Friday, 24 October 2014 / TRUTH-OUT.ORG

Isabel Allende on "Maya's Notebook," Drug Addiction, 1973 Chilean Coup and Death of Poet Pablo Neruda

Wednesday, 01 May 2013 10:16 By Amy Goodman and Aaron Mate, Democracy Now! | Interview and Video

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The best-selling Chilean novelist Isabel Allende is out with a new book, "Maya’s Notebook: A Novel." It tells the story of a teenager named Maya Vidal and her struggles with drug addiction, grief and history. Although a work of fiction, the story is rooted in real-life tragedy. Three of Allende’s stepchildren have struggled with addiction: Two of them have died of drug-related causes, one in 1994 and the other just a month ago. In the novel, Maya also discovers the dark secrets of Chile’s past and learns what happened to her relatives after the military coup that ousted democratically elected President Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973. Isabel Allende joins us to discuss the novel, her personal connection to the U.S.-backed coup that toppled her cousin Salvador Allende, and the exhumation of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to determine whether he died from poison by agents of the coup regime.

TRANSCRIPT:

AARON MATÉ: The Chilean novelist Isabel Allende is out with a new book. It’s called Maya’s Notebook: A Novel. It tells the story of a teenager named Maya Vidal and her struggles with addiction, grief and history. Although a work of fiction, the story is rooted in real-life tragedy. Three of Allende’s stepchildren have struggled with addiction; two of them have died of drug-related causes. In the novel, Maya is raised by her grandparents in Berkeley, California. When her beloved grandfather Popo dies of cancer, Maya spirals downward, turning to drugs and alcohol to numb her pain. She soon finds herself in Las Vegas, where she sinks deeper into addiction and crime at the mercy of a drug dealer.

AMY GOODMAN: Maya ends up on the run, and that’s when her strong-willed grandmother decides to intervene. She sends Maya to the most remote place she can think of: the island of Chiloé off the coast of her native Chile. Here Maya begins to heal, disconnected from technology and immersed in a magical world of nature, myth and spirits. It’s in Chiloé that Maya discovers the dark secrets of Chile’s past and learns what happened to her relatives after the military coup that ousted democratically elected leader President Salvador Allende in 1973.

We’re joined now by the author of Maya’s Notebook, Isabel Allende, one of Latin America’s and the United States’ greatest novelists. She’s the author of 19 books, including The House of the Spirits, Paula, Daughter of Fortune. They’ve been translated into 35 languages, sold over 57 million copies around the world. Isabel Allende now lives in California. She was born, though, in Peru in 1942 and traveled the world as the daughter of a Chilean diplomat. Her father’s first cousin was Salvador Allende, Chile’s president from 1970 to '73, when Augusto Pinochet seized power in a CIA-backed military coup, September 11th, 1973. Isabel Allende fled from her native Chile to Venezuela. Well, we're now joined by Isabel Allende.

It’s great to have you back with us, Isabel.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Oh, thank you for having me, Amy. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, last night I watched you do a reading of your book, and you started by acknowledging your granddaughter in the audience—

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —and said that Maya’s Notebook might have been, well, sort of based a bit around her.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Around her and around the rest of the grandchildren. I wrote the book in 2010, and I was surrounded by teenagers—all my grandchildren and their friends. And the youngest one, Nicole, who’s a beautiful, charming, smart girl, had the boyfriend from hell, and she—and the brain of an eight-year-old. So she was doing all kinds of stupid stuff that would put her in great risk. The father, who is a computer freak, hacked everything and knew exactly where she was every minute of the day.

AMY GOODMAN: This is your son, Nicolás?

ISABEL ALLENDE: My son, Nicolás. And so, he saved her from a catastrophe, I’m sure. But in those years of fear for the children—

AMY GOODMAN: You said he hacked everything?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Everything—the computer, the phone, you name it. I mean, everybody was spying on her. That’s the truth. And that saved her, actually. Now she’s in NYU, she’s an athlete, she has a wonderful boyfriend, and everything is fine. But for three years, we suffered—not only with her, with all the children. And I was aware of all the dangers that kids are exposed today that I never confronted growing up or my children. And how do you protect them? How do you protect them from drugs, from crime, from violence, pornography, any pervert that can approach them in the Internet? How?

AMY GOODMAN: You also talked about your stepchildren.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how they relate to Maya’s Notebook and the story contained in this novel.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, unfortunately, I didn’t have to research the spiral into hell that Maya has in the book, because I married an American—he had three children. When I met the youngest, he was 10. The others were adults. And the three of them, addicted. Two of them have already died of drug-related causes. The youngest one, who was 35, died four weeks ago. So—

AMY GOODMAN: I am so sorry. What is his name?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Harley. Harley. And so, the family is grieving right now because we thought he was clean, that he was in recovery. And suddenly we got a phone call from the landlord. I don’t know how long he was dead before he was found. The dog was barking desperately, and the neighbors broke into the apartment and found them—found him dead.

AMY GOODMAN: Hadn’t you almost written about him in a previous book but pulled it?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, when I wrote The Sum of Our Days: A Memoir about my tribe, my family, I had, of course, Harley’s story, among other stories. And when I had the translation into English, I showed everybody the manuscript to ask permission if they could be in the book or not, and Harley didn’t want to be depicted as a drug addict because by then he was clean, he was in recovery. And I understood that, but I got furious anyhow. And I pulled out—I had to rewrite the book, take out 50 pages. Never throw away anything, Amy; everything is recyclable. But I threw it away. And so, when I wrote this book—

AMY GOODMAN: That is my philosophy—

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —to the chagrin of friends and family.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah. So, I did not have the 50 pages, but I remembered the highlights of the story, that I had lived, very close to Harley, and that I had seen and that he had told me. So there’s a couple of scenes in the book that are exactly what he told me what he lived.

AARON MATÉ: Well, there’s some scenes in the book where Maya is so desperate for alcohol that she drinks lotion, and then she’s also in a public bathroom dying.

ISABEL ALLENDE: That scene—

AARON MATÉ: Are these things that come from real life?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, yeah. And that scene in the bathroom was told to me by Harley. He was—he was almost overdosing in a public bathroom, dying in the filth of a public bathroom, and the door didn’t go quite down. I mean, it was one—those doors, you know, that leave a space on the floor. And he heard the voice of his sister, Jennifer, who had already died, saying, "Breathe, Harley, breathe." And he saw her shoes there under the door. And he started breathing. And, to me, that story, it hit me, because I am sure that he saw and heard his sister. It would have been his imagination or whatever, but he was saved by the memory of his sister. So I have exactly the same scene in this book when Maya is dying in a public bathroom and the spirit of her grandfather talks to her, or the memory of the grandfather, and says, "Breathe, Maya, breathe," and she sees his English shoes under the door.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Allende, tell us the story. Tell us the story of her grandfather, Popo, her grandmother. I want to know if you relate to her grandmother in any way, this story you have told.

ISABEL ALLENDE: The grandmother, Nini, is like me—short, mean. And she loves her, adores her granddaughter, and will give her life to save her. Popo, on the other hand, is a grandfather that you and I would like to have—big—he’s an African-American astronomer—elegant, big, smells of tobacco and cologne. He’s adorable, and loves her unconditionally. So when he dies, she’s 16, and her world collapses. And then she starts getting in trouble, because she’s so attached to him.

