Born in Peru and raised in Chile, Isabel Allende is the author of a number of bestselling and critically acclaimed books, including including Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, Stories of Eva Luna, The Infinite Plan, Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia, a trilogy for young readers (City of Beasts, Kingdom of the Golden Dragon and Forest of the Pygmies), Zorro, Ines of My Soul, Island Beneath the Sea, Maya’s Notebook, Ripper, Aphrodite, and The Japanese Lover. She has written three memoirs: My Invented Country, Paula (a bestseller that documents Allende’s daughter’s illness and death, as well as her own life), and The Sum of Our Days. Her books have been translated into more than thirty-five languages and have sold nearly 70 million copies worldwide.

A prominent journalist for Chilean television and magazines in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Allende’s life was forever altered in 1973 by the military coup that toppled Chile’s socialist reform government. Allende’s cousin Salvador Allende, died in the coup. Isabel became involved with groups offering aid to victims of the regime but ultimately fearing for her family’s safety, she fled the country in 1975 with her husband and two children.

Her bestselling first novel The House of the Spirits (1982) was written while in exile in Venezuela. The book grew out of a farewell letter to her dying grandfather. Her books often combine intriguing stories with significant historical events, including Chile throughout the 15th, 19th and 20th centuries, the California gold rush, the guerrilla movement of 1960s Venezuela, the Vietnam War and the 18th-century slave revolt in Haiti.

I first encountered Allende’s writing in high school when we studied The House of Spirits. Her storytelling abilities surprised me and one thing that I found fascinating was how Allende used her most cherished family memories as treasured possessions and continues to draw upon them for her writing process. I admire Allende’s ability to turn her own life into material for her stories and novels. Also, her activism and passion for human rights is also a factor to admire. Participating and collaborating in this interview has been an honour.

Since 1987, Allende has made her home in the San Francisco Bay Area but divides her time between California and Chile.

–LAURA MOREANO

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

As I think of your notable works and reflect on the important periods in your life–The House of the Spirits, Paula, Inés of My Soul, My Invented Country –they seem marked by absences which are expressed as strong presences. Your grandfather, and the absent/presence of your grandmother in the house you grew up in. Your father, who disappeared when you were young. Your mother, who lives in Chile but with whom you write to daily. Your daughter Paula.

Can you discuss the role of absent presences in the development of your imagination and continued writing life? Is there a sense that you feel in conversation with them as you go to your desk to write each morning?

ISABEL ALLENDE

I grew up with the notion that life is mysterious, we don't have all the answers, and there is much we cannot explain. My grandmother believed that she could be in touch with the Beyond and she had weekly séances to invoke the souls of the dead. When she died I thought I would always be able to connect with her through imagination and love. It was a very comforting thought. Later in life, I have done the same with other people I have loved and are no longer in this world. I don’t see ghosts, I don’t do séances like my grandmother, but I feel accompanied and protected by some beloved spirits. I call them when I need help. For example, when I need inspiration I invoke my grandmother (she was magical); when I need advice, I call my daughter Paula, was a wise soul; when I need strength and resilience, I call my tough grandfather, who taught me not to whine, not to complain, to work hard and take care of myself I have their photos on my desk. They are always with me.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

As I read about your life and in your novels, there is a strong sense of the extended multi-generational family, the received wisdom that is passed on from one generation to the next. Your family is like a living book. They are all characters. As I spoke to readers of your books, one of the things they told me loved most are the historical echoes and that your books feel in conversation with the past. Your books are forward-looking and feminist, but they do not forget where we came from. Would you be the writer you are today without your large extended family?

ALLENDE

My extended crazy family was the inspiration for my first novel, The House of the Spirits, and for some characters in other books as well. Growing in a typical Latin American family made me the person and the writer I am. Without it, I would still write, but my books would probably be very different. I have been a political refugee and an immigrant. I lost my extended family in 1973, when we had a military coup in Chile. Since then I have tried to create an artificial extended family everywhere I have lived, first in Venezuela and then in the United States. I have put together my little tribe with my children, my grandchildren, and friends, people of all ages because in a real family all generations are together.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Another thing your readers told me, why they are drawn to your books, is that reading them put them in touch with the courage, passion, and fearlessness they had forgotten they possessed. The strong women in your books –Clara, Eva, Toulouse, Inés, Lucia–sensitive, strong, and resilient were not afraid to break with tradition, to follow love, to summon magic in their lives. And they could be fiercely independent without giving up their femininity. Eva Luna, Island Beneath the Sea, Daughter of Fortune, In the Midst of Winter, helped them make sense of their suffering, and your example of overcoming pain and loss and giving back to society, helped them find purpose.

