What I have learned is, that there is no age for passion or for love.
The Chilean author has written over 20 books, that have been translated into more than 35 languages and sold nearly 70 million copies. Her best-known works include the novels The House of the Spirits, Eva Luna, Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia, Paula, Maya’s notebook. Her work is often based on her personal experience and historical events and pay homage to the lives of women, while weaving together elements of myth and realism.
Several of her books were made into movies, including the eternal “The House of the Spirits”, starring Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Antonio Banderas, Glenn Close and Winona Ryder. There are three movies based on her novels currently in production — Aphrodite, Eva Luna and Gift for a Sweetheart.
Over the years, Allende has received numerous awards for her work and in 2014, President Barack Obama presented Allende with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
On December 9, 1996, Allende started the Isabel Allende Foundation in honour of her daughter, Paula Frías Allende, who fell into a coma after complications of the disease porphyria led to her hospitalisation. Paula was 28 years old when she died in 1992. The foundation is “dedicated to supporting programs that promote and preserve the fundamental rights of women and children to be empowered and protected.”
In 2015, after 27 years of marriage, Isabel Allende separated from her second husband, the attorney and writer Willie Gordon and moved into a small house with her dog. In October 2016, she met a New York-based lawyer, with whom she fell in love and the two of them are making plans to move in together soon.
I got into contact with your assistant at the beginning of this year. She told me that you are on a writing retreat, which of course coincides with 8th of January – the date you start your new books. Would you share what came to life on this 8th of January?
Well, I was finishing another book. I thought it would be finished in December but it wasn’t. I had to rewrite the whole thing. So I just finished that. It’s called “Invincible summer”. It’s a novel set in the United States in 2016 in Brooklyn. It is going to be published in Spanish in June and in English – by the end of the year. My Bulgarian publisher is really wonderful. They have published most of my work, so I am sure that at some point it will be published in Bulgarian as well, but I can’t tell you when.
You separated from your second husband Willie with whom you have been married for quite some time, in 2015. In an interview you said that this time of separation was a time for you to explore love: can it endure, why does it end, can you have love at any point of life. What did you learn about love?
Well, the first thing I learned is, that nothing is for sure, everything changes in time. When I met Willie many years ago I fell madly in love with him immediately and I think that I remained in love with him for many many years. During that time my daughter died, two of his children died, he got sick. So a lot of tragedy happened to us, he got very depressed and eventually, the relationship changed.
What I also learned is that you have to work on the relationship all the time and both people have to work together. If only one person is interested in maintaining the relationship, it’ll not work. And we, I think, tried for a while and then he stopped trying and so eventually we separated.
I thought I would be very happy alone and for a while, I could. I moved to a very small house, very contained space, with my dog and started a new life – new friends, new neighbourhood. The only thing that stayed the same was my family and my office, the people in my office. But the rest – everything changed. And I think that I did pretty well and that I will never fall in love again. However, last year, a man in New York heard me talking on the radio. He was driving to Boston and he pulled over to hear the program. He was so impressed that he emailed my office.
I get hundreds of emails but I don’t know why, I responded to this person.
And we started emailing every single day for five or six months. We finally met in October and we fell in love and we have a very profound relationship. Of course, he is in New York and I am in California, but the plan is to get together and I never thought that this could happen to me again. But you see, even at 74 you can find love. What I have found out, what I have learned is, that there is no age for passion or for love. You can be a teenager, you can be fifty years old or you can be eighty. It doesn’t matter.
That is fantastic news, very reassuring.
(laughs) Why, Irina, why reassuring? There is hope always. And I realised that I am much happier when I am in love. I thought I could be really happy alone and I can. But this is much better – to share my life with someone.
You have mentioned the loss of your daughter and your ex-husband’s children, that this must have been the hardest period in your life. What is your perspective on loss in life and on letting go?
I learned that the hard way. In 1992, when I turned 50 years old, my daughter Paula fell into a coma and eventually a year later she died. And during that long year, I took care of her, and day by day I had to let go of everything. I thought I could control the situation, I thought I could make her better, I thought I could make her comfortable. But there was very little that I could do. I had to let go all forms of control and surrender to the fact that she was going to die. And when she died I had to let go of the last things about her and just keep the spirit and the memories. That was the hardest lesson in my life but it was something that I have been able to use over and over. When I separated from Willie, it was so easy for me to let go of the big house, of all the furniture, of the paintings, of Willie, of the old friends, so for me now – I feel very free.
I feel that I am not attached to anything material and to very few people.
In your TEDx talk, you say that you intend to live passionately. How do you keep the passion alive and is there a fine line between passions and addiction?
I don’t think passion and addiction are the same thing. Passion is energy. Energy of the imagination and the activity that you put into life and that can be applied to anything in life – passion to your work, passion to your country, passion for the causes that I support, like feminism, like women’s issues, like justice; all those things are something very important in my life and I tackle them passionately. And the same I do with love and with relationships. I am not interested in acquaintances – I want friends, I am not interested in relatives – I want people who are really close to me, whom I can trust blindly, for whom I would sacrifice anything to help them. Those are the relationships I am interested in. The rest – I don’t have time for.
In my work, I am passionate about every book I write. And once the book is finished and is gone, it doesn’t belong to me anymore and I tackle another book passionately – another theme, another chapter, another research.
