Q. You’re famous for your narrative, but are there other writing genres you're interested in exploring as well?
A. I wrote plays in my youth and loved it. I also tried writing children’s stories when my kids were small. I told them stories every night, and it was a wonderful training that I have maintained. In 2001, in fact, I wrote City of the Beasts, my first novel for kids and young adults. I have written humor for years, and I think that is the most difficult genre of all. I've never tried poetry and I don't think I will.
Q. Do you write in Spanish?
A. I can only write fiction in Spanish, because it is for me a very organic process that I can only do in my native language. Fortunately, I have excellent translators all over the world.
Q. Do you work closely with your translator? I notice that Margaret Sayers Peden has translated most of your books into English.
A. Margaret and I are always in touch; I believe we have a psychic connection. She does a splendid job. I do not dream of correcting her! In most other languages, however, I don't even know who translates my work. The publishers take care of that. Margaret retired in 2010 and now my translator into English is Anne McLean.
Q. Can you elaborate on the idea of writing fiction—of telling a truth, of telling lies, of uncovering some kind of reality? Can you also talk about how these ideas might work together or against one another?
A. The first lie of fiction is that the author gives some order to the chaos of life: chronological order, or whatever order the author chooses. As a writer, you select some part of a whole. You decide that those things are important and the rest is not. And you write about those things from your perspective. Life is not that way. Everything happens simultaneously, in a chaotic way, and you don't make choices. You are not the boss; life is the boss. So when you accept as a writer that fiction is lying, then you become free. You can do anything. Then you start walking in circles. The larger the circle, the more truth you can get. The wider the horizon—the more you walk, the more you linger over everything—the better chance you have of finding particles of truth.
Q. Where do you get your inspiration?
A. I am a good listener and a story hunter. Everybody has a story and all stories are interesting if they are told in the right tone. I read newspapers, and small stories buried deep within the paper can inspire a novel.
Q. How does inspiration work?
A. I spend ten, twelve hours a day alone in a room writing. I don't talk to anybody. I don't answer the telephone. I'm just a medium or an instrument of something that is happening beyond me, voices that talk through me. I'm creating a world that is fiction but that doesn't belong to me. I'm not God; I'm just an instrument. And in that long, very patient daily exercise of writing I have discovered a lot about myself and about life. I have learned. I'm not conscious of what I'm writing. It’s a strange process—as if by this lying-in-fiction you discover little things that are true about yourself, about life, about people, about how the world works.
Q. Can you talk about the characters?
A. When I develop a character I usually look for a person who can serve as a model. If I have that person in mind, it is easier for me to create characters that are believable. People are complex and complicated—they seldom show all the aspects of their personalities. Characters should be that way too.
I allow the characters to live their own lives in the book. Often I have the feeling that I don't control them. The story goes in unexpected directions and my job is to write it down, not to force it into my previous ideas.
Q. Do you write on a computer?
A. I take notes all the time. I have a notebook in my purse and when I see or hear something interesting, I make a note. I cut clippings from newspapers and write notes about the news I hear on TV. I write notes on stories that people tell me. When I start a book I pull out all these notes because they inspire me. I write directly on my computer using no outline, just following my instinct. Once the story has been told on the screen, I print it for the first time and read it. Then I know what the book is about. The second draft deals with language, tension, tone, and rhythm.
Q. What makes a good end to a story?
A. I don't know. In a short story it’s different from a novel. A short story comes whole; there is only one appropriate ending. And you know it—you feel it. If you can't find that ending, then you don't have a story. It’s useless to work on it anymore. To me a short story is like an arrow; it has to have the right direction from the beginning and you have to know exactly where you're aiming. With a novel you never know. It’s patient and daily work, like embroidering a tapestry of many colors. You go slowly, you have a pattern in mind. But all of a sudden you turn it and realize that it’s something else. It’s a very fascinating experience because it has a life of its own. In the short story you have all the control. However, there are very few good short stories. And there are many memorable novels. In a short story, it’s more important how you tell it than what you tell; the form is very important. In a novel you can make mistakes and very few people will notice. Happy endings usually don't work for me. I like open endings. I trust the reader’s imagination.
