In a holiday special, we spend the hour with Isabel Allende, one of Latin America’s and the United States’ greatest novelists. Just this week she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Allende is the author of 20 books, including The House of the Spirits, Paula and Daughter of Fortune. Her latest is a mystery novel titled Ripper. Her books have been translated into 35 languages, sold close to 60 million copies around the world. Allende now lives in California, but she was born in Peru in 1942 and traveled the world as the daughter of a Chilean diplomat. Her father’s first cousin was Salvador Allende, Chile’s president from 1970 until Sept. 11, 1973, when Augusto Pinochet seized power in a CIA-backed military coup. Salvador Allende died in the palace that day. Isabel Allende would later flee from her native Chile to Venezuela. In April, Amy Goodman conducted a public interview with Isabel Allende at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas in New York shortly after the publication of Ripper. In this wide-ranging conversation, Allende discusses her literary career and her memories of Chile before and during the coup.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour with Isabel Allende, one of Latin America’s and the United States’ greatest novelists. She’s the author of 20 books, including The House of the Spirits, Paula, Daughter of Fortune. Her latest is a mystery novel based in the Bay Area titled Ripper. Her books have been translated into 35 languages, sold over 57 million copies around the world.
Isabel Allende now lives in California. She was born, though, in Peru in 1942 and traveled the world as the daughter of a Chilean diplomat. Her father’s first cousin was Salvador Allende, Chile’s president from 1970 to September 11th, 1973, when Augusto Pinochet seized power in a CIA-backed military coup in Chile. Salvador Allende died in the palace that day. Isabel Allende would later flee from her native Chile and lived in exile in Venezuela.
On Monday, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When Isabel Allende learned that her grandfather in Chile was dying, she started writing him a letter. Night after night she returned to it, until she realized she was actually writing her first novel. She never really stopped. Her novels and memoirs tell of families, magic, romance, oppression, violence, redemption—all the big stuff. But in her hands, the big became graspable and familiar and human. In exile from Chile by a military junta, she made the U.S. her home. Today, the foundation she created to honor her late daughter helps families worldwide. She begins all her books on January 8th, the day she began that letter to her grandfather years ago. “Write to register history,” she says. “Write what should not be forgotten.”
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama, speaking at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House Monday.
In April, I conducted a public interview with Isabel Allende at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas here in New York shortly after the publication of her latest book, Ripper. We start with the day she begins every book.
AMY GOODMAN: Isabel, why do you start your books on January 8th?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Discipline. Well, I started because my first book, I was living in Venezuela, and my grandfather was dying in Chile. And I started a letter for him on January 8th, 1981, that became The House of the Spirits. And then out of cawala [phon.], luck, I started the second book and the third book on the same date. But then my life got really complicated with a lot of stuff that has nothing to do really with writing, but writing brings it to me. And so, out of discipline, I have to set out several months a year in which I don’t see anybody, I don’t travel, I don’t do anything but writing. And in order to clear the calendar, I need a day to start. You know, writing is such a commitment. You probably know this. It’s such a commitment that it’s like falling in love: You are totally immersed in it. Nothing else matters. You have to have all your time and all your energy put into that. So, it’s a little scary. If I didn’t have a day to start, I would be procrastinating forever, waiting.
AMY GOODMAN: I said we’d start off by talking about Ripper, but we’ll use you as a model, as a person who engages in free association and never sticks to what you say you’re going to do. So let’s stick with that first January 8th, when you began House of the Spirits. Talk about the writing of that first book. I mean, no one had read your work before. You had no—
ISABEL ALLENDE: I had no work.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you end up outside of your country, Chile?
ISABEL ALLENDE: We had a military coup in Chile in 1973, and the life of Chileans changed, some for the better, many for the worse. And many Chileans left the country. I was one of them. I didn’t want to live in a dictatorship. So I left the country, and I was always thinking that I would go back very soon, that it was a very temporary situation. And so I looked for a country that would be—where I could speak the language, because I was a journalist and I thought I could work as a journalist in Spanish only, and a country that had a democracy and where it was possible to work. And that—the only country in Latin America at that point that offered that was Venezuela. Venezuela was rich, generous, open doors for everybody who wanted to come to work, Spanish-speaking, and I thought I could work as a journalist—which I couldn’t, actually. But that’s how I ended up in Venezuela. And I ended up doing all kinds of odd jobs before I could ever envision the idea of started writing.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, how did you do it? You had your family there.
