Author Isabel Allende

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Best-selling author tells Tavis why she takes the reader from Haiti to New Orleans in her new novel, Island Beneath the Sea.

Isabel Allende is a powerful story teller, who has sold more than 51 million books worldwide and won numerous international prizes. Born in Peru into a diplomatic family, she was raised in Chile and went into exile after her uncle, the country's president, was assassinated. She later worked as a journalist and became active in the feminist movement. Allende's work includes the New Orleans-set novel Island Beneath the Sea. She has taught literature at many American colleges and campaigns for underprivileged women through her foundation.


Tavis: Isabel Allende is an acclaimed novelist whose many notable works include the “The House of Spirits,” which was the basis for the movie starring Meryl Streep. Her latest is called “Island Beneath the Sea,” which is now a “New York Times” best seller. Isabel, congratulations and good to have you on the program.
Isabel Allende: Thank you so much for having me.
Tavis: My pleasure. I read somewhere where you made the comment that this is one of those books where the subject matter chose you rather than you choosing it. Tell me more.
Allende: I fell in love with New Orleans when I went there, and I wanted to write a book placed in New Orleans. I thought something about pirates or something like that. Then when I started studying the history, I found out that 10,000 refugees escaped the slave revolt in Haiti and came to New Orleans and gave it that French flavor, the cuisine, the music, the voodoo, and it created a large and very powerful class of free people of color that had come originally from Haiti.
So there was a connection there, and half the book happens in a plantation in Haiti. Then the slave revolt happens in the middle of the book and then at the end it’s all in New Orleans.
Tavis: I hear now once you dug into the history, once you drilled down, I hear now what fascinated you about the back story to the city. When you first went, though, without knowing that back story, what turned you on about New Orleans?
Allende: It was before Katrina, and it turned me on – everything. It’s a unique city in the United States. It has a life of its own, music everywhere, the best cuisine, and you can walk in the streets at 4:00 in the morning and there’s someone playing music. Everybody’s sleeping in the rest of the United States at that time. So it’s great.
Tavis: When you, again, to your point, got into the history of it and saw that these slaves had escaped and that they were free in New Orleans and helped to build the city. You thought what of their story when you first heard about it?
I thought first of all the story of the slave revolt in Haiti is fabulous. Half-a-million enslaved people that were rebelling all the time, but eventually they got together, they rebelled and they created the first Negro independent republic in history and the first independent republic in Latin America. The only slave rebellion ever to succeed, and these people did it with nothing. They didn’t even have guns.
They did it with the spiritual power of their spiritual beliefs, also with incredible courage, and the fact that there was no choice. It was either freedom or death.
Tavis: How do you take all of that and situate a novel. Obviously you’ve done it, but how do you take all that and situate a novel at the center of it?
Allende: I pick up a character, so I follow the life of the character, a young woman. At nine she’s sold at a slave to a planter in Haiti, and she has a master, she has children with that master. Because there are things about all this that people never talk about – incest, rape, all the stuff that happened within the families and in the isolation of the plantations.
So she follows the master later, after the rebellion, to New Orleans, so by following her life I could sort of weave everything.
Tavis: I don’t want to give too much away here so I’ll tread lightly and let you fill in the blanks as you wish. As the story unfolds she has a serious choice to make between – how might I put this? – love and –
Allende: Freedom.
Tavis: – freedom, yeah – freedom, love and children. What can you tell me about that without giving that away?
Allende: There’s a point when the revolution has exploded and they are burning the plantations and everything is just pure violence and brutality that she needs to – her former lover comes and tells her that he can save her. They have to get out before they burn the plantation and they slaughter everybody, and she says, “I can’t leave the children.”
So she has the choice between following the master, who can offer safety to the children, and remain enslaved, or have the lover that she adores and go into freedom. She chooses the children, which is I think what most women would do.
Tavis: When you unearth the back story of a true story like the birth of New Orleans, like the slave revolt in Haiti, were you ever at any point tempted to not write fiction but to write nonfiction?
Allende: On the contrary. (Laughs) I love fiction because in fiction you go into the thoughts of people, the little people, the people who were defeated, the poor, the women, the children that are never in history books.
If you write nonfiction, a historical account of what really happened, first of all, it’s always White men who do that and you don’t have the voices that are really interesting to me, of the people who are not sheltered by the big umbrella of the establishment.
Tavis: What does it say about the way we teach history, about our literature, more broadly, that your point is true, that because history is told through the voices of White men, there are so many other voices that get lost, and for us oftentimes to get those voices we have to rely on fiction, of all things. How fascinating is that?
Allende: It is fascinating, but it’s really everywhere is the same. Now of course we have Black historians, but they’re usually men. We get the perspective always, the slanted perspective, of what has happened. The battles, the things achieved, the laws, but where are the people, the families? What happens inside the houses, inside the minds and the hearts? That’s what I’m interested in.
Tavis: Here’s a loaded and impossible question at the same time. How might our read of history be different were we to hear the voices of the women and the children and the others that have been historically left out?
