Isabel Allende is Writing a Novel Bookended by Pandemics
From Beyond the Page: The Best of the
Sun Valley Writers' Conference
Welcome to Beyond the Page: The Best of the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. Over the past 25 years, SVWC has become the gold standard of American literary festivals, bringing together contemporary writing’s brightest stars for their view of the world through a literary lens. Every month, Beyond the Page curates and distills the best talks from the past quarter century at the Writers’ Conference, giving you a front row seat on the kind of knowledge, inspiration, laughter, and meaning that Sun Valley is known for.
In this episode, internationally beloved author Isabel Allende sits down virtually with her good friend, PBS/NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown, to discuss her latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea. Along the way, she brings us closer to the upheavals of the Spanish Civil War; Chile during Pinochet’s military dictatorship; the stories of refugees known and imagined; and, of course, the art of fiction.
From the interview:
Jeffrey Brown: Tell us how you’re doing with life in pandemic. What is it like?
Isabel Allende: Well, for a writer, it’s no problem because I’m used to being alone and in silence many, many hours a day, hiding in the attic. So, I’m doing well. Being locked in doesn’t affect me that much, except for the fact that now I’m married. I have a current husband. And I have to share that small space with him. We have a very small house with two dogs, one bedroom. So, that is a little hard. But we are coping. We’ve been married for a year, and we are not divorced yet. So, it’s working.
Jeffrey Brown: I think I will refrain from asking more questions because I know a little bit of that history, but I’m glad to hear it’s working out. I was also thinking about you, though, more seriously, writing stories of great drama, of great trauma through history, including what you’ve lived through. And here we are ourselves, living in a drama. Do you register it as a writer yet? Are you able to stand back a little bit, or is it just too real right now?
Isabel Allende: Both. I’m writing a novel that is the story of a woman who lives a hundred years. She’s born in the pandemic of 1918, the Spanish flu, which really reached Chile in 1920. And she dies in 2020. So, she lives a century. The two pandemics are like the bookends of the story, but it’s not about the pandemic. I think that there will be a lot of creators very soon doing everything—television, film, photography, everything—about this pandemic, because it’s a unique moment in history in which all humankind, connected, experiences the same thing. Because we have had other pandemics, but it comes and goes, and without this global connection that we have today, that makes us aware of everything that’s happening in the last remote villages somewhere. So it is very, very interesting.
Jeffrey Brown: Did that whole story come to you in recent months, or was that based on an idea you had from long ago?
Isabel Allende: It comes out of discipline, Jeff. I start all my books on January 8th. By January 7th, I had nothing. I was in the middle of a book tour. I had done the book tour in the United States; I was going to do the book tour in the UK. I was just overwhelmed. But I knew that on the 8th, I had to set the day aside and get something started.
The pandemic had not started yet, at that moment. But I began a book not knowing where the heck I was going. And slowly but surely, things sort of unravel. I begin with a story, sometimes just a time and a place. I don’t even have the characters; at the beginning, they’re very blurred. They become people when they start talking to me and doing things that I never expected. Then I know the book is coming. It’s coming along.
Jeffrey Brown: But the discipline is also important, huh? The specific date to get you going, to get to sitting down and writing.
Isabel Allende: Yeah, the discipline not only of starting, but of showing up. Showing up is the hard part sometimes. The pandemic has made it easier because there’s, for me, nothing else to do. I walk the dogs in the morning every day, and then I sit up here in the attic—here’s the little space that you see—and I work.
Born in Peru and raised in Chile, Isabel Allende is the author of a number of bestselling and critically acclaimed books, including The House of the Spirits, Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, Paula, and In the Midst of Winter. Her books have been translated into more than forty-two languages and have sold more than seventy-four million copies worldwide. She lives in California.