ISABEL ALLENDE: I had my husband, my former husband, and two children. But my husband got a job in the middle of the jungle, and I saw him every two months, more or less, so my life was very lonely. It wasn’t leading anywhere, a feeling of everything was flat for me. And I was already 39 years old. I hadn’t achieved anything. I felt that my life was over, really—until this miracle happened, that I started writing this book.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, you wrote every night after dinner?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, I worked 12 hours a day, two shifts, in the school. So I would leave home to be at the school at 7:00 in the morning and then come home after 7:00. And so, after we had dinner, I would go to the kitchen and write in a portable typewriter. There were no computers then. When I think that I wrote 560 pages of a manuscript in a portable typewriter, with Tipex, with carbon paper—I don’t think that I had carbon paper; I just had one copy, the first copy. If you needed—for example, at one point, I needed to change a name, because my mother said, “Why did you give the villain the name of your father?” So I said, “Who cares, Mother? You divorced him a long time ago.” But she wouldn’t take it. So I had to change it. And I had to find another name that had exactly the same number of letters so that I could put every page back into the machine, put Tipex and type the name. And that’s how we worked then. It’s incredible.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, you finished your manuscript. You had hundreds of pages. What did you do with them?
ISABEL ALLENDE: I showed it to my mother, and my mother said, “I suppose this is a novel. Not very good, but it’s a novel.” And so, she sent it to several friends that she had that were publishers in Argentina, a publisher in Venezuela. Nobody even answered. Never got a rejection letter because nobody read it. And nobody answered. And then, one day, a person who worked in one of the publishing houses—she was a receptionist—called me, and she said, “No one is going to read this manuscript. It’s a dirty, long manuscript by an unknown female. Who is going to read this thing? You need an agent.” And I didn’t know that agents for literature existed. I thought that they were only for sports. And she said, “No, they do exist, and there’s one in Spain that is very famous.” And she gave me the name. And then I found the address and sent it to Carmen Balcells in Barcelona. And she published the book. She got the book published.
AMY GOODMAN: So the book was first published in Spain in Spanish.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah. And she got it published because the publishing house wanted a book by Juan Marsé, and she was representing him. And she said, “OK, I’ll give you the book, if you take this other woman.” Nobody wanted me. And they said, “OK, yeah, bring it on.” And then that was, I would say, September when the book was published. By October, it was at Frankfurt Fair, and everybody—every publisher in Europe wanted the book. So it was a sudden success that never really happens. It was really a miracle.
AMY GOODMAN: And it has sold millions and millions of copies since, all over the world.
ISABEL ALLENDE: “Where are the millions and millions of dollars?” I ask all the time. I have—according to the numbers, I have sold 60 million books. Let’s say that I would get $1 per book. Not even 10 cents.
AMY GOODMAN: So that gave you confidence to write your second book?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah. Well, Carmen said—when she received the manuscript, Carmen said, “This is a very good book, but everybody can write a good first book, because it is the story of—their story. Everything that they have experienced and everything they remember, everything that is important to them, will be in that first book. The writer is proven in the second book.” And so, immediately I started to write a second book to prove to her that I could be a writer.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, this book, you chose to be a novel, and you wrote novel after novel. Yet you were a journalist in Chile.
ISABEL ALLENDE: A lousy journalist, really bad.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you choose novels?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Because it was much easier than being a journalist. Being a journalist, you have to deal with facts. And I’m terrible at facts. I mean, my daughter-in-law is sitting there, and she says that I can never say the truth, that it’s—because I’m always telling a story, and the stories are so much better than the truth. Why would I ruin the story with a truth? So as a journalist, I wasn’t very good. But I was never caught, though, in all my lies. I feel much more comfortable with fiction.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, when you were in Chile, Pablo Neruda, the great poet, asked you to interview him.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Mm-mm. Pablo Neruda asked me to go visit him in Isla Negra, where he lived. And I thought it was for an interview. But when I—we had lunch, and then I said—I thought I was—I mean, the Nobel Prize had called me for an interview. I had washed my car. I had a new tape recorder. And then after lunch, I said, “Well, I’m ready, Don Pablo. We can do the interview.” “What interview?” I said, “Well, I came to interview you.” He said, “I would never be interviewed by you. You lie all the time. You can never be objective. You’re the worst journalist in this country. Why don’t you switch to literature, where all these defects are virtues?” He was right, but it took me a very long time, because that was 11 days before he died. And that was in August—no, 22 days, in August of 1973, right before the military coup. And I wrote the first book in 1981, so it was a long time after that.
AMY GOODMAN: What was his funeral like? What was the response in the country in this extremely heated time? Was the funeral before the coup?
ISABEL ALLENDE: No, he died 11 days after the coup. And it was a time of terror for the people of the left. I mean, all the communists were outlawed, so they were either running away to another—trying to get out of the country or in hiding or arrested. The people who would have—it would have been a national funeral. I mean, if he had died before, he would have had three days of mourning for the country. But that day, it was raining. I remember the day exactly, because I was there. Few people dared get out and follow the body to the cemetery.
