What Is True?
People often ask me how much truth there is in my books and how much I have invented. I could swear that every word is true. If it has not happened, it certainly will. I can no longer trace a line between reality and fantasy. Before I was called a liar. Now that I make a living with these lies, I am called a writer. Maybe we should simply stick to poetic truth.
In The Book of Embraces, Eduardo Galeano has a short story that I love. To me, it is a splendid metaphor of writing:
There was an old and solitary man who spent most of his time in bed. There were rumors that he had a treasure hidden in his house. One day some thieves broke in, they searched everywhere and found a chest in the cellar. They went off with it and when they opened it they found that it was filled with letters. They were the love letters the old man had received all over the course of his long life. The thieves were going to burn the letters, but they talked it over and finally decided to return them. One by one. One a week. Since then, every Monday at noon, the old man would be waiting for the postman to appear. As soon as he saw him, he would start running and the postman, who knew all about it, held the letter ready in his hand. And even St. Peter could hear the beating of that heart, crazed with joy at receiving a message from a woman.
Isn't this the playful substance of literature? An event transformed by poetic truth? Writers are like those good thieves. They take something that is real, like the letters, and by a trick of magic they transform it into something totally fresh. That is the best part of writing: finding the hidden treasures, giving sparkle to worn out events, invigorating the tired soul with imagination, creating some kind of truth with many lies.
Good fiction is not only the thrill of a plot. At its best it is an invitation to explore beyond the appearance of things, it challenges the reader’s safety, it questions reality. Yes, it can be disturbing. But there may be a reward at the end. With some luck, the author and the reader, hand in hand, may stumble upon some particles of truth. Usually, however, that is not the intention of the author in the first place. The writer merely suffers from an uncontrollable need to tell the story. There is nothing more to it, believe me.
How I Became A Writer
Language is essential to a writer, and language is as personal as blood. I live in California—in English—but I can only write in Spanish. In fact, all the fundamental things in my life happen in Spanish, like scolding my grandchildren, cooking, or making love.
And maybe this is the point where I should tell you how and why I became a writer.
My life seems to be about pain, loss, love, and memory. Pain and loss are the teachers; they make me grow. Love helps me to endure and gives me joy. (I know it sounds corny!) Memory is the raw material for all my writing.
I was born during the Second World War. (I look good for my age, don't I? It takes a lot of work and money.) Yes, I am a crone, a relic from the pyramids, but not yet totally senile. I grew up in a patriarchal family where my grandfather was second only to God Almighty. My mother, against his will, married the wrong man. My father. During their honeymoon, on a cruise in the Pacific, the groom was constantly seasick; however, they managed to conceive me. In the next three years my parents were separated most of the time, but in the short periods that they spent together they had two more kids. (Fertility runs in my family. I am fortunate to have reached womanhood in the era of the pill.)
My parent’s marriage was a disaster from the start. One day, around my third birthday, my father went to buy cigarettes and never returned. That was the first great loss of my life, and maybe that is why I can never write about fathers. There are so many abandoned children in my books that I could start an orphanage. My father left my mother stranded in a foreign country with three small kids. To make things worse, there was no divorce in Chile. It is the only country in the galaxy without divorce. [Divorce in Chile was finally legalized in 2004.] Somehow my mother managed to annul her marriage, and thus she became a single mother with three illegitimate children. She had no money, little education, no particular skills. Her only choice was to go back to her father for help, which she did.
The home of my grandparents, where I spent my childhood, was inhabited by wild pets, strange humans, and benevolent ghosts. My grandmother was a charming lady who had little interest in the material world. She spent most of her time experimenting with telepathy and talking to the souls of the dead during her séances. This clairvoyant lady, who could move objects without touching them, served as model for Clara del Valle in my first novel, The House of the Spirits. She died long ago, at a young age, but like my daughter Paula, she is a constant presence in my life.
My grandfather, a solid Basque as stubborn and strong as a mule, gave me the gift of discipline. He could remember hundreds of folk tales and long epic poems, he spoke in proverbs. He lived to be a century old, and during the last part of his life he read the Bible many times from cover to cover and the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z. He gave me the love of language and stories.
