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“In the Midst of Winter”: Novelist Isabel Allende’s New Book Explores Falling in Love Late in Life

Web ExclusiveNovember 07, 2017
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We continue our conversation with acclaimed novelist Isabel Allende about her new book, In the Midst of Winter, which is a love story that explores the plight of immigrants and refugees. Allende has written 23 books, including “The House of the Spirits,” “Paula” and “Daughter of Fortune,” and discusses some of her past work.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest is Isabel Allende, yes, the great writer, who wrote House of the Spirits, who wrote Paula, who wrote so many other books and now has a new book out, as she travels the country. It’s called In the Midst of Winter. This is a book that deals with human rights, that deals with immigrants, but, Isabel Allende, it is also a love story. Talk about this novel and how you came to write it.

ISABEL ALLENDE: I don’t know how I came to write it. Just by chance. But it is the story of two people in their sixties who, because they find themselves in a sort of adventure and they get to know each other and they open their hearts and they are willing to take risks, they eventually fall in love. And I’m not giving away anything, because from the very beginning of the book, they are flirting with each other in a sort of muddy territory. I was fascinated with the idea of mature couples falling in love, because I’m 75 years old, and so I really need romance and sex and love in my life. And when people—when I talk like this, people think that it’s sort of obscene, almost perverted. We don’t expect older people to have these kinds of desires and sentiments.

AMY GOODMAN: But?

ISABEL ALLENDE: But, actually, I am in love. And I found a guy my own age who was willing to take risks, like the character in the book. And so, now I’m living this wonderful love affair. And people ask me, “What—what is it? How is it to fall in love at 75?” And I always say, “It’s the same as falling in love at 17. But with a sense of urgency.” You don’t have time, maybe five, 10 more years. So I want to enjoy these years, and there’s no time for pettiness, for jealousy, for little fights about stupid things. Just go to the essential stuff.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the decision to situate the book in Brooklyn, when you—

ISABEL ALLENDE: I was in Brooklyn. I was in Brooklyn when I came up with the idea, in a brownstone like the one in the book. And then, a couple of weeks later, the storm hit, a real storm, which gave like the big metaphor to the title of the book and to the book.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, tell us about Richard and Lucia. And do you identify with Lucia?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Lucia is pretty much like me. She’s bossy, and she’s vain. And she’s romantic, willing to fall in love.

AMY GOODMAN: She’s a Chilean academic.

ISABEL ALLENDE: She’s a Chilean writer. But the model for her is a friend of mine in Chile who was a journalist. Unfortunately, she died recently. But she was a journalist who wrote about the crimes of the dictatorship. The guy—the owner of the brownstone is Richard, an NYU professor, who has a perfectly little life. Nothing happens to him. And then the other one is Evelyn Ortega, the undocumented refugee.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about the intersection of their lives. In Part 1, you spoke specifically about the individuals, but how they come together.

ISABEL ALLENDE: There is a crime in the book. And my crime was on page 20, and the reader was expecting a crime novel. And because it isn’t, the reader will be very disappointed. It’s not a crime novel. So what I did is I moved the body from page 20 to page 100, which was very easy because it was frozen. It was in the back of a car, and there was a storm. It was winter. It was frozen. It would take at least three days to defrost. So, in those three days, a lot can happen. And that’s exactly what the story of these three people is—those critical three days in which everything changes in those three lives.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And especially the relevance—you say it is a love story, but you wrap all these social issues around it. The relevance especially of the issue of Central American refugees now into this country from the violence there, given the context of what we’re dealing with in the country today with Trump and the immigration—the anti-immigration hysteria?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, I hope that people who read this will see immigrants not in numbers, in abstract numbers. It’s not 11 million people that need to be deported. It’s not the big wall of China that we need to build to protect us from invaders. People are people, and each one of them has a name, a story, a face, family. And when we can see the individual, like we can see in the book Evelyn Ortega, maybe we can relate to the issue in a very different form.

AMY GOODMAN: So tell us how they intersect, for people who are about to read this book. I mean, you have Lucia, the Chilean writer, who is here living in Brooklyn. You have Richard, the NYU vegan professor, who has four cats, who owns the brownstone and lives there, too. And then you have Evelyn. And how they meet and how these two Latin American women relate, as well?

ISABEL ALLENDE: There is a storm, the snow storm, and there is a minor traffic accident in which Richard hits—rear-ends the car that Evelyn is driving. And then they end up together in this brownstone in this first night of the storm. And because Evelyn has difficulty expressing herself and she knows not very much English, the professor asks Lucia, who is Chilean, to come and sort of translate and help. Because she’s a woman, she’ll handle this.