And the ambassador of Sweden, a very tall man in a black long coat, was following—was in the funeral. And I thought the only—because there were military with machine guns on both sides of the street, and I thought, if they fire, they will not kill this guy. He’s an ambassador. So I was clinging to his coat and walking behind him and praying that nothing would happen.
And then, as we passed a construction site, one of the workers shouted. When I think about this, it’s so emotional. He shouted and said, “Pablo Neruda! Presente!” Everybody responded. And then he said, “Compañero Salvador Allende!” And everybody shouted, “Presente!” Something that you could do that would mean death at that point. So those people—I don’t know how many we were, maybe 150, I don’t know, 200. We were walking behind them. It was a very emotional moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Allende, the Chilean-American novelist. We’ll return to my interview with her in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return now to the Chilean-American novelist Isabel Allende, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom November 24th at the White House. Earlier this year, I interviewed her at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Salvador Allende. How are you related to him?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Vaguely, because he was first cousin to my father. And my father left my mother when I was three. He really abandoned her in Peru with two babies. And my mother gave birth to my brother at home a few days later. And so, my mother was—came back to Chile, and I grew up in the house of my grandfather. I never saw my father again to this day. He’s dead now. And I only saw him once in the morgue when I had to identify the body. But I couldn’t identify the body because I had never seen him before. But he was related to Salvador Allende. And after my father left, the only person from the Allende family that was in touch with my mother, constantly, was Salvador Allende, Tencha and the daughters, that were my cousins.
And then, my mother—I wouldn’t say that she married my stepfather, because in Chile there was no divorce, so they couldn’t marry. Let’s say they got together. That was the elegant way of saying that they were having sex. And they started living together, and he was a good friend of Salvador Allende. So, by the time that Allende was president, those three years from 1970 to 1973, my stepfather was an ambassador in Argentina. And he would come every two months, more or less, to report to the government, and so I got to see more of Salvador Allende while he was president. But not much as I was growing up.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, that day, that other September 11th, 1973, where were you when Salvador Allende—
ISABEL ALLENDE: In Santiago. In Santiago, and I was—it was a strange day, because people were talking about a coup, but we had no experience, really, in Chile. We didn’t know what it was. And I try to explain to Americans, and it’s hard for you to envision the possibility that the army would take over the government; that people would be arrested; that people would be killed, tortured; that the president would die; that they would bomb the White House; that Congress would be eliminated; political parties would be eliminated. It’s hard to imagine, but—so, it was very hard for us, Chileans, to imagine that something like that would happen.
Now, many things led to the coup. The country was broken, was in chaos before, before the coup. So it was predictable that something like that would happen. Also the CIA was involved. But we didn’t know. And the day of the coup, I got out of my house, I went to work, and the streets were empty, except pockets of workers that were waiting for buses that never came and military trucks that were—that was all you could see in the streets. And then, very soon, you could hear the planes and helicopters. And I went to pick—we didn’t have a phone, so I went to a friend’s house to phone my mother-in-law to get the children from school. My children were walking to school. And I said, “You have to get the children.”
So I went to this friend’s house, and this woman was horrified because her husband had left very early. He was a teacher in the Instituto Nacional, which is downtown Santiago close to La Moneda, to the palace. And so, I said, “I’ll go and pick him up.” And I don’t know what I was thinking. I went in my car. My car was a little Citroën painted with flowers. I had painted flowers, so it was camouflage. And I had painted it with flowers, because the only car that was made in Chile was this Citroën, and it came only in grey and light blue, so you park your car, and you would never find it again. You would spend an hour trying to find your car. So I painted it with flowers, and I would always find it, but also everybody else in Chile knew that it was my car, no? So I went with this car—I can’t believe it—all the way downtown Santiago in the middle of the military tracks to pick up this guy, this teacher. And I got to the Instituto Nacional. All the doors were open. There was nobody there. Military—I mean, soldiers running one way and the other. And I just parked the car and walked into the Instituto, and then the guy who was there, a receptionist or someone, a janitor or someone, said, “Don Osvaldo is up there on the roof.”
So I went to the upper floor, and from there we saw the bombing of the palace. And we heard in his little radio the last words of Salvador Allende. So I remember that very vividly, because this man, who was this obese man, cried like a baby. I mean, he was devastated. And I couldn’t quite understand what was going on. It was so—so unbelievable that I didn’t get it. And then I got him in the car, and we used back roads, and I got him home somehow. And I got to my house very late, but I got there. And my mother-in-law had picked up the kids, and everything seemed fine, until we started hearing the news on TV and the curfew. And we had two days of curfew that you couldn’t go out at all. So, I didn’t have a phone. It was such a strange thing.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you understand then that your cousin had died, that Salvador Allende—
ISABEL ALLENDE: I did understand, because I had a TV program at the time, and the producer of the program was married to one of the firemen that took the body of Allende out of La Moneda, so he saw him. And he told his wife, and his wife told me. And so I knew the same day. And I went to my mother-in-law’s house to call my parents. My parents already knew. The world knew. But in Chile, we didn’t, because everything was—the press was controlled, except Radio Cooperativa, I think was the only one that was still working.