Q. Which writers have influenced you most?
A. I belong to the first generation of Latin American writers brought up reading other Latin American writers. Before my time the work of Latin American writers was not well distributed, even on our continent. In Chile it was very hard to read other writers from Latin America. My greatest influences have been all the great writers of the Latin American Boom in literature: García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Cortázar, Borges, Paz, Rulfo, Amado, etc.
Many Russian novelists influenced me as well: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Nabokov, Gogol, and Bulgarov. The English writers who had a big influence on me during my adolescence were Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. I loved mysteries and read all of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. Also some American authors who were very popular in Spanish, like Mark Twain, Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others. I remember the lasting impression that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird had on me. I read that book again every decade or so. From these books I got a sense of plot and strong characters.
I discovered fantasy and eroticism in One Thousand and One Nights, which I read in Lebanon at age fourteen. At that time and in that place, girls didn't have much social life aside from school and family; we didn't even go to the movies. My only escape from a troublesome family life was reading. My stepfather had four mysterious leather volumes in his locked closet, forbidden books that I was not supposed to see because they were “erotic.” Of course I found a way to copy the key and get in the closet when he was not around. I used a flashlight, could not mark the pages, and read quickly, skipping pages and looking for the dirty parts. My hormones were raging and my imagination went wild with those fantastic tales. When critics call me a Latin America Sheherazade I feel very flattered!
The American and European feminists that I read in my twenties gave me an articulate language to express the anger I felt against the patriarchy in which we all live. I started working at Paula, a Chilean feminist magazine, sharpening my ideas and my pen to defy the male establishment. It was the best time of my life.
I have always liked movies, and sometimes an image or a scene or a character stays with me for years and inspires me when I write. For example: the magic in Fanny and Alexander or the story within a story of Shakespeare in Love.
Q. What happens when you start a novel?
A. When I start I am in a total limbo. I don't have any idea where the story is going or what is going to happen or why I am writing it. I only know that—in a way that I can't even understand at the time—I am connected to the story. I have chosen that story because it was important to me in the past or it will be in the future.
Q. Do you do a lot of editing?
A. Yes, for language and tension, but not for plot. The story or the characters have a life of their own. I can't control them. I want the characters to be happy, to get married, and to have a lot of children and live happily ever after, but it never happens that way. As I said before, happy endings don't work for me.
Q. Can you talk about the healing elements of writing and, specifically, about writing Paula? I would think that writing Paula was very difficult and very painful.
A. When I was writing Paula, my assistant would come to the office and find me crying. She would hug me and say, “You don't have to write this.” And I would say, “I am crying because I am healing. Writing is my way of mourning.” That book was written with tears, but those were very healing tears. After it was finished, I felt that my daughter was alive in my heart, her memory preserved. As long as it is written, it will be remembered. I can't remember details, names, and places, and that is why every day I write a letter to my mother. When I wrote about Paula and our life together, I recorded it forever. I will never forget. That is the life of the spirit.
Q. When I read Paula, I was struck by how self-revelatory it was. People don't normally speak about that kind of pain. Your experience of death, sickness, and tragedy was a gift to many people.
A. I feel connected to those readers who have written to me. Pain is universal. We all experience pain, loss, and death the same way. I get letters from doctors who feel that they will never be able to see their patients in the way they did before reading the book, and from young people who identify with Paula and think for the first time about their own mortality. Many of the letters are from very young women who never have had a real loss but who feel they don't have a sense of family or support in their communities. They feel very lonely. They want a connection with a man the way Paula was connected to her husband. I receive letters from mothers who have lost children and think that they will die of sorrow. But one doesn't die. The death of a child is the oldest sorrow of women. Mothers have lost children for millennia. It is only a privileged few who can expect all of their children to live.
Q. Many reviewers regard Paula as your greatest book. Would you say that writing about Paula affected you more deeply than all the other books?
