Isabel Allende: ‘I have been displaced most of my life’

The Guardian
The Guardian
‘I have been displaced most of my life – reading Neruda takes me back to my roots’ … Isabel Allende.

My earliest reading memory

When I started reading, age five, an uncle gave me a book of Nordic fairytales with illustrations of princesses in furs, bears, ice and snow. I was fascinated. I had never seen snow.

My favourite book growing up

I was 10 when I read (many times) The Call of the Wild by Jack London. The Sled dog Buck’s ordeals broke my heart. I am a crazy animal lover.

The book that changed me as a teenager

Arabian Nights, which I read in the perfect setting of Beirut in the 1950s, hiding in my stepfather’s armoire where he kept (locked up) liquor, cigarettes, chocolates and four leather-bound volumes, which obviously he didn’t want me to read. I found a way of opening the armoire when he was not home and I read the books with a flashlight. Those one thousand and one stories initiated me into eroticism, fantasy and the incurable vice of storytelling.

The writer who changed my mind

I read Eduardo Galeano’s 1971 book Open Veins of Latin America when I was 29. It was the time of the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile, when the country was in turmoil. Reading Galeano I became keenly aware of the political and social struggles in Latin America and particularly in Chile. Galeano inspired my politics to this day.

The book that made me want to be a writer

Between 1978 and 1980, while living in exile in Venezuela, I read and reread all the great books of the boom of Latin American literature. I was in my late 30s, had a boring job, my marriage was failing and my kids didn’t need me any more. Those books, especially One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, made me want to tell the story of my family and my country. I started writing my first novel, The House of the Spirits, as an exercise in nostalgia.

The book I came back to

I could never finish Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes until 2011, when I received the Alcalá de Henares award. That’s the city where supposedly Cervantes was born, and the award is given in his honour.

The book I reread

Complete Works by Pablo Neruda. I have been displaced most of my life. Neruda takes me back to my roots and the landscapes of Chile. Now that I live in English [in the US], I read Neruda every 7 January, the day before I start writing another book. (I start all my books on 8 January.)His words trigger my imagination and enrich my Spanish.

The book I could never read again

In my adolescence I read a few romance novels. I can’t do it now.

The book I discovered later in life

My dictionary of synonyms and rhymes (in Spanish). I had no idea something like that existed, and since 1985 it has been my daily tool for writing.

The book I am currently reading

I am usually reading more than one book at a time. Right now: The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason and Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr.

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