Photo credit: Lori Barra
I have been writing for 35 years, and have written 23 books. I often don’t even know what the book is about until it’s been published and the reviews come out. The creative process is a mystery to me. In the last few months, I have been editing and revising the English translation of my latest novel, In the Midst of Winter
. This has given me the opportunity to think about creativity and try to unravel its mysteries. Good luck with that!
There are stories in the air: they exist all around us, and they need to be told. I apply some skill, hard work, and attention to the subtle connections between people and events to that raw material and, with some discipline, my books come to be. Discipline means that I show up in front of my computer every day, and every year I start on January 8. Do I always have a plan for a book on that date? Not really. In most cases, all I have is a vague idea that will evolve and change completely in the months to come. That’s why I don’t like talking about the book in progress, because whatever I write today may be deleted tomorrow. It’s all trial and error.
For In the Midst of Winter,
it all began in December 2015 in Brooklyn. The weather was so warm that people were walking around in short sleeves. It looked like Christmas in Jamaica. I had rented a brownstone to spend the holidays with my family and some friends. We were having breakfast and someone asked what was I going to write in January. I had no idea and was beginning to panic. “Write about this house,” said one of my grandkids. “Write about this neighborhood,” said a friend, and she told us bloody stories about the Italian mafia who owned many of those houses when she was growing up. “Write about me,” added another friend, who is a scholar. “Write about refugees,” said Lori, my daughter-in-law, who runs my foundation and gets to see tragic cases among our grantees.
After the holidays, I returned home to the Bay Area. January 8 came, as it always does, and all the material I had was a brownstone in Brooklyn, maybe a corpse or two, a finicky professor at NYU, and an undocumented immigrant. Not much of a plan or a script, which has never worked for me. In 2005, I had to come up with one for my novel Zorro
because the character is owned by a corporation and they needed to be sure that I would treat the hero with due respect. For that matter, I could not dress him in a pink tutu or make him Bulgarian or vegetarian. They approved the script, but for the life of me, I could not follow it.
When I start a book, I imagine that I enter with a candle into a large dark room where the story and the characters are hiding. I walk slowly and the flimsy flame of the candle illuminates bits and pieces of what hides in the darkness. I have to guess the rest. It’s an uncertain process. I find myself in dead-end alleys and labyrinths, the faces I see change constantly, and it seems impossible to make sense of the capricious information I get. But day by day, I bring enough light into that space; the characters begin to appear — fully fleshed with voices, names, and personalities — and they start telling me who they are and what has happened to them. I can’t control them. Characters in a novel are like people: complicated, contradictory, unreasonable, but their actions always have to be consistent with who they truly are. I can’t have an angry, uneducated, neo-Nazi volunteering in a homeless shelter. I know — in real life, that may happen, but it can’t happen in a novel. Fiction has to be believable, while reality seldom is.
There are stories in the air: they exist all around us, and they need to be told.
The characters move the story forward. I may have a simple linear plot in my mind, but as I get to know them, the plot changes dramatically; sometimes it takes a surprising turn and I find myself in a totally different situation. That’s when I know that the novel is really happening, when the characters have taken over.
As I said, Christmas 2015 was unnervingly warm, but by January 22, 2016, a terrible blizzard hit several states on the East Coast. It was the worst recorded weather in New York since 1869. Millions of people ended up without electricity, gas, and means of communication or transportation, which was wonderful news for me! This was exactly what I needed to put together the loose elements of my story.
A brownstone in Brooklyn and three unlikely characters trapped in a snowstorm for three days. Who are they? The prissy American professor is the owner of the house. His tenant in the basement apartment is a Chilean journalist. Then there is a young Guatemalan refugee who faces a life-and-death situation. What brings them together? This was before Donald Trump was even a candidate, and no one was talking about building something akin to the Great Wall of China to protect us from invaders and deporting 11 million people. But the plight of refugees was already in the collective consciousness, and it is a priority in the work my foundation does. As a result, I didn’t have to invent the Guatemalan girl; I know several undocumented refugees like her.
Then, I stumbled upon a quote by Albert Camus
that says, “In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer.” That quote resonated with me. After my divorce and the deaths of my agent, three of my best friends, and my dog, I felt that I was stuck in a personal winter, as were the characters in the book. Writing about their respective winters, I overcame my own. Something needed to happen to those characters and to myself to find the invincible summer that we all have inside.
Then, the exciting work began for me. I did research on snowstorms, real estate in Brooklyn, gangs in Guatemala, politics in Brazil, academic bureaucracy at NYU, the military coup and dictatorship in Chile, breast cancer, and much more. A thousand pieces of a puzzle were scattered in front of me. Each piece added shape, color, and meaning. When the last piece was finally in place, I marveled at the invincible summer that was revealed at the heart of the story.
It is not a coincidence that my most recent novels, The Japanese Lover
and In the Midst of Winter
, feature older people falling in love. I am in my 70s and I want love, passion, and romance like any teenager, but Match.com is not for me. No one online would ever be interested in a short, bossy Latina grandmother. Now, if I get to meet a guy I like in person, well that’s different. I grab him by the neck, or whatever part of him is closest to me, and he doesn’t stand a chance. We humans are sexual and sentimental creatures to the very ends of our lives, a fact that makes my grandchildren cringe, but I am digressing.
There is consistency in my beliefs, my writing, and the way I lead my life, as there is continuity and consistency in the themes I write about and the characters that inhabit my pages. I write about strong women who overcome terrible obstacles, absent fathers, love, loyalty, courage, death, and violence. I write about people who are silenced and those who are not protected by the big umbrella of the establishment: the poor, the desperate, the immigrants, and the disabled. But no matter how dark the circumstances may be, my characters survive. They are not depressed or bitter, but just the opposite; they manage to be or to become strong and joyful. In this respect, In the Midst of Winter
is no exception, although it is very different from my other books. I tend to write complicated sagas or historical dramas, and this is a very contained and contemporary story.
We are getting to the end of the year, and I have to prepare for next January 8. I have no idea what I will write, but I trust that there is a story in the air searching for an author.
÷ ÷ ÷
Born in Peru and raised in Chile, Isabel Allende
is the author of a number of bestselling and critically acclaimed books, including The House of the Spirits
, Eva Luna
, Stories of Eva Luna
, Of Love and Shadows
, and The Japanese Lover
. Her latest book is In the Midst of Winter
. Her books have been translated into more than 35 languages and have sold more than 65 million copies worldwide. She lives in California. Her website is IsabelAllende.com.