I grew up in the house of my grandfather, so I know the huge influence that grandparents can have on kids. And today, more and more grandparents are involved with kids, because the generation in between, the parents, are either unemployed or they have separated or they are doing drugs or whatever. So, more and more we see grand—especially among poor families—grandparents taking care of children, with no resources, no help from the government, no health insurance. I don’t know how they do it, because it’s pretty hard.

AARON MATÉ: Now, we’re used to seeing you write historical fiction, and also never before, I believe, writing in the voice of a character so young. So was it a challenge to get into the—

ISABEL ALLENDE: No challenge at all, because I was surrounded by teenagers. I just picked up the voice of the girls in the lot—not many of them, because there were mostly boys. But between Andrea and Nicole, my two granddaughters, I got the voice and the stuff that interested them at the time. Who were these young people that were changing so fast and were living in a world that I didn’t understand, and with a technology that connected them to the world, gave them all the information in the world? But they didn’t have the maturity to process that information, so of course they would get in trouble.

AARON MATÉ: Well, and so, these children are sort of fused into Maya, so tell us about Maya and her struggles and how she ends up in Las Vegas.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah. Well, Maya—Maya’s grandmother Nini is a Chilean immigrant in the United States who married an American, like I did. And her son, her only son, is a pilot. He falls in love with a Danish flight attendant. And they have this kid, Maya. The Danish lady leaves. The father is flying all the time. So the grandparents raise Maya. And Maya is—looks like her mother, very Scandinavian. That’s how I would like to look: long legs, very blonde. [coughs] Sorry, I have a horrible cold. And this girl is athletic, a good student. She’s charming. She’s very attached to her family—until this thing happens in her life when she feels that everybody has abandoned her. She has no parents to speak of. Her grandmother is in a depression, and the grandfather is dead. And that’s when she gets in trouble. But she’s smart, and she has the foundation that she has received as a child, and that supports her in the worst period of her life.

AMY GOODMAN: So her grandmother, after the crisis of Las Vegas, sends her to Chile to this tiny island.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about this island. And did you go there to do your research?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, yes. I wanted to contrast Las Vegas with a place that would be absolutely different. And I had been in Chiloé many times. I have friends who live there. Chiloé is an archipelago at the south of Chile with many islands, hundreds of islands, some of disconnected because they are so far away. Now, of course, everybody has a cellular phone, and if there is a signal, everybody has Internet, but not always. And the winters are very rough and very long. Summers are gorgeous. The landscape is incredible. But according to Darwin, it’s the worst weather in the world, so that in these long winters, people live indoors. They are fishermen, and they work the land—potatoes or whatever. And so, the family, the community, is very knit together, and in these long winter nights, people sit around a big iron stove. Every house has this large black iron stove that is all the time turned on with fire and a kettle, and there’s tea all day. And people sit around and tell stories. The mythology of the island is very particular. It’s a very magical place. It’s no paradise. There is incest, domestic violence, alcoholism, unemployment.

But for Maya, it’s a chance to be in silence, to be alone, to be bored. Why do we have to be entertained all the time? There’s no time for reflection. I see my kids: They’re all the time connected to some—some technology. And if—they can be in the middle of something really important, and they are texting. So their mind is never focused on one thing, and it’s never silent. So, there, because she’s persecuted by the FBI, the CIA, the Las Vegas police, the criminals, the drug dealers, she cannot be connected to the technology. And that helps her to start the notebook, telling what had happened the year before to her and telling what is happening in that moment in this village where she lives.

AMY GOODMAN: When we come back from our break, we’re also going to talk about her discovery of the past of Chile, a story she did not know. We’re speaking with the great Chilean author, Isabel Allende, one of Latin America’s, one of the United States’ most renowned novelists. Her latest book is out this week; it’s called Maya’s Notebook. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: "Gracias a la Vida," Violeta Parra, great Chilean singer. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté. And our guest is the great writer, Isabel Allende. She has written 19 books now, three of them children’s books. The House of the Spirits is perhaps her most well known. Her books have been translated into many languages. She has sold millions upon millions of books, her latest called Maya’s Notebook.

So, Isabel, it’s such an honor to again have you back here. And in this book, you take us on a journey, not only Maya’s journey from Las Vegas to Chiloé in the south of Chile, but through Chilean history, as well. Tell us what Maya discovers on the island.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, Maya’s host is an old man that receives her in the house where he lives in this island, that is a wooden house, like all the houses in Chiloé, without doors. And she doesn’t understand why this guy, who is a hermit and doesn’t like people, in general, would receive an American teenager, a conflicted American teenager. And so, she’s very curious about him and starts getting involved in trying to find out about his past. He has terrible nightmares, and he’s claustrophobic. And in the process of getting involved with the community and all that, she starts uncovering things that people don’t talk about: the past of Chile.

Chile was really divided by the military coup. The people who were victims of the repression and the people who supported the coup, nobody wants to talk about that, although it’s known. All the atrocities that were committed are well documented, and everybody knows them. But people—there are still people who justify them and say, "Well, it was that or communism." So she discovers—through investigating Manuel’s life, she discovers that he had been arrested, he had been tortured, and part of the torture is what has produced this trauma that he has now, that he cannot be in any enclosed space.

AARON MATÉ: And Maya meets with a priest, Father Lyon?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, Lyon.

AARON MATÉ: And what did that priest represent for you?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, that priest existed. During the military coup, all political parties were banned. All social organizations were forbidden. You couldn’t even gather more than six people in a place without a permit from the police. The only organization that remained was the Catholic Church. And the cardinal established an office inside the cathedral called La Vicaría de la Solidaridad. And in that place, they kept a record. The church kept a record of the people who had disappeared, people who had been arrested, the torturers, the—each one of the cases that they could document. The military didn’t dare touch them, because the Catholic Church in Chile is very powerful. Many people say that they could have done much more. Many priests were and nuns were imprisoned and tortured. Some of them were deported. Others were sent into remote places in the country where they would be disconnected from the action. And what—there’s a priest, very famous in Chile, who is now very old, who did a lot, and he was arrested many times. And he was a voice for the victims of repression.

AARON MATÉ: I want to turn to a passage from the book, if you don’t mind. I’m going to read a quote from your own book.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Of course.

AARON MATÉ: "Thirty-six years have gone by since the military coup, and for the last twenty this
country has had democratic governments, but there are still scars and, in some cases, open wounds. People don’t talk about the dictatorship much. Those who suffered it try to forget it, and for young people it’s ancient history." And, of course, this person talking is a young person.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, and it is ancient history. In Chile, many people objected that part of my book. "It had nothing to do with the story; why did you have to tackle that? I mean, who cares? That happened so long ago. Why can’t you forget?" Because I don’t think you should forget the story of your country. So, it’s very important. Why do we remember the Holocaust? Because for generations people have kept it alive. We should keep alive our history, too, so that we don’t go back and do again the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t we go back? There was another September 11th before September 11, 2001, and that was—

ISABEL ALLENDE: September 11th, 1973, which was also a Tuesday, amazingly. And that was the day of the military coup.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was the day that your father’s cousin, the president of Chile, Salvador Allende, died in the palace—

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —as the Pinochet forces rose to power. Where were you?

