Inside a bestseller’s second memoir and why writing is major discipline
Books penned by Isabel Allende usually remain at the top of a “must read” list. Allende’s new English language release of “The Sum of Our Days,” will be no different. Published last year overseas, “Sum” is a sequel to Allende’s first memoir, “Paula,” a story told in a letter to her deceased adult daughter, Paula. This book picks up years after Paula has been gone, and is also told in a letter writing style to Allende’s child.
Here, Allende walks Paula (and us) through the joys and pitfalls of family life following Paula’s death. Things are tumultuous, funny, endearing, tragic and occasionally light-hearted. But Allende, who has long been a fixture on the international literary scene, is downright prolific. She’s become one of the greatest living Latin American female authors with a vast array of works in her repertoire: “The House of the Spirits,” which was made into a film; “Of Love and Shadows,” also adapted to the big screen; “The Infinite Plan”; “Zorro” and numerous others. GT recently caught up with the revered writer who lives in Marin County with her husband, Willie, and her family nearby, in clan-like tradition. She’ll be speaking at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 1 at the Capitola Book Café.
WHEN DID YOU START WORKING ON “THE SUM OF OUR DAYS” AND HOW DID YOU CHOOSE TO WRITE ABOUT THE SUBJECT MATTER?
ISABEL ALLENDE: I started the book on Jan. 8, 2006. (She starts writing a new book always on Jan. 8.) And the reason was that my agent told me it was time to write a sequel to my other memoir. So much has happened to my family in the meantime. In the beginning I was very reluctant. It’s hard to write about people around you. Everyone has an opinion.
YOUR MEMOIR READS LIKE A NOVEL …
I treat life like a novel. I think in terms of stories. People for me are in their stories and I watch them as their story develops and they go through life, and I see them as living stories.
WHAT DO YOU THINK PEOPLE MIGHT LEARN AND TAKE FROM THIS BOOK?
I have no idea. I have no plan to teach anybody anything, or prove anything. I just want to tell the story. It was published in Europe a year ago and we’ve gotten hundreds of letters already. Most of them are [expressing] feelings of nostalgia for family, for community, for relationships. People have very isolated lives in the big cities. They go to work, and all their relationships are transitory. I think human beings are meant to live together in a community and help each other. We (my family) live in a little tribe. Everybody has the key to everyone’s house. Everybody brings food and everybody pitches in—cleaning and cooking and eating.
IS IT TRUE THAT YOU WRITE MONDAYS THROUGH SATURDAYS, 9 A.M. TO 7 P.M.?
More than that. That’s my minimum. I’m slow. I don’t have an outline. When I start a book I have a vague idea of time and place. No characters and no story. I have no idea what I’m doing. It usually takes a year [to write a book]. This one took longer.
YOU’VE SAID BEFORE THAT STORIES CHOOSE YOU, INSTEAD OF YOU CHOOSING THEM. CAN YOU EXPLAIN HOW THIS APPLIES TO “THE SUM OF OUR DAYS”?
I think that in the back of my mind, I knew I’d write a second memoir. In the back of my mind I was accumulating the stories. The stories chose me. Right now I’m writing a novel about a time and place that has nothing in common with me. I have no idea why I’m writing this book. Maybe after the book is finished … I will understand my connection to the book. … When I start [writing] on Jan. 8 I try to write the first sentence from the womb, not the mind. That sets the tone. From then on it’s like going into a dark place with a candle and discovering little things here and there.
ARE YOU A DISCIPLINED WRITER?
Very disciplined. The hardest thing at my age is to sit down for all those hours. Every hour I go around the garden and jump around with the dog or have a cup of tea. I can work 10 hours or more. And if my husband doesn’t call me, I could be in there till midnight. When I finish, I take the research to bed.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU IN LIFE AND IN YOUR WRITING? In life, I’m inspired by strong people that do good. That always fascinates me. One strong, good person can make such a huge difference in the world. I have a foundation that I created with the income from “Paula” and other books, and the foundation’s mission is to empower women and children. For my books, I write about things I deeply know to be true. I’ve always been inspired by strong women, and life with all its passion with love and friendship, and betrayal and grief, loss, creativity and spirituality. All those elements are in my life, and what my life is about. I couldn’t write a good book about Wall Street. I don’t understand that world.
WHAT MAKES A SUCCESSFUL MEMOIR?
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Be careful of being boring. Why list your achievements? Who cares? It has to be self-deprecating. We think we’re important but we’re not. Nobody really cares. They care about the story. If you have a good story, tell it. If not. Shut up.
YOU LIVE IN MARIN COUNTY, WHAT’S LIFE LIKE THERE AND HOW DOES IT INFLUENCE YOUR WRITING?
It provides beauty and privacy. It’s far away from everything.
ANY THOUGHTS ON THE CURRENT PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES?
Well, I don’t hope we’ll have another Republican. Obama or Hillary—I will be delighted. I think they are both great people.Isabel Allende will be speaking about her new memoir, “The Sum of Our Days,” at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 1 at the Capitola Book Café, 41st Ave., Capitola. For more information, call 462-4415. Tickets for this event are $32 and include the cost of the book and admission for two people.