A. Yes, all the rest was rehearsal. And when I finished Paula I found it very difficult to write again. What could I possibly write about that would be as significant to me? However, after three years of writer’s block I was able to write again.
Q. Do you think that a writer chooses what to write or that the writing chooses you?
A. I think that the stories choose me.
Q. So you are a storyteller first and a writer second?
A. Yes. The storytelling is the fun part. The writing can be a lot of work!
Q. Does your background as a journalist help you?
A. I work with emotions; language is the tool, the instrument. The story is always about some very deep emotion that is important for me. When I write, I try to use language in an efficient way, the way a journalist does. You have very little space and time and have to grab your reader by the neck and not let go. That’s what I try to do with language: create tension. From journalism I have also learned other practical things, like how to research a topic, how to conduct an interview, and how to observe and to talk to people on the street.
Q. When you talk about opening yourself up to the experience, are you opening yourself up to a magical world? Do spirits actually come in and suggest words, images, and scenes for you?
A. Yes. In a certain way. There is also an intellectual process, of course. But there is something magic in the storytelling. You tap into another world. The story becomes whole when you tap into the collective story, when other people’s stories become part of the writing, and you know that it’s not your story only. I have a feeling that I don't invent anything. That, somehow, I discover things that are from another dimension. That they are already there, and my job is to find them and bring them onto the page. But I don't make them up. Over the years things have happened in my life and in my writing that have proved to me that anything is possible. I am open to all the mysteries. When you spend too many hours—as many, many hours a day as I do—alone and in silence, you are able to see that world. I imagine that people who pray or mediate for long hours, or who spend time alone in a convent or another quiet place, end up hearing voices and seeing visions because solitude and silence create the basis for that awareness.
Sometimes I write something, and I'm practically convinced that it’s just my imagination. Months or years later, I discover that it was true. And I'm always so scared when that happens. I think, “What is this? What if things happen because I write them? I have to be very careful with my words.” But my mother says, “No, they don't happen because you write them. You don't have that power. Don't be so arrogant. What happens is that you are able to see them and other people are not because they don't have the time, because they are busy in the noise of the world.” My grandmother was clairvoyant. And although she did not write, she could guess things and tap into those unknown events and feelings. She was aware. I imagine that it’s just a question of being more aware.
Q. Your stepfather called you a mythomaniac.
A. Yes. He says that I am liar. When I was writing Paula it was the first time that I wrote a memoir. In a memoir one is expected to tell the truth. My stepfather and my mother objected to every page because from my perspective the world of my childhood—of my life—is totally different from the way they see it. I see highlights, emotions, and an invisible web—threads that somehow link these things. It is another form of truth.
Q. Joyce Carol Oates talks about a luminous memory, as though it comes in and glows on a certain spot. I'm thinking of differences in how you remember events from your childhood. For example, you have a frightening memory of being hung upside down in a contraption intended to encourage your growth, though your stepfather remembers it as being a perfectly safe device. Perhaps you are just remembering what you felt. While you may in fact have been in a safe device, you felt as though you were being strung up by the neck.
A. Exactly. There’s a lot of that in my writing. For example, I will remember a story but can't remember a place or a date or a person or a name. But I remember something striking about the story.
Q. Whereas some people will remember the date or what they were wearing.
A. Or they remember just the facts. I will perhaps only remember what I fantasized about the event—my own version of the truth.
Q. But in the end, as in Eva Luna, first you say one thing and then you say—
A. “Maybe it didn't happen that way.” I always have the feeling that maybe it didn't happen that way. I have fifty versions of how I met Willie, my husband. He says they are all true.
Q. In your earlier novels, which address the political chaos of Latin America, the government is untrustworthy, inconsistent. There is a Kafkaesque feeling that no matter what you do, you won't understand the government. The world is shifting, undependable. Do you see the spirit world as being a more dependable place? Is it in the spirit world that the infinite plan makes sense and in the real world that it doesn't?
