Isabel Allende, a portion of the book cover from Allende’s memoir Paula, (colors manipulated), photo © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
Yesterday all day I thought about author Isabel Allende. In 2008 I read two memoirs from the large collection of fiction and creative non-fiction that she’s written: The Sum of Our Days—published last year—and Paula (1995). I hadn’t read any of her works in the almost twenty years since I devoured and loved her first novel, The House of the Spirits (1985).
The reason Allende was on my mind yesterday, January 8, was because that is the date each year that she starts a new book. That was the date back in 1981 when she received a phone call from someone in her native Chile saying that her grandfather, Tata, was dying. She was living in exile in Venezuela—her uncle and Chilean president Salvador Allende had been assassinated years earlier—and she summoned the ghost of her grandmother to help her beloved Tata.
I decided to write him one last time, to tell him he could go in peace because I would never forget him and planned to bequeath his memory to my children and my children’s children. To prove it, I began the letter with an anecdote about my great-aunt Rosa, my grandfather’s first sweetheart, a young girl of almost supernatural beauty who had died in mysterious circumstances shortly before they were to marry, poisoned either by error or malice, and whose soft sepia-tone photograph always sat on the piano in Tata’s house, smiling with unalterable beauty.
~Isabel Allende, from Part Two of her book Paula
That letter became an obsession for Allende, who was 40 years old at the time, married and with two children. After a 12-hour shift at her day job, she returned home at dark, ate dinner with the family, and then sat in front of a portable typewriter and wrote until overcome by exhaustion. The writing came effortlessly, “because my clairvoyant grandmother was dictating to me.”
The letter to her grandfather had become a novel, although Allende could not bring herself to admit it. She had spent her career up to then working as a journalist, writing screenplays and short stories—
…on the periphery of literature…without daring to confess my true calling. I would have to publish three novels translated into several languages before I put down ‘writer’ as my profession when I filled out a form.
She carried the papers with her in a canvas bag, and when the bag became heavy and she had 500 pages “whited out so many times with correction fluid that some were stiff as cardboard,” she knew she was almost finished. In two days, after several earlier tries, she wrote the ten pages of epilogue.
That first novel became an international sensation, a dense epic about the Trueba family, written in the genre of magical realism that characterized the works of so many Latin American novelists—think Gabriel García Márquez and the Buendía family of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was living in Spain when The House of the Spirits came out but didn’t read it until I returned to the U.S. and began studying about Latin America in a Masters degree program. The writing was fluid and floral, the sentences long and paragraphs thick. There were so many details and people and places that it was like making my way through a labyrinth, but I read it day in and day out, perhaps over two or three weeks, often re-reading sections I felt I hadn’t absorbed fully the first time.
Why it took me all these years to pick up another Allende book, I can only say that there was so much literary terrain to make up that I was overwhelmed to the point of paralysis as to who to read next. Allende wrote sixteen books after her debut novel, and each time I saw a review or otherwise heard news of a new title being published, it would register that I should take up with her again.
When an exuberant neighbor kept me in the parking lot of the post office for almost an hour this past summer gushing about Allende’s new memoir, The Sum of Our Days, which he’d checked out of the local library, I had no recourse but to take it on as my next book to read. In fact, he said he would place it on hold in my name the moment he returned it to the library, so soon the calls started coming that my book was waiting for me.
The writing in that memoir was so powerful, so magnetic, that it didn’t take me long to finish the book. The Sum of Our Days picks up with Allende’s life after the tragic death of her daughter, Paula. It tells the story of her “tribe”—her son and his wife who leaves him to be with a woman, her mother and step-father, her new husband who gives her a reason to finally let down her guard and allow herself to be cared for and loved.
The book gave me reason to immediately want to read the memoir Paula, which told the story of Allende’s daughter and the mysterious illness that took her young life (she was about 30 years old when she died). But it also tells the story of Allende’s own intriguing life, her family in Chile and the coup that forced her out, her first marriage and several careers. Allende’s pain was evident in that book, as was the strength it must have taken to be alive to her daughter’s death.
Allende is a writer’s writer, the kind of powerful force who inspires other writers. The two memoirs I read taught me as much about writing as any workshop or books about writing ever have. I want to go back and read everything else she’s written.
I want to know what emerges from January 8, 2009; I can be certain she has started a new story, a new book, just as I can be certain that the sun rose and set yesterday.
I began Of Love and Shadows on January 8, 1983, because that day had brought me luck with The House of the Spirits, thus initiating a tradition I honor to this day and don’t dare change; I always write the first line of my books on that date. When the time comes, I try to be alone and silent for several hours; I need a lot of time to rid my mind of the noise outside and to cleanse my memory of life’s confusion. I light candles to summon the muses and guardian spirits, I place flowers on my desk to intimidate tedium and the complete works of Pablo Neruda beneath the computer with the hope they will inspire me by osmosis—if computers can be infected with a virus, there’s no reason they should be refreshed by a breath of poetry. In secret ceremony, I prepare my mind and soul to receive the first sentence in a trance, so the door may open slightly and allow me to peer through the hazy outlines of the story waiting for me.
~Isabel Allende, from Part Two of her book Paula
A Few Resources
-Isabel Allende at the Lensic Theater, Santa Fe, NM, September 24, 2008 (Lannan Foundation podcast)
-Isabel Allende Tells Tales of Passion (TED.com video)
-Questions & Answers from Isabel Allende (author’s website)
Isabel Allende press photo © 2008 by Lori Barra.
-Related to post Book Talk – Do You Let Yourself Read