In Conversation with Isabel Allende

“In all my books there is a strong sense of place and my stories often have an epic breadth.”

The “eternal foreigner” sat down during the tail end of her U.S. book tour to discuss her new novel, The Japanese Lover, and writing across boundaries.

While working as a young reporter in Chile, Isabel Allende went to interview the great Don of twentieth-century poetry, Pablo Neruda. At least, she assumed as much when she accepted his invitation for a visit to his house on the coast.

In preparation for the event, Allende washed her car and bought a new tape recorder. She drove to Isla Negra. After she and Neruda shared a lunch of Chilean corvina and white wine, Allende proposed that they begin their interview. Neruda was surprised, and rebuffed her, saying, “My dear child, you must be the worst journalist in the country. You are incapable of being objective, you place yourself at the centre of everything you do, I suspect you’re not beyond fibbing, and when you don’t have news, you invent it.” He suggested that she switch to literature. Perhaps Allende never would have done so if she had foreseen how eager editors would be for her to repeat this fanciful anecdote over the years. Still, in radio interviews, her voice seems to soften into fondness during each retelling. 

The publication of her debut novel, The House of the Spirits, in 1982, allowed Allende to make a full-time career change. Her journo’s vice of placing herself “at the centre of everything” is transformed into a defining virtue through her fiction: she is an exemplar of using the third-person omniscient point of view. Allende’s works have been translated into 35 languages, and the Spanish-language edition of her latest book, El amante japonés, was released in September by Vintage Español. The English translation, The Japanese Lover, was released on November 3, from Atria.


Megan Bradshaw: Prior to moving to California, what was your familiarity with the history of Japanese internment camps in the United States? How did your initial historical research for The Japanese Lover influence your assumptions and the direction of the novel?

Isabel Allende: I had not heard about the internment camps before moving to California but in recent years there have a been a couple of novels that mention them. My research gave me a much deeper understanding of what this meant for the people who were in the camps, how they suffered, how they lost everything and how they felt dishonored and shamed. Of course, their situation can’t be compared to the victims of Nazi concentration camps because there was no forced labor, nobody starved and certainly there was no intention of exterminating them. I had not intended to dedicate full chapters to the camps in my novel but the material was fascinating.

MB: Writers Colum McCann and Michael Ondaatje embrace the term “international mongrel” (the term is Ondaatje’s) to describe their global identities. Born in Peru, raised in Chile, you currently call San Francisco your home. Likewise, would you consider yourself an “international mongrel”? Was your own transnational identity essential in writing a novel that spans the Nazi occupation of Poland, the internment of Japanese Americans, a senior home that cares for retired hippies of San Francisco, and lifelong love affairs that transcend cultures, checkpoints, and borders?

IA: I am an eternal foreigner. I don’t quite belong anywhere. I was traveling in my childhood as the daughter of diplomats, I have been a political refugee and an immigrant. I have traveled extensively in my adult life, so it is easy for me to see the world and humanity as a whole. In all my books there is a strong sense of place and my stories often have an epic breadth.

MB: Your books have been translated into 35 languages. In what way has your relationship to the translation – and translators – of your works changed since The House of the Spirits was published? (For example, you called your relationship to Margaret Sayers Peden—who has translated the majority of your works into English and retired in 2010—a “psychic connection.”)

IA: I can only read the translation into English and I do so attentively. For other languages I have to trust blindly that the editors choose good translators, but I have been told that is not always the case.  Margaret Sayers Peden translated my books for more than 20 years and we worked closely. She would send me 20 or 30 pages, I would revise them line-by-line and we often discussed our doubts on the phone. She was particularly careful with irony and humor, which can easily be lost in translation. Since Margaret retired I have had other very good translators into English. I can’t complain. I feel that often they improve the books.

MB: Carmen Balcells, your literary agent, passed away last September. English-language readers are less familiar with her instrumental role in generating the Latin American literary boom (a term Balcells detested), which made Spanish-language authors—Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, yourself—household names. Besides her formidable contribution to modern intellectual history, what else can we take away from Balcells’ legacy?

IA: Carmen changed the draconian contracts that writers had to accept not so long ago. The publishers would get the rights forever and they could do whatever they pleased with the manuscript, including store it in a drawer and never publish it. Thanks to Carmen, Spanish-speaking writers acquired respect, many could live on their royalties and their work was translated and known worldwide. She created an extensive literary archive and an impressive collection of manuscripts, private papers and letters from writers, etc.  For half a century she was the godmother of the most important literary figures of Spain and Latin America.  

MB: You were granted American citizenship via a rather special ceremony – in the private chambers of a judge – in 1993. Is The Japanese Lover an example of what you have expressed, in past interviews, as your mission to “give back” to your adoptive country?

IA: Not really. I don’t try to deliver a message, teach, inform or “give back” in my books. I simply want to tell a story. My writing is totally separated from my activism and social service, which are channeled through my foundation.


M. René Bradshaw is Editor-at-large, U.K. at Asymptote. She was born in California and lives in London.

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