The National Endowment for the Humanities turns 50 next year. William “Bro” Adams, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, wants to make sure that the study of history, philosophy, and literature remains accessible to everyone. A conversation about his new "Common Good" initiative.
Isabel Allende discusses why she chose slavery as the subject of her new historical novel. It’s the story of an orphaned mulatta who travels from pre-revolutionary Haiti to French-controlled New Orleans and her quest for freedom.
- Isabel Allende author of nine novels, a collection of stories, four memoirs and a trilogy of children's novels.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Quote, "In my 40 years, I've had better luck than other slaves. I am going to have a long life, and my old age will be a time of contentment." Those are the opening lines of "Island Beneath the Sea." It's an historical novel by Isabel Allende. It's the story of a female slave who lives on a French Caribbean island, which later became Haiti. Allende is the author of novels, memoirs and a collection of short stories. She joins me in the studio. I hope you'll join us as well, 800-433-8850. I know Isabel Allende has many, many fans around the world. You can join us on Facebook. You can send us a tweet. You can join us by e-mail to email@example.com. It's so good to see you.
MS. ISABEL ALLENDEIt's my pleasure as always to be with you, Diane.
REHMI'm glad. I'm glad. Describe for us the French colonial times in which you have set this novel.
ALLENDEThe novel is set at the end of the 1700s, beginning of the 1800s, when -- what is today, Haiti was the richest French colony in the world. And slavery had been abolished in France, but not in the colony. And the colony produced indigo, tobacco, especially sugar, cotton and many other crops that -- and it was sustained by the labor of half a million slaves.
ALLENDEThese African slaves were exploited to death in the sense that they would be brought from Africa, put in the plantations, and their life expectancy could be four to six years in the fields. They were almost not fed and exploited 16, 18, 20 hours a day in horrible conditions. And they were controlled by a group of free people -- white people. The free people were 34,000 in total. Twenty thousand were whites and 14,000 were affranchi, which were people of color -- free people of color...
ALLENDE...of mixed race. And the fate of the slaves was so awful that they're -- they had two choices, escape or die. That was the only way they could be liberated. And they thought that when they died, their souls would go to the island beneath the sea, which was Guinea -- paradise -- because they had come by sea, and many of them had not seen the ocean before. So they thought that in order to return to the lost land, they would have to go by sea. So the title of the book comes from the idea of paradise. And they were revolting all the time or escaping, but, finally, they got together, and there was a revolt that was brutal, of extreme violence.
ALLENDENapoleon sent his best troops -- 30,000 men -- and they were defeated by mosquitoes, malaria, but by the slaves, too. And the slaves were fighting against the cannons of Napoleon, naked with machetes or with whips. They were convinced that the spirits of the dead would rise from the island beneath the sea to fight with them. So they were -- they had this superhuman courage, superhuman power of the spiritual practice that they had -- voodoo.
REHMThis was not exactly the novel you set out to write.
ALLENDENot at all, Diane.
REHMAnd yet, I mean, the research that you've done to create this has allowed your imagination to really run free.
ALLENDEI was set out to write a novel about New Orleans, and I -- because I like the city very much -- so I had researched about the city. And I wanted to write a happy novel about pirates of the Caribbean, and I ended up writing about slavery. The book is not only about slavery. It -- because what we know about slavery is not that much, you know? First of all, the conditions in this French colony were much worse than everywhere else in the world. And also, there are things about slavery that we never talk about. To give you an example, rape was a crime only when the woman was white. If that woman was a person of color, there was no crime. It could not be prosecuted. Incest was considered incest if the people involved were white. But if a father raped his daughter that was of -- a person of color, that was not considered incest.
ALLENDENobody talked about it. Sometimes -- and often happened -- siblings would have relationships. And as long as they were not both whites, it didn't matter. It was just -- slaves were property. They were not people. And so when I started researching about this, all these elements started to unfold. And the story took me to Haiti, to research about Haiti, and so half the novel happens with my slave in the plantation in Haiti. And the other half happens when the revolution starts, and the whites have to escape. She has to leave with her master and the children.
REHMAnd this is Zarite?
REHMTalk about her.