AMY GOODMAN: Was there a funeral for Salvador Allende?
ISABEL ALLENDE: No. No, no, no. The family—the Mexican government sent a plane to rescue—to offer asylum to the family and the closest—the people who had worked with him very closely, doctors and—those who had not been arrested, because most of them had been arrested. And Tencha stayed until they placed the body in a provisional, unmarked tomb. And it stayed there for many, many years. And then there was the—later, much later, after 30 years, the body was properly identified and properly buried.
AMY GOODMAN: So the funeral of Pablo Neruda came after the death of Salvador Allende.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, and that’s why people were shouting “Salvador Allende! Presente!”
AMY GOODMAN: That clearly has so informed your works or been a backdrop, even though they are novels.
ISABEL ALLENDE: It is. I mean, I totally think that if I had stayed in Chile, I would not be a writer. And I would still be a lousy journalist, but a very happy one. Many lives changed in Chile, not only with the coup, before, when Allende was elected. That was a horrible situation for many people in Chile. And half the country did not support the government. So, from a distance, you can see both sides and understand that what happened was the consequence of Allende being elected, in the first place, during a time of the Cold War, when the United States was never going to allow a Socialist government. They already had Cuba, so they would never allow it.
AMY GOODMAN: Maya’s Notebook, the coup plays a key role in characters that Maya meets when she goes to Chile.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, Maya is—it’s a strange book, because it came—the idea of Maya, Maya’s Notebook, is a teenager, a girl, who gets in trouble, in deep, deep trouble. And the inspiration was my granddaughter Nicole, who was 15 at the time. Gorgeous. She looked like Jennifer Lopez at 15, and she had the brain of an 80-year-old—and a boyfriend from hell. So, we were horrified. We thought that this girl would never make it into adulthood because she would get in all kinds of—not deep trouble, because the father and Lori were watching constantly.
AMY GOODMAN: Her mother’s in the front row. You must be careful about what you say.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, well, my son is a geek, a computer geek. So he hacked everything. And he would always catch Nicole right on the edge. When she was going to do something really stupid, the father was waiting there, because he had hacked the computer.
AMY GOODMAN: So Maya had her own NSA?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: Watching everything—he would read every keystroke?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Every, every step of it. And now, she’s NYU—in NYU. She is on the volleyball team. She has a wonderful boyfriend. Everything is fine. But we were scared. So I thought, if I write a book about all the things that could happen to Nicole, they won’t happen, because it doesn’t work that way. It’s the other way around. If it had happened and I write about it, it’s fine. But if you write about it, it won’t happen. So I thought, I’m going to exorcise all the evil that could happen to Nicole by writing a horrible book. And so I have this horrible teenager that gets into deep trouble. And then she has a grandmother who’s, of course, a wonderful grandmother, so smart, Chilean, a Chilean exile—just by coincidence. And this grandmother saves the girl by sending her all the way to Chiloé in the southern part of Chile. And there—
AMY GOODMAN: What was the trouble she got in, Maya?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Everything. She started with petty theft and marijuana and the boy—the horrible boyfriend and all that. And then she ends up in Las Vegas being pimped by a gang of drug addicts and drug dealers, and she ends up in the streets of Las Vegas, I mean, destroyed. And there, the grandmother picks her up, finds her finally, this wonderful grandmother. And she finds her and sends her to Chiloé. Why would she send her to Chiloé? Well, because she’s Chilean. Why to Chiloé? Because she asked the only person in the world that she can ask the favor of taking care of this creature that is a mess. And who is this person? And so I started creating this story, and that’s the other part of the book, the part that happens in Chile. And the person who rescues her in Chiloé is someone who has a past linked to the time after the military coup.
AMY GOODMAN: And why Chiloé? Tell us, for—
ISABEL ALLENDE: Why Chiloé? Because Chiloé is a magical place. Chiloé is an archipelago in the south of Chile that was sort of disconnected from the continent for a very long time. It was the last part of the territory that was—that became part of the republic. So it was attached to Spain for a very long time and very isolated, with the worst weather in the world, according to Darwin—these are not my words. And so, the winter is very long and hard. So the people who lived there, for centuries, were just the people who were born there. Nobody went to Chiloé, except a few crazy Scandinavians maybe, or Germans, but no Chilean. And then, suddenly, it became sort of fashionable for Chileans to go. And then it became a touristic place. And now it has changed completely. It has a main island and many small islands that, when the tide is up, they are disconnected, but when the tide is down, you can—sometimes you can even walk from one to another. It’s a very strange place with its own mythology, with its own beliefs, customs. Because the winter is so long, life happens around an iron stove that is always warm, winter and summer, in the middle of the house, and everything happens there. People drink mate and tea and tell stories. It’s really magical. And I’ve spent time there, and I thought, where would I send her that is like the end of the world, where the gangs from Las Vegas will never find her? Chiloé.