ISABEL ALLENDE: There, in Chile, Santiago. I saw the bombing of the palace from four blocks away. And I was the first one in my family to learn that he had died, because I had a TV program, and the producer of my program was married to a fireman. And the company that put down the fire in the palace was—he was in that company, so they took the body out. And she called me immediately and said, "I’m sure he’s dead. They retrieved the body from the palace." So I called the stepfather, who was ambassador to Argentina, to tell him. And in Argentina they already knew. All the information was censored in Chile, but the news were already abroad.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what did you do then?

ISABEL ALLENDE: You couldn’t do anything for 48 hours. You couldn’t get out of your house. So there was total curfew. He couldn’t even go to buy bread. The only exception was in an emergency—a birth or a hospital thing—and then you would have to call, and they would come and pick you up. And so, at the—the first 48 hours, I didn’t do anything. And then, when we got out, there was a state of stillness and terror, and nobody knew what was going on—rumors. And on TV, you could only see military marches, hymns, military music. The four generals would appear every hour to give a new decree and new orders, new lists of people that had to present themselves to the police, etc.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you continue your TV show?

ISABEL ALLENDE: No, I was fired from everywhere. So I couldn’t do my TV program. And I was working in a magazine; very soon I was fired, too. So it was—it was hard. But my husband, who was Christian Democrat, he continued working, and he was doing very well, because during the—immediately, the economy changed, and things started to become privatized, and it was a boom of the economy for capitalism, for the people who had some business, and he was working for a building company.

AARON MATÉ: But you fled Chile, eventually.

ISABEL ALLENDE: About a year, a year later.

AARON MATÉ: And you went to Venezuela?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Mm-hmm.

AARON MATÉ: And so what was it like there living as a political refugee?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Venezuela at the time was the second-richest country in the world, a democracy, open arms to receive all the immigrants that wanted to come. Everybody had work. It was a generous, green country where life was so different from Chile. I was coming from a very sober, terrified place where everything seemed small and dark. And you go to this place, that everything—the beach and the beautiful women, the most beautiful women in the world. They would win all the beauty contests. There was a sense of expansion, of easiness, of being light-hearted. I always—I would say tropical, because that was the feeling.

It was hard to be an immigrant, though, a political refugee. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any contacts. And at the beginning, I had just a tourist visa. It took some effort and some time to get the residence so that I could work legally. So I did all sorts of odd jobs to make a living. And my husband got a job in the middle of the jungle, so we didn’t see each other for months.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about the writing of House of the Spirits.

ISABEL ALLENDE: That was later. I got to Venezuela in 1975, and—yeah, the beginning of 1975. And I wrote the book in 1981, so it was many years later. I think I had all the stories inside me, and The House of the Spirits was like an attempt to keep my memories, to remember everything that I had lost—my family, my house, my country—the country I remembered, because the country was changing rapidly. And then, many years later, when I was allowed to go back, I couldn’t recognize it because everything had changed so much 17 years later.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you write the book, specifically?

ISABEL ALLENDE: In the kitchen of my apartment in Caracas. And I say in the kitchen because it was the only place where I could be alone. It was a small apartment. So, after dinner, when everybody went to watch TV, I would lock myself in the kitchen and write on the kitchen counter on a little typewriter.

AARON MATÉ: But, of course, it began with a letter to your grandfather.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, because in 1981 on January 8th, we got a phone call that my grandfather was dying. He was very old; he was almost a hundred years old. And I began a spiritual letter for my grandfather. I knew he was not going to read it, but in a way I wanted to tell him that I remembered everything he had ever told me. He was a great storyteller, and all the anecdotes of the family I got from him. I didn’t have to invent anything for that book: Everything was given. So I started telling the first story that he had ever told me, which was the story of my Aunt Rose, Rosa, who appears in the book with green hair. She was my grandfather’s first fiancée, who died poisoned in a mysterious way. We don’t know the circumstances. And all this was hush-hushed in the family. Many years later, my grandfather married the youngest daughter in the same family. And that’s how the book begins.

AARON MATÉ: So when did you realize that you were transitioning from a letter to a book that would go on to catapult you to worldwide fame?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, that, I could not—

AMY GOODMAN: You knew that you were going to be famous as you wrote on the kitchen table, didn’t you?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Of course not. Of course not. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no script. I had never read a review in my life. I didn’t know that there was a world of publishing out there, a business. I had no idea. And the role models were the Latin American writers of the Boom, who were all male, most of them with mustache, and a few foreign writers, most of them unmarried, that had committed suicide. So, who—I mean, those were the role models. I didn’t think that my book was ever going to see the light of day, but I needed to write it. So when I finished it, I gave it to my mother. And my mother said—she objected a few things, and then she said, "I think this is a novel. I’m not sure. But let’s try to publish it." And she sent it to several publishing houses. She did. Nobody read it.

And then one day an Argentinian writer, who is unfortunately deceased now, passed through Caracas, and he said, "You will never get published. You need an agent." And he gave me the name of an agent in Barcelona, Carmen Balcells. And she picked up the book. The book was published in Spanish in September of 1982. And in October, it was picked up by every other language in Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you think?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I didn’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you recognize that this was going somewhere?

ISABEL ALLENDE: When I got the first yellow envelope with checks. And that was far into the second book. But I didn’t quit my day job until the third book, because I had to support a family.

AARON MATÉ: So you were still working while you wrote this book and then also your second book, as well?

ISABEL ALLENDE: And the third.

AMY GOODMAN: But you mentioned you began this when you got word that your grandfather was dying, on January 8th, and that’s an important date in your writing history.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, because it was such a — The House of the Spirits was such a lucky book that I thought, just for Kabbalah, I’m going to start the second one on the same date. And then the third one. And then I don’t—now I don’t dare change it. But also, there’s discipline involved. I need to clear my schedule, my calendar, so that I can have a few months at the beginning of the year where I’m free to write. So January, it is a good time. It’s after the holidays. The kids are in school. It’s fine.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned, in House of the Spirits, one of the characters in it maybe being poisoned. But I wanted to go to something real, not that there isn’t something always real in what you write about, and that is Pablo Neruda. Pablo Neruda is the great Nobel laureate, the poet. Earlier this month, Neruda was exhumed after his former driver said he had been poisoned under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. He has been dead for nearly four decades. And I wanted to play a clip of the Chilean judge, Mario Carroza.

JUDGE MARIO CARROZA: [translated] Please be certain, we’ll carry out every investigation we need to in order to get to the bottom of this legally, in order to establish, based on the report handed in by the forensic team, in order to determine the cause of death of Mr. Neruda.