That is the way I think about life. And very fortunately for me, age is not a factor to have enthusiasm for life. So, when I did the TED talk and I talked about living passionately, it was not only about love, it was about everything else I do. And I think that the fact that I could fall in love again means that I have an open heart and that I have passion for everyday life.
Do you have any small practical tips for keeping the passion alive in the everyday life?
I would say that the first thing is to be healthy. It is very hard to have passion or energy when you are sick when you don’t have good health, when you are tired. It is possible but it is hard. So, if you have a good health, my only tip is – get out there! Get out of yourself. Stop looking at yourself, looking at your own little world, and participate in the world outside. Be out there, be of service, work in the community, be engaged with life, with news, with what happens with your neighbours, with your friends, with your family. I think people get lazy and they settle in their comfort zone and they don’t participate in life. And that is how they get depressed, and how they become anxious and get old.
I know a woman, Olga Murray. She is 92 years old. She is the most passionate person I know. She has a foundation that works with orphan children in Nepal, she travels every year – 6 months every year to Nepal, she runs the foundation. She has helped thousands of kids. And that is to live passionately at 92. There is no age for this.
You say you have been a feminist even before the word was invented and you have become one after having to witness how unhappy oppressed women are. Women today have the word feminism. Do you think they are happier?
I think we have achieved a lot. I was born in the 40s in Chile, in a very socially conservative and catholic society. The state of women then was very different from the state of women now. Now we have a woman president. So things have changed and they have changed for the better in most countries. However, still, women are oppressed. Women are still raped, exploited, abused in many ways in many countries. And there are places where they are considered almost as cattle, they have absolutely no standing in the society. So, still, we have a lot of work to do. But already something has been achieved and that is due to feminism. I think that women have to fight for their own rights, no one is going to give them anything, you have to get it.
The young women today who think that they don’t have to work for themselves and that the struggle is over – they are wrong.
Now we have in the United States the president Trump, who is a woman hater. He is a terrible man. And there are huge women’s demonstrations in every city and it is very important to get engaged.
Asked what is your message to the young people today who suffer from the political situation in Venezuela, you say that governments pass, people stay. How much of an influence do you think governments have over nations’ happiness and wellbeing?
It has a lot to do with it.
Governments go, governments change, but people stay.
I experienced that in Chile. We had a dictatorship for 17 years, and it changed, and now we have a democracy. But I think that governments give the tone of life. We had a dictatorship in which there is no choice, no free press, no information, no progress, no freedom in which you can be arrested and you can be killed and nobody cares. So that establishes a mood of terror which of course doesn’t allow any happiness. Some private happiness maybe, but not the happiness in the country.
We are living in the United States in a situation in which half the country- at least half the country – if not more, are afraid. They are afraid of where this is going to lead, with this man who is now the president, who seems to be crazy. I am horrified by what happened in the US and I do hope that the institutions in the country are so strong, that they will be able to withstand the craziness of the government, that the institutions will withstand to Trump. But if that doesn’t happen, things will change dramatically for the worse in this country. So, of course, the political situation affects the country. Look at Syria. You have millions of refugees, millions of people who for more than six years have been struggling for life.
Over the past year and a half, I have been interviewing people about happiness. I have mostly talked to scientists who work in the field. It seems to me that science, however, is failing to grasp and measure something about happiness. What meaning do you imply in the word happiness and is happiness closer to art than science?
I don’t think that you can define happiness with science. Happiness is being. And I don’t think happiness is permanent state – it is a momentary state. You can be happy in a certain moment and unhappy in the next moment. The idea that we can be happy forever without any inconvenience, that is crazy and it doesn’t happen that way. Happiness to me is to be content with what you have. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to have dreams anymore and imagine things that you want, but basically you have to be content with who you are and with your circumstances. Don’t want too much, because no matter how much you want, there will always be something more that you want after that, and it’s a never ending battle. You will never have everything you want, to be happy.
Happiness is something that happens inside your heart, inside your soul and it has nothing to do with what you have in the world.
It is who you are. I don’t think that science can tackle that.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of hormones or the kind of person that you are. There are people with terrible lives, with horrible tragedies, and they are capable of happiness. And other people have, that have everything – they have money, they have beauty, they have youth, they have anything they want, and they are depressed and unhappy. It is all very personal.
This leads me to the question of when are you more productive – when you are sad or when you are happy?
It has nothing to do with it. My work is my work. Writing is my job. If you work in an office, you go every day, even when you are not happy about it. I get up every day at 6 o’clock in the morning. First thing, I answer all my emails and then I start to work, and my work is writing. It doesn’t matter if I feel happy or not this day, if I have a headache or not – this is what I need to do, this is the book I need to write, and I do it. It has nothing to do with my stage of happiness.
‘Magic realism’ is a definition that goes hand in hand with your books. How do you feel about that label and is there still space left in our lives for magic or realism today?
Depends on the definition of magic realism today.
For me there is always a mysterious dimension of reality, things that you cannot explain, things that you cannot fight or control.
That dimension of the mysterious, of the spirit world, and I don’t mean ghosts or anything like that, but I think the people that I love, that are dead or not, that are far away, they all live with me. I think that my characters become people when I am writing about them. I allow all that in my life. And I allow the mystery, the coincidences, the dreams, they can be prophetic dreams – all that is part of my life, very strongly. And I allow that in my books as well. That would be magic realism for me. And I think there is space for it in everybody’s lives.