AMY GOODMAN: And since the CIA might have been involved, the disconnect was very important because she was attached to all of her gadgets, like so many young people.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, the worst punishment for her was to leave the cellular phone behind, and the Internet and everything. There’s only one Internet café, and she doesn’t even have the money for the Internet café. So, it’s—I had fun writing the story because of the research in Chiloé. That was wonderful. We went with Lori and my son and my husband, and we spent some time with a great guide that took us all over and told us all the stories. We even ended up in a cave with the witches. The witches are just these young women, beautiful, wonderful young women, who get together. They call themselves las brujas, and they have this—it’s like a circle of women, very—and it’s very intimate, because it’s in this kiva, which—they call it el ruco or la ruca, that is like almost underground, dark and magical. All the stories are just great.
AMY GOODMAN: But this issue of drugs is one that does touch you closely at home. With Nicole, you wanted it not to happen. But can you talk about the own—your—the own parallels in your family?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Unfortunately, I did not have to research any of the drug—any of the drugs or the drug world in the book, because my husband has three biological children; two of them have already died of drug-related causes—Jennifer, his daughter, and recently his son, Harley. And his oldest son is also using, and he’s alive, but he doesn’t have much of a life. And I have seen the devastation of drugs to the person and to everybody around—the family, the community, everybody. And in this country and in most countries, drug addiction is treated—is penalized, treated like a crime. It’s a matter of public health, and it is not treated like public health. And I have seen that 80 percent of the problems that my stepchildren have had is because they have had to deal with the fact that drugs are illegal, and they—therefore, they spend time in prison, in jail. They buy [bleep] that they inject, and then they die, of course. So it’s been a brutal experience.
AMY GOODMAN: When I saw you last, it was when you came to talk about Maya’s Notebook last year. Harley had just died.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Just died.
AMY GOODMAN: And he had not wanted you to write about him when he was alive. Can you describe the book and what you had to do?
ISABEL ALLENDE: I wrote a memoir called The Sum of Our Days, that is not much about me, but it’s about my little tribe that I had put together with a lot of effort, and now it’s gone, because all the kids went to college and disappeared. But, at the time, this little tribe was my life. And I wrote about many people in the family, and I wrote about Harley, because Harley had been doing heavy-duty drugs. But he had—he was—he had been in rehab, and he was clean. He was clean for several years. And he—it was the time of redemption. And I thought that it was a beautiful story of hope that really a person could have redemption, could be rehabilitated. And actually, he lived a life, some kind of life, for many, many years, until he started using again, and then he died. But at the time, he didn’t want to appear in the book as a drug addict. He was right, in that sense, because once you are in a book, you are forever like in a photograph, you know? I don’t know, like frozen in time. And, of course, he didn’t want to have that—that portrait of him. I had to rewrite the whole book to take him out, because it wasn’t as if he was in one chapter. He was all over the book.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you feel at the time? And you must confront that in other situations, if someone feels that, though you’re writing fiction, it perhaps is truer than fiction, and they don’t want to be included.
ISABEL ALLENDE: I always take them out, because I—there’s a limit. What are the stories—what stories are mine to tell? And which are not? Which stories belong to other people? You cannot ruin somebody’s life because you want to write a story. So, I always say—I always joke and say that if I have to choose between a member of my family and a story, I choose the story, of course. But in truth, I don’t, because I—I’m careful. And if someone—I always show them the manuscript, and if someone decides, like Harley did, that he doesn’t want to be there, I take him out. What I don’t do is change things. I can add things. But I don’t change the tone or my vision of what is going on. If you don’t want to be there, that’s fine. But you cannot have me change—because, amazingly, everybody wants to be more in the book than less. So, how much are you going to tell about one person? You have to choose as an author.
AMY GOODMAN: So you did include him in the next book.
ISABEL ALLENDE: No.
AMY GOODMAN: Or at any point in any of your books—
ISABEL ALLENDE: Never.
AMY GOODMAN: —did you bring him back into it—
ISABEL ALLENDE: No.
AMY GOODMAN: —once he had died?
ISABEL ALLENDE: No, I haven’t, and I will not, because his last—the last thing—when he told me that he didn’t want to be in my book, we never talked about it again, so that is his last statement about it.