AMY GOODMAN: So they’re investigating the cause of his death. First of all, tell us about Pablo Neruda, and tell us about how he died. This was right after the coup.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, Neruda was—received the Nobel Prize in 1971. By 1973, he was very, very ill, but not dying. He had a cancer. And so, he moved to his house in Isla Negra, a beach house. And a month before the coup, I visited him in his house. And he was walking around, and we had lunch. He was doing fine. Then, the day of the coup, they raided his house, and they say that that really made him much, much sicker than he was. I mean, that was a horrible shock for him when he saw that all his friends were either arrested or in hiding. He was a communist. He had been almost a candidate to the presidency also, so he was a political man. And couple of days after the coup, they rushed him to Santiago in an ambulance to a private clinic, and he died 11 days after the coup. They say that he had—his condition had worsened because of the coup, and that was it.

There was a very small, almost intimate funeral, because nobody dared show up. I mean, all his friends were leftists; they were all in hiding. I went to the funeral, and I was standing right behind the Swedish ambassador, almost holding his jacket, because I knew that if all the soldiers that were aligned along the road were going to shoot, they were not going to shoot the ambassador. So there I was hiding under his coat, practically. And it was a very emotional moment, because people were silent, they were terrified. And then the procession was passing near a construction, and one of the workers in the construction shouted, "Pablo Neruda! Presente!" And then another one said, "Salvador Allende! Presente!" And the funeral became also Allende’s funeral, the homage that people could not pay to Salvador Allende.

AARON MATÉ: So how do you take that news now that, four decades later, his body is being exhumed?

ISABEL ALLENDE: It doesn’t surprise me at all. The former president of Chile, Frei, died in very mysterious circumstances. He was in the hospital being operated on, and he was telling his family, "Take me out of here. They’re killing me. They’re killing me." And he was poisoned. And now it has been proven that he was killed. And the dictatorship killed—placed bombs in Washington. They killed people in Washington, in Italy, in Argentina. My parents were living in Argentina. They were threatened. They had to escape from Argentina. So, my brother, who was in the Soviet Union, lost his passport, his nationality, everything. So the brutality extended its tentacles everywhere. And Pablo Neruda was a very important leftist figure, revered by everybody, as a poet and as a man.

AARON MATÉ: You met him when you were a journalist?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah.

AARON MATÉ: And I read somewhere that he gave you some career—some career advice.

ISABEL ALLENDE: No, no. I thought that he had invited me because he wanted to be interviewed by me. So I got there, and I thought, "Oh, my god, I’m the best journalist in this country, if Neruda wants me to interview him." So I brought a new tape recorder—the old tape recorders, you know, they were this big—and I drove to his house in winter. And then, after we had lunch, I said, "I’m ready for the interview, Don Pablo." And he said, "What interview?" I said, "Well, I came to interview you." But he said, "Oh, I would never be interviewed by you. You’re the worst journalist in this country. You are never objective. You make up stories. You lie all the time, and you put yourself in the middle of everything. Why don’t you switch to literature, where all these defects are virtues?" But that was in 1973, and I didn’t pay any attention to that advice until many years later.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Allende, when we said yesterday, put out on Facebook and tweeted, that you were going to be here in the studio, we were inundated with questions—

ISABEL ALLENDE: Oh.

AMY GOODMAN: —young and old, asking us to ask you. So, we have a few of them here. Paloma Barron Neuman submitted this question to you on Facebook. She wrote, quote, "How do you see the youth in Chile (and Latin America) today as a potential force for REAL change? How is it different from what you experienced as a young woman (and pro-democracy advocate) in the pre/post Allende Chile?"

ISABEL ALLENDE: When I was young, the young people were very involved. And during the time of Allende, previous and during the time, there was this rising of young people, of culture, with songs and graffiti and art, in all popular art. Then we had the silent years of the dictatorship, and then we had 20 years of the Concertación, a government—a coalition of parties from the center and the left. And the country was still very quiet, because people didn’t want to provoke the military in any way, and let democracy evolve, because it had been dead for so long.

Now we have a conservative government of Sebastián Piñera. And now the young people are protesting, because now they have something to bounce against. And so, the students are in the streets protesting for education, everybody is protesting for healthcare, because everything was privatized. We had the best education system in the continent. And that was privatized, and now only the rich have good education. So the kids are protesting. I see that they’re very involved, much more than in the United States, because I don’t see here kids protesting in the streets for anything. The movements that were in the Wall Street movement was the only thing that I have seen, and I think it made a huge impact, just that, made the impact in this country that we now see the abyss between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, well, who have less.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel, as we come to the end of the interview, we’re coming up on Mother’s Day. You are a mother. And your mother is also extremely important to you. Is she still your first editor of all your books?

ISABEL ALLENDE: My mother is 92. She’s lucid and healthy, and she paints and emails me every day. She uses all the technology. But she can’t edit my books anymore. She doesn’t even like them anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

ISABEL ALLENDE: She doesn’t like them. She wishes that I would write something that her prayer group would like. They’re all 90.

AMY GOODMAN: And you, yourself, are a mother. Your son Nicolás has his own children now. You lost your daughter Paula, and you wrote a book about losing Paula called Paula.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, you know, and that book—that book is the book that has most response from my readers. I get emails every day from someone in some language in some place who is either reading the book or read it years ago and now is experiencing some kind of loss, and they get in touch with me—not necessarily losing children, other kinds of losses. I was in Philadelphia, and this woman came and gave me a book that she had self-published. And she appears young and beautiful with twins, two twin girls. They both died four months apart of cystic fibrosis when they were adults. The loss of that woman, the sadness is unbearable. And that happens all the time. Yesterday, in Barnes & Noble also, a man came crying. He had lost his son. So there is always someone.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you say to people? How you—

ISABEL ALLENDE: I say that we learn to live with the sadness like a great, lovely companion, because it’s a soft sadness that softens the heart and makes you open to everything. And what I always say is, nothing worse will happen to you, so now you can be fearless. You can take all the risks in the world, because there will be no other pain that will be greater than what you have already survived.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you working on now?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I finished a thriller that is called Ripper, like Jack the Ripper, and it’s going to be published in January in several languages, also in English. And I’m working on a love story.

AMY GOODMAN: You often said that your books will change when your mother no longer reads them.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, well, because then I can have really sexual scenes.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it there. Isabel Allende, thanks so much.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Thank you, Amy. Thank you.

AARON MATÉ: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: I look forward to reading your future books—

ISABEL ALLENDE: Thanks.

AMY GOODMAN: —and encourage everyone to read this one. It’s called Maya’s Notebook. Isabel Allende is one of the world’s most renowned novelists. Her latest book is Maya’s Notebook.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to Colorado. A young woman, a pregnant mother of four, is going to prison for about 10 months because, well, she’s a soldier. She went to Iraq, opposed killing, refused to go back, and now she goes to prison. She was sentenced yesterday. Stay with us.

This work by Truthout is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

Amy Goodman and Aaron Mate

Amy Goodman is the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on over 1,100 public television and radio stations worldwide. Time Magazine named Democracy Now! its “Pick of the Podcasts,” along with NBC’s Meet the Press.

Aaron Mate comes to Democracy Now! after a two-year stint as an independent journalist and as a researcher for the author and journalist Naomi Klein. Through his work as a journalist and activist, he has had the opportunity to visit the Occupied Territories, Haiti, and South Africa. His writings have appeared in publications including the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and the Guardian of London. Aaron received his B.A. in Communication Studies from Concordia University in Montreal. He is a regular contributor to the Montreal/San Francisco-based magazine Warrior.


