Open Book/Open Mind: Isabel Allende tells Montclair ‘anything can happen’
By GWEN OREL
Valentina Roever had to stand on tiptoe to talk into the microphone.
Her earnest attempt made the audience laugh.
Then, when they heard the 10-year-old’s quiet question, they sighed with surprise and approval.
“When you were holding the baby, how did you feel?” she asked Isabel Allende.
She waited for the microphone to be lowered before she spoke.
Allende, earlier, had told a story about stopping in India and meeting some women. One of the women pushed a bundle of rags to her to take: inside was a baby girl. Allende was confused by the gesture.
Her driver later told her, “It was a girl. Nobody wants a girl.”
To Roever, Allende said, “I didn’t know what was going on. Your heart opens up, like a flower. Communication with a baby is always from the heart.
“Later I felt the terrible sadness, because I couldn’t help that girl.”
To help other girls, and to honor her daughter Paula, who had recently died, she established the Isabel Allende Foundation (isablallende.org), dedicated to helping women and children worldwide.
Allende spoke with Montclair bestselling author Christina Baker Kline (“Orphan Train,” “A Piece of the World”) this past Wednesday at Buzz Aldrin Middle School, 173 Bellevue Ave., as part of the Open Book/Open Mind series sponsored by the Montclair Public Library and the Library Foundation.
The event was free with purchase of a book, but as of Wednesday afternoon, all copies of Allende’s new book “In the Midst of Winter” were sold out at Watchung Booksellers, who helped coordinate sales of the book.
Before the event began, the line to get in curved around the block.
Chilean-American Allende, who has won many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2014, is the author of 22 books. “The House of the Spirits” (1982), her first book, was made into a film in 1993, starring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep. Other bestsellers include “Eva Luna” (1987) and “Daughter of Fortune” (1999).
Allende fled Chile after a Military coup in 1973 toppled her cousin, Salvador Allende, who was president, and turned the country into a totalitarian regime for 17 years.
Montclair Public Library Director Peter Coyl told the expectant crowd that on the way to Montclair, Allende had just learned that “In the Midst of Winter” is number 10 on the New York Times Bestseller list, and pointed out that Kline was the inaugural author when Open Book/Open Mind debuted three years ago.
Nancy Northrup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, and a long-time friend of Allende’s, introduced the author and talked about how Allende had testified to repeal Chile’s oppressive abortion laws.
“This year Chile did revise the law,” said Northrup. Allende, she said, was “as magical as her writing.”
Allende’s writing is known for magical realism, a genre which incorporates magical events into an essentially realistic world view. (It’s not the same as fantasy, such as J.K. Rowling, and is often associated with Latin American writers, such as Magical realism is often associated with Latin American literature, Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez).
“In the Midst of Winter,” Allende’s 2017 novel, is not in the genre of magical realism, the author said.
Allende was self-deprecating and funny during her talk. When Kline marveled at the author’s grueling touring schedule, asking if she minded saying her age, Allende said she was proud of her age, which is 75.
Then Allende, casually glamorous in a red velvet jacket told the audience, “It takes a lot of money to look like this.”
She said she hates traveling but has learned to focus on the purpose, which is to be with the audience, and readers.
Kline asked about the book’s title, which is a quote from Camus: ““In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
“When I started, I was in an emotional winter,” Allende said, adding that she had been dealing with the death of an
agent, of friends, still mourning her daughter, and going through a divorce.
Last year’s blizzard was “for me an enchanted glue.” She had three characters, then a corpse in a car. “It was perfect, because it was frozen.” The corpse could be in the car for three days, then take another three to defrost, she said. Two of the characters, a professor and a lecturer, come up with crazy ideas to get rid of the body.
She contacted all of her friends to ask how they would do it. “Nobody did not answer,” said Allende with a laugh. “Everybody had some idea. I realized most people want to kill somebody, and they have planned it in their heads.”
An undocumented Guatamalan immigrant is an important character in the book. Allende said that when people see numbers about immigrants it doesn’t mean anything, but a a name perhaps could. “I didn’t have to make it up,” she said. “I had to cut back.”
'IT JUST HAPPENS'
Kline asked Allende about her process. Famously, Allende begins a new project on Jan. 8 every year. Allende said she doesn’t always know what the project will be: “It just happens, in a place, a time.” She had a brownstone, in Brooklyn. A blizzard. Three people. To write the book, she said, she shows up every day until something happens.
“The first few weeks are terrible. Then a character does something that surprises me. Then I know the story has begun.”
She also told the audience she never knows what she’s written until she reads reviews. “If you have the bad luck of falling into the hands of a professor, you will learn even more,” she said with a laugh, describing how theses have been written about how a dog in one of her books symbolizes Chile, when really it was just a dog she had at home. “But how can you tell a kid you’re wrong? ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s exactly like that.’”
“In the Midst of Winter” is the first book in which she worked with an editor, she said, beckoning for Johanna Castillo to stand up. Previously, she sent her books to an agent who would sell them and have them translated, and then it would be too late to make changes.
Allende writes in Spanish, though she is fluent in English: fiction, she said, comes more from the womb then the brain. “I cook, when I cook, in Spanish. And I make love, of course, in Spanish,” she said. She suggested to the audience that the book is better in English, although some of the humor may be lost.
She also spoke with Kline about creating characters. She favors characters without common sense, because nothing happens to people with common sense. That is why her stepfather, who is 101 — “he should be dead” — complains that he is not in her books. He has common sense.
She also cannot create father figures, because, she said, her own father abandoned her family, though she occasionally creates older male figures who are protectors.
Allende told Kline that she had no role models for female Latin American writers, but the boom of Latin American writers in the 1960s through the 1980s “showed the world who we were, and showed us who we were.”
She began writing “The House of the Spirits” as a letter for her grandfather. She realized he was going to die without reading it, and began telling the story of her family.
PERSONAL AND MACRO WORLD
Throughout the talk and during the question-and-answer period, Allende referred to her history in Chile, then in Venezuela as an exile, and then in America.
The "macro world," Allende told Kline, affects your fate.
A first book, she told one audience member, will almost always be good, because it contains everything of the writer in it.
Her late daughter Paula advised her, when she was going to teach a class in creative writing at Montclair State University, to tell students to “write a bad book.”
Allende has an unusual access to her own life story for memoirs because of the cache of letters between herself and her now-97-year-old mother. Every day, she told Kline, she writes to her mother, keeping a copy and her mother writes her back. At the end of the year she puts the letters in a box in a storage room.
“People say, ‘what do you write about? There’s always something to write about.’” It isn’t so much that this informs her novels, she said, as that it keeps track of her life.
“Paula” (1995) recalls Allende’s childhood in Santiago, and chronicles the death of her daughter Paula, who died at age 29 after several months in a coma following a medication error.”The Sum of Our Days” (2008) recounts Allende’s grief after Paula’s death, and draws on her correspondence with her mother.
Kline observed that political events affect her characters very deeply. Allende said, “I thought I had a life going a certain direction. Then we had the military coup in Chile, and I had to go in another direction, and start from scratch. I wrote in exile, thinking of the country that had been lost.”
Speaking about Trump and the state of America now, she said that she began writing “In the Midst of Winter” before Trump was elected.
“All these issues were already there. My job is to pick up on the issues. I don’t think Trump invented anything. He picked up the issues, gave them a megaphone.”
In Chile, she said, “We thought we had a stable democracy.” After the coup, which was helped by the CIA, there were concentration camps within 24 hours. People were assassinated. Thousands had to escape. It lasted 17 years, she said: “Torturers existed before. They never had a chance, but they existed.
“So believe anything can happen.”