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Isabel Allende: “It’s not the end of the world”

By Jonah Raskin
This interview originally appeared in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Q: How did your novel Portrait in Sepia originate?

A: My original idea was to write a novel about the wars that took place in Chile in the 19th-century. It was a time when the national character was forged. There was brutal torture, people disappeared, and many flew into exile. It was a foreshadowing of the coup of 1973. When Pinochet took over people asked “How could this happen here?” Of course, it had already happened in the 19th century.

At the same time, I was thinking how I could connect Portrait in Sepia to my previous novel, Daughter of Fortune. Oprah Winfrey and others didn’t like the open ending of Daughter of Fortune. They wanted a sequel. I don’t like sequels because many readers will not have read the first book and so they’re lost in the second book. Portrait in Sepia provided a way to write about the wars in Chile and to continue the story I’d created in Daughter of Fortune.

Q: Are you going to write novels more about the del Valle family.

A: No! I hate them.

Q: You’ve been in California now for more than a decade. Do you feel more at home here?

A: I’m still an outsider, a foreigner. I need to ask all kinds of questions about things that California natives take for granted. But I must say that after the September 11 terrorist attack I feel much more at home. I feel that now I am an American. Pinochet’s military coup took place on September 11, 1973. It was also a terrorist attack on a democratic country.

Q: Do you think that you’ll write something about or inspired by the recent terrorist attack on the United States?

A: I don’t know. It’s too soon. I need distance. A novel always takes time. I have to internalize the experience, and live it inside before I can write about it. 

Q: There’s been talk recently about curtailing civil liberties in order to combat terrorism. How do you feel about that?

A: It’s unavoidable. Life has changed forever. No one feels safe anymore. If we want more security we’ll have to have less liberty. All over the world people feel unsafe. All over the world people have lived with the fear of terrorist attacks. Now that fear is here. Americans are experiencing what the rest of the world has long known and lived with. But the terrorist attack of last September is not the end of the world. We cannot let it be the end of the world.

Q: Have you talked to people in Chile about it?

A: Yes. There’s a ripple effect. Chile is hurting. People there feel the terror, and there’s an economic recession in Chile.

Q: Is your mother still your first reader?

A: She is a fierce critic. If my mother likes a book the critics will like it, too. She likes “Portrait in Sepia” and so I feel safe.

Q: What are you writing now?

A: A small book for the National Geographic, a book about nostalgia, and the sense of place. I have been a traveler, a wandering pilgrim. I don’t have roots in any one geographical place. My roots are in my own memory and in my books.

Q: Are you going on the road to promote Portrait in Sepia?

A: I’ll be traveling around America, but my European trip had to be cancelled. I was supposed to leave on September 12, and of course there were no flights. It has been rescheduled but not til next year.

Q: What do you miss most about Chile?

A: A sense of family, a large extended family, the sense that you belong to a common history, and are bound by unbreakable things. I have created a fake family here - a kind of tribe, but it’s mostly made up of friends, not blood relations. When I saw the movie The Godfather I knew the feeling it conveys about family. I said ‘I could be the Godfather.’”

Q; As you know Northern California is a place of reading groups, book stores, book store commerce and culture. Does all that shape your writing.

A: No. I live in a secluded, solitary way. I have a few friends who are writers, but I’m not a group person. The fact that I write in Spanish isolates me even more. Other writers share their manuscripts. I don’t do that with other writers. For me, writing is a such a solitary pursuit. I’m always alone.”


© 2012 Jonah Raskin