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Isabel Allende on "Maya's Notebook," Drug Addiction, 1973 Chilean Coup and Death of Poet Pablo Neruda

Wednesday, 01 May 2013 10:16 By Amy Goodman and Aaron Mate, Democracy Now! | Interview and Video

Media

The best-selling Chilean novelist Isabel Allende is out with a new book, "Maya’s Notebook: A Novel." It tells the story of a teenager named Maya Vidal and her struggles with drug addiction, grief and history. Although a work of fiction, the story is rooted in real-life tragedy. Three of Allende’s stepchildren have struggled with addiction: Two of them have died of drug-related causes, one in 1994 and the other just a month ago. In the novel, Maya also discovers the dark secrets of Chile’s past and learns what happened to her relatives after the military coup that ousted democratically elected President Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973. Isabel Allende joins us to discuss the novel, her personal connection to the U.S.-backed coup that toppled her cousin Salvador Allende, and the exhumation of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to determine whether he died from poison by agents of the coup regime.

TRANSCRIPT:

AARON MATÉ: The Chilean novelist Isabel Allende is out with a new book. It’s called Maya’s Notebook: A Novel. It tells the story of a teenager named Maya Vidal and her struggles with addiction, grief and history. Although a work of fiction, the story is rooted in real-life tragedy. Three of Allende’s stepchildren have struggled with addiction; two of them have died of drug-related causes. In the novel, Maya is raised by her grandparents in Berkeley, California. When her beloved grandfather Popo dies of cancer, Maya spirals downward, turning to drugs and alcohol to numb her pain. She soon finds herself in Las Vegas, where she sinks deeper into addiction and crime at the mercy of a drug dealer.

AMY GOODMAN: Maya ends up on the run, and that’s when her strong-willed grandmother decides to intervene. She sends Maya to the most remote place she can think of: the island of Chiloé off the coast of her native Chile. Here Maya begins to heal, disconnected from technology and immersed in a magical world of nature, myth and spirits. It’s in Chiloé that Maya discovers the dark secrets of Chile’s past and learns what happened to her relatives after the military coup that ousted democratically elected leader President Salvador Allende in 1973.

We’re joined now by the author of Maya’s Notebook, Isabel Allende, one of Latin America’s and the United States’ greatest novelists. She’s the author of 19 books, including The House of the Spirits, Paula, Daughter of Fortune. They’ve been translated into 35 languages, sold over 57 million copies around the world. Isabel Allende now lives in California. She was born, though, in Peru in 1942 and traveled the world as the daughter of a Chilean diplomat. Her father’s first cousin was Salvador Allende, Chile’s president from 1970 to '73, when Augusto Pinochet seized power in a CIA-backed military coup, September 11th, 1973. Isabel Allende fled from her native Chile to Venezuela. Well, we're now joined by Isabel Allende.

It’s great to have you back with us, Isabel.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Oh, thank you for having me, Amy. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, last night I watched you do a reading of your book, and you started by acknowledging your granddaughter in the audience—

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —and said that Maya’s Notebook might have been, well, sort of based a bit around her.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Around her and around the rest of the grandchildren. I wrote the book in 2010, and I was surrounded by teenagers—all my grandchildren and their friends. And the youngest one, Nicole, who’s a beautiful, charming, smart girl, had the boyfriend from hell, and she—and the brain of an eight-year-old. So she was doing all kinds of stupid stuff that would put her in great risk. The father, who is a computer freak, hacked everything and knew exactly where she was every minute of the day.

AMY GOODMAN: This is your son, Nicolás?

ISABEL ALLENDE: My son, Nicolás. And so, he saved her from a catastrophe, I’m sure. But in those years of fear for the children—

AMY GOODMAN: You said he hacked everything?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Everything—the computer, the phone, you name it. I mean, everybody was spying on her. That’s the truth. And that saved her, actually. Now she’s in NYU, she’s an athlete, she has a wonderful boyfriend, and everything is fine. But for three years, we suffered—not only with her, with all the children. And I was aware of all the dangers that kids are exposed today that I never confronted growing up or my children. And how do you protect them? How do you protect them from drugs, from crime, from violence, pornography, any pervert that can approach them in the Internet? How?

AMY GOODMAN: You also talked about your stepchildren.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how they relate to Maya’s Notebook and the story contained in this novel.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, unfortunately, I didn’t have to research the spiral into hell that Maya has in the book, because I married an American—he had three children. When I met the youngest, he was 10. The others were adults. And the three of them, addicted. Two of them have already died of drug-related causes. The youngest one, who was 35, died four weeks ago. So—

AMY GOODMAN: I am so sorry. What is his name?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Harley. Harley. And so, the family is grieving right now because we thought he was clean, that he was in recovery. And suddenly we got a phone call from the landlord. I don’t know how long he was dead before he was found. The dog was barking desperately, and the neighbors broke into the apartment and found them—found him dead.

AMY GOODMAN: Hadn’t you almost written about him in a previous book but pulled it?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, when I wrote The Sum of Our Days: A Memoir about my tribe, my family, I had, of course, Harley’s story, among other stories. And when I had the translation into English, I showed everybody the manuscript to ask permission if they could be in the book or not, and Harley didn’t want to be depicted as a drug addict because by then he was clean, he was in recovery. And I understood that, but I got furious anyhow. And I pulled out—I had to rewrite the book, take out 50 pages. Never throw away anything, Amy; everything is recyclable. But I threw it away. And so, when I wrote this book—

AMY GOODMAN: That is my philosophy—

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —to the chagrin of friends and family.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah. So, I did not have the 50 pages, but I remembered the highlights of the story, that I had lived, very close to Harley, and that I had seen and that he had told me. So there’s a couple of scenes in the book that are exactly what he told me what he lived.

AARON MATÉ: Well, there’s some scenes in the book where Maya is so desperate for alcohol that she drinks lotion, and then she’s also in a public bathroom dying.

ISABEL ALLENDE: That scene—

AARON MATÉ: Are these things that come from real life?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, yeah. And that scene in the bathroom was told to me by Harley. He was—he was almost overdosing in a public bathroom, dying in the filth of a public bathroom, and the door didn’t go quite down. I mean, it was one—those doors, you know, that leave a space on the floor. And he heard the voice of his sister, Jennifer, who had already died, saying, "Breathe, Harley, breathe." And he saw her shoes there under the door. And he started breathing. And, to me, that story, it hit me, because I am sure that he saw and heard his sister. It would have been his imagination or whatever, but he was saved by the memory of his sister. So I have exactly the same scene in this book when Maya is dying in a public bathroom and the spirit of her grandfather talks to her, or the memory of the grandfather, and says, "Breathe, Maya, breathe," and she sees his English shoes under the door.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Allende, tell us the story. Tell us the story of her grandfather, Popo, her grandmother. I want to know if you relate to her grandmother in any way, this story you have told.

ISABEL ALLENDE: The grandmother, Nini, is like me—short, mean. And she loves her, adores her granddaughter, and will give her life to save her. Popo, on the other hand, is a grandfather that you and I would like to have—big—he’s an African-American astronomer—elegant, big, smells of tobacco and cologne. He’s adorable, and loves her unconditionally. So when he dies, she’s 16, and her world collapses. And then she starts getting in trouble, because she’s so attached to him.

