Isabel Allende Chilean-American writer, Isabel, 75, has written 23 books, which have sold more than 65 million copies worldwide. She lives in California with her dog Dulce
I was a lonely and sullen child in a class-oriented, conservative and Catholic family – the only girl in a Chilean household of males who had freedom and privileges that my mother did not have. No wonder I was a feminist before the word had even reached Chile. When I was six I wrote to Santa Claus asking for a dog. Santa brought me a box of oil paints instead, and left a note on my bedroom wall, ‘This wall is yours, paint whatever you want.’ I started with the dog and went on painting for years; stories, dreams, desires. When we moved away, I had to part with my magic wall, which I replaced with a journal. I start writing all my books on 8 January
because on that date, in 1981, I started writing a letter to my grandfather that became my first novel, The
House of the Spirits. It was such a lucky book that I decided to always start my novels on that date. At the beginning I kept it out of superstition, but now it’s a matter of discipline. It allows me to organise my time.
My pilot book, The House of
the Spirits is loosely based on
my own family. I wrote it while in exile in Venezuela [after the assassination of her father’s cousin, Chilean president Salvador Allende, in 1973]. It was an exercise in nostalgia. Some of my family felt betrayed and didn’t speak to me for years – until the movie with Meryl Streep came out. Now it’s the official story of the family.
The first person to believe that I could write was my
agent, Carmen Balcells. She treated me with intellectual respect when I was a 40-yearold living in exile who nobody had heard of. In 1992, when my daughter Paula [then 29] fell into a coma, Carmen gave me a yellow pad in the hospital and said, ‘ Write a letter to Paula. Only writing will save you from madness.’ She was right. Writing a memoir, Paula, helped me to overcome the paralysing grief of her death.