What drew you to characters like Clara del Valle Trueba, Eva Luna, Eliza Sommers, Toulouse Valmorain, Inés Suárez, Lucia Maraz and to tell their stories?

ALLENDE

I was born in 1942 in a Catholic, conservative, patriarchal society. And I was born angry against the world as I saw it. I became a feminist before the word reached Chile. I was a young girl when I realized I didn’t want to be like my mother, although I adored her, I wanted to be like my grandfather and the men in our family: strong, independent, self-sufficient, unafraid. Later I learned that some women could be all that and decided I was going to be one of them. Since then I have worked with women and for women all my life. I have a foundation whose mission is to empower women and girls. I don’t need to invent my feminine characters, the women I have known inspire me.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

To dream and to live with the spirits, and to remember those we have been close to, who have sacrificed for us is very important, yet some cultures are less comfortable discussing the spirit world or things we can feel but cannot see. Can you discuss the role that Catholicism, chance, rituals, or honoring a sense of mystery plays in your life and writing?

ALLENDE

I had the good luck to be raised Catholic because it gave me rituals and stories. There is nothing more exotic than a Catholic mass, nothing as fantastic as the lives of saints and martyrs and the crazy Bible stories. I abandoned the Church when I was fifteen years old and have never gone back, but I have kept a sense of mystery, the notion that there is spirit and the spirit transcends death. Later I have developed my own spiritual practice and rituals. I believe that everything in the universe is connected, that we are all inter-dependent, not only humans but all forms of life in the world we know and other worlds. I suppose that belief permeates everything in my life, including my writing.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

The longtime relationship and daily exchange of letters with your mother is a wonderful tradition. Although you’ve said you would never publish these letters, I get a real sense of the intimacy of this exchange in your novels and memoirs because the voice in your novels feels very familiar–like an aunt or family member opening a door and inviting you into her house, to eat at her table. Even if some aspects are dramatic or magic realist, they feel believable and familiar.

You’ve said that you’re a little superstitious about beginning writing each novel on January 8th. As I think about this exchange of letters, this beautiful friendship which has lasted across countries and so many years, do you ever feel if you didn’t write to your mother every day, that some of the intimacy of connection might not be carried over into your novels?

ALLENDE

I don't know what kind of writer I would be if I didn't write to my mother daily. She is 97 years old, and we are still writing to each other, but sooner or later she will be gone. What will I do then? Probably continue to write to her until it's my turn to die... My letters to my mother are like an open dialogue, I write without thinking, and I don't read the message before sending it. She does the same.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Can you discuss the difference between these letters and your novels and memoirs?

ALLENDE

It is different from a memoir because I know that no one except my mother will read the letter, that allows me to be totally candid and often politically incorrect to the extreme. A memoir will be published so many eyes will read it. I have to ask myself if I will offend or hurt somebody mentioned in those pages if I am being truthful and fair.

Writing fiction is a totally different process; it's a work of imagination in which I have the freedom to do as I please. My duty as a fiction writer is to create a story that is believable, and that speaks to the reader's heart and mind.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

You’ve said that you don’t write novels in order to put across messages, although now with the Isabel Allende Foundation, which is a large part of your life, it has a definite purpose of doing good in the world. Can you tell us about the how the mission for the foundation came to you? Your foundation has done wonderful things to empower and protect women and girls. How has it expanded and evolved since 1996? What women have you come to know through the establishment of the foundation? And how can each of us, artists/women/individuals work together to help make a better tomorrow?

