"Everything I write is in some storage room inside me." -- Isabel Allende
I missed Isabel Allende's recent author talk with the launch of her new historical fiction, The Island Beneath the Sea. But I did hear the renowned Chilean author speak years ago at the annual Travel Writers and Photographers Conference at Book Passage near her home in Marin County, California.
Though she doesn't call herself a 'travel writer', her memoirs, novels and children's books "use place as a form of character - a place that's true, that comes to life with all the senses - not just as backdrop to a story." Speaking on a panel and in interviews she told us, "Learn the art of storytelling. Paint pictures with feeling. Use metaphors and humor to take the reader along in your shoes."
Then, she did just that. She regaled us with a story she'd never told or written before. I could see the women like black birds under the lone tree in the Indian desert. I could feel the anguish and hope when they handed her their baby to claim as her own, auspicious since the death of her own daughter Paula.
Unlike many writers who keep notes while in a new place, for Allende "to bring out a notebook would contradict the emersion and authenticity." Instead, people and places get internalized through experience, then live inside her. Once she has a time period or a sketch: "If I need a priest I observe one, and the character is created in my mind."
Allende believes you have to really know a place to write about it, "otherwise it's just surface impressions or misinterpretation." She writes a few months per year in her garden studio. But she does all the research beforehand. "Things take time to percolate. Much of the writing is pre-writing, like pregnancy," she said.
Allende agreed with the travel journalists who emphasized the importance of getting the facts straight. But, to my delight, she spoke to the "many gray areas" in shaping narrative. "Then," she added with elegant flair, "elaborate on the rest!"
[photo by Lori Barra, (c) 2009]