Isabel Allende and Writing from the Gut

I'll be honest. I thought I was going to cry throughout Isabel Allende's entire lecture in Columbus last night. But I immediately learned that she's a "very strong Chilean woman" (as she was introduced) and pulled myself together. Because strong women don't cry at book lectures. That, and I forgot my pack of tissues.

Allende’s sold-out appearance at Columbus Museum of Art kicked off the 30th anniversary of Thurber House’s Evenings with Authors series. 

Strength comes naturally for Allende. It has to.

“Every one of my novels is a sort of departure,” she said.

Exiled from her home country of Peru at the age of three, Allende was raised in Chile. She began writing her first book, The House of the Spirits, on January 8, 1981 while a political refugee in Venezuela. It became a larger success than she ever thought possible, so she has since started all of her other works on that same special date of January 8. There were highs. Her books have sold 60 million copies and have been translated into 35 languages. She has won 50 awards in 15 countries. She carried a flag in the Olympics. There were lows. Her only daughter, Paula, died tragically at the age of 28.

She perseveres through it all, and at 71, doesn’t look a day over 50.

“I’m old, but I look good,” she quipped. “It takes a lot of money.”

Her latest book Ripper is her first mystery. It takes place in present day San Francisco. Unlike her elaborate works of historical fiction that took several years of research, writing a crime thriller was a breeze. “If you want to learn how to kill someone,” she said, “just Google it.”

Teachers and professors all over the world have tried to find hidden meanings in Allende’s work. Tons of students have written complex theses about her symbolism. While she respects the world of academia, it’s not really her thing.

“The joy of reading shouldn’t be destroyed by overanalyzing,” she said. “Reading is a connection, it’s fun. It’s a conversation in the kitchen. Pulling apart a book can sometimes ruin it.”

This is why she writes “from the belly” and not the brain. “[Writing] happens in spite of me. It’s always a struggle at first, but then the characters become people. They talk to me.”

When asked for advice about writing, she borrowed a sentiment shared by Elizabeth Gilbert at an event a few days earlier. “Don’t expect success," she suggested. "Do it because you love it so much that it would be a burden if you didn’t do it. Writing is like sports. You train. You write every day.”

I wasn’t planning on waiting in line to have Allende sign my book. In fact, I’ve never done that with any author. I was perfectly content standing nearby and taking in her aura. But my husband cajoled me. He knew that I secretly wanted to have one shared moment with her. I have, after all, read 18 of her books over the last 20 years. I have a degree in Spanish. But how do you eloquently express how much she has inspired you, when there are clusters of people in front of you and behind you clamoring to do the same thing?

You simply say “Gracias.”

Thank you, Isabel.

And then you go home and write.

Future Evenings with Authors include Claire Messud on February 27, J.A. Jance on March 10, Carl Hoffman on March 31, Bruce Weber on April 9 and Lynn Cullen on May 6. Click here for tickets.