I grew up in the house of my grandfather, so I know the huge influence that grandparents can have on kids. And today, more and more grandparents are involved with kids, because the generation in between, the parents, are either unemployed or they have separated or they are doing drugs or whatever. So, more and more we see grand—especially among poor families—grandparents taking care of children, with no resources, no help from the government, no health insurance. I don’t know how they do it, because it’s pretty hard.

AARON MATÉ: Now, we’re used to seeing you write historical fiction, and also never before, I believe, writing in the voice of a character so young. So was it a challenge to get into the—

ISABEL ALLENDE: No challenge at all, because I was surrounded by teenagers. I just picked up the voice of the girls in the lot—not many of them, because there were mostly boys. But between Andrea and Nicole, my two granddaughters, I got the voice and the stuff that interested them at the time. Who were these young people that were changing so fast and were living in a world that I didn’t understand, and with a technology that connected them to the world, gave them all the information in the world? But they didn’t have the maturity to process that information, so of course they would get in trouble.

AARON MATÉ: Well, and so, these children are sort of fused into Maya, so tell us about Maya and her struggles and how she ends up in Las Vegas.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah. Well, Maya—Maya’s grandmother Nini is a Chilean immigrant in the United States who married an American, like I did. And her son, her only son, is a pilot. He falls in love with a Danish flight attendant. And they have this kid, Maya. The Danish lady leaves. The father is flying all the time. So the grandparents raise Maya. And Maya is—looks like her mother, very Scandinavian. That’s how I would like to look: long legs, very blonde. [coughs] Sorry, I have a horrible cold. And this girl is athletic, a good student. She’s charming. She’s very attached to her family—until this thing happens in her life when she feels that everybody has abandoned her. She has no parents to speak of. Her grandmother is in a depression, and the grandfather is dead. And that’s when she gets in trouble. But she’s smart, and she has the foundation that she has received as a child, and that supports her in the worst period of her life.

AMY GOODMAN: So her grandmother, after the crisis of Las Vegas, sends her to Chile to this tiny island.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about this island. And did you go there to do your research?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, yes. I wanted to contrast Las Vegas with a place that would be absolutely different. And I had been in Chiloé many times. I have friends who live there. Chiloé is an archipelago at the south of Chile with many islands, hundreds of islands, some of disconnected because they are so far away. Now, of course, everybody has a cellular phone, and if there is a signal, everybody has Internet, but not always. And the winters are very rough and very long. Summers are gorgeous. The landscape is incredible. But according to Darwin, it’s the worst weather in the world, so that in these long winters, people live indoors. They are fishermen, and they work the land—potatoes or whatever. And so, the family, the community, is very knit together, and in these long winter nights, people sit around a big iron stove. Every house has this large black iron stove that is all the time turned on with fire and a kettle, and there’s tea all day. And people sit around and tell stories. The mythology of the island is very particular. It’s a very magical place. It’s no paradise. There is incest, domestic violence, alcoholism, unemployment.

But for Maya, it’s a chance to be in silence, to be alone, to be bored. Why do we have to be entertained all the time? There’s no time for reflection. I see my kids: They’re all the time connected to some—some technology. And if—they can be in the middle of something really important, and they are texting. So their mind is never focused on one thing, and it’s never silent. So, there, because she’s persecuted by the FBI, the CIA, the Las Vegas police, the criminals, the drug dealers, she cannot be connected to the technology. And that helps her to start the notebook, telling what had happened the year before to her and telling what is happening in that moment in this village where she lives.

AMY GOODMAN: When we come back from our break, we’re also going to talk about her discovery of the past of Chile, a story she did not know. We’re speaking with the great Chilean author, Isabel Allende, one of Latin America’s, one of the United States’ most renowned novelists. Her latest book is out this week; it’s called Maya’s Notebook. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: "Gracias a la Vida," Violeta Parra, great Chilean singer. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté. And our guest is the great writer, Isabel Allende. She has written 19 books now, three of them children’s books. The House of the Spirits is perhaps her most well known. Her books have been translated into many languages. She has sold millions upon millions of books, her latest called Maya’s Notebook.

So, Isabel, it’s such an honor to again have you back here. And in this book, you take us on a journey, not only Maya’s journey from Las Vegas to Chiloé in the south of Chile, but through Chilean history, as well. Tell us what Maya discovers on the island.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, Maya’s host is an old man that receives her in the house where he lives in this island, that is a wooden house, like all the houses in Chiloé, without doors. And she doesn’t understand why this guy, who is a hermit and doesn’t like people, in general, would receive an American teenager, a conflicted American teenager. And so, she’s very curious about him and starts getting involved in trying to find out about his past. He has terrible nightmares, and he’s claustrophobic. And in the process of getting involved with the community and all that, she starts uncovering things that people don’t talk about: the past of Chile.

Chile was really divided by the military coup. The people who were victims of the repression and the people who supported the coup, nobody wants to talk about that, although it’s known. All the atrocities that were committed are well documented, and everybody knows them. But people—there are still people who justify them and say, "Well, it was that or communism." So she discovers—through investigating Manuel’s life, she discovers that he had been arrested, he had been tortured, and part of the torture is what has produced this trauma that he has now, that he cannot be in any enclosed space.

AARON MATÉ: And Maya meets with a priest, Father Lyon?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, Lyon.

AARON MATÉ: And what did that priest represent for you?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, that priest existed. During the military coup, all political parties were banned. All social organizations were forbidden. You couldn’t even gather more than six people in a place without a permit from the police. The only organization that remained was the Catholic Church. And the cardinal established an office inside the cathedral called La Vicaría de la Solidaridad. And in that place, they kept a record. The church kept a record of the people who had disappeared, people who had been arrested, the torturers, the—each one of the cases that they could document. The military didn’t dare touch them, because the Catholic Church in Chile is very powerful. Many people say that they could have done much more. Many priests were and nuns were imprisoned and tortured. Some of them were deported. Others were sent into remote places in the country where they would be disconnected from the action. And what—there’s a priest, very famous in Chile, who is now very old, who did a lot, and he was arrested many times. And he was a voice for the victims of repression.

AARON MATÉ: I want to turn to a passage from the book, if you don’t mind. I’m going to read a quote from your own book.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Of course.

AARON MATÉ: "Thirty-six years have gone by since the military coup, and for the last twenty this
country has had democratic governments, but there are still scars and, in some cases, open wounds. People don’t talk about the dictatorship much. Those who suffered it try to forget it, and for young people it’s ancient history." And, of course, this person talking is a young person.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, and it is ancient history. In Chile, many people objected that part of my book. "It had nothing to do with the story; why did you have to tackle that? I mean, who cares? That happened so long ago. Why can’t you forget?" Because I don’t think you should forget the story of your country. So, it’s very important. Why do we remember the Holocaust? Because for generations people have kept it alive. We should keep alive our history, too, so that we don’t go back and do again the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t we go back? There was another September 11th before September 11, 2001, and that was—

ISABEL ALLENDE: September 11th, 1973, which was also a Tuesday, amazingly. And that was the day of the military coup.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was the day that your father’s cousin, the president of Chile, Salvador Allende, died in the palace—

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —as the Pinochet forces rose to power. Where were you?