ALLENDEThe novel starts with Zarite when she's 9 years old, and she's sold to a planter. And the planter is a white man who is not a villain. He is almost a good guy for the times. And he has come from France, doesn't like slavery -- slavery had been abolished in France. They didn't have slaves. But he comes to the plantation because his father is sick. His father dies, and he's stranded there, running a plantation. And for the first time, he has to deal with a problem of slavery. And so his ideas start to change as he deals with the problem. And he has a brutal overseer that takes care of the problems. He doesn't want to see the punishment.
ALLENDEHe doesn't want to know what's going on really because he tries to keep his humanity somehow. But things get worse, and the violence starts. And there's a moment when they have to get out. And when they go to -- when -- like, 10,000 white people escaped from the island. In one night, 100 ships left what is Cap-Haitien today, and was Le Cap then, with the refugees. Some went to Cuba. Some went back to France. And many went to Louisiana, and -- because it was a French colony, Spanish-French colony. And so they bought land there, and they changed the look of the city, the flavor of the city.
REHMNow, how much time did you spend writing this novel?
ALLENDEWriting, not that much, a year, but researching, like, four years.
ALLENDEIn the meantime, I wrote a memoir. But the research took a long time because it was not just the historical facts. You have to get into -- for example, what was the local medicine, for example. What kind of medicine did they...
ALLENDEYeah -- did the slaves use? What was medicine in France at the time the American Revolution, the French Revolution, Napoleon, the times of what was happening in Europe, in the world? It's fascinating.
REHMBut that was what was fun for you.
ALLENDEI love the research because the research gives me half the book, Diane.
REHMHmm. You went to Haiti before the flood.
ALLENDEYeah, I went before the book, long before the book because Haiti is now very different from the place it was when I -- when the -- my story happened. My story happened when it was, as I said, the richest colony of France. It was very fertile. It had plantations. It was covered with forest. And after the revolution -- I mean, during the revolution, it was burned to ashes, burned to the ground -- everything. Then they cut all the trees, and erosion took care of the land. And then the revolution was betrayed by its own generals.
ALLENDEAfter Toussaint L'Ouverture was arrested by Napoleon, taken to France -- and he died in a dungeon in the mountains in France, died, really, of cold and hunger -- other generals came after him. One of them was Dessalines, then Christophel (sp?) and others, and each one of them -- they were illiterate, brutal people that were very corrupt, and they -- Dessalines, for example, in order to finance the war, started selling his own people, the people who had fought with him for freedom. And the pirates of the Caribbean would buy the slaves and sell them in the black market in the United States where slave trade had been outlawed. So the slaves had a good price, and they were sold by the pirates.
REHMIsabel Allende, her new novel is titled, "Island Beneath the Sea." It's really such a drama that takes place in this young woman's life. Zarite is actually a -- her job is to care for the mistress of the house, the wife of the owner, and she feels very close to her.
ALLENDEShe's a Spanish woman. And, actually, it did happen that some European women that married white men in the colonies in the Caribbean went mad. They couldn't stand the weather. They couldn't stand the mosquitoes.
REHMWhat would the weather have been like?
ALLENDEVery hot, very hot and tropical and with tornados and hurricanes, and you name it. But what was -- the worst part was -- well, they were very isolated in the plantations. The climate of terror that everybody lived in -- the slaves because they were treated so atrociously and also because they were going to die, and the whites because they feared that they would be poisoned, murdered or that there would be a rebellion.
REHMIsabel Allende, she is the author of nine novels. Her newest is titled, "Island Beneath the Sea."
REHMI know many of you are waiting to speak with Isabel Allende, but I think you'll enjoy hearing her read from her new novel, "Island Beneath the Sea." You're going to start right from the beginning.
ALLENDEWell, you read the first line, so let me start with the second sentence.
ALLENDE"I know the pleasure of being with a man my heart has chosen. His large hands awaken my skin. I have had four children and a grandson, and those who are living are free. My memories of..." -- excuse me -- "My first memory of happiness when I was just a bony, runny-nosed, tangle-haired little girl is moving to the sound of the drums, and that is also my most recent happiness, because last night I was in the Place Congo dancing and dancing, without a thought in my head. And today my body is warm and weary."
ALLENDE"Music is a wind that blows away the years, memories and fear, that crouching animal I carry inside of me. With the drums, the everyday Zarite disappears, and I'm again the little girl -- the little girl who danced when she barely knew how to walk. I strike the ground with the soles of my feet and life rises up my legs, spreads up my skeleton, takes possession of me, drives away distress and sweetens my memory. The world trembles. Rhythm is born on the island beneath the sea. It shakes the earth. It cuts through me like a lighting bolt and rises toward the sky, carrying with it my sorrows so that Papa Bondye can chew them, swallow them and leave me clean and happy. The drums conquer fear."