A. It’s a difficult question. The spiritual world is a place where there is no good and evil. It’s not a world of black and white as the real world seems to be. There are no rigid rules of any kind. In that sense it is totally different from the infinite plan—which is a joke—proposed by the preacher in my novel The Infinite Plan. In the spiritual world there is only intention, there is just being. And there is no sense of right or wrong. Everything just is in a sort of very steady and still way. And because things are so ambiguous in that sense, so delicate and so unfocused, it’s a safe place. You don't have to decide anything. Things just are, and you somehow float or—I don't know how to express this exactly—you are just there. In a very, very delicate form. For me, it’s a very safe place. That’s the place where the stories come from. That’s the place of love.
This sounds very corny but my life has been determined by two things that have been extremely important: love and violence. There is sorrow, pain, and death, but there’s another parallel dimension, and that is love. There are many forms of love, but the kind I am talking about is unconditional. For instance, the way we love a tree. We don't expect the tree to move or to do anything or to be beautiful. The tree is just a tree, and we love the tree because it’s a tree. You love an animal that way. We love children that way. As relationships become more complicated, you start demanding more. You want something in exchange for your love. You have expectations and desires and you want to be loved as much as you love.
In this spiritual world, which is a world of love, there are no conditions. Like the way I love my grandchildren. I think they are perfect. It doesn't matter whether they grow or stay the way they are because I can see them as the infants they were when they were just born, the people they will be when they are adolescents or adults. The soul has no age. Maybe that’s what I wanted to say. When we love something deeply and completely, we love the essence.
Q. I think transcendence is what you are talking about, the ability to move above and beyond this real world to a transcendent understanding of feelings and emotions. Would you say your novels are defined by that characteristic more than any other?
A. It’s strange that my work has been classified as magic realism because I see my novels as just being realistic literature. They say that if Kafka had been born in Mexico he would have been a realistic writer. So much depends on where you were born.
Q. Irene and Francisco in Of Love and Shadows have to be completely remade at the end of the novel. They get in the car and look at each other, each wondering who the other is. They don't recognize each other physically, but they still recognize each other’s souls. That’s an important statement that the novel makes very realistically.
A. With my novel Of Love and Shadows I was accused of being sentimental and too political. But I have sympathy for that book. First of all, because the story is true. The main story concerns a political crime committed in Chile, which I researched. The characters are true. And also because it brought Willie into my life. Willie read that book, he fell in love with it, and eventually he fell in love with me. And, finally, because it brought to my life the awareness of how powerful the written word can be: how you can tap into that world that we are talking about and discover things that would have been impossible to know if you didn't have that connection to a collective knowledge that comes through the writing.
Q. You once said that you came from such a repressed background you have a hard time writing erotic scenes. In comparing Francisco and Irene’s lovemaking—which is heavily metaphorical, very beautiful and floaty—with scenes in later books, it seems fair to say that you've lost your repression, that you've developed the ability to write sensually. Is that conscious?
A. No, I think it has to do with the book. Every book has a way of being written. Every story has a way of being told. The story determines the tone in which we should tell things. Francisco and Irene are two very young people who lust for each other in the beginning and then they fall in love. By the time they have sex, they are really in love. They also have been touched for the first time in their lives with the brutality of death, torture, repression, and violence. Making love brings them back from hell to life, to the paradise of love. Later, they will be destroyed by events. The scene is told in such a way because, without me even being very conscious of it, it’s like the myth of Eurydice: Orpheus goes down to hell to bring his lover back to life.
Q. At a lecture you mentioned you were not going to write any more short stories. Are you adamant about not returning to that genre?
A. I don't know. I should never say I'm never going to do something. Short stories come to you whole. A novel is work—work, work, work—and then one day it’s over; it’s finished. But a short story is something that happens to you—it’s like catching the flu. The short story requires inspiration. All of a sudden, you have a flash of lucidity that lets you see an event from another angle that is totally unexpected. And you can't provoke that. It happens to you. You go to a place, you see some people dancing, and all of a sudden you understand the relationships between those people, or you seem to perceive something that is there that nobody else in the room can see. And then you have a short story.