And then they find themselves in this situation in which they have to make a decision. And the normal decision would be to say, “OK, we have nothing to do with this. This is not our problem.” And then there is the other kind of option, which is solidarity and compassion, understanding. And that leads to friendship and to tell each other stories and, eventually, to love. And they find, in the midst of this winter, the invincible summer that each one of them had inside.

AMY GOODMAN: You tell the story—your books all center around, obviously, stories. That’s the most important thing to you, people telling their stories. Why has that been so important to you? And talk about your first book, House of the Spirits and what that opened for you.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, The House of the Spirits was an exercise in longing. I was living in Venezuela doing all sorts of odd jobs to make a living.

AMY GOODMAN: In exile from Chile?

ISABEL ALLENDE: In exile, could not go back to my country. And I was beginning to forget, to forget everything that had been dear to me, that had been my life. My life was abruptly changed in another direction, and I had to start from scratch in another place. And then my grandfather was dying, and I started a letter for him in which I wanted to tell him—to tell myself, really—all the stories of the family that I did not want to forget, the stories that he had told me and the stories that I knew of the family. So the book is the microworld of a family very much like mine and the microworld of the country, 70 years of history. And in a way, the family reflects what’s going on in the country. Of course, I can explain it to you now. When I was writing it, it was pure instinct. I was just telling one story after the other. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Your kids playing in the next room?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, and I was writing in the kitchen, in a little typewriter that is now in a museum in Sacramento. So, it was—I don’t know. It was a miracle that I could write that book. And that book paved the way for all my other books and changed my life.

AMY GOODMAN: Just because I love this part of the story, when you sent your book out, you didn’t have an agent. You weren’t—you didn’t consider yourself a writer.

ISABEL ALLENDE: No.

AMY GOODMAN: You were reporting from your kitchen table. How did your book get published, this first book, that changed not only you, but the world?

ISABEL ALLENDE: My mother read the manuscript, and she said, “I think this is a book.” But she wasn’t sure. So she sent it to a couple of publishers. Nobody wanted to read it. And then someone said, “You need an agent.” I didn’t know that agents existed for literature. I thought they were for sports. So, they said, “No, there’s an agent in Barcelona. The most famous one is Carmen Balcells,” who had practically created the movement of Latin American literature. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Gabriel García Márquez’s agent?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, she was—she represented Gabriel García Márquez—and all the others, by the way, 25 of them. And so, I went to the post office. I didn’t have any money, you may imagine. Zero money. So I had my copy, and we made a photocopy with my mom, which was difficult to make a photocopy, because it was expensive. And we went to the post office to ship it to Barcelona, and it was too heavy. And they said, “You have to divide it in two envelopes.” I said, “OK.” So I just divided the manuscript, put one bunch of pages here, the—and I wrote the address. And, of course, I had written a letter, a short letter explaining what the book was about, with a title page. And I sent it to Barcelona.

And unfortunately, the second envelope got there first. So, Carmen got an envelope with pages that started in the middle of nothing, with no title and no signature of any kind. And it took like two weeks for her to get the other part of the manuscript, and then she could put it together. And she called me, and she said she wanted to represent me. So, you see, that’s luck. The first part could have gotten lost in the Venezuelan mail forever.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, two decades later, you move from Latin America to the United States. You are a Latin American and U.S. writer, writing now for the world. And we are living in a time where the man who’s president of the United States announced his presidency by talking about Mexican rapists and talking about border walls. Did you feel there was any threat at the time when he spoke? You had talked about moving here and feeling an undercurrent of fascism in the United States.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, I thought that the people who had always been there, the sentiments that had always been there, but under control in a civilized country, had been given a megaphone. And that could be expressed openly. But I never thought he would be president. When he becomes president, then all this is permitted as part of the culture.

So, how do we pull back now? How do we defend the institutions, defend the values that we have had and that we have defended for so long? So all this is threatened. And only when we lose it will we know how valuable they are and how we could have protected it.

Because that happened in Chile. We didn’t protect our democracy. We didn’t value it enough. And then, when we lost it, for 17 years, and when we were finally able to recover it, we had learned a lesson. And I don’t think it will happen again in Chile.

AMY GOODMAN: Were social movements pivotal?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, because when everything else was forbidden, still, under the surface, all these political movements, social movements, the church, every—was moving. So, that doesn’t stop. It’s there, waiting.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Allende, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Your book, In the Midst of Winter. Yes, Isabel Allende, one of the great writers of our time.

This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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