Allende: I think it changes completely. Now we are living in a time when that is possible, because we have all the technology to record things in the streets. Now the historians cannot twist it or change it, because we have cellular phones or video cameras, and we are filming in the streets what’s going on. We have the voices of everybody recorded. There’s too much recording and I think that’s wonderful.
Tavis: Yet even with that reality, does that make the difference or does it only matter who actually writes the history?
Allende: It matters who writes the history because that is what goes to the libraries and for the researchers and for posterity, but now more and more women are getting involved in that, and now historians are sort of – their hands are tied by the fact that we have all this information that you can’t change.
Tavis: Hard to ignore and to change.
Allende: How are you going to ignore it? The official story may be one thing, but then you have the street story. Before the street story was ignored; now it’s recorded.
Tavis: How do you balance telling a story that is fascinating, that is entertaining, that is inspiring for us as this story is, and weaving in, when and where you can, the kind of history that you want us to be aware of?
Allende: It sort of comes naturally. One thing leads to the other. I’m always following the characters and I’m always interested in what happens to them, but what happens to them is conditioned by the circumstances in which they live. Only in romance novels or in thrillers people live outside of a social and political context.
So all that comes into the – in your life, my life and in everybody’s life. So that’s my job as a writer, to create that connection.
Tavis: Where your writing is concerned, whether it’s this book or any other you’ve written or write, I’m told that January 8th has significance for you in terms of –
Allende: I hope it’s not your birthday, that day.
Tavis: No, no. (Laughter) I’m in September if you want to send me a gift – September 13th, to be exact.
Allende: Okay. What would you like?
Tavis: Whatever you send – any way you bless me, I’ll be satisfied. (Laughter) But I’m told that January 8th has a significance for you in terms of your writing.
Allende: Well, I start all my books on January 8th.
Tavis: You start writing all of your books on January 8th.
Allende: Yeah, but it’s not voodoo, it’s discipline. I really need to get started or I will be procrastinating forever, and I have to clear my calendar. So the first few months of my life of every year are in total retreat. I don’t see anybody except my husband and my dog, I don’t talk to anybody, and I just write.
Tavis: You seclude yourself.
Allende: Yeah, until I have the first –
Tavis: You quarantine yourself.
Allende: Until I have a first draft. Then I can get out, because then I work on the draft forever, if necessary. But having a point to start is important. You know that when you decide to write something it’s like a commitment. It’s like falling in love. You are obsessed. Well, when I fall in love I’m obsessed. (Laughter) I don’t know about you, but I am.
Tavis: But why January 8th as opposed to the 7th or 9th?
Allende: Because it’s after the holidays. It’s winter. It’s a good time. Because I started my first book on January 8th, “The House of Spirits,” and it was very successful, I thought well (unintelligible) let’s do it on January 8th.
Tavis: What happens on January 8th if you have writer’s block?
Allende: I’m screwed. (Laughter) Yeah. If I don’t have writer’s block I sit there and wait until a sentence sort of forms itself. If I have writer’s block I go the next day and the following day and the following, until something happens.
Tavis: But you start the process on January 8th.
Allende: Yeah, and I am like in the military – I do it.
Tavis: What’s your process like? You stay in there; you work for hours at a time?
Allende: Ten, 14 hours sometimes, depending on which stage of the book I am. But the only thing is that when I get up, I know how long I have been because I can’t get up. I’m too old now, so all my bones are like – I feel like this. (Laughter) Then as the book starts to flow, the characters do things that are unexpected, and then I know that I’m on the right track and then the rest is easy.
Tavis: The you’re off and running, yeah.
Allende: In this book, I had all the research, four years of research, but before Zarite, the character, appeared, I couldn’t write it. The character just came to my life and I could describe to you how she smells. I am her. You know Flaubert, when he said “I am Madame Bovary?” Well, I am Zarite.
Tavis: So four years of research and one day it just hits you.
Allende: Yeah.
Tavis: Wow. I’ve got to ask you this before I let you go because I am such a fan of his work. You spent time with Pablo Neruda?
Allende: Yes. Very little, but he was the Nobel Prize, the poet of my country. He represented my country in many ways, and in 1973, a month before the military coup that ended a century of democracy in my country –
Tavis: That’s Pinochet.
Allende: Pinochet. Pablo Neruda was living in Chile, on the beach, in a house on the beach, and he was sick by that time. But he wanted to meet me so he called me. I went to visit him and it was a very pleasant lunch until he said that I was a lousy journalist – the worst journalist in the country (laughter) and that I should – that I lied all the time, I couldn’t be objective.
If I didn’t have a story, I made it up. Why didn’t I switch to literature, where all those defects are virtues? (Laughter) So that’s what I’ve done.
Tavis: (Laughs) Where all these defects are virtues. (Laughter) So you sit with Neruda for lunch, he tells you what a horrible journalist you are, but he puts you on the path to doing what you do now.
Allende: Yeah, you see? Well, I didn’t pay any attention then. This was in 1973. The military coup was a month later and 11 days after the military coup, he died. I didn’t write the book until 1981.
Tavis: But what a great Pablo Neruda story.
Allende: It is.
Tavis: That’s an amazing story.
Allende: I could have made it up. (Laughter) I’m such a liar.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Allende: Who can prove me wrong?
Tavis: You could have.
Allende: Everybody’s dead now.
Tavis: It’s a great story, though. It sounds good on television.
Allende: Yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: Her name, Isabel Allende. The new book is called “Island Beneath the Sea.” An honor to have you on the program, and thanks for sharing the book.
Allende: Thank you.

Tavis: Glad to have you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm