Isabel Allende on Her New Book

Isabel Allende on “Maya’s Notebook,” Drug Addiction, 1973 Chilean Coup & Death of Poet Pablo Neruda

Democracy Now*

Isabel Allende on Democracy Now
Isabel Allende on Democracy Now

HAVANA TIMES – The best-selling Chilean novelist Isabel Allende is out with a new book, “Maya’s Notebook: A Novel.” It tells the story of a teenager named Maya Vidal and her struggles with drug addiction, grief and history. Although a work of fiction, the story is rooted in real-life tragedy.

Three of Allende’s stepchildren have struggled with addiction: Two of them have died of drug-related causes, one in 1994 and the other just a month ago. In the novel, Maya also discovers the dark secrets of Chile’s past and learns what happened to her relatives after the military coup that ousted democratically elected President Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973.

Isabel Allende joins us to discuss the novel, her personal connection to the U.S.-backed coup that toppled her cousin Salvador Allende, and the exhumation of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to determine whether he died from poison by agents of the coup regime.

AARON MATÉ: The Chilean novelist Isabel Allende is out with a new book. It’s called Maya’s Notebook: A Novel. It tells the story of a teenager named Maya Vidal and her struggles with addiction, grief and history. Although a work of fiction, the story is rooted in real-life tragedy. Three of Allende’s stepchildren have struggled with addiction; two of them have died of drug-related causes. In the novel, Maya is raised by her grandparents in Berkeley, California. When her beloved grandfather Popo dies of cancer, Maya spirals downward, turning to drugs and alcohol to numb her pain. She soon finds herself in Las Vegas, where she sinks deeper into addiction and crime at the mercy of a drug dealer.

AMY GOODMAN: Maya ends up on the run, and that’s when her strong-willed grandmother decides to intervene. She sends Maya to the most remote place she can think of: the island of Chiloé off the coast of her native Chile. Here Maya begins to heal, disconnected from technology and immersed in a magical world of nature, myth and spirits. It’s in Chiloé that Maya discovers the dark secrets of Chile’s past and learns what happened to her relatives after the military coup that ousted democratically elected leader President Salvador Allende in 1973.

We’re joined now by the author of Maya’s Notebook, Isabel Allende, one of Latin America’s and the United States’ greatest novelists. She’s the author of 19 books, including The House of the Spirits, Paula, Daughter of Fortune. They’ve been translated into 35 languages, sold over 57 million copies around the world. Isabel Allende now lives in California. She was born, though, in Peru in 1942 and traveled the world as the daughter of a Chilean diplomat. Her father’s first cousin was Salvador Allende, Chile’s president from 1970 to ’73, when Augusto Pinochet seized power in a CIA-backed military coup, September 11th, 1973. Isabel Allende fled from her native Chile to Venezuela. Well, we’re now joined by Isabel Allende.

It’s great to have you back with us, Isabel.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Oh, thank you for having me, Amy. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, last night I watched you do a reading of your book, and you started by acknowledging your granddaughter in the audience—

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —and said that Maya’s Notebook might have been, well, sort of based a bit around her.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Around her and around the rest of the grandchildren. I wrote the book in 2010, and I was surrounded by teenagers—all my grandchildren and their friends. And the youngest one, Nicole, who’s a beautiful, charming, smart girl, had the boyfriend from hell, and she—and the brain of an eight-year-old. So she was doing all kinds of stupid stuff that would put her in great risk. The father, who is a computer freak, hacked everything and knew exactly where she was every minute of the day.

AMY GOODMAN: This is your son, Nicolás?

ISABEL ALLENDE: My son, Nicolás. And so, he saved her from a catastrophe, I’m sure. But in those years of fear for the children—

AMY GOODMAN: You said he hacked everything?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Everything—the computer, the phone, you name it. I mean, everybody was spying on her. That’s the truth. And that saved her, actually. Now she’s in NYU, she’s an athlete, she has a wonderful boyfriend, and everything is fine. But for three years, we suffered—not only with her, with all the children. And I was aware of all the dangers that kids are exposed today that I never confronted growing up or my children. And how do you protect them? How do you protect them from drugs, from crime, from violence, pornography, any pervert that can approach them in the Internet? How?

AMY GOODMAN: You also talked about your stepchildren.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how they relate to Maya’s Notebook and the story contained in this novel.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, unfortunately, I didn’t have to research the spiral into hell that Maya has in the book, because I married an American—he had three children. When I met the youngest, he was 10. The others were adults. And the three of them, addicted. Two of them have already died of drug-related causes. The youngest one, who was 35, died four weeks ago. So—

AMY GOODMAN: I am so sorry. What is his name?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Harley. Harley. And so, the family is grieving right now because we thought he was clean, that he was in recovery. And suddenly we got a phone call from the landlord. I don’t know how long he was dead before he was found. The dog was barking desperately, and the neighbors broke into the apartment and found them—found him dead.

AMY GOODMAN: Hadn’t you almost written about him in a previous book but pulled it?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, when I wrote The Sum of Our Days: A Memoir about my tribe, my family, I had, of course, Harley’s story, among other stories. And when I had the translation into English, I showed everybody the manuscript to ask permission if they could be in the book or not, and Harley didn’t want to be depicted as a drug addict because by then he was clean, he was in recovery. And I understood that, but I got furious anyhow. And I pulled out—I had to rewrite the book, take out 50 pages. Never throw away anything, Amy; everything is recyclable. But I threw it away. And so, when I wrote this book—

AMY GOODMAN: That is my philosophy—

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —to the chagrin of friends and family.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah. So, I did not have the 50 pages, but I remembered the highlights of the story, that I had lived, very close to Harley, and that I had seen and that he had told me. So there’s a couple of scenes in the book that are exactly what he told me what he lived.