REHMIsabel Allende, reading from her new novel titled, "Island Beneath the Sea." Isabel, before the break, you were talking about voodoo and how it plays into this novel.
ALLENDEYes. We know very little about voodoo. And we try -- we have the Hollywood image, you know, of the zombies and that stuff. It's a great religion. It has one god only, Papa Bondye, who is so far away that we can't really reach him, reach the god. But there are the loas, the lesser gods or so, like the equivalent of the saints in the Catholic Church.
REHMAnd that's spelled L-O-A.
ALLENDEL-O-A-S, the loas.
REHMYes, the loas.
ALLENDEAnd the loas represent different aspects of the psyche. We have Erzulie, for example, who is the goddess of love and eroticism and abundance and water. And we have Legba, the god of death. And so there are different loas. And the great thing about this religion is that the practitioner, in trance with the drums and the dancing and the ceremony, is mounted by the god. And the loa -- and the practitioner becomes the loa -- and although after the trance most probably won't remember anything, the experience of the divinity is very empowering.
ALLENDEAnd so when they would go to war, they would feel empowered by that experience of the divine. And I can only say that -- personally, I have never felt it. And the closer would be on drugs or some saint in ecstasy. But this is something that can happen to the poorest, to the most miserable human being, and I find it extraordinary.
REHMHow do you suppose Hollywood got it so wrong?
ALLENDEWe always get it wrong when it's somebody else's religion.
REHMMm hmm, mm hmm.
ALLENDEWhen it's somebody else's religion, it's called superstition or magic realism. When it's our belief, then it's religion.
REHMSo you explored it to a great extent, this voodoo.
ALLENDEI did, in theory. I have never been in a trance. I have been in ceremonies, but have not been in a trance.
REHMBut you've spoken directly with people who have?
REHMYou've seen it.
ALLENDEWe've seen it, yeah. I say we because we went with a group. In Brazil, we saw it.
ALLENDEYeah, and it's extraordinary, the empowerment that this gives people.
REHMAnd in the beginning, as you just read, Zarite feels it.
ALLENDEShe feels the drums. And with the drums, she starts dancing. And in the dance, she -- she's empowered. There's a sentence in the book that is repeated several times, and -- "the slave that dances is free while she dances."
REHMTony from Traverse City, Mich., called to say, "Ms. Allende has a beautiful voice."
ALLENDEOh, thank you so much.
REHMLet's talk about the qualities of Zarite because she is an exceptional woman. She is raped repeatedly by her master, yet she simply endures it as kind of part of the job.
ALLENDEYes, because that was the norm. It was how life was then for most female slaves. But things are much more complicated than that because she raises his son, the son of this mad, white woman that dies very young. So Zarite brings up Maurice, the child, as if it was her own child and loves him. And the child calls her Mama, and she thinks of him as her son and defends him like her son. And there's a point in the book when she has to choose between freedom or staying with the children, and stays with the child.
REHMAnd the father, actually, becomes somewhat jealous because the son loves Zarite so much.
ALLENDELoves her so much. But also, in the relationship between the master and the slave, there is much more than rape. There is -- there's dependency, affection. The master owes her her freedom because she has saved his life. And according to the black code, he would have had to emancipate her. But he doesn't, not because he's a bad guy, but because he doesn't want to lose her.
REHMWhat does Zarite look like?
ALLENDEI can describe her to you to the last cell in her body because I saw her in a dream or somewhere. Zarite is tall. She has a long neck, long, elegant hands, high cheekbones, slanted eyes, very short hair. She walks like a flamingo. She has an incredible elegance. She's very self-contained, with a deep voice, speaks very little, and what she says is very clever. She's very smart. She has a great common sense, incredible passion -- passion for her freedom, passion for her children, passion for love when she falls in love. I just love Zarite. Of all my characters, she is the one I like the most.
REHMYou said you saw her...
REHM...in a dream.
ALLENDEYes. I researched for four years for this book. I had the book ready to start when I had done two years of research, and I didn't have her. So on Jan. 8 -- when I start all my books -- I couldn't start the book because she was missing. And so I wrote a memoir in between called, "The Sum of Our Days," and I kept on researching. And then one day, she was there. And I don't know, Diane, if she came in a dream, if she came in meditation, if she really was a ghost that came to my house and said, write me, write my story. I have no idea. But I know who Zarite is.