In my family, happiness was irrelevant. My grandparents would have been astounded to learn that people actually spend money on therapy to get over their unhappiness. For them life was naturally painful and the rest was nonsense. Satisfaction came from doing the right thing, from family, honor, service, learning, enduring. Joy was present in many ways in our lives, of course, and love was not the least of them, but we never spoke of love either—it would have been extremely embarrassing. Sentiments flowed silently. There was not much touching or kissing. Children were not praised or pampered; it was believed to be unhealthy. Physical appearance and the functions of the body were ignored. It was a crime of bad taste to talk about religion, politics, health, and above all, money. My family practiced charity abundantly and discreetly. Generosity was not a virtue; it was a duty, nothing to brag about.
Childhood and Rebellion
My mother was not only beautiful she was also vulnerable and cried all the time, which is very attractive because it makes even the wimpiest man feel strong. She had many suitors but ended up marrying the ugliest of them all. My stepfather looked like a frog but in time he turned into a prince, and now I can swear that he is almost handsome. He has a noble heart but he is as patriarchal as my grandfather was. I had no choice but to fight him. Rebellion was the only way for a girl to survive in my family.
My stepfather was a diplomat, and soon after he entered our lives we started traveling. In l958 we were living in Lebanon. That year marked the beginning of the political violence that would eventually tear the country apart. My brothers and I were sent back to Chile and I ended up living again in my grandfather’s home. I was fifteen and so tired of saying goodbye to places and people that I decided that I would plant my roots in Chile and never travel again.
In my childhood I saw my mother as a victim. She was powerless. The only times she got attention was when she was sick, so she was sick a lot. Obviously, I did not want to be like her; I wanted to be like my grandfather. I nearly succeeded, but around my twelfth birthday Nature betrayed me, and two little prunes appeared on my chest. Overnight I changed from an assertive, tough tomboy into a giggling insecure girl with pimples and no waistline whose main concern was to be liked by the opposite sex. I didn't have a lot of raw material, however; I was short and angry. I couldn't conceal my contempt for most boys, because it was obvious to me that I was smarter. It took me years to learn to act silly so that men would feel superior.
I was the most unhappy adolescent in the history of humankind. I hated myself. I contemplated becoming a nun to hide the fact that I would never lure a husband. You can imagine my surprise and delight when the first young man to pay attention to me proposed. I was barely fifteen and already so desperate that I clung to him like a crab. I married at nineteen, had two children by age twenty-three, and remained married for twenty-five eternal years. The first fifteen years were happy. We were really in love and we had two wonderful kids, Paula and Nicolas. For a while everything seemed fine. My career as a journalist was successful, and I was well known for my feminist and humorous columns and TV programs.
I had been raised to follow my mother’s footsteps. Remember, this was the fifties and early sixties. Ideally, I would ignore any personal ambition, control my anger, repress my imagination, and deny my sexuality. It never quite worked.
During my youth in Chile I worked as a journalist and I also wrote plays and children’s stories. I always wanted to be a writer, but that was almost unthinkable for a woman in that time and in that environment. Women of my generation in Chile were not supposed to be creative or successful. That was a man’s destiny. We were supposed to be ladies, to behave nicely, and to be a good mother, a good wife, and a good citizen (which I was, believe me). But I had acquired the vice of storytelling at a rather early age. My mother says that no sooner had I learned to speak, I was already torturing my poor brothers with morbid tales that filled their days with terror and their dreams with nightmares. Later, my children had to go through the same ordeal. I have been telling stories since I can remember, but I didn’t become a fiction writer until I was almost forty. Before then I did not have enough self-confidence, and I was too busy raising a family and working for a living.
Life In Exile
The first part of my life ended on September 11, 1973. That day there was a brutal military coup in Chile. President Salvador Allende, the first socialist president ever elected democratically, died. In a few hours a century of democracy ended in my country and was replaced with a regime of terror. Thousands were arrested, tortured, or killed. Many disappeared and their bodies were never found. The Allende family fled and those who were abroad could not return. I was the last one to leave. I stayed until I couldn't stand it anymore; in 1975, I fled with my husband and our children.