ISABEL ALLENDE: There, in Chile, Santiago. I saw the bombing of the palace from four blocks away. And I was the first one in my family to learn that he had died, because I had a TV program, and the producer of my program was married to a fireman. And the company that put down the fire in the palace was—he was in that company, so they took the body out. And she called me immediately and said, "I’m sure he’s dead. They retrieved the body from the palace." So I called the stepfather, who was ambassador to Argentina, to tell him. And in Argentina they already knew. All the information was censored in Chile, but the news were already abroad.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what did you do then?

ISABEL ALLENDE: You couldn’t do anything for 48 hours. You couldn’t get out of your house. So there was total curfew. He couldn’t even go to buy bread. The only exception was in an emergency—a birth or a hospital thing—and then you would have to call, and they would come and pick you up. And so, at the—the first 48 hours, I didn’t do anything. And then, when we got out, there was a state of stillness and terror, and nobody knew what was going on—rumors. And on TV, you could only see military marches, hymns, military music. The four generals would appear every hour to give a new decree and new orders, new lists of people that had to present themselves to the police, etc.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you continue your TV show?

ISABEL ALLENDE: No, I was fired from everywhere. So I couldn’t do my TV program. And I was working in a magazine; very soon I was fired, too. So it was—it was hard. But my husband, who was Christian Democrat, he continued working, and he was doing very well, because during the—immediately, the economy changed, and things started to become privatized, and it was a boom of the economy for capitalism, for the people who had some business, and he was working for a building company.

AARON MATÉ: But you fled Chile, eventually.

ISABEL ALLENDE: About a year, a year later.

AARON MATÉ: And you went to Venezuela?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Mm-hmm.

AARON MATÉ: And so what was it like there living as a political refugee?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Venezuela at the time was the second-richest country in the world, a democracy, open arms to receive all the immigrants that wanted to come. Everybody had work. It was a generous, green country where life was so different from Chile. I was coming from a very sober, terrified place where everything seemed small and dark. And you go to this place, that everything—the beach and the beautiful women, the most beautiful women in the world. They would win all the beauty contests. There was a sense of expansion, of easiness, of being light-hearted. I always—I would say tropical, because that was the feeling.

It was hard to be an immigrant, though, a political refugee. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any contacts. And at the beginning, I had just a tourist visa. It took some effort and some time to get the residence so that I could work legally. So I did all sorts of odd jobs to make a living. And my husband got a job in the middle of the jungle, so we didn’t see each other for months.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about the writing of House of the Spirits.

ISABEL ALLENDE: That was later. I got to Venezuela in 1975, and—yeah, the beginning of 1975. And I wrote the book in 1981, so it was many years later. I think I had all the stories inside me, and The House of the Spirits was like an attempt to keep my memories, to remember everything that I had lost—my family, my house, my country—the country I remembered, because the country was changing rapidly. And then, many years later, when I was allowed to go back, I couldn’t recognize it because everything had changed so much 17 years later.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you write the book, specifically?

ISABEL ALLENDE: In the kitchen of my apartment in Caracas. And I say in the kitchen because it was the only place where I could be alone. It was a small apartment. So, after dinner, when everybody went to watch TV, I would lock myself in the kitchen and write on the kitchen counter on a little typewriter.

AARON MATÉ: But, of course, it began with a letter to your grandfather.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, because in 1981 on January 8th, we got a phone call that my grandfather was dying. He was very old; he was almost a hundred years old. And I began a spiritual letter for my grandfather. I knew he was not going to read it, but in a way I wanted to tell him that I remembered everything he had ever told me. He was a great storyteller, and all the anecdotes of the family I got from him. I didn’t have to invent anything for that book: Everything was given. So I started telling the first story that he had ever told me, which was the story of my Aunt Rose, Rosa, who appears in the book with green hair. She was my grandfather’s first fiancée, who died poisoned in a mysterious way. We don’t know the circumstances. And all this was hush-hushed in the family. Many years later, my grandfather married the youngest daughter in the same family. And that’s how the book begins.

AARON MATÉ: So when did you realize that you were transitioning from a letter to a book that would go on to catapult you to worldwide fame?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, that, I could not—

AMY GOODMAN: You knew that you were going to be famous as you wrote on the kitchen table, didn’t you?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Of course not. Of course not. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no script. I had never read a review in my life. I didn’t know that there was a world of publishing out there, a business. I had no idea. And the role models were the Latin American writers of the Boom, who were all male, most of them with mustache, and a few foreign writers, most of them unmarried, that had committed suicide. So, who—I mean, those were the role models. I didn’t think that my book was ever going to see the light of day, but I needed to write it. So when I finished it, I gave it to my mother. And my mother said—she objected a few things, and then she said, "I think this is a novel. I’m not sure. But let’s try to publish it." And she sent it to several publishing houses. She did. Nobody read it.

And then one day an Argentinian writer, who is unfortunately deceased now, passed through Caracas, and he said, "You will never get published. You need an agent." And he gave me the name of an agent in Barcelona, Carmen Balcells. And she picked up the book. The book was published in Spanish in September of 1982. And in October, it was picked up by every other language in Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you think?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I didn’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you recognize that this was going somewhere?

ISABEL ALLENDE: When I got the first yellow envelope with checks. And that was far into the second book. But I didn’t quit my day job until the third book, because I had to support a family.

AARON MATÉ: So you were still working while you wrote this book and then also your second book, as well?

ISABEL ALLENDE: And the third.

AMY GOODMAN: But you mentioned you began this when you got word that your grandfather was dying, on January 8th, and that’s an important date in your writing history.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, because it was such a — The House of the Spirits was such a lucky book that I thought, just for Kabbalah, I’m going to start the second one on the same date. And then the third one. And then I don’t—now I don’t dare change it. But also, there’s discipline involved. I need to clear my schedule, my calendar, so that I can have a few months at the beginning of the year where I’m free to write. So January, it is a good time. It’s after the holidays. The kids are in school. It’s fine.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned, in House of the Spirits, one of the characters in it maybe being poisoned. But I wanted to go to something real, not that there isn’t something always real in what you write about, and that is Pablo Neruda. Pablo Neruda is the great Nobel laureate, the poet. Earlier this month, Neruda was exhumed after his former driver said he had been poisoned under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. He has been dead for nearly four decades. And I wanted to play a clip of the Chilean judge, Mario Carroza.

JUDGE MARIO CARROZA: [translated] Please be certain, we’ll carry out every investigation we need to in order to get to the bottom of this legally, in order to establish, based on the report handed in by the forensic team, in order to determine the cause of death of Mr. Neruda.

AMY GOODMAN: So they’re investigating the cause of his death. First of all, tell us about Pablo Neruda, and tell us about how he died. This was right after the coup.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, Neruda was—received the Nobel Prize in 1971. By 1973, he was very, very ill, but not dying. He had a cancer. And so, he moved to his house in Isla Negra, a beach house. And a month before the coup, I visited him in his house. And he was walking around, and we had lunch. He was doing fine. Then, the day of the coup, they raided his house, and they say that that really made him much, much sicker than he was. I mean, that was a horrible shock for him when he saw that all his friends were either arrested or in hiding. He was a communist. He had been almost a candidate to the presidency also, so he was a political man. And couple of days after the coup, they rushed him to Santiago in an ambulance to a private clinic, and he died 11 days after the coup. They say that he had—his condition had worsened because of the coup, and that was it.