AMY GOODMAN: Does your husband have the same privileges?
ISABEL ALLENDE: What do you mean?
AMY GOODMAN: In writing about—does he find that there are characters like him in the book that—in your books—
ISABEL ALLENDE: Oh, all the time. Like he’s so proud of it. I wrote a book called The Infinite Plan that is loosely based on his life, and he goes around telling everybody that it is his biography. And—
AMY GOODMAN: He autographs the books?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, of course. He autographs the book, and he’s very proud. Willie is such a character. He has no shame. It’s just—he’s never embarrassed about anything. It’s just amazing. When Harley said, “I don’t want to be in the book,” Willie got mad, and he said, “Why not, if it’s true?” And I said, “Willie, he’s your son, and he has the right to be in the book or not.” And so, he was completely against the idea that I should show the manuscript to people. No, he’s—thank God he doesn’t write memoirs, because my [inaudible] awful.
AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Allende, the Chilean-American novelist. We’ll return to my interview with her in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return now to the Chilean-American novelist Isabel Allende. On November 24th, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House. She is most well known, of all of her books, for House of the Spirits. Earlier this year, I interviewed her at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, and I asked her about her decision to write her latest book a mystery novel.
ISABEL ALLENDE: It wasn’t my idea at all. In 2012, 2011, I wasn’t feeling that great, feeling that age was weighing on me. And I decided that I was going to retire and have a great life, finally, no? Instead of working all day. And my agent said—well, I support the agency. So she said, “No! You can’t retire. Why don’t you write a novel with your husband?” who is a crime novelist, William Gordon. If you have not read him, please do. He would love it. And so, we started talking with Willie about the possibility of writing a book together. And, of course, we ended up fighting terribly, and nothing happened. And then, January 8th, 2012, came, and we didn’t have anything. And I start all my books on that date. So I went to my casita in—where I work, with nothing, just the idea of a crime novel and nothing else.
So then I started showing up in front of the computer, and things—the universe conspires to make it happen. First I saw my granddaughter playing a game called—a role-playing game called Ripper online. And I thought, well, I will use a bunch of kids that play this game to be my detectives. And then I attended a mystery writers’ conference, and I learned how to kill people, which is fascinating. There are many, many ways that you can kill without being caught. Actually, if you are caught, you are really stupid, because there are many ways of doing it without being caught. And then, everything started to happen—
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us five easy ways?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Five easy ways. For example, poison.
AMY GOODMAN: Undetectable ways?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Poison is a wonderful way. Pushing people out of cars is an excellent way also. Or in the metro—I mean, in the freeway—anywhere. There are many ways. I can give you a class. Actually, the Chronicle called me “licensed assassin.” And now my husband, who thinks that he’s a better writer than I am, at least of crime novels, he’s always looking over his shoulder. Always. Always terrified.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, a number of the people in your book are somehow related to Willie, your husband, either carrying his book, related son of the novelist.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, I paid homage to him, because he has a—his sleuth is a guy called Samuel Hamilton. And so, in my book, I have his son, who is just like the father, solving crimes also. And he didn’t know that. And I dedicated the book to him. And when he read the manuscript, he found his character in the book, and he was so touched. I don’t think that I’ve ever been loved more than when he read that in his book.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about writing this mystery novel and the kind of research you did for it, and how it’s different from writing your novels.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, I have been writing a lot of historical novels, and they require huge research and to be so careful with every detail, because historians are watching, and they will find any little mistake. And the last historical novel I wrote was Island Beneath the Sea. Four years of research about slavery, the worst possible subject. I got sick with it. And so, when I wrote Ripper, I had to research about how to kill people, which is very—it’s fun. But it’s not slavery. So, I had this feeling of writing with a light heart, tongue in cheek, having fun. Even the research was fun, because the people I asked or the people that helped me with the research were fun, too. For example, a Dr. Lyle, who’s a very funny man, and he’s an expert in all forms of forensic medicine. So, he has a website. You can even look at the website. He has—and a blog. And he gets questions. So I read the questions, and I get my murders. For example, one question from one reader says, “Dr. Lyle, if I inject a blood thinner on my victim, and then I stab her 13 times, and I hang her upside down in the shower, would the blood congeal on the bathtub?” Isn’t that wonderful? Absolutely wonderful? I would have never come up with that. The idea that you can shoot—shoot poison that has been frozen in the shape of a bullet, and you shoot someone—it doesn’t leave a mark, and it penetrates the skin, and the person doesn’t die immediately, so it cannot be connected to you. You just come to me if you need to eliminate somebody; I can tell you a thousand ways of doing it that are elegant, perfect.
