Last Sunday we had the pleasure of attending an interview with Chilean writer Isabel Allende. Allende, who was visiting The Netherlands for the first time in five years, came to promote her latest novel The Japanese Lover. As part of her promotional tour, she agreed to be interviewed by Dutch novelist Niña Weijers. Although she was well prepared, the young writer didn’t seem up to the task to interview an old warhorse like Allende.
Isabel Allende wrote her debut by accident in 1981. After hearing that her grandfather was dying, she decided to write him a letter to say her goodbyes. She never sent the letter, but instead turned it into the manuscript for The House of the Spirits, which hit the shelves in 1982. Since then she’s written over twenty books, publishing a new novel about every other year.
She writes to organize her feelings and to accept the stuff life throws at her. Allende gets inspired by her personal life and her loved ones and their story’s. The Japanese Lover for instance, came to life after one of Allende’s close friends told her an anecdote about her 80-year-old mother, who’s had the same Japanese gardener for decades. Allende immediately imagined a love story around this little anecdote and thus the story for The Japanese Lover was born.
She never intended to be a novelist, but wanted to be a journalist instead. Unfortunately – or fortunately for her fans – she turned out to be quite bad at journalistic writing. Her editor at the newspaper told her that her stories were not suitable for a newspaper. They were always a bit too dramatic and seemed to revolve mostly around Allende herself. He told her she would be better of as a novelist and turned out to be quite right about that.
This is just one of the many funny little anecdotes Allende kept dropping. She told us about always being ready to start a new book every January 8th, about being fired from her job as a translator because she always altered the stories to turn the – often weak minded – female characters into strong and independent ones, and about how everyone but her hates her crabby mother.
Allende spoke routinely, relaxed and with confidence. It’s clear she’s done this many times before. And although her stories seem very personal and sincere (she talked at length about her recent divorce, her need for sexual love, her feelings of homelessness and loneliness) I couldn’t avoid getting the impression that everything she shared was carefully directed. Weijers could barely get a word in edgewise and sometimes it felt more like a monologue than an interview. Nina tried her best, but might have been a little to inexperienced to deal with a strong personality like Allende’s. She seemed nervous and at one point even apologized when she felt she had offended Allende with a question. Having said that, the interview was definitely entertaining. Allende is a very charming and charismatic women and I would have loved to see a more seasoned interviewer pull her out of her comfort zone and get her to share something she didn’t plan to beforehand.
We left the event with a signed copy of one of her books, wanting more and ready to delve into her new book.
Special thanks to Border Kitchen for hosting the event and allowing us to report on it. Their next big guest will be with Salman Rushdie, which you don’t want to miss!
Written by Irene van der Linden