Isabel Allende is one of the world’s bestselling Spanish-language authors; her works have been translated into 35 languages and have sold more than 65 million copies. The Spanish-language edition of her latest novel, El amante japonés (The Japanese Lover), was released in the U.S. in September by Vintage Español, and the English-language edition comes out November 3 from Atria. PW’s review called it a “magical and sweeping tale.” Allende told us about the themes in her new book via phone from her home in San Francisco.
There is a certain softness and tenderness in the love stories you describe. Is it because you now view life differently than you did in your 40s?
Every book has its own tone; the most difficult part is finding the narrative voice that goes with the story. It is intentional, but I’m not very aware of the differences. It’s about the things that were present in my life last year while writing the book. I separated from my husband, novelist William Gordon, after 27 years of marriage. I am also 73: I feel very young and full of energy, but I see my body has less strength. My brain doesn’t feel old, but I do see what age does to people. My stepfather will be 100, and my mother is 95. I am now the sum of everything I have been before.
How did you get the idea for the book?
I was walking down the streets of New York with a friend and she mentioned that she just found out that her mother had a Japanese friend for years, and I mentioned that maybe the Japanese man had been her mother’s lover. Of course my friend was horrified by that notion! That one sentence is what started it all, just that one sentence. Readers often want to share with me their stories, but if their stories don’t tap into my own experience, then I can’t commit to writing an entire book about it.
In the book, you discuss Japanese internment camps in the U.S., a topic not extensively covered in American history books. How difficult was it to research this subject for the book?
It actually wasn’t very difficult. In the San Francisco area, where there was a large Japanese immigrant population, there is quite a bit of information—there is even a museum. The first generation of Japanese immigrants never quite adapted to this country. Then Pearl Harbor happened and they were treated as traitors. Japanese people are very proud, and they were ashamed of their conditions and hid the fact that many were sent to internment camps and were heavily discriminated against. But it is their children and grandchildren who have brought back their stories and rescued their place in history. This has allowed for their story to become better known.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
It was difficult for me to put myself in the place of the Japanese lover. Japanese culture is very different from our Latino culture. We are exuberant, loud, and affectionate. Japanese are more reserved, soft-spoken, and not necessarily affectionate.
Did writing this book make you examine your own relationships?
In every book I explore things that are important to me. You will always find my family in my books. It is what I am surrounded with: my family, friends, and all those who are part of my life. When I separated from William, we were living in the House of the Spirits, the name of the large house we lived in that looked like a Spanish hacienda. Once we separated, the house was too big so I moved to a smaller house. Letting go of the material things and the memories we had shared was very painful at first, but after a few nights of living alone it became easier.
Recently your literary agent, Carmen Balcells, passed away. How will you remember her?
Thank you for asking. The most touching memory of Carmen is from the time of my daughter’s illness. [Allende’s daughter, Paula, died in 1992.] I close my eyes and see Carmen coming into the hospital like a hurricane wrapped in a purple fur coat with a long silk scarf that dragged through the floor—not necessarily what you would call appropriate for a hospital visit. She would fly from Barcelona to Madrid and bring me cocidos [Catalan stews]. Carmen would hug me and cry with me; she was a tough negotiator, but she was very sentimental as well. Carmen was also very spiritual: she would have an astrologer do a reading for me whenever I would submit a manuscript. The first time I met Carmen, I was living in Venezuela and I did not have much money, and she welcomed me to Barcelona like a queen. I showed up with my raggedy suitcase, and she ordered a set of Louis Vuitton suitcases for me. They were stolen on my way back to Venezuela. That is her generosity. Carmen was simply splendid.