NOW with Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers Interviews Isabel Allende

BILL MOYERS: What a coincidence. Two great acts of violence. One against your government, and one against this country, occurring on the same day of the week, at almost the same time.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes. On a Tuesday, September 11th, 1973, we had the military coup in Chile that forced me to leave my country eventually. And then, on a Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, we had the terrorist attack in the United States.

BILL MOYERS: You said that on the 11th of September, 2001, "I gained a country."

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes. Because for the first... I have been living in the in the United States for 16 years. But feeling very foreigner. I came to this country because I fell in love with a man, not because I was following the American Dream.

And I always felt very foreign, very alien. And then, on September 11th, I could relate to the feeling of vulnerability, of fear, of let's get together, and try to cope. Before, I always felt that there was this almost childish optimism, this sort of also childish arrogance about the a little bit the idea that nothing bad can happen here.

And we had that in Chile. Before the military coup in Chile, we had the idea that military coups happen in Banana Republics, somewhere in Central America. It would never happen in Chile. Chile was such a solid democracy. And when it happened, it had brutal characteristics. And it lasted 17 years.

BILL MOYERS: So, the 11th of September, 1973 was the day you lost your country. Do you remember that day vividly?


BILL MOYERS: Tell me about it.

ISABEL ALLENDE: I left my house early in the morning. I went to my office after my children left for school. And I realized that the streets were empty. There were some people stranded in corners in the streets, waiting for transportation. There was no public transportation. And military convoys were passing, and airplanes, military airplanes.

And I remember that I stop at a friend's house, and I ask, "What's going on?" And she said, "A military coup. This is a military coup." But we didn't know what it was. And we didn't know that it could be awful.

So, she said, "My husband left early in the morning to go" — he was a teacher — "to go to the school. And I haven't heard from him." So I said, "I am going to go and pick him up." And I went downtown Santiago to the school that is two blocks away from there, Presidential Palace. And I was there when they bombed the palace. And so, I saw it very close.

BILL MOYERS: This was... and your uncle was in the palace.


BILL MOYERS: Your uncle Salvador Allende.

ISABEL ALLENDE: But I didn't know that he had been killed. Because I didn't learn about it until 2:00 in the afternoon, when one of the firemen that put off the fire of the palace, they took the body out. And so, he was married to a friend of mine. And they called me and said that he was killed — dead.

BILL MOYERS: So, you left when?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I left a year and a half later.

BILL MOYERS: So, you've lived half of your adult life as a foreigner.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Almost all my life. Because I was the daughter of diplomats. I have been a foreigner always.

BILL MOYERS: Well, is it...

ISABEL ALLENDE: But somehow, when I think of myself, my roots, my deepest roots must be in Chile, because if I think of a place where I blend in, that would be Chile, sort of.


ISABEL ALLENDE: Because it's a subjective memoir. It's not an essay about what Chile is. It's about what I remember and the things I loved about it, and the things I hate about it. And it's also a... everything is very subjective. Memory — it's very subjective always.

BILL MOYERS: Do you trust your memory? I mean, you referred somewhere to memory as smoke. Very tentative, very ephemeral. Can you trust something that smoke-like?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Not much. But it doesn't matter. At the hour of verification, who cares? I love the story. I love the legend.

BILL MOYERS: Is it true that Chile, when you were growing up, was a machismo country, that culture, that parents raise their girls to serve and the boys to be served?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, maybe not like in a Muslim country today. But there's much of the male chauvinism in Latin America, and everyone in the world, is because the mothers educate their children to be boys. In Italy and everyone else. A Momma's boy.

BILL MOYERS: So, what did this mean practically to you? You were a girl.

ISABEL ALLENDE: I rebelled against all form of authority, against my grandfather, my step-father, the Church, the police, the government, the bosses. Everything male that was there, and was determining my life.

BILL MOYERS: And yet, I don't sense any malice in you.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Against men, you mean? No, I like them. I like them a lot.

BILL MOYERS: So, it was the culture that you were...

ISABEL ALLENDE: It was the culture. But I think that men are also victims of the culture.

