When Isabel Allende learned her grandfather was dying on January 8, 1981, she began to pen a spiritual letter addressed to him, assuming he would not live to read it. Allende says she wrote the first words in a trance, “Barrabas came to us by sea,” not knowing what they meant. In political exile from her home country of Chile, she continued writing each night and, after a year, had 500 pages of what turned out to be one of the most astonishing novels of modern time. The House of the Spirits is an epic family saga that floats in ethereal spaces between fantasy and reality, love and hatred, passion and struggle. Widely acclaimed, Allende’s debut novel established her as a powerful storyteller with the ability to lead readers on an emotional journey spanning generations. Since then, Allende has taken readers along many passages, not the least of which is her own in memoirs that reveal her life as a woman, granddaughter, daughter, mother, and wife. Reading Allende feels deeply personal. Her most recent memoir, The Soul of a Woman, dishes on her love life in California and her lifetime as a feminist. Allende’s newest work of fiction, Violeta opens with a letter written in 2020 and then immediately jumps back into a time with haunting similarities, the first day of the 1918 influenza epidemic known as the Spanish Flu.
“Dear Camilo, My intention with these pages is to leave you a testimony of my life,” Violeta begins. “I imagine someday, when you are old and less busy, you might want to stop and remember me.”
With this opening, Allende lets readers know the book will dance across the recesses of memory and time like all of her work. Violetta, set for release on January 25, 2022, will also likely delve into some common themes.
“All fiction is ultimately autobiographical,” Allende writes. “I write about love and violence, about death and redemption, about strong women and absent fathers, about survival. Most of my characters are outsiders, people who are not sheltered by society, who are unconventional, irreverent, defiant.”
Allende, who writes in her native Spanish, stands as one of the most best-selling and beloved authors of all time. She was awarded the Chilean National Prize for Literature and the Library of Congress Creative Achievement Award for Fiction in 2010. In 2014, President Barack Obama presented Allende with the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Her novels and memoirs tell of families, magic, romance, oppression, violence, redemption,” Obama said upon presenting the award. “Exiled from Chile by a military junta, she made the U.S. her home. Today the foundation she created to honor her late daughter helps families worldwide.”
We recently caught up with the esteemed author to discuss her continued drive to write novels in and about challenging times.
Did you make any adjustments to your writing process for Violeta due to the pandemic?
Isabel Allende (IA): This terrible virus, which has caused havoc in so many lives and communities, has given me time, silence and solitude to write. I have not done book tours, traveling of any kind, speaking engagements, or social life. I have been in the perfect writing retreat. In the last year and a half I wrote The Soul of a Woman, Violeta, and I just finished another novel. It seems that the muse of inspiration is sheltering at home with me.
Correspondence is something that is clearly very important to you. Who are you writing letters to these days?
Unfortunately, since my mother died a couple of years ago, I don’t write letters anymore. I tried to keep writing to her but gave up after a couple of months. It seemed very contrived to write to the spirit world…
Spending more time close to home during the pandemic has caused many people to rediscover their local community. What spaces of refuge have you found in your community?
I love my neighborhood in Marin. We all know each other, it’s like living in a small village in another time. Now that most of us are vaccinated, we get together often. We have had some street parties with Mexican or Mediterranean food trucks, with all the kids and dogs running around. The pandemic brought us closer. Marin has wonderful trails for hiking, and Samuel P. Taylor park is the perfect place for picnics. Some restaurants now have sitting on the street, it feels like Paris.
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Ellen Holland is an Oakland, CA-based journalist and author. Her new book “Weed: A Connoisseur’s Guide to Cannabis” explores the tastes and aromas of the world’s most favored flower.