Somewhere between her Chilean family’s life-or-death political realities and its intuitive, fantastical imagination is where Isabel Allende writes. Where she lives is the Bay Area, arriving in California about 25 years ago with a famous surname she’s gone on to burnish, novel by novel. As perhaps befits an emigre author, Allende’s books are routinely translated into two dozen languages. Here she muses in English about what the future of the written word holds for authors like her, and for the readers who love them.
You use “notebook” — meaning the kind you write in — in the title of your latest novel, “Maya’s Notebook,” about a Berkeley High student caught up in drugs. Isn’t a notebook almost obsolete today?
Completely. Kids don’t write — they text, they Twitter, they do Facebook. They are all the time connected to a screen. The paper frightens them.
For them, everything that is written on paper is school, with homework — but for the pleasure of writing, even reading, it’s on a screen. I think we are reaching a point where the technology needs to be controlled in some way. I think every person will feel the need [for] some time of silence. We are too connected. There’s noise in our heads all the time. The phone rings and no matter what we’re doing — we can be making love — we stop to answer the phone.
Do you use an e-reader?
I use them because I travel a lot, and instead of carrying a suitcase full of books, I carry my Kindle or iPad. I can have 20,000 books. That is wonderful, and I think it’s probably the future of books, because why would we be destroying trees if we can read on a screen? It’s unfortunate because I love the book, the object, but it will be a rare object, for collectors.
What is the impact of all of this on readers? Are paper and print books still relevant?
It’s immense. Kids don’t read reviews, they don’t read newspapers, they don’t go for readings. That’s not their world. But if another kid tells them, look, there’s this book I was interested in — that gets around. I’m connected to Facebook, but I don’t do it; my son does.
And what about the effect on writers and writing?
There are no manuscripts anymore. The agent, the editor gets a clean copy that’s gone through a thousand drafts that have been destroyed. You correct and overcorrect in the computer. In 100 years someone will not be able to study all the corrections that the writer incorporated into the text like you can do, for example, with Mark Twain.
I write to my mother every single day of my life, sometimes twice, she writes back, and I print the emails. So we have a record of our lives day by day. That’s such a treasure. It’s the only thing I would save if the house was burning — well, the pets first, and then the letters.
You once earned money translating romance novels; not great literature but at least people are still reading them.
Who’s to say what is good and what isn’t? Let people read whatever they want. People have asked me about “50 Shades of Grey.” A virgin who is innocent and beautiful and passionate who falls in love with a man who is superior in every way, powerful, strong, but dry in his heart, and she will open his heart. The classic romantic story. But it has soft porn. And people say, “Should people be reading this?” Of course; at least you learn something about sex!
When you translated those novels, you took liberties.
I should pay for my sins. I’m sure in several languages there’s a translator “improving” my books that way. Some of the romance novels were so stupid. I was trying to make the female protagonist look less stupid and the male protagonist less macho. Of course somebody complained! This is a very established formula. People don’t want surprises. You read that kind of book because it’s safe. It’s like crime novels: There’s always a mystery, there’s always the clues, always an ending that satisfies the reader. The reader looks for the formula. If you step out of it, they don’t like it.
“Maya’s Notebook” is a departure for you, a contemporary novel.
I have been writing historical novels for a while; I was tired of researching. All my grandchildren were teenagers. I saw all the dangers they were exposed to. Through the Internet, anyone can approach them. Pornography, crime, drugs, video games — everything is violent. Gore is not enough anymore. Fortunately they are all in college now, so they survived the teenage years.
Every parent must wish for a Chiloé an island like the one in the book where you can send kids to keep them safe.
My husband’s son — when he was 13, my husband sent him to a school in Oregon, and they kept him safe for three years. In “Maya’s Notebook,” the girl is rescued right in time.
Dogs play a role too.
I think when you open up to animals, something happens to a soul, a sort of tenderness, a humor that is very special.
Do you still write in Spanish?
I can write nonfiction in English, but fiction happens in the belly, it doesn’t happen in the brain. I just can’t go through the process of a dictionary — no, no, no. It needs to flow, like a dream, and that happens in Spanish.
When you were a journalist in Chile, you spent the day with the great poet Pablo Neruda, at his home.
I was in my early 30s, a month before the military coup. He invited me to his house. I thought, oh my God, I must be the best journalist in this country if Neruda wants to talk to me. After lunch I said, “I’m ready for the interview, Don Pablo.” He said, “What interview?” I said, “The interview — I came to interview you.” He said, “Oh, my dear, I would never have an interview with you. You are the worst journalist in the country. You lie all the time. I am sure that if you don’t have a story, you make it up. You put yourself in the middle of all the stories. Why don’t you stick to literature, where all these defects are virtues?”
We keep hearing warnings about the death of literary fiction.
I hope not! If literary fiction dies, I die too. Who would employ me? Nobody! Humanity has this need to hear stories because they connect us with other people, they teach us about our own feelings. We feel less lonely when we see other people going through the same things, even if they’re fictional characters.
Neruda’s body was just exhumed, because of suspicions about how he died after the 1973 coup. The body of Chilean President Salvador Allende, your cousin, was exhumed two years ago, and it was confirmed that he committed suicide during the takeover. Do you think such scrutiny of the past is good?
Yes. Many people object, but I think it’s good. It’s important to know the truth. How can you write history or think about the present without knowing the truth?
You write a good deal about death, but Americans seem uncomfortable with talking about dying.
They have all kinds of euphemisms. Nobody says my daughter died [Paula Allende died of a rare disease when she was 28]. She “passed away” or she “passed,” ways of saying it without the word “death.” This obsession with being young, looking young, is part of this horrible fear of death.
I am not afraid of death at all. I witnessed my daughter’s long agony, a whole year that she was in a coma. My daughter died, and a few weeks later, my granddaughter was born. That moment of death and the moment of birth are so similar, it’s like going through a threshold. I don’t think I will meet my daughter at the end of a long tunnel and she will waiting for me with angel wings, no, but her spirit is part of the universal spirit like mine is.
You are a “magical realism” writer. Does it exist in U.S. literature?
With American writers like Toni Morrison, you find that sense of the magical world. And this country has more New Age stuff than any other country in the world. People are hanging crystals on their necks, convinced they will save them from catastrophe, or consulting astrologers or psychics. It is crazy. When it’s another country, we call it “magical realism” or superstition. When it’s us [in America], it’s religion.
Any prospect of a film of “Maya’s Notebook”?
I have had bad experiences with Hollywood. I’ve spent a fortune on lawyers discussing contracts for years, and then at the end I can’t sign them because they want everything forever in the universe and other planets [yet] to be discovered. They even want the copyright of my characters, so if I use my own characters in another book, I have to pay them a royalty. It’s ridiculous. I don’t want to deal with that.
And yet moviemaking is such a powerful storytelling medium.
It is, but unable to fill my soul. They did a good movie with “The House of the Spirits” and “Of Love and Shadows,” but that was awhile ago.
You always start a new book on Jan. 8, the day you wrote a last letter to your dying grandfather. What’s your next book?
There’s another book that is in the oven already. It’s called “Ripper,” and it’s a thriller. It happens in San Francisco in 2012.
Another book that didn’t require too much historical research?
I [wrote it] faster because [of that]. Research takes a long time. “Island Beneath the Sea” [about Haiti and slavery in the 18th century] was the most difficult book to research. It was so messy, the time of the French Revolution. But I only got one comment of a mistake: that there are no scorpions in Haiti!
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This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.