BILL MOYERS: Was there scorn for the intellect of a woman?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes. There was scorn for the feminists, and hatred. And we had to put up with that, a lot of that. But if I would have to live again, I would do exactly the same.

BILL MOYERS: Nothing intrigues me more than what makes a life. Why were you able to escape the culture that had surrounded and imprisoned you, that held you in the same grip that it held so many other young women who didn't get out?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Because it was a time. You know, things reach a point when they are ripe for change. And what I was feeling was like the echo of things that were happening all over the world. Women in Europe, in the United States, were writing, were fighting, were getting organized. We didn't know that there.

But it's like the critical mass. There is a point when things are ready for change. And I was one of them. I was lucky enough to be born in that generation, and not in my mother's generation.

BILL MOYERS: The emotions in here, they're very powerful. The humor is very sharp. The sorrow is very deep. Are those emotions you are remembering of how you felt then?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I still feel them. I still feel the anger, and the laughter. And the desire to change. Not only Chile, and women and men, but the world. I want to change the world.

BILL MOYERS: Is that why you wrote this?

ISABEL ALLENDE: No. I wrote that because I just... I wrote that because of a comment that my grandson made. My grandson saw me scrutinizing the map of my wrinkles in the mirror, and he slapped me in the back and said, "Don't worry Grandma, you are going to live at least three more years."

I thought, well, where do I want to live those three more years, and how? And that reflection was the starting point for the book. And it started as a choice. I had to choose between Chile — the imagined Chile — and my life in the United States. And at the end of the book I realize I don't have to choose. I can have both. And I can be totally bicultural. And I can get the best of both cultures, and use both.

BILL MOYERS: Is it true that you start writing every January 8th?


BILL MOYERS: Without fail?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Without fail.

BILL MOYERS: How long do you write? Until it's finished?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I write until the first draft is finished, and then I feel that I can get out. But, during the time of the writing of the first draft, I don't go out. I'm just locked away, writing. It's a time of meditation, of going into the story.

You know, I feel that there's a dark space, and I go into that dark space where the story is. And I just have to show up every day with a candle, and slowly, it will start to unfold.

BILL MOYERS: A candle?

ISABEL ALLENDE: With a candle. The idea that there's a little light that will illuminate only parts of the story until it's all done.

BILL MOYERS: Is this a metaphysical candle, or do you actually--

ISABEL ALLENDE: Both. It's a real candle, but it's also a metaphysical candle. In my mind, that's how I envision the story. I know that the characters are somewhere in the room. I just have to allow them to show up, and become people. And that's my job.

BILL MOYERS: But do you truly write with a real candle burning?



ISABEL ALLENDE: Because I don't like clocks. And if I have a candle, for as long as the candle is burning, I write. And then, when it's over, when it burns off, I can have dinner and get out, and do things.

BILL MOYERS: So, you write all day...

ISABEL ALLENDE: I mean, I do have electricity in my house. I do have electricity. But the candle is like my clock.

BILL MOYERS: I just was noticing a moment ago, you're the first guest of mine who hasn't had a watch on.

ISABEL ALLENDE: No, I don't like them.

BILL MOYERS: You don't wear them.

ISABEL ALLENDE: I try not to.

BILL MOYERS: So, you light the candle, and when it burns down, you quit for the day.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah. Now, as I get older, the candle is smaller, and smaller.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, you're starting to count down. I know that. There's another story you told the other night at Barnes & Noble here in New York about your granddaughter writing a composition?


BILL MOYERS: Is that a true story?


BILL MOYERS: What did she say?

ISABEL ALLENDE: She wrote a story — the teacher called me because she was, at the time, seven or eight. And the composition was about the family. And her composition was, "My family's not interesting. The only interesting person in my family is my grandmother, because she has a great imagination."

And I asked her what a great imagination is. And she said, "You can remember what never happened." And that's my...

BILL MOYERS: You can remember what never happened.

ISABEL ALLENDE: That's my job.