ALLENDENo. I know how she smells. I need to describe in the book.
REHMDo you still see her?
ALLENDEYes, I see her. Every time I speak about her, she's here standing next to me.
REHMDid your experience in Chile enter into your thinking about writing this book?
ALLENDEI don't know. I think that I write about what I care for. And, eventually, everything that I have experienced comes out in the writing in twisted ways. In Chile, there were no plantations. There was no -- there weren't -- we didn't have African slaves. We enslaved the indigenous people, but not -- we didn't bring slaves. There was not a market for slaves in Chile. So I -- culturally, I'm not related to the African-American experience of slavery. However, I know, because I know people, what it is to be in terror, what it is to lose a child, what it is to love passionately, to want your freedom and be independent because all my life has been about being independent. I don't want anybody paying my restaurant. I'll pay my bills. And just leave me alone. I want to be independent.
REHMSo early on, that feeling of, I want to be independent.
ALLENDEI was 5 years old when I had that feeling. I didn't want anybody taking care of me. I just wanted to take care of myself, and I know...
REHMNot even your parents?
ALLENDENo, because my parents were not reliable. My father left when I was 3 years old, and I never saw him again. And my mother had three children. She was very young. She had -- the only way that she could get any attention from the males in the family that supported her -- her father and her brothers and her uncles -- was by being sick. So she was sick all the time. And I just didn't want to be a victim. I wanted to take care of my own life, and I wanted to take care of my mom.
REHMAnd so you helped to take care of her.
ALLENDEYes. And my mom, as soon as she could liberate herself, blossomed. She's now 90 years old. And she's the smartest woman you could possibly imagine.
REHMWhere does she live?
ALLENDEShe lives in Chile.
REHMAnd how often...
ALLENDEAnd to give you an idea -- she's living in Santiago. It has been trembling with aftershocks since Feb. 27...
ALLENDE...when we had the big earthquake.
ALLENDEAnd my mother's letters and her phone conversations make me laugh because her comments about the earthquake and about how this is nothing compared to the priests that have molested kids in the church next door and -- no. She's just very funny, very funny.
REHMHow often do you see her?
ALLENDEI see her, like, three or four times a year.
ALLENDEBut I'm contact -- in contact with her everyday.
REHMAnd she is in good health now?
ALLENDEHer legs are swollen, and she can't walk very well. And she gets tired. But her head is better than ever.
REHMDoes she live with someone?
ALLENDEYeah, she married my stepfather when I was young, when I was 10 or 11.
REHMHow old is he?
ALLENDEHe's 94, and he's also doing great. But she's now liberated. She was the submissive wife of a diplomat for more than 60 years. And, now, when he retired, she said, I'm retiring, too. I'm retiring from being a lady, so now I can be a bitch. And that's what she is. I love her.
REHMReally? I mean, is she showing you that internal strength that you know you inherited?
ALLENDEYes, she's my role model. And she's a great writer, by the way. So when I read her letters, I always say, oh, I wish I could write like this.
REHMIsabel Allende, her newest novel is titled, "Island Beneath the Sea." You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have many callers. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Kalamazoo, Mich. Good morning, Raymond. Raymond, are you there?
RAYMONDOh, yes. Hello?
REHMYes, go right ahead.
RAYMONDYes. Thank you, Diane. What a great show. And God bless you, Diane. And God bless you, Ms. Allende and...
RAYMOND...your wonderful mother. And I basically wanted to ask you, for the most part, what was your inspiration? In part, early in the conversation or just now, you described what your inspiration was for writing the book as you're separated from the experience of, you know, the Caribbean experience and Haitian experience. I'm Haitian-American, by the way. And also, how much of a connection is there between Haiti and Louisiana? As (unintelligible), we don't know of any relatives in Louisiana.
ALLENDEOh, there is a deep connection because in New Orleans, there -- it was a town of 3,000 people at the most. And then, in a matter of two, three years, 10,000 refugees came, coming from what is today Haiti, escaping from the French Revolution. And they brought with them some of their domestic slaves that they trusted and their mistresses of color and their children of mixed race that they had had with them. And there was a class of free people of color in New Orleans that were educated, and many of them had even plantations. They had economic resources, professions. It was a golden era for them. It's the time of music, spiritual practice, Mardi Gras, parties, cuisine. All that comes from that time, so there is a very deep connection.
