Novelist Elizabeth Subercaseaux was born in Chile and worked as a journalist during the Pinochet dictatorship. She left Chile in 1990 and married an American academic. She now lives near Philadelphia, though she still writes a column for La Nación in Santiago, covering American politics. A Week in October is her first novel to be translated into English.

A Week in October is about a woman dying of cancer who writes a fictionalized diary that her husband finds and reads. How did the idea come to you?

We writers never have a clear explanation for what we do, but my grandmother was a spiritist—it was very common in Latin America at the turn of the century for a group of old ladies to get together and use their supernatural powers to call on the dead. I was raised in the south of Chile on a farm and around this crazy grandmother. For me, the world of death was a little like a game. When I grew up, though, I saw the real meaning of death during the Pinochet regime, and the fantasy stopped. Also, a good friend of mine complained that everything she did was for her children and husband. I told her partly in jest, “Why don't you take a lover and make that lover your own space?” Five months later, she was dead. The night we buried her I had a dream in which she told me: you were right, I should have had the lover!

How did you manage during the Pinochet years?

It was a very difficult time because of the censorship. Human rights didn't exist, and half of my family was in exile. We were always afraid, but we knew we had something very important to do. I was being followed by the police—they parked their black cars on the street where I lived—and once they beat me very badly. But I was lucky because I'm alive. I had friends who were tortured, raped, decapitated.

You were able to interview Pinochet—how?

It took 15 years before he agreed to do an interview, and only because he was losing power by then. Another journalist and I insisted on three conditions: first, we had to be alone with him in a room; second, he couldn't tape the interview, which was pretty naïve of us because all the rooms in his palace were full of microphones; and three, he could only proof the resultant text of his remarks in our presence. He did accept, surprisingly, though later he was furious. We called the book we wrote Ego Sum Pinochet because he boasted he knew Latin, and when we asked for a phrase he could only remember this: I am Pinochet! We thought that was very funny.