BILL MOYERS: So, do you exaggerate when you write?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Of course. But I exaggerate my life, too. I want to have an epic life. I want to tell my life with big adjectives. I want to forget all the grays in between, and remember the highlights and the dark moments.

BILL MOYERS: Does writing about those subjects bring you pleasure?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, well obviously, it brings me pleasure. But more than that, it explains life to me. It sorts out the confusion of life. Everything that I write is. If I don't write it, it's blurred, and it's erased. So, writing is what makes me feel that things have happened, that I have lived.

I write a letter to my mother every day, because in that letter, I write down my day. And if I don't write it down, then tomorrow I will forget it and it's gone.

BILL MOYERS: You mean, you literally write her every day?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Every single day of my life. I have a closet full of her letters, because she does the same. And the idea is that if she or I die before the other one, the other person can open a letter a day for the rest of her life.

BILL MOYERS: What have you learned about yourself from writing?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I have learned that there is consistency in my writing, my ideas, my beliefs. And the way I conduct my life. There's no discrepancy. So, that makes me feel good.

BILL MOYERS: But, all of us have some contradictions. I mean, what was it Walt Whitman said, "I contradict myself, so I'll contradict myself."

ISABEL ALLENDE: I'm not consistent with the things I say. If you interview me in 20 years, and remind me of what we've talked of, I will not remember a word. And I will say, "I made it up, Bill." But...

BILL MOYERS: So, people cannot believe this...


BILL MOYERS: ...interview any more than we can believe this book.

ISABEL ALLENDE: But what can you believe? I mean, everything is subjective. Everything is emotional. And what is true for me may not be true for any of the listeners.

BILL MOYERS: Well, now I understand. You didn't write this so that I could learn about Chile. You wrote this so you could learn about yourself.

ISABEL ALLENDE: No. I wrote this so that you can fall in love with Chile.

BILL MOYERS: Fall in love with Chile?


BILL MOYERS: I mean, this is a small country, a long way from here. Most Americans don't even know where it is.

ISABEL ALLENDE: But you can fall in love with it. And go and fall in love.

BILL MOYERS: And the contrast there.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, it's fascinating.

BILL MOYERS: Have you come to terms with the contradictions of the country and the culture that shaped you?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes. Because I accept that. I don't accept things that I don't like about, for example, how hypocritical we are. How we have double standards for everything, how we hide everything. We're so prudish. And yes, 58 percent of the women are unfaithful. So...

BILL MOYERS: Are you prudish because you're predominantly a Catholic country?

ISABEL ALLENDE: We are more Catholic than Ireland. And certainly more than the Vatican. But we know that a celibate old man in the Vatican doesn't know anything about contraception. So, we don't pay much attention to that.

And on the other hand, we love the rituals of the Church, the ceremonies, the sayings. And the Catholic Church is so powerful in Chile that it is the only country in the world without divorce.

BILL MOYERS: And yet, you say, what... 58 percent of the women are unfaithful? What does this do to the society?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Bill, do you think that here it's different?

BILL MOYERS: Well, I've never taken a poll.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Oh, well take a poll.

BILL MOYERS: This is not a Catholic country.


BILL MOYERS: Puritan, yes.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, Puritan.


ISABEL ALLENDE: Which is worse.

BILL MOYERS: Oh, well that...

ISABEL ALLENDE: At least the Catholics have the chance to confess and they are forgiven. Their sins are erased. But you have to carry your sins for the rest of your life.

BILL MOYERS: Are you a religious person?

ISABEL ALLENDE: No. I have a sort of funky spiritual practice. And I work a lot with mythology and with spirits and with coincidences and premonitions. Dreams. But I'm not Catholic.

BILL MOYERS: I struggled for years with this whole idea of magical realism. How would you define it if someone asked you in a class? Or can you describe it?

ISABEL ALLENDE: People think that it's like a literary device that you find only in Latin American literature. It's actually accepting that the world is a very mysterious place. The things happen that we cannot explain.