REHMThanks for calling. To -- let's see, Nicole, who's in Fort Washington, Md. Good morning to you.
NICOLEHi. Good morning. I wanted to thank Ms. Allende for writing this book. I'm so looking forward to reading it. And thank you, Ms. Rehm, for putting her on the program.
NICOLEI wanted to ask if -- indulge me, please, for the rest of the program -- if instead of using the word slave, if you can just consider the term enslaves because people were made into slaves. They are not...
NICOLE...necessarily what we make them to be, and I know -- I say this with great respect for both of you. But also, I wanted to talk a little about the term (word?). It is an expression that Haitians, to this day, we use, when we want to let somebody know that they have passed over...
NICOLE...that they've moved on. Some people may call it heaven. And I'm very happy to see that you give proper recognition to voodoo as a system of belief and not the cartoonery that many of us have basically grown up with. And the last point is, thank you for recognizing that the difficult relationship that women have had in the system of slavery is in fact a system where a woman could not say no. Women, many times, figured out how to barter, but that doesn't mean that they bartered because they wanted to, but that was a condition for under which they lived. So thank you for recognizing that.
ALLENDEWell, thank you. Are you Haitian?
NICOLEYes, I am Haitian-American. I grew up in Haiti and in the United States.
ALLENDEOh, good. Good. Well, thank you so much. I will keep in mind what you said. I had not thought about it.
ALLENDEThe word enslave...
REHM...a good point.
ALLENDEVery good point.
REHMEnslave because that...
ALLENDEBecause you don't choose to be a slave.
REHMExactly. And, surely, Zarite doesn't choose to be.
ALLENDENo. She's 9 years old, and she has already escaped several times by the age of nine.
REHMBut -- and her mother has taught her.
ALLENDENo. Her mother was an African young woman who -- in the ship, when they bring them from Africa, the women were systematically raped by the sailors, and that was because it was more convenient to get them pregnant. They would be more valuable in the slave market. So this was done systematically. Everybody -- it happened to everybody. So she is pregnant. She gives birth to Zarite, and then she tries to kill the baby. She doesn't want her baby to live in slavery. And, eventually, she kills herself.
REHMThe book is titled, "Island Beneath the Sea," Isabel Allende. Short break, and we'll be right back.
REHMAnd we have an e-mail from Anne who says, "I'm an artist who heard Ms. Allende speak at Butler University in the '90s. She spoke of her granddaughter's birth and being the midwife. She was the first to hold the baby and said to the child, tell me where you come from before you forget." She says, "It completely changed my approach to art and my soul as an artist. I am forever grateful for being in her presence at that moment in time." I'm sure you remember that very moment.
ALLENDEYes. And thank you for that wonderful message. My granddaughter was born shortly after my daughter died, and I held my daughter in my arms when she died. And I had the certainty that something had changed, that something had left the body and gone somewhere. And I wanted to go with her to that place. And then when Nicole was born -- and I sort of received her from her mother and cut the umbilical cord -- I had the same extraordinary certainty that she was coming from another place, the same place where my daughter had gone. And I just wanted her to tell me how it is over there. What is there? Where does the spirit go? Where -- from where does the spirit come? And I had the feeling that life is like a parenthesis, a station in a long, long journey.
REHMI remember your being here and talking about the death of your daughter. That was back in 1992.
REHMDid you draw on that experience as you wrote about a mother in this book...
REHM...holding her sick child?
ALLENDEYes, yes. In this book, there is a moment when the -- a mother holds her sick child and has to let her go, the child. Her daughter dies. But the grandchild has been born the day before, and she has forgotten about the grandchild because she's taking care of the mother. And then she remembers the grandchild. And that, in a way, happened to me. That life pulls you back to life.
ALLENDEAnd so she has to -- she picks up this little premature baby and puts the baby naked against her naked breast and wraps the baby around her and carries the baby for two weeks until the baby starts to live -- and can breastfeed and live, and she's breastfeeding her grandchild. And I could write that very clearly because that's the feeling I had with Nicole, that I was -- and with Andrea and also with Alejandro, my three grandchildren. They were all in diapers at that time -- that, while I was living the grief of Paula's death, I was being pulled back to life by these three kids.
REHMThe death of a child is something you never completely get over.
