Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende calls her latest novel, The Japanese Lover (out in November from Atria), “a story about love in its many different forms.” The multigenerational epic follows Alma Belsaco, a Jewish girl sent from Germany to live with her extended family in San Francisco as the Nazis invade Poland. There she meets and falls in love with Ichimei Fukuda, the son of the family’s Japanese gardener. The novel follows Alma and Ichimei, when, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the war forces them apart, sending Ichimei and his family to an internment camp.
“I wrote The Japanese Lover when I was over 70 and my marriage was failing,” Allende says, referring to her recent separation from her second husband, Willie Gordon. She notes that each book she writes deals with the stage she’s at in her life when she writes it.
Allende’s work, which contains aspects of magical realism, features strong female protagonists and draws heavily from the author’s life and personal experiences. “My parents are 95 and 99, so the themes of aging and loss are also floating around me,” she says. A nursing home near Allende’s office provided the model for the book’s setting, and she feels strongly that people need intimacy and connection at any age. “Having company and intimacy and someone to touch you for love and not because they are cleaning you up is very important.”
Another theme explored in The Japanese Lover is aging and the way it often renders women invisible. “You walk in the streets and nobody will notice you,” Allende says. “You’re in a restaurant and you’ll probably be the last one to order because the waiter doesn’t see you. But there are other things that are wonderful about aging: love, appreciation, flirting, and feeling good about oneself can last very long.” For Allende, the great benefit of aging is not having to “put up with bullshit.” She adds: “I see the people I love and I like. I don’t go places that I don’t like. I save my energy, time, attention and creativity for the things I really care for.”
Allende was born in Peru in 1942. Her father—a first cousin of Salvador Allende, the socialist president of Chile from 1970 to 1973—left the family and disappeared when she was two, after which her mother relocated to Santiago with Allende and her siblings. In Chile, Allende met Miguel Frías, whom she married in 1962 and with whom she had two children: Paula and Nicolás. Allende held various jobs, including stints as a journalist, television personality, and translator of romance novels; she was fired as a translator for rewriting the romances to reflect her feminist views.
In 1973, Salvador Allende was overthrown by the Chilean military, and his former army chief, Augusto Pinochet, rose to power. This put Allende and her family in danger, and they fled to Venezuela. Years later, on a visit to California, Allende met Gordon, a lawyer and crime writer, and they were married in 1988, after her long marriage to Frías failed.
Allende says that prior to her first book, The House of the Spirits (published originally in Spanish in 1982 and released in English by Knopf in 1985), she hadn’t taken a class or read a book review, and she knew nothing about the world of publishing. However, after the book’s publication, she says “the whole world of publishing collapsed on top of me.” Facing reviewers, agents, publishers, translators, and a host of expectations made her feel stifled. “For a long time,” she says, “I couldn’t write with that innocence again.”
Allende begins all her books on January 8, an auspicious day for her: on Jan. 8, 1981, she wrote her dying grandfather a letter that evolved into The House of the Spirits, which she says was “dictated from the beyond.” She adds, “I didn’t have a plan—I sat down and wrote and wrote without stopping until I finished it.” Working on a portable typewriter at the time forced her to be mentally organized: “If I made a mistake, I had to find a word that would fit in the space with the same number of letters. If I wanted to move a paragraph, I had to use scissors and cut and paste with scotch tape. So I had to have the book organized in my head before I put it on paper.”
Allende still calls upon the spirits. She keeps a strict writing schedule, six days a week from morning to night, and begins with meditating “very early” each morning, during which she salutes the “spirits that accompany her,” and asks a question—often about the book she’s working on, sometimes about life. “If I’m in a difficult situation, as I am right now,” she says, referring to her separation, “I invoke them and say, ‘Come and help.’ ”
I ask Allende if, having published 22 books, she has ever begun a book and abandoned it? “No—never,” she says. “I have never started a book that I haven’t finished. I’ve been very lucky.” But she admits that her strict writing schedule has interfered with other aspects of her life. “But so what,” she says. “If I were a doctor, that would interfere with my life also.” She’s been called the “world’s most widely read Spanish-language author” and has won numerous awards, including the 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom presented by Barack Obama.
In addition to love, The Japanese Lover deals with loss, a subject Allende is no stranger to. She has weathered much loss in her life, including the death of her only daughter, chronicled in her memoir Paula (Harper, 1995), and the losses of her two stepsons and other loved ones. “It gets easier,” she says. “We are trained for losses as we age. The more we live, the more we lose. First we lose part of ourselves. We lose friends. We lose energy to fight back and start again. That’s unavoidable. Somehow life prepares us for the final loss, which is the loss of life. We end up alone, facing death. And I don’t think it’s depressing. I think it’s the natural process of the soul finding its way. My daughter died in my arms, and I lost the fear of death then. I felt exactly as I felt when she was born. The two moments were so similar that I understood that there is something that doesn’t die, that comes from somewhere and goes somewhere. The rest is a shell.”
For Allende, keeping the sorrow inside of her is important. And while she describes it as a “blow in my chest where I can’t breathe,” she says that she doesn’t want to lose that feeling. “I don’t want to numb myself. It makes me grow. It makes me a better person. It breaks my heart open.”
Risk is integral to Allende’s sense of living a full life. Much of the fan mail she receives is from young women seeking advice in love, and she feels that people suffer from not taking more risks and making themselves vulnerable. “I attack everything with energy and with passion. I’m not afraid of suffering or being hurt. If you don’t take a risk, how are you going to live? Not only in love but in everything else... If I don’t take the risk of failing, how can I write? If I don’t take the risk of being hurt how can I fall in love?
Allende looks forward to writing, but she doesn’t plan each book in advance: “With everything happening in my life right now, it feels like I should write a memoir about love and marriage. It seems that would be in the air. But who knows? By November or December, something completely different might happen that brings me in another direction. I trust my belly. I have an intuition. Meditation helps. When I sit with myself alone in silence, I can feel myself. Feeling myself guides me toward whatever I have to do.”
Allende says memoir is “always fiction because you choose what to tell and what to omit,” but that “being truthful” is of utmost importance. She balances that principle with respecting her family, by giving the manuscript to anyone who is mentioned in it and waiting for their feedback prior to publication. If someone wants to be removed from the book, she will do that, but she won’t modify anything that compromises the truth.
As Allende looks to her future, she gives thanks for the fact that writing is a profession that ages well: “I’m very lucky because I’m a writer not a dancer. You can write until a very old age as long as you have your marbles. I don’t feel yet that I’m limited. My curiosity, attention, energy, and capacity to research are all intact. I think I can write for some time, and I want to. What else would I do?”