ALLENDE

After my daughter Paula died, I wrote a memoir (Paula) which became one of my most successful books. I didn’t want to touch the income from the book, I set it aside with the idea of using it to honor my daughter’s memory. I was traveling in rural India in a rented car with a driver when we came across a group of very poor village women. One of them tried to give me her newborn baby. The driver took the baby from my arms, gave it back to the mother, pushed me into the car and drove away. When I was able to react, I asked why would that woman give me her baby and the driver said: it's a girl, who wants a girl! In that moment I knew how I was going to honour Paula. I decided to create a foundation to help people like that desperate woman and her helpless little girl. In the many years since the foundation stated I have met extraordinary women, survivors of terrible ordeals who are able to get back on their feet and keep on living, mothers who raise children against all odd, women who work to help other women. Those are my heroes. I think all of us can help others. Look around. There is need everywhere. Get involved, and you will receive much more than you give, your life will have purpose and meaning.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

As you go back in your mind to the 1973 Chilean coup d'état, when your first cousin once removed(how to phrase this, awkward?), President Salvador Allende was overthrown by the armed forces, what memories will always remain with you? Are there things that you wished you had recorded or to have said to family members?

ALLENDE

At the beginning, in the first few weeks after the military coup, we hoped that the soldiers would go back to their barracks, we would have elections and we would recover the democracy we had lost. I never imagined the dictatorship would last seventeen years. But very soon I realized that I could not live in terror and I didn't want my children to grow up in a dictatorship, so we went to Venezuela. As a journalist in Chile, I had recorded interviews and stories that I could not publish in (there was strict censorship), but I brought them with me to Venezuela. Later I used them to write the chapter about terror in The House of the Spirits and my second novel, Of Love and Shadows.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

You do an incredible amount of work in the community, both through your books which reach millions and your social work. Your novels speak to people of all ages, and so in some way, I think of you as an educator who teaches by example. Who were/are the important teachers in your life? Where did you learn your resilience, independence, command of language, and curiosity about the world? And what can we be doing to evolve our education system to instill those qualities in young people and encourage humanistic learning which values people over making money?

ALLENDE

I can't answer the second part of your question because I am not an educator. My own education was hectic because my stepfather was a diplomat, we moved often, and I changed schools often as well. Looking back, I think that most of my education was reading. I was a voracious reader as a child and in my early youth. I suppose the basic character traits that you mention – independence and resilience – were instilled by my grandfather. My mother says I was born like that, but she is probably exaggerating. Curiosity about the world came in books and extensive traveling. Command of language comes from practice, dictionaries, more reading, a lot of editing, in other words: discipline and work. I live in English, and I write in Spanish, so I am always studying my language, reading poetry and looking for inspiration in the writings of great Spanish and Latin American authors.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

As I was preparing for this interview, I kept thinking of the interview you did with Neruda when he told you to become a novelist. Apart from oral storytelling, family stories that have been passed on to you, Neruda advice to you, what books/writers have been important to you?

ALLENDE

I grew up reading Russian and English novelists, and in my teens I began reading the great writers of the Boom of Latin American Literature, (which started in the mid-sixties and lasted until the eighties). Those writers told the world about Latin America, and they told us who were. They created a chorus of different but harmonious voices to narrate our reality. I owe them all I know about how to tell a compelling story.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

You won the prestigious Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize given to those "who have contributed to the beauty of the world." In your lifetime, you have seen enormous change. What are your thoughts about how technology is changing the way we communicate with each other and our imaginations? As many turn to technology and away from books and the arts, for you, what is the importance of creativity and the humanities? As you reflect on what you most value in life and the kind of world we are leaving our children, what lessons do you make sure your grandchildren know?

ALLENDE

I am fascinated by the present world. I don’t think that the past was better and I trust that in the future humanity will continue to evolve and progress. Technology is scary. Many people are afraid of change. Young people are developing parts of the brain that my generation did not have a chance to develop. Maybe our grandchildren will read less books, but they will know more, they will have infinite information, their imagination will expand to other universes, other forms of life, other dimensions of reality. How I wish I had been born today!!!

Born in Bogotá, Columbia, Laura Moreano is Vice President of Pour Une Planète Sans Frontières. Graduate from The American University of Paris in International & Comparative Politics, she is dedicated to humanitarian aid seeking to enhance skills in the field of Human Rights to monitor institutional and organisational practices within the community to ensure compliance with legal provisions. Formerly Vice President of UNICEF CAMPUS at AUP, she helped launched The Creative Process Club at the university and is participating in interviews, exhibitions, and a number of our educational initiatives.

Artist, interviewer, and writer, Mia Funk is the founder of The Creative Process.