AARON MATÉ: Well, there’s some scenes in the book where Maya is so desperate for alcohol that she drinks lotion, and then she’s also in a public bathroom dying.

ISABEL ALLENDE: That scene—

AARON MATÉ: Are these things that come from real life?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, yeah. And that scene in the bathroom was told to me by Harley. He was—he was almost overdosing in a public bathroom, dying in the filth of a public bathroom, and the door didn’t go quite down. I mean, it was one—those doors, you know, that leave a space on the floor. And he heard the voice of his sister, Jennifer, who had already died, saying, “Breathe, Harley, breathe.” And he saw her shoes there under the door. And he started breathing. And, to me, that story, it hit me, because I am sure that he saw and heard his sister. It would have been his imagination or whatever, but he was saved by the memory of his sister. So I have exactly the same scene in this book when Maya is dying in a public bathroom and the spirit of her grandfather talks to her, or the memory of the grandfather, and says, “Breathe, Maya, breathe,” and she sees his English shoes under the door.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Allende, tell us the story. Tell us the story of her grandfather, Popo, her grandmother. I want to know if you relate to her grandmother in any way, this story you have told.

ISABEL ALLENDE: The grandmother, Nini, is like me—short, mean. And she loves her, adores her granddaughter, and will give her life to save her. Popo, on the other hand, is a grandfather that you and I would like to have—big—he’s an African-American astronomer—elegant, big, smells of tobacco and cologne. He’s adorable, and loves her unconditionally. So when he dies, she’s 16, and her world collapses. And then she starts getting in trouble, because she’s so attached to him.

I grew up in the house of my grandfather, so I know the huge influence that grandparents can have on kids. And today, more and more grandparents are involved with kids, because the generation in between, the parents, are either unemployed or they have separated or they are doing drugs or whatever. So, more and more we see grand—especially among poor families—grandparents taking care of children, with no resources, no help from the government, no health insurance. I don’t know how they do it, because it’s pretty hard.

AARON MATÉ: Now, we’re used to seeing you write historical fiction, and also never before, I believe, writing in the voice of a character so young. So was it a challenge to get into the—

ISABEL ALLENDE: No challenge at all, because I was surrounded by teenagers. I just picked up the voice of the girls in the lot—not many of them, because there were mostly boys. But between Andrea and Nicole, my two granddaughters, I got the voice and the stuff that interested them at the time. Who were these young people that were changing so fast and were living in a world that I didn’t understand, and with a technology that connected them to the world, gave them all the information in the world? But they didn’t have the maturity to process that information, so of course they would get in trouble.

AARON MATÉ: Well, and so, these children are sort of fused into Maya, so tell us about Maya and her struggles and how she ends up in Las Vegas.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah. Well, Maya—Maya’s grandmother Nini is a Chilean immigrant in the United States who married an American, like I did. And her son, her only son, is a pilot. He falls in love with a Danish flight attendant. And they have this kid, Maya. The Danish lady leaves. The father is flying all the time. So the grandparents raise Maya. And Maya is—looks like her mother, very Scandinavian. That’s how I would like to look: long legs, very blonde. [coughs] Sorry, I have a horrible cold. And this girl is athletic, a good student. She’s charming. She’s very attached to her family—until this thing happens in her life when she feels that everybody has abandoned her. She has no parents to speak of. Her grandmother is in a depression, and the grandfather is dead. And that’s when she gets in trouble. But she’s smart, and she has the foundation that she has received as a child, and that supports her in the worst period of her life.

AMY GOODMAN: So her grandmother, after the crisis of Las Vegas, sends her to Chile to this tiny island.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about this island. And did you go there to do your research?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yes, yes. I wanted to contrast Las Vegas with a place that would be absolutely different. And I had been in Chiloé many times. I have friends who live there. Chiloé is an archipelago at the south of Chile with many islands, hundreds of islands, some of disconnected because they are so far away. Now, of course, everybody has a cellular phone, and if there is a signal, everybody has Internet, but not always. And the winters are very rough and very long. Summers are gorgeous. The landscape is incredible. But according to Darwin, it’s the worst weather in the world, so that in these long winters, people live indoors. They are fishermen, and they work the land—potatoes or whatever. And so, the family, the community, is very knit together, and in these long winter nights, people sit around a big iron stove. Every house has this large black iron stove that is all the time turned on with fire and a kettle, and there’s tea all day. And people sit around and tell stories. The mythology of the island is very particular. It’s a very magical place. It’s no paradise. There is incest, domestic violence, alcoholism, unemployment.

But for Maya, it’s a chance to be in silence, to be alone, to be bored. Why do we have to be entertained all the time? There’s no time for reflection. I see my kids: They’re all the time connected to some—some technology. And if—they can be in the middle of something really important, and they are texting. So their mind is never focused on one thing, and it’s never silent. So, there, because she’s persecuted by the FBI, the CIA, the Las Vegas police, the criminals, the drug dealers, she cannot be connected to the technology. And that helps her to start the notebook, telling what had happened the year before to her and telling what is happening in that moment in this village where she lives.

AMY GOODMAN: When we come back from our break, we’re also going to talk about her discovery of the past of Chile, a story she did not know. We’re speaking with the great Chilean author, Isabel Allende, one of Latin America’s, one of the United States’ most renowned novelists. Her latest book is out this week; it’s called Maya’s Notebook.

(*) See this program on Democracy Now!


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