy and playfulness. You need to love the craft and the process.
—Staff writer Andrew R. Chow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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