And if we just accept them, we can add them to our lives and to our writing in ways that are totally natural. For me, one beautiful example is in the novel A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE by Garcia Marquez. There is... what really happened in the town was that a girl got pregnant. And the family hid her in a convent. And she disappeared. And so the family said, that she was a saint and she had risen to heaven in body and soul.

And so when Garcia Marquez, who had heard the story many times, tried to write it down, it didn't work. And he wrote it several times. And it didn't work because no one believed it. And literature has to be believable, while real life seldom is.

And so Garcia Marquez then added to the scene linen sheets. She was hanging the linen sheets and a wind came and took her away. And then it becomes magic realism. It's something that because there is some kind of explanation there, you sort of believe it. You surrender to the mystery of it.

BILL MOYERS: And that's what you did here. You surrendered to the mystery of those emotions. Those conflicted emotions that you felt as a young girl, right?


BILL MOYERS: I mean you... you don't really answer the contradiction here?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I don't try to. Because there are no straight answers in life. I have lived long enough to know that most of time you walk in circles. And you can touch things here and there.

But the nature of life is change. And the nature of life is confusion and questions. I have lots of questions and very few answers.

BILL MOYERS: I'm gonna ask you about this book, PAULA. Your daughter... she was how old when she died?


BILL MOYERS: And she lived for a year in a coma?


BILL MOYERS: What was the cause of it?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Paula had a condition called porphyria which not fatal. But she was in Spain when she had a crisis. She was taken to the hospital with a medallion that said her condition.

And they gave her the wrong medication. They didn't monitor the coma. And they provoked severe brain damage. By the time I got her back, she was in a vegetative state.

And I took her home and took care of her at home with my family. And it was a terrible year. But also a great year.

BILL MOYERS: She was there for a year?


BILL MOYERS: Terrible and great. What do you mean?

ISABEL ALLENDE: It was terrible because it was so painful. It was raw pain. And hope, which can be sometimes more painful than anything else.

BILL MOYERS: How's that?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Because you hope and hope. And then each day you realize that there's nothing to hope except that she dies without pain. And it was great, because in that year, I threw overboard everything that is not necessarily to keep on walking.

And at the end of the year, I thought I had thrown overboard everything. That nothing was left. And I realize that that's not true. I had what I had given her.

She was... she couldn't... I don't know if she received the love and the care. Maybe she didn't, because she was like a vegetable. But what we gave her as a family made us so much stronger. And it united us in incredible ways. It took away all the fear.

BILL MOYERS: The fear of?

ISABEL ALLENDE: The fear of life. I'm not afraid anymore. What's the worst that can happen, Bill? Death. And that's going to happen to everybody.

BILL MOYERS: And you're not afraid of death?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Not at all. Not at all.

BILL MOYERS: You are an intriguing person in the sense so much of your life has been framed by violence. The violence of the 11th of September 1973. The violence of September 11, 2001. The death of your daughter, which was not violent but it was ultimate. And yet you seem to have so much mirth. So much gaiety. So much buoyancy, I would say.

ISABEL ALLENDE: I have a good life. My life is about losses and pain. And great success and happiness and love. So it's everything.

And I don't dwell too much in the bad moments. And I don't dwell too much in the good moments either. I'm not the kind of person that believes in my own celebrity. I think that's stupid. So life is not bad.

BILL MOYERS: So do you think of immortality?

ISABEL ALLENDE: No. I think... I don't want to be immortal in any way. I just want to pass that threshold and go back to whatever is there, some ocean of spirituality. And blend in there. And maybe someday I will take another shape. I don't know. And I don't worry about it.

BILL MOYERS: It just occurs to me from time to time that I will live only as long as my grandchildren remember me.

ISABEL ALLENDE: I remember my grandmother, much about her. And the rest that I didn't know about her, I have invented. And she lives with me. And for as long as I live, she's alive. But the same will be with me. My grandchildren will remember me because I have tortured them badly enough so that they will remember me.

BILL MOYERS: You keep coming back to that term invented. So much of what you do is invention.

ISABEL ALLENDE: It's imagination. It's imagination.


ISABEL ALLENDE: Thank you, Bill.