AMY GOODMAN: But it was not only how to kill that you researched, because a lot of your story takes place at a holistic health center, how to heal.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, well, that healing center, I didn’t have to make it up. I didn’t make up anything. Most of it really happens. I researched North Beach, the Italian neighborhood in San Francisco. And I—and the holistic clinic, the healer, is based on a friend of ours called Ana Cejas, who lives in Argentina, and she is the healer that was the model for the book. Now, all the things that they do in this holistic clinic, they do in San Francisco, and my husband does it, because he was diagnosed, by mistake, with a terminal illness, and so there was nothing that traditional medicine could do for him, and he started doing all kinds of alternative medicine. So now I’m an expert in all kinds of stuff—acupuncture, yoga, crystals, you name it, astrology. Everything can be used.
AMY GOODMAN: Reiki.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Of course reiki, and all kinds of supplements and herbs and sacred water that you bring from Brazil and all kinds of stuff.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you tried any of this?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah. He’s alive.
AMY GOODMAN: Sorry?
ISABEL ALLENDE: My husband is alive. He should be dead. He should be dead, but I think that he has already outlived his death sentence for like six months. Thanks to all this holistic stuff, he’s fine.
AMY GOODMAN: Aromatherapy?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Of course. He has—you know, he’s completely allergic to perfumes. I can’t wear cologne. But he wears a string with a medallion, and he puts every day a different perfume in there that—this aromatherapy thing. So it’s—for example, jasmine is for one thing, geranium for some other, and sometimes he mixes it. He smells like a whore. The whole house smells. So I’m not into aromatherapy.
AMY GOODMAN: You also have a character in Ripper where you clearly had to do a lot of research into soldiers who come home. In fact, Ryan is in the special forces—was in the special forces.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, a Navy SEAL. As I mentioned in the press conference, that I have a person who works in the foundation, an adorable, complete hippie, Sarah Kessler, who’s a great researcher. So I said that I needed a soldier. I don’t know anything about the military. I really needed to get all the information as part of the research. In 24 hours, she got me a Navy SEAL that was willing to talk. They are very secretive. And we flew together to Washington and spent three days with him. And he gave me the character; I didn’t have to invent anything. The character was done.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain who Ryan is and his struggles with PTSD.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Ryan is a former Navy SEAL that had to retire because he was terribly wounded. He lost a leg. And he has post-traumatic syndrome, and he’s obsessed with an incident that happened in Afghanistan in which he was involved, and he killed a family. Of course, it was an—it was an operation that didn’t work out. And an operative, I think you call it—I don’t know what you call it. And so, he—the story is wonderful, the story of the guy in the book. And then I added the dog, because I’m a dog lover. And so, we have a—the Navy SEALs—well, the military have—I think that in Afghanistan alone, like 2,300 dogs, war dogs, and these are very special dogs that cost a fortune to train, and they are considered like soldiers. They have all the military honors of soldiers. It’s very interesting.
AMY GOODMAN: His name is Attila.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Attila.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you come up with your names?
ISABEL ALLENDE: With the name, because—this is how it came up. Many years ago, I had to carry a flag in the Olympics—by mistake. They made a mistake, and I ended up carrying the flag—with other people, not alone. The flag is huge. So I was carrying the flag with a bunch of people, and I was considered a VIP, because—and this is what happened, that it was the same week that some Danish illustrators had done an illustration of Muhammad, and the Muslim world was enraged. And this was the time of the Olympics, and the security had to be reinforced. And, of course, they didn’t trust the Italian security. I wouldn’t either. So they imported it from Germany. And so these German bodyguards came. The contrast between the German bodyguards and the rest of the Italian people was just fantastic. And so the Germans organized the security for the VIP, and I was assigned a bodyguard called Thorsten, this very big German policeman dressed in black leather with all kinds of microphones, guns, walkie-talkies, you name it. He looked terrifying, and he had the soul of a damsel, a really soft person, wonderful. We became friends. And he has a dog—he had a dog called Attila. And so I named the dog after his dog because his dog died.
AMY GOODMAN: Now that you raised the Olympics, most people might not realize that Isabel Allende is an Olympian.
ISABEL ALLENDE: No.
AMY GOODMAN: But you’re going to have to tell us the rest of the story, and then we’ll come back to Ripper, because I’d love you to read a little from it. But this was when? 2006 in Turin, Italy?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, I don’t remember the year very well, but we got a phone call saying that I had been chosen to carry the Olympics. And I thought it must be a mistake. I have never done any sports in my life. I don’t know what a treadmill is. I’ve never been in a gym. I said, “What?” And my son, who is really an athlete, and he does the Ironman, he couldn’t believe it. He thought it was the most unfair thing in the world. But they chose me to represent South America. And Susan Sarandon was going to represent North America, and Sophia Loren, Europe. OK, and I was between them—not a good position.