Q. Talk about The Stories of Eva Luna.
A. They were written in the voice of Eva Luna, the protagonist of my previous novel. All except for the last one, which is the story of how Rolf Carle finds a little girl in the mud and helps her to die. It was written from his point of view. That story really happened, in 1985 in Colombia. There was an eruption of a volcano called Nevado Ruiz, and a mudslide covered a village completely. Thousands of people died. They never recovered most of the bodies, and finally they declared the whole place a cemetery, a sacred land. Among the many victims was a little girl, nine years old, called Omaira Sanchez. This girl, who had very short dark curly hair and huge black eyes, agonized for four days, trapped in the mud. The authorities could not fly in a pump to pump out the water and save her life. However, the media could bring television cameras in helicopters, planes, buses. All over the world, for four days, the audience could see the agony of this child.
Q. You write in Spanish but live in English in the U.S. I'm struck by your ability to take something the majority of the world sees as a disadvantage and make it an advantage. Most people would see living in a second language as being marginalized.
A. But that’s great! Who wants to be in the mainstream? The other day I heard something wonderful on TV about the problems this country is going to face in the next ten years—crime, violence, the lack of values, the destruction of the family, teenage pregnancy, drugs, AIDS. Someone then said something extraordinary. “Have you noticed that new immigrants don't have these problems? Because they come to this country with the same ideas and the same strength that our great-grandparents came with.” Being marginal is like being a new immigrant. If you can transform marginality into something positive, instead of dwelling on it as something negative, it’s a wonderful source of strength.
Q. We often talk about the woman’s voice in literature, and that is a perspective from which you write very successfully. Was it difficult in The Infinite Plan to write in a man’s voice?
A. No. I don't find that difficult at all. I also wrote from the perspective of a man and with man’s voice in The House of the Spirits. Esteban Trueba narrates parts of the book. With The Infinite Plan it was easy because I had my husband to guide me. Then I realized that there are more similarities than differences when it comes to gender. Essentially, human beings are very similar, but we are stuck in the differences instead of highlighting the similarities. When I got into the skin of the male protagonist, who is based on my husband, Willie Gordon, I got to know him much better than if I had lived with him for thirty years.
Q. That seems like a good place for us to turn back to the world of the spirits, to the place we started. Would you add to the characteristics of the spiritual world that it is genderless?
A. Probably in the world of spirituality gender is not an issue, just as race or age isn’t an issue. I have been a feminist all my life, fighting for feminist issues. When I was young, I fought aggressively. I was a warrior then. And now I am becoming more aware of those essential things we men and women have to explore and that could really bring us together. But don't get me wrong: I am a feminist and a very proud one!
Q. Critics define the style of your writing as “magic realism.” Are all your books written in this genre?
A. I think that every story has a way of being told and every character has a voice. And you can't always repeat the formula. Magic realism, which was overwhelmingly present in The House of the Spirits, doesn't exist in my second book, Of Love and Shadows. And that’s because my second book was based on a political crime that happened in Chile after the assassination of Salvador Allende, so it is more of a journalistic chronicle. There is no magic realism in The Infinite Plan, Aphrodite, Daughter of Fortune or Portrait in Sepia, yet there is a lot of it in City of the Beasts, my first novel for kids.
Sometimes, magic realism works and sometimes it doesn't. In any case, you will find elements of magic realism in literature from all over the world—not just in Latin America. You will find it in Scandinavian sagas, in African poetry, in Indian literature written in English, in American literature written by ethnic minorities. Writers like Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, and Alice Hoffman all use this style.
For a while, in the U.S. and Europe, a logical and practical approach to literature prevailed, but it didn't last very long. That’s because life is full of mystery. And the goal of literature is to explore those mysteries. It actually enlarges your horizons. When you allow dreams, visions, and premonitions to enter into your everyday life and your work as a writer, reality seems to expand.
Q. You come from a most unusual family. Would you talk about your uncle, Salvador Allende, and how he influenced your life?