ALLENDEI don't know. I didn't. I'm a happy person. I have a life. I'm productive. I enjoy almost everything that happens in my life. I enjoy it. But Paula and her -- the loss of my daughter is always with me. I just can't even speak about it much.
REHMAll right. We'll go back to the phones. Let's go to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Good morning, Shannon. You're on the air.
SHANNONHi. Good morning. Thank you so much for taking my call.
SHANNONOh, I'm so really touched from the words that you were just saying about the loss of your daughter, so I'm just a little emotional. My question was -- I'm a huge fan of your writing. I particularly enjoy your works in Spanish. I use it to help improve my own Spanish, number one, and I just enjoy your writing.
SHANNONSo my question is pretty simple. Is this book -- did you write it? Do you think in English? Do you think in Spanish? Is it available in Spanish? I just wanted to ask how you do your writing in regards to the book.
ALLENDEWell, all my books are available first in Spanish because I write in Spanish and it takes several months to translate it and publish it in English. I think in Spanish...
REHMYou think in Spanish.
ALLENDEI think in images more than in words. And there are things that I can say in English more easily because I live in English. But writing fiction, telling a story comes to me in Spanish only. I can maybe write a speech in English, nonfiction. But fiction is something that happens in the womb, not in the brain.
REHMSo the book comes...
ALLENDEIn Spanish first. And I have a great translator. Margaret Sayers Peden was translator all my books except the first one. We have a relationship that is -- I mean, it's been there for almost 30 years, longer than any marriage, let me tell you.
REHMHow wonderful. Here's an e-mail from Claude in Dallas. And he says, as a question, "Mistress Allende rejects the term magic realism as applied to her own work. How would she describe what she does? Surely not as just fantasy or historical fiction."
ALLENDEI don't reject the term. I think that the term has been misused, applied to Latin-American literature as if it was salt and pepper. What is magic realism? Magic realism is accepting that the world is a very mysterious place, that we don't have all the answers or all the explanations, accepting that there are -- I don't know -- coincidences, prophetic dreams, emotions that can determine wars that we cannot explain either. And little -- people call them miracles, signs, whatever you want to call them. It is a reality that we deal with, if we pay attention, on our everyday lives.
ALLENDESo I accept that in my writing. In this -- in the case of this novel, which is a historical novel, the "Island Beneath the Sea," there is the element of voodoo. And voodoo may appear in the book as magic realism. But it is a religion, and it is something that people do experience. People do fall in trance, and if it was -- if, instead of voodoo, it was Christianity, we would think -- and people would experience those things in a Christian Church, then we wouldn't call it magic realism. We would call it something else.
ALLENDESo you see, that's...
ALLENDEI think that we have to have more respect for the unknown. That's all I want to say. But it's not that I don't like the term magic realism. I think that I -- it is in my books, of course, and in my life.
REHMNow, how do you deal with the realism that's in the world when you turn to your own writing? Does reality ever get in the way for you?
ALLENDESometimes reality is so awful that I try to suggest it and not describe it. For example, torture. I know a lot about it, and I never explain exactly what goes on in a torture chamber. I don't want to put ideas in some psychotic's mind. There are things that are real and don't have a place in my books. Or, for example, why would I write about Wall Street? It's a reality, but it's a boring reality. I don't want to write that in my books. But there are other things that, although they are in my books, they are not described fully because they can be horrible.
REHMTo Monica in Bel Air, Md. Good morning. You're on the air.
MONICAGood morning, Ms. Rehm and Senora Allende. Thank you for taking my call.
MONICAI actually wrote this down so that -- because I get very nervous. But anyway, I was calling because I have always dreamt of writing a historical book. Actually, since I was a child...
MONICA...I wanted to. And a few years ago, I actually found a topic that I'm extremely interested in, but I am little overwhelmed by -- about beginning the process. And I've gone to the Library of Congress and started it, but haven't -- I've stopped it a few years ago. And I was just wondering if you have any suggestions on how to organize or begin the process and really...
ALLENDEMm hmm, mm hmm.
ALLENDEYes, I know. One can be overwhelmed by the research. That happens a lot, that -- it happened to me at the beginning, especially that I would research, research and then have piles and piles of books, all marked. And then I didn't know where things were.
REHMWhere to begin, of course.