We went to Venezuela, a green and generous country. It was the time of the oil boom, when black gold flowed from the soil like an inexhaustible river of wealth. However, I failed to see the charm of Venezuela. I was paralyzed by nostalgia, always looking south, waiting for the end of the dictatorship. It took me many years to get over the trauma of exile. I was lucky, though. I found something that saved me from despair. I found literature. Frankly, I think I would have not become a writer if I had not been forced to leave everything behind and start anew. Without the military coup I would have remained in Chile. I would still be a journalist and probably a happy one. In exile, literature gave me a voice. It rescued my memories from the curse of oblivion. It enabled me to create a universe of my own.
A Spiritual Letter
My fate changed on January 8, l981. That day we received a phone call in Caracas that my grandfather was dying. I could not go back to Chile to bid him farewell, so that evening I started a sort of spiritual letter for that beloved old man. I assumed that he would not live to read it, but that didn't stop me. I wrote the first sentence in a trance: “Barrabas came to us by sea.” Who was Barrabas, why did he come by sea? I didn't have the foggiest idea, but I continued writing like a maniac until dawn, when exhaustion defeated me and I crawled to my bed. “What were you doing?” my husband mumbled. “Magic,” I answered. And indeed, magic it was. The following evening after dinner, again I locked myself in the kitchen to write. I wrote every night, oblivious to the fact that my grandfather had died. The text grew like a gigantic organism with many tentacles, and by the end of the year I had five hundred pages on the kitchen counter. It didn't look like a letter anymore. My first novel, The House of the Spirits, had been born. I had found the only thing that I really wanted to do: write stories.
I was still unable to return to Chile. The military dictatorship would last seventeen years. In l983 I published another novel,Of Love and Shadows, based on a political crime committed in Chile, and two years later a third one, Eva Luna, a book close to my heart because it’s the life of a storyteller. It was followed by The Stories of Eva Luna, a collection of twenty-three short stories, all of them about love, although sometimes love is so twisted that it’s hard to recognize.
Meanwhile, the relationship with my husband had deteriorated completely. We were in Venezuela and not in Chile, so we could get a divorce. It was a friendly divorce, whatever that is.
Love, Lust and Romance
This is the part where I have to get personal and talk about romance.
My books force me to travel frequently. My karma is to stumble from one place to another, like a wandering pilgrim. In l987, while still living in Venezuela, I went on a lecture tour that took me from Iceland to Puerto Rico and to many climates in between, until I ended up in Northern California. Little did I suspect that there my fate would change again. I met the man who was written in my destiny, as my mother would say. He was an American lawyer called William Gordon, who was introduced to me as the last heterosexual bachelor in San Francisco. He had read my second novel and liked it. When he saw me, however, he was thoroughly disappointed. He likes tall blondes.
After my speech we were both invited to a dinner party at an Italian restaurant. There was a full moon and Frank Sinatra was singing “Strangers in the Night,” the kind of stuff that would ruin a novel. Willie was sitting in front of me, observing me with a puzzled expression. The combination of Frank Sinatra and spaghetti tutto mare had a predictable effect on me: I fell in lust. I had been living in chastity for a very long time—two or three weeks as I recall—so I took the initiative. I asked him to tell me about his life. This trick always works, ladies! Ask any man to talk about himself and pretend to listen while you relax and enjoy your meal, and he will end up convinced that you are a smart and sexy gal. In this case, however, I did not have to pretend. Soon I realized I had stumbled upon one of those rare gems that storytellers are always looking for. That man’s life was a novel! So I did what any normal Latin American female writer would have done: marry the man to get the story. Well, I didn't marry him right away. It took some fine manipulation.