A. I don't think he influenced my life much until he died, although I always had great admiration for him. When we had the military coup in Chile in 1973, it was not he, but the military coup that changed the lives of so many Chileans. It affected half the population dramatically.
Salvador Allende was my father’s first cousin. I saw him on weekends, sometimes on vacations, but I did not live with him.
After the military coup, I realized that he had a historical dimension. I only saw that after I left Chile. Following the coup, his name was banned throughout Chile. When I went to Venezuela, every time I said my name, people would ask immediately if I was related to Salvador Allende. He has become a legendary figure, a hero.
Q. Will you ever write a book about Salvador Allende?
A. No, I don't think so. I'm not good at biography and in this case I could not be objective.
Q. Do you believe in destiny or karma?
A. I do believe in destiny. I believe that we are dealt a hand of cards and we have to play the game of life as best we can. And often the cards are marked.
Q. Do you believe that what happened to your uncle was destiny?
A. Yes. But that does not mean that the people who killed him are not to blame. I do believe that the torturers and the murderers are still to blame and that we should try to stop them.
Q. Will you ever go back to Chile?
A. I go back every year to see my mother and I feel very comfortable there. But I don't think I could live there now, especially since I have a home in the U.S. My son and my grandchildren are here. I don't really miss Chile because now I can go there anytime I want.
Q. You start writing all your books on January 8. Why?
A. On January 8, 1981, I was living in Venezuela and I received a phone call that my beloved grandfather was dying. I began a letter for him that later became my first novel, The House of the Spirits. It was such a lucky book from the very beginning that I kept that lucky date to start.
Q. Can you speak about any ceremonies you conduct when starting a new book?
A. January 8th is a sacred day for me. I come to my office very early in the morning, alone. I light some candles for the spirits and the muses. I meditate for a while. I always have fresh flowers and incense. And I open myself completely to the experience that begins in that moment. I never know exactly what I'm going to write. I may have finished a book months before and may have been planning something, but it has happened already twice that when I sit down at the computer and turn it on, another thing comes out. It is as if I was pregnant with something, an elephant’s pregnancy, something that has been there for a very long time, growing, and then when I am able to relax completely and open myself to the writing, then the real book comes out. I try to write the first sentence in a state of trance, as if somebody else was writing it through me. That first sentence usually determines the whole book. It’s a door that opens to an unknown territory that I have to explore with my characters. And slowly, as I write, the story seems to unfold itself, in spite of me. It just happens.
I'm not the kind of writer who can have an outline, talk about the writing to anybody, or read parts of my writing in process. Until the first draft is ready—and that first draft can take months, and it’s usually very long—I don't know what the book is about. I just sit down every day and pour out the story. When I think it’s finished, I print it and I read it for the first time. At that point I know what the story is about, and I start eliminating everything that has nothing to do with it.
Q. What advice can you give to aspiring writers?
A. Writing is like training to be an athlete. There is a lot of training and work that nobody sees in order to compete. The writer needs to write every day, just as the athlete needs to train. Much of the writing will never be used, but it is essential to do it.
I always tell my young students to write at least one good page a day. At the end of the year they will have at least 360 good pages. That is a book.
I don't share the process of writing with anybody, and when the manuscript is finished, I show it only to a very few people, because I trust my instincts and I don't want too many hands in my writing.
Q. Many people who have read The Sum of Our Days have asked where they can get Tabra’s jewelry.
A. Please check her website at http://tabra.com.
Q. I have a manuscript and I wonder if you can read it and help me get it published.
A. I am very sorry, but I cannot read manuscripts. I simply have no time. Even if I did, there are legal risks in doing so. In any case, I cannot get manuscripts published. I wish I had that kind of power!
The publishing industry—especially in the United States—has become very complicated. In my experience it is practically impossible to get published without an agent if you are not a well-known writer. You might want to consult annually updated guides that include a list of all available literary agents. Two helpful books are How to Get a Literary Agent by Michael Larsen and The Guide to Literary Agents by Don Prues. You can find them in the library or in your favorite bookstore.