ALLENDEAnd I would remember something, and I couldn't find it in which book it is and whatever. I think that if you -- when I write -- in my case, when I write historical fiction, I immerse myself in a time and a place. I read as much as I can. I watch movies about that time. I read correspondence of that time. If people have traveled to the place, I read that, too. And then I put everything aside, and I tell a story because what is important is the story. And as I write the story, if I need things that I have -- details that I may have forgotten, I will know where to find them.
ALLENDEAnd, now, you have Internet where you can find details like dates and that kind of thing, so that helps a lot. But just put your research aside and concentrate on the story and let the story flow. If you force the story, try to control it too much, it's like trying to control life. Life is messy. Life is disorganized. It's unpredictable. You don't know what's going to happen. You don't know what's going to happen with your book either. Just let your characters be.
REHMThat's the hard part, I think, especially, perhaps, for a first novelist.
ALLENDEI don't think so. I think that, for a first novelist, it's easier. When -- as you start reading reviews of your own work, then you get scared. But with the first novel, you are free to do whatever you want.
REHMSomeone points out that in your book, "The House of Spirits," you did describe the torture of your character, Alba, which took place in Chile.
ALLENDENo. I described her getting in the hands of the torturer. I described when she wakes up, and her -- the spirit of her grandmother is holding her. I don't describe what is really done to her. I don't describe the rape. I described the consequences of the rape. I don't describe when she's -- they amputate her fingers. I described when the grandfather receives the fingers by mail. So the description of exactly what's going on in that moment, I avoided, because it's just too horrible.
REHMIsabel Allende, the novel we're talking about -- it's brand-new -- is titled "Island Beneath the Sea." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And now to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Good morning, Hans. You're on the air.
HANSDiane, can you hear me?
REHMYes. Go right ahead.
HANSHi. Diane, appreciate your show. I listen to it almost every day.
HANSAnd to Mrs. Allende, it's so very emotional to listen to you. I very much appreciate you writing the subject about Haiti and the culture. I lived 20 years in the Caribbean. I'm originally from Iraq. And it's very refreshing to pick up a subject like that because that area is very neglected, and you write it in a very emotional way, which is beautiful. I have experienced something like voodoo, and it's called Shango.
HANSAnd I think it's very similar.
HANSAnd I was probably the only white person being allowed to be there, but it was quite an experience. My question to you is, since it looks like it's such a wonderful novel you have, do you have any intentions to have that in a -- made in a movie? Have you any offers to have it as a movie?
ALLENDEWell, thank you. I have options for several of my books. And I have not signed the contracts because, now, Hollywood wants the rights for everything, for perpetuity, for the universe, not only for the planet, for the universe, for their existing technology and for the technology to be invented, and also they want the copyright of the characters.
REHMOh, my goodness.
ALLENDESo I cannot use my own characters again without paying Hollywood. So we have a lawyer specialist in these things and agents and people dealing with it. For this book in particular, I don't have an option, and it just came out in English. And I don't know if someone would be interested.
REHMBut it's going to take a lot for you to hand over.
ALLENDEMy characters -- never.
ALLENDEYou think I would give away, Zarite? Never.
REHMOf course not. You are now an American citizen.
REHMHas that changed the way you think and write?
ALLENDEIt has changed my life. I came to the United States as a visitor first in a book tour. I fell in lust with an American man, who was introduced to me as the last heterosexual bachelor in San Francisco, and I spent a week with him. Then I stayed and stayed. And three months later, I ran out of a visa. So I said, you have to marry me. And he said, oh, no, I have to think about it. And I said, okay, you have until tomorrow at noon. And then the next day at 11:45, he said okay, I'll marry you. And we've been married for 23 happy years.
ALLENDEAnd, of course, he changed my life when I became an American citizen because I am -- I feel that I -- this country has given me a lot.
ALLENDEIt has given me love, first of all, and it has given me a place, a land that is mine. I'm very critical, and I'm very engaged. And I participate in politics. I have a foundation that does work in this country, and I feel that I have a voice. I'm unable to shut up. With the things that I don't like, I say. And before I didn't feel that I could because I was a visitor. I was a guest. Now, I belong here.
REHMYou do, indeed. And I'm glad you're here, Isabel.
ALLENDEThank you, Diane.
REHMIsabel Allende, and she is, of course, the author of nine novels, a collection of stories, four memoirs and a trilogy of children's novels. Her new historical novel is titled, "Island Beneath the Sea." Thank you so much.
ALLENDEThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'll be off for the next few days, going to Boston for Grandparents Day. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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