Isabel Allende is a living literary legend: The Chilean-American author, best known for the breakout success of her 1982 novel, House of Spirits, has had her prolific collection of work (24 books and counting) translated into 35 languages, and has earned some 60 awards. Plus, she’s a proud feminist, which manifests in her writing and her charitable work — Allende started a foundation in her late daughter’s honour to further reproductive rights for women and fund programs for survivors of abuse. Her latest novel, In the Midst of Winter, follows three lonely characters in Brooklyn brought together by a car accident on a snowy day: a young undocumented nanny originally from Guatemala, a 62-year-old professor from Chile and a 60-year-old American with a painful past life in Brazil.
Allende spoke with Chatelaine about finding new love at age 75 and how the #MeToo movement might permanently move the needle on sexual misconduct.
The book features the possibility of love in the later stages of life. At the time of writing, you were heartbroken over the end of your marriage. What was it like writing a love story in that circumstance?
I was going through a divorce, my agent died, a few of my best friends died, and my dog died. It was sort of a long, emotional winter. I was trying to remember that there is always an invincible summer waiting to emerge.
That’s why I chose to write about three people who are going through a similar situation of loneliness and sadness. In the process, my life changed. I exorcised my own sorrow and I opened my heart to a new relationship, which is now going so fast — in a couple of weeks, he’s moving into my house.Subscribe To Our Newsletters For Perfect Reading Picks, Straight To Your Inbox
Your new partner started writing to you after hearing you on NPR [the U.S.’s National Public Radio], is that right? Tell me a little bit more about how your romance started.
Yes, he started writing me messages every day, saying good morning and goodnight, and sending pictures of his cappuccino or of the full moon. It was just a constant presence. I would get up in the morning and run to the phone. I got used to it. I started depending on it.
For five months of this, we never talked. I had to go to New York to attend a gala [and] we went out for lunch and I said, “Look, what are are your intentions? Because I’m 74, and I don’t have time to waste.” If he had said that to me, I would have run away as fast as possible. That was in October of last year and it’s taken him a year to make the decision to leave everything and come to California.
Do you take a different approach to love at this age?
People ask me, “What is it like to fall in love at 75?” It’s exactly the same as 17, but you don’t have time. So there’s a sense of urgency.
Letter-writing has always been central to your life — you write to your mother every day and House of Spirits started as a letter to your grandfather. What’s so special about the medium for you?
Some people write journals; I can’t do that. I need a reader. My [97-year-old] mother has been there for me to correspond with for decades. I save her letters and at the end of the year I put them in plastic boxes in a storage room. I have decades of boxes, and each box contains between 600 to 800 letters. So you can imagine all my life and all her life is there.
For me, letter-writing gives me the sense that I lived that day. What I don’t write, I will forget, and if I forget it, it’s as if I never lived it.
Evelyn Ortega, one of the main characters in In the Midst of Winter, is a young woman from Guatemala who has escaped a violent past and is cut off from most of her family, working as an undocumented caregiver in Brooklyn. What do you hope to convey about the experience of immigration that doesn’t come across in the news?
In the news, we hear about the plight of immigrants in abstract numbers — we don’t see faces, names or stories. Some of the projects my foundation supports are for refugees and undocumented immigrants. I see cases like Evelyn’s — I didn’t have to make it up, unfortunately.
Also in the book is a theme you’ve written extensively about: sexual violence and its impact on women. In the last few months, we have seen powerful men lose their positions because of sexual misconduct. In the wake of this, do you think the way we talk about sexual violence and sexual harassment is shifting?
It will make a change — not immediately, but in the long run, it will. Many years ago, Anita Hill was the first one to denounce sexual harassment in the workplace, and she lost her case and the guy was elected to the Supreme Court. What she did then, [though it] seemed like a defeat at the moment, changed everything in the workplace in the U.S., and by extension in many other places in the world, because women and men became conscious about something that has always been a problem but that nobody had tackled. Now the same thing has happened, but it’s not just one Anita Hill — thousands are coming forward, and that will change the balance of gender power.
Some people say the solution is more women in power. Do you think that will that change things?
What will topple the patriarchy is a critical number of women in the management of the world. But a critical number. We don’t need smart women that we know by name, we need millions.
You always start writing a new book on Jan. 8. Why?
Before, it was for superstition, and now it’s for discipline. [It’s a way to] carve the time, the silence, and the solitude I need for the book. The people around me — my agent, my editor, my family — know that I’m starting Jan. 8, and I’m not available, so I can really have my time and that is wonderful.
I have never started a book on another date and I have never left a book without finishing it. Sooner or later, even if it takes years, I will finish.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.