First, he invited me to his house. I was expecting a romantic evening featuring a divorcé's penthouse overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, soft jazz, champagne, and smoked salmon. I got nothing of the sort. There was so much dog crap in the garage that he had to pull back out so that I could step out of the car. His youngest son, a ten-year-old brat, greeted us with rubber bullets. The dog, a golden retriever as hyperactive as the kid, placed his muddy paws on my shoulders and slurped my face. There were other pets as well: a couple of manic rats in a filthy cage chewing on each other’s tails and dead fish floating in the slimy waters of an aquarium. I didn't flinch. Lust does that to some people, it gives them a heroic attitude. I liked the man and I wanted to hear the rest of his story. He served a burnt chicken, we drank cheap California wine, and I will skip the rest. The next day, when he took me to the airport, I asked him politely if we had any sort of commitment. He turned chalk-pale and his hands trembled so vigorously that he had to pull over. I didn't know that you never, EVER mention the word commitment in front of an American male. “What are you talking about, we just met!” he mumbled, terrified. “I am forty-five and I have no time to waste,” I said. “I need to know if this thing is serious or not.” “What thing?” he asked, befuddled.
That day I took the plane, but a week later I was back without an invitation. I moved into his house and six months later he had to marry me because I pinned him against the wall.
Yes, I did write Willie’s life after all. The book is called The Infinite Plan, and it is the story of a flawed man with a big heart.
Willie and I have been together for many years and our love has survived many ups and downs, great successes, and great loss.
In December 1991, my daughter Paula, who had a rare genetic condition called porphyria, fell into a coma in Spain. Neglect in the intensive care unit resulted in severe brain damage and she ended up in a vegetative state. We took her home to California and cared for her until she died in my arms, a year later. Paula’s long agony was an ordeal for our family. Things went from bad to worse when, a few months after Paula’s death, Willie’s daughter, Jennifer, died of an overdose. They say that there is no pain as great as that of losing a child. But shared grief did not bring Willie and me closer. We are strong and stubborn people; I suppose we could not admit that our hearts were broken. It took a long time and a lot of therapy for us to be able to embrace and cry together.
After Paula’s death, writing was the only thing that kept me relatively sane. Grief was a long journey into the underworld—it was like walking alone in a dark tunnel. My way of walking through the tunnel was to write. Every morning I dragged myself out of bed and went to my office. I would light a candle in front of Paula’s picture, turn on the computer, and start to cry. Often the pain was unbearable, and I would stare at the screen for hours, incapable of writing a word. Other times the sentences would just flow, as though dictated from the Beyond by Paula herself. A year later I was at the end of the tunnel. I could see light and I discovered, amazed, that I had written another book and that I didn't pray to die anymore. I wanted to live.
My book Paula is a memoir—the tragic story of the untimely death of a young woman. Mainly, however, it is a celebration of life. Two stories are intertwined in those pages: that of my daughter Paula and my own adventurous destiny. Her long agony gave me a unique opportunity to review my past. For a whole year my life stopped completely. There was nothing to do, only to wait and remember. Slowly, I learned to see the patterns of my existence and asked myself all the fundamental questions: What is there at the other side of life? Is it only night, silence, and solitude? What remains when there are no more desires, memories, or hope?
Writing As Therapy
After I finished Paula, I could not write fiction for almost three years. I thought that my well of stories and the need to tell them had dried up forever. And then I remembered that I am a journalist by training and if I am given a subject and time to research, I can write about almost anything. (Well, not sports or politics.) I gave myself a subject as removed from grief as possible and ended up writing Aphrodite, a divagation about lust and gluttony, the only deadly sins that are worth the trouble.
The research for that book, done mostly in the porn shops of the Castro, San Francisco’s gay neighborhood, pulled me out of depression and brought me back to my body. The first symptom was an erotic dream. I dreamt that I placed a naked Antonio Banderas on a Mexican tortilla, slathered him with guacamole and salsa, rolled him up, and ate him.
The therapy of writing about food and love worked, and shortly after publishing Aphrodite, I started a novel about the California Gold Rush, called Daughter of Fortune. It is the story of Eliza Sommers, an orphan girl raised by a British family in the Chilean port of Valparaíso in the mid-nineteenth century. At sixteen Eliza follows her lover to California, where he has gone to seek his fortune in the Gold Rush. I thought I was writing a love story, but really this novel is about freedom, a recurrent theme in my life. Like Eliza Sommers, I was determined from very early on to find my own way. That made me a feminist at a time and in a place where feminism was the equivalent of Satanic possession.
