Last Seen... Listening to Isabel Allende

_3_Candle These days the process of writing intrigues me as much as the content. Whenever I have a chance to interview a famous (or not-so-famous) writer, I like to ask what drives them to write.

Several years ago I spoke to Chilean author, Isabel Allende, who wrote, among others, the best-selling The House of the Spirits, a family saga based on Allende’s own eccentric forebears. Once known as the ‘Queen of Magical Realism’, Allende said that she began it on January 8th, 1982. Since then, she always starts her books on this ‘sacred’ date. It used to be superstition, then it became discipline.

I like this notion that something sacred—and therefore, often intangible—can be anchored and made practical. It is, perhaps, an art that Allende has made her own. As a writer, she is unafraid to traverse the in-between places between life and death, spirit and matter. Her nonfiction memoir, Paula, a letter to Isabel’s dying daughter who died aged 29 of a genetic condition, was a haunting masterpiece.

‘If I did not accept the fact that the world is a very mysterious place,‘ she said, 'that I don’t know anything and that everything is possible, how could I write fiction? In my relationship with my children and my grand-children I always allow space for the unpredictable, the unknown, the imagination.’

When Isabel Allende starts a new book, she lights some candles ‘for the spirits and the muses’ and meditates for a while. Then, she tries ‘to write the first sentence in a state of trance.’ This ‘determines the whole book.’ Over several months she will then spend 10 to 12 hours a day writing, in a room in her backyard cassita in Marin County, California. I asked how she maintains her sanity.

‘That’s why I am sane, otherwise I would be institutionalised. My insane times are when I am not writing and then I drive everyone crazy.’

People write for all sorts of reasons and the more I do, the more I see the value in the doing, not the end outcome. For Allende, writing is ‘a way of coming to terms, especially with the losses and the pain.’ It’s a way ‘to exorcise the demons’. But it isn’t only the method that does this, ‘it is the process of being alone, in silence, for days, weeks, months at a time. It’s a form of meditation, going inward into memory, into the past, into my own soul.’

So, why do you write?

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