Interview with Isabel Allende

Apr 10, 2013

By Marisel Mendoza, translated by Jessica Sequeira

Speaking to us from her home in the United States, the Chilean writer Isabel Allende, considered to be one of the greatest female writers in contemporary Latin American literature, gave this interview to Ventana Latina.

Among other themes, we discussed her new novel, her creative process, and the role the feminine plays in her work. On 23 April, Allende will begin her book tour for El Cuaderno de Maya (Maya’s Notebook), which will take her to cities across the United States. The novel will be published in English in the United Kingdom on April 2013.

Ventana Latina: How did you think up El Cuaderno de Maya?

Isabel Allende: I wrote this book in 2009, when my six grandchildren were teenagers, so I was surrounded by young people. Kids of that age are exposed to many dangers: drugs, alcohol, street crime, vulgarity and pornography on the Internet, violence in videos, television, and films, etc. I felt that I couldn’t protect my grandchildren from all that, that I could only trust that luck would accompany them, and that they would get through the difficult adolescent years without too many problems. It wasn’t hard to imagine Maya Vidal, the protagonist of the novel, because I had as models all the boys and girls who surrounded me, although none of them went through the same horrors that Maya did. I could give a voice to Maya because I listened to my grandchildren, finding a way to describe Maya’s problems and feelings by observing theirs.

VL: The themes that appear in your books are profoundly concerned with the human and the social, and approach the feminine from different angles. In El Cuaderno de Maya, what were the main themes and emotions you hoped to investigate?

IA: The theme of the novel is that of a youth exposed to many dangers, to commotion and upheaval. At 16 years old Maya loses the family structure that supports her; she makes bad friendships, starts to use alcohol and drugs, runs away from home, and ends up with a drug trafficking gang in Las Vegas, involved in a federal crime. Very quickly, the life of this girl has become a hell. Her grandmother rescues her and sends her to a remote island in Chile, where Maya finds a small rural community, as well as the silence, time, and solitude required to reflect, mature, and grow. The themes of love, politics, death, and spiritual journey are also in this book, but from the perspective of someone very young. 

VL: In your book, we noticed that the girl is often serving the other main characters. How does your young 19 year old protagonist feel about this?

IA: Maya is an American girl spoiled by her grandparents, who have raised her. Like the majority of teenagers, she is egocentric and immature, but is at heart a good person, with noble feelings. When she finds herself tucked away as a kind of fugitive in Chiloé, she learns to relate to the simple and poor people who live on the island. She has to help and serve, to make herself loved and respected, to involve herself in problems of the community and to discover the mystery of the man who opens his home to her. That is to say: for the first time, she stops navel gazing, and begins to assume responsibilities and participate actively in the world.

VL: Chile has been the setting for most of your stories. In the specific case of El Cuaderno de Maya, why have you chosen the island of Chiloé as the main setting of your novel?

IA: When planning the novel, I wanted to draw a contrast between an artificial life, the consumption and vice of Las Vegas, and a remote location, backward and nearly isolated, where my protagonist could find calm, writing in her notebook to better understand her past and value her present. I knew the archipelago of Chiloé and I thought that it was the perfect location, the opposite of Las Vegas. I had been there many times, but I made a special trip to get to know the island that pleased me most, studying in depth its geography, history, mythology, etc.

VL: How would you describe this island at the end of the world to a visiting foreigner?

IA: Hills, forests, sea, ocean life, rural and fishing communities, a climate sunny in the short summer and very hard in the long winter. People there do live in the 21st century, but they are fairly isolated; ancient myths are still repeated, traditional natural medicine is still used, customs still exist that go back centuries. It isn’t a paradise; alcoholism, unemployment, incest, family violence, and other problems exist. But if I were to live in Chile, I would definitely choose one of the southern islands. 

VL: When can readers get a hold of the novel in British bookstores?

IA: I understand that El Cuaderno de Maya will be published in April in the UK as well as in the US. I won’t have the chance to promote my book there then, but I hope to do so in the future.


In the work of Isabel Allende, personal experience takes on a great relevance; stories are circumscribed by the events in Allende’s own life that have marked her deeply. Similarly, strong female characters are frequently present in her books, among them those of advanced age.

VL: Tell us about your creative process. How does it link the past with the present?

IA: My books are written from personal experience, from memories, and from stories that come to me from all places. Everyone has a story, the air is full of stories. The creative process is mysterious, I don’t know why it is that suddenly a theme will take hold of me and refuse to leave me in peace until I investigate it and write it.

VL:  What is the role of the woman in your work?

IA: For me it seems easy to create female characters, because I have lived among strong women, I have worked with and for women since I was very young, I know them well. My books are based on emotions, feelings, relationships. In these areas women are experts, so it’s not strange that the main characters of my novels are females.

VL: What books will follow El Cuaderno de Maya?

IA: This year Amor (Love) was published in Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, and other languages, a collection of scenes of love and eroticism from my books. I don’t think it will be published in English. Next year I will publish a thriller or a crime novel, called Ripper in English.

VL: Have you started a new book?

IA: I’m writing a love story, which takes place in San Francisco in 2013. I don’t know yet when it will be published.

VL: You are the most read Latin American writer in the world, with more than 51 million books sold, and you are the only person who has remained on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year. How do you take this success?

IA: I am very grateful for the success, because it has given me the freedom to write without pressure, in my own way, and has enabled me to maintain my family and educate my children and grandchildren, as well as to create a Foundation to empower women and girls ( However, the success occurs in a place outside of me, and doesn’t touch me on an intimate level. I live in my own skin, I have not changed greatly, I remain the same woman I was before publishing La Casa de los Espíritus (The House of the Spirits). In my private circle I am a mother, grandmother, wife, friend, daughter… the success means nothing to my small tribe.


VL: As you have mentioned, feminism begins with the education of women. How do you see the Latin American reality in this respect? Do you believe that it is a theme prioritised by governments and society in general? In what areas do you believe that more power should be given to women? 

IA: If you take a look at the web page of my foundation, you will find a long response to this question. The mission of my foundation is to improve the situation of women and girls in the areas of education, health (including family planning), and protection. The most poor and backward areas in the world are those in which women are subjugated and exploited. Improving the situation of the woman improves the family, the community, and by extension the whole country. Everything that is invested in a woman bears fruit rapidly. Women are the only ones who will be able to eliminate the patriarchy, and when that happens all of us will win, men as much as women.

VL: To finish, do you have a message for Latin American women and those who admire your work in the United Kingdom?

IA: I would like to thank deeply all those who read my books with an open heart, and especially those who write to me. The connection that I have with my readers makes me very happy, and gives meaning to the strange profession of writing.