Next came Portrait in Sepia, which takes place in Chile during the second half of the nineteenth century. It is the story of Aurora del Valle, the granddaughter of Eliza Sommers. Although not a sequel—it can be read independently—the book picks up several characters from Daughter of Fortune and from my first novel, The House of the Spirits. (These three books can be considered a trilogy.) Aurora del Valle suffers a trauma at a very early age and blocks out her past: she can't remember anything from her earliest years. Her quest is to unravel the mysteries of her life and the family secrets. Portrait in Sepia is a novel about memory. Memory is a theme, like freedom, that is particularly relevant in my own life. I have been traveling always; I don't really belong anywhere. My roots are in my memory. Every book is a journey into the past, into the soul, and into memory.
A historical novel is a fascinating endeavor. While writing the three novels of this trilogy I entered a time machine and went back to 1848, then moved forward all the way to 1973—a span of more than a hundred years. Can you imagine the research this endeavor required?
In 2001 I wrote a novel for children and young adults: City of the Beasts. It was so much fun! It is the story of Alexander Cold, a fifteen-year-old American boy who goes on a trip to the Amazon, where he meets a strange girl called Nadia Santos. Together they experience a magic adventure among Stone Age Indians. (Two more books featuring the same protagonists followed: Kingdom of the Golden Dragon and Forest of the Pygmies.)
All fiction is ultimately autobiographical. I write about love and violence, about death and redemption, about strong women and absent fathers, about survival. Most of my characters are outsiders, people who are not sheltered by society, who are unconventional, irreverent, defiant.
Why I Write
This is a summary of my life and my work. Don't believe everything I say—I tend to exaggerate a bit. I always stick to poetic truth, however, just like the thieves in Eduardo Galeano’s story about the old man and the letters. Remember? In any case, the really important stuff is not in my résumé. It’s what has gone on almost unnoticed in the secret chambers of the heart.
I am a writer because I was blessed with an ear for stories, an unhappy childhood, and a strange family. (With relatives as weird as mine there is no need to invent anything. They alone provide all the material for magic realism). Literature has defined me. Word by word, page after page, I have invented this hyperbolic, flamboyant me.
Over the last twenty years, my friends, I have learned that only one thing is sure: Nothing makes my soul sing more than writing. It makes me feel young, strong, powerful, happy. Wow! It is as invigorating as making love with the perfect lover, which, in any case, is almost impossible at my age.
From the fabric of life novels are made. A novel is a long and patient proposition, like embroidering a tapestry of many threads and colors. I work by instinct, without knowing very well what I am doing, until one day I turn it over and look at the design. I never really end a book; I just give up. There is always more to tell: another twist in the plot; another surprising character; more that could be changed, edited, or deepened. A story is a living creature with its own destiny, and my job is to allow it to tell itself. I enjoy the process of writing without thinking much of the final result. Those are my agent’s and my publishers’ concerns.
I love the time I spend alone and in silence in my study: weeks adding details to create the unique world of the story, months allowing the characters to grow and to talk for themselves, years trying to understand their motivations and their passions. A novel requires passion, patience, and dedication. It is a total commitment, like falling in love. The first impulse that triggers the writing is always a profound emotion that has been with me for a long time. Time reveals the motivations and gives me enough distance, ambiguity, and irony to narrate it. It is difficult to write in the middle of the hurricane; it is preferable to recreate the story after the furious winds have passed and I can make some sense of the debris. Struggle, loss, confusion, memory—these are the raw materials of my writing.
For me, life becomes real when I write it. What I don't write is erased by the winds of oblivion. I forget a lot, my mind betrays me. I can't recall places, names, dates, or faces, but I never forget a good story or a significant dream. Writing is a silent introspection, a journey to the dark caverns of memory and the soul. Fiction, like memory, moves from revelation to revelation.
I write because I need to remember and overcome. It is from memory and a sense of loss that the passion to create emerges. Every book is an act of love, an offering that I prepare with great care, hoping that it will be well received.