So we get there, and, first of all, eight hours in the green room because of the security, so I got to really know them. Sophia Loren was all the time eating pretzels and bananas, and she’s slim. How can she be slim if she eats only carbohydrates? And so, she says that everything you see she owes to spaghetti. That’s not true, because I tried it, and I gained 10 pounds in the wrong places. She’s spectacular. She was, at the time, like 74, no, Lori? She was over 70. She looked spectacular, from a distance. From close, you could see more of the makeup, but still, the legs and the breasts and the tan and the mane of hair—could be a wig, but I don’t think so. So, I asked her, “You look so fantastic”—or somebody asked her, and she said, “Posture. Posture. I walk straight. I sit straight. And I don’t make old people’s noises.” So, uhhhhh, none of that. So now she’s 80, and she still looks spectacular with no old people’s noises, so keep that in mind.
Then we had to carry the flag, in freezing. It was by then like midnight. Everybody was exhausted. And we had to stand in a place. The flag is huge, and so it’s eight people carried, all women, four on one side, four on this side, and I’m right behind Sophia Loren and in front of Susan Sarandon. Then we get to carry the flag, lift the flag. Sophia, everybody puts the flag on their shoulder, and I have to carry the flag like this. Sophia Loren was walking like a giraffe, with elegance, and Susan Sarandon spectacular and sexy behind, and I’m trotting with the flag like this. But because I was behind Sophia Loren, I was in all the pictures, of course—between her legs. But I was there. And in many of the pictures—and I have some in my office—you see the flag, you see Sophia Loren and Susan Sarandon, and my legs. The flag covers me completely. I’m invisible. So that was my 15 minutes of fame in the Olympics.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you read from Ripper, your latest book?
ISABEL ALLENDE: The most important thing, according to my husband, who is a crime novelist, as I said, in a mystery is to have a body on the first page. So you have to start with a body and then try to create suspense. So I’m going to read for two minutes a piece—one of the crimes, that is not the first one, because it’s short.
“Rachel Rosen sensed something behind her, a shadowy presence like a bad memory; she stood motionless, engulfed by the same fear she had felt in the garage. She tried to control her imagination—she did not want to end up like her mother, who had spent her last years locked in her apartment, never going out, convinced the Gestapo were waiting on the other side of the door. Old people get scared, she thought, but I’m not like my mother. She thought she heard a rustling of paper or plastic and turned toward the kitchen door. She could make out a shadow in the doorway, a blurred, bloated, faceless figure, moving slowly and awkwardly like an astronaut on the moon. A hoarse, terrible howl came from the pit of her stomach, surging up through her chest like a blazing fire. She saw the fearsome creature advance toward her. A second scream stuck in her throat, and she ran out of air.
“Rachel Rosen stepped backward, bumped into the table, and fell sideways, shielding her head with her arms. She lay on the floor, begging in a whisper for him not to hurt her, offering money and anything else of value in the house. Trembling, she crawled under the table and curled up, bargaining and weeping, for the three never-ending minutes she was still conscious. She did not even feel the pinprick of the needle in her thigh.”
AMY GOODMAN: Are you planning to write another mystery novel?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Not right now. I wish I could do that in the future, but—because I had so much fun. But right now I’m writing, I don’t know, a book that is not going anywhere. We’ll see.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you ever started a book that you didn’t finish?
ISABEL ALLENDE: No, I’ve always finished it, because I show up, every single day, until it happens.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your daily ritual for writing?
ISABEL ALLENDE: I’m a day person, so I write early in the morning. I start very early in the morning. I write usually all day.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you eat breakfast first?
ISABEL ALLENDE: I eat—I drink coffee, two cups of coffee, and sometimes a toast. I don’t need to eat much when I’m writing. That’s the truth. I have so much fun writing. And I spend all day writing. Now I have to get up every 45 minutes and walk a little bit around the garden, because my back hurts, and then I take out the dogs twice a day, and that’s it. The rest is just writing, researching, reading, dreaming, thinking, living with the characters. It’s a compulsion. And then, when the book is done, I feel relieved that finally I finished. And then I get depressed for like 25 minutes, because the characters are gone, and they have been living with me for so long. They are my compañeros.
AMY GOODMAN: Are there other aspirations you have besides writing?
ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, I would have liked to have long legs.
AMY GOODMAN: Chilean-American novelist Isabel Allende at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas here in New York earlier this year. On November 24th, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Isabel Allende is the author of 20 books, including The House of the Spirits, Paula, Daughter of Fortune. Her latest is the mystery novel based in the Bay Area titled Ripper. Her books have been translated into 35 languages and sold close to 60 million copies around the world. You can go to our website at democracynow.org to watch all of our interviews with Isabel Allende.