There was a very small, almost intimate funeral, because nobody dared show up. I mean, all his friends were leftists; they were all in hiding. I went to the funeral, and I was standing right behind the Swedish ambassador, almost holding his jacket, because I knew that if all the soldiers that were aligned along the road were going to shoot, they were not going to shoot the ambassador. So there I was hiding under his coat, practically. And it was a very emotional moment, because people were silent, they were terrified. And then the procession was passing near a construction, and one of the workers in the construction shouted, "Pablo Neruda! Presente!" And then another one said, "Salvador Allende! Presente!" And the funeral became also Allende’s funeral, the homage that people could not pay to Salvador Allende.

AARON MATÉ: So how do you take that news now that, four decades later, his body is being exhumed?

ISABEL ALLENDE: It doesn’t surprise me at all. The former president of Chile, Frei, died in very mysterious circumstances. He was in the hospital being operated on, and he was telling his family, "Take me out of here. They’re killing me. They’re killing me." And he was poisoned. And now it has been proven that he was killed. And the dictatorship killed—placed bombs in Washington. They killed people in Washington, in Italy, in Argentina. My parents were living in Argentina. They were threatened. They had to escape from Argentina. So, my brother, who was in the Soviet Union, lost his passport, his nationality, everything. So the brutality extended its tentacles everywhere. And Pablo Neruda was a very important leftist figure, revered by everybody, as a poet and as a man.

AARON MATÉ: You met him when you were a journalist?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah.

AARON MATÉ: And I read somewhere that he gave you some career—some career advice.

ISABEL ALLENDE: No, no. I thought that he had invited me because he wanted to be interviewed by me. So I got there, and I thought, "Oh, my god, I’m the best journalist in this country, if Neruda wants me to interview him." So I brought a new tape recorder—the old tape recorders, you know, they were this big—and I drove to his house in winter. And then, after we had lunch, I said, "I’m ready for the interview, Don Pablo." And he said, "What interview?" I said, "Well, I came to interview you." But he said, "Oh, I would never be interviewed by you. You’re the worst journalist in this country. You are never objective. You make up stories. You lie all the time, and you put yourself in the middle of everything. Why don’t you switch to literature, where all these defects are virtues?" But that was in 1973, and I didn’t pay any attention to that advice until many years later.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Allende, when we said yesterday, put out on Facebook and tweeted, that you were going to be here in the studio, we were inundated with questions—

ISABEL ALLENDE: Oh.

AMY GOODMAN: —young and old, asking us to ask you. So, we have a few of them here. Paloma Barron Neuman submitted this question to you on Facebook. She wrote, quote, "How do you see the youth in Chile (and Latin America) today as a potential force for REAL change? How is it different from what you experienced as a young woman (and pro-democracy advocate) in the pre/post Allende Chile?"

ISABEL ALLENDE: When I was young, the young people were very involved. And during the time of Allende, previous and during the time, there was this rising of young people, of culture, with songs and graffiti and art, in all popular art. Then we had the silent years of the dictatorship, and then we had 20 years of the Concertación, a government—a coalition of parties from the center and the left. And the country was still very quiet, because people didn’t want to provoke the military in any way, and let democracy evolve, because it had been dead for so long.

Now we have a conservative government of Sebastián Piñera. And now the young people are protesting, because now they have something to bounce against. And so, the students are in the streets protesting for education, everybody is protesting for healthcare, because everything was privatized. We had the best education system in the continent. And that was privatized, and now only the rich have good education. So the kids are protesting. I see that they’re very involved, much more than in the United States, because I don’t see here kids protesting in the streets for anything. The movements that were in the Wall Street movement was the only thing that I have seen, and I think it made a huge impact, just that, made the impact in this country that we now see the abyss between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, well, who have less.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel, as we come to the end of the interview, we’re coming up on Mother’s Day. You are a mother. And your mother is also extremely important to you. Is she still your first editor of all your books?

ISABEL ALLENDE: My mother is 92. She’s lucid and healthy, and she paints and emails me every day. She uses all the technology. But she can’t edit my books anymore. She doesn’t even like them anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

ISABEL ALLENDE: She doesn’t like them. She wishes that I would write something that her prayer group would like. They’re all 90.

AMY GOODMAN: And you, yourself, are a mother. Your son Nicolás has his own children now. You lost your daughter Paula, and you wrote a book about losing Paula called Paula.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, you know, and that book—that book is the book that has most response from my readers. I get emails every day from someone in some language in some place who is either reading the book or read it years ago and now is experiencing some kind of loss, and they get in touch with me—not necessarily losing children, other kinds of losses. I was in Philadelphia, and this woman came and gave me a book that she had self-published. And she appears young and beautiful with twins, two twin girls. They both died four months apart of cystic fibrosis when they were adults. The loss of that woman, the sadness is unbearable. And that happens all the time. Yesterday, in Barnes & Noble also, a man came crying. He had lost his son. So there is always someone.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you say to people? How you—

ISABEL ALLENDE: I say that we learn to live with the sadness like a great, lovely companion, because it’s a soft sadness that softens the heart and makes you open to everything. And what I always say is, nothing worse will happen to you, so now you can be fearless. You can take all the risks in the world, because there will be no other pain that will be greater than what you have already survived.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you working on now?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I finished a thriller that is called Ripper, like Jack the Ripper, and it’s going to be published in January in several languages, also in English. And I’m working on a love story.

AMY GOODMAN: You often said that your books will change when your mother no longer reads them.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, well, because then I can have really sexual scenes.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it there. Isabel Allende, thanks so much.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Thank you, Amy. Thank you.

AARON MATÉ: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: I look forward to reading your future books—

ISABEL ALLENDE: Thanks.

AMY GOODMAN: —and encourage everyone to read this one. It’s called Maya’s Notebook. Isabel Allende is one of the world’s most renowned novelists. Her latest book is Maya’s Notebook.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to Colorado. A young woman, a pregnant mother of four, is going to prison for about 10 months because, well, she’s a soldier. She went to Iraq, opposed killing, refused to go back, and now she goes to prison. She was sentenced yesterday. Stay with us.

This work by Truthout is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

Amy Goodman and Aaron Mate

Amy Goodman is the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on over 1,100 public television and radio stations worldwide. Time Magazine named Democracy Now! its “Pick of the Podcasts,” along with NBC’s Meet the Press.

Aaron Mate comes to Democracy Now! after a two-year stint as an independent journalist and as a researcher for the author and journalist Naomi Klein. Through his work as a journalist and activist, he has had the opportunity to visit the Occupied Territories, Haiti, and South Africa. His writings have appeared in publications including the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and the Guardian of London. Aaron received his B.A. in Communication Studies from Concordia University in Montreal. He is a regular contributor to the Montreal/San Francisco-based magazine Warrior.


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