Patt Morrison Asks

Isabel Allende, a life of letters

Somewhere between her Chilean family's life-or-death political realities and its intuitive, fantastical imagination is where the emigre author writes.

Somewhere between her Chilean family's life-or-death political realities and its intuitive, fantastical imagination is where Isabel Allende writes. Where she lives is the Bay Area, arriving in California about 25 years ago with a famous surname she's gone on to burnish, novel by novel. As perhaps befits an emigre author, Allende's books are routinely translated into two dozen languages. Here she muses in English about what the future of the written word holds for authors like her, and for the readers who love them.

You use "notebook" — meaning the kind you write in — in the title of your latest novel, "Maya's Notebook," about a Berkeley High student caught up in drugs. Isn't a notebook almost obsolete today?

Completely. Kids don't write — they text, they Twitter, they do Facebook. They are all the time connected to a screen. The paper frightens them.

Frightens them?

For them, everything that is written on paper is school, with homework — but for the pleasure of writing, even reading, it's on a screen. I think we are reaching a point where the technology needs to be controlled in some way. I think every person will feel the need [for] some time of silence. We are too connected. There's noise in our heads all the time. The phone rings and no matter what we're doing — we can be making love — we stop to answer the phone.

Do you use an e-reader?

I use them because I travel a lot, and instead of carrying a suitcase full of books, I carry my Kindle or iPad. I can have 20,000 books. That is wonderful, and I think it's probably the future of books, because why would we be destroying trees if we can read on a screen? It's unfortunate because I love the book, the object, but it will be a rare object, for collectors.

What is the impact of all of this on readers? Are paper and print books still relevant?

It's immense. Kids don't read reviews, they don't read newspapers, they don't go for readings. That's not their world. But if another kid tells them, look, there's this book I was interested in — that gets around. I'm connected to Facebook, but I don't do it; my son does.

And what about the effect on writers and writing?

There are no manuscripts anymore. The agent, the editor gets a clean copy that's gone through a thousand drafts that have been destroyed. You correct and overcorrect in the computer. In 100 years someone will not be able to study all the corrections that the writer incorporated into the text like you can do, for example, with Mark Twain.

I write to my mother every single day of my life, sometimes twice, she writes back, and I print the emails. So we have a record of our lives day by day. That's such a treasure. It's the only thing I would save if the house was burning — well, the pets first, and then the letters.

You once earned money translating romance novels; not great literature but at least people are still reading them.

Who's to say what is good and what isn't? Let people read whatever they want. People have asked me about "50 Shades of Grey." A virgin who is innocent and beautiful and passionate who falls in love with a man who is superior in every way, powerful, strong, but dry in his heart, and she will open his heart. The classic romantic story. But it has soft porn. And people say, "Should people be reading this?" Of course; at least you learn something about sex!

When you translated those novels, you took liberties.

I should pay for my sins. I'm sure in several languages there's a translator "improving" my books that way. Some of the romance novels were so stupid. I was trying to make the female protagonist look less stupid and the male protagonist less macho. Of course somebody complained! This is a very established formula. People don't want surprises. You read that kind of book because it's safe. It's like crime novels: There's always a mystery, there's always the clues, always an ending that satisfies the reader. The reader looks for the formula. If you step out of it, they don't like it.

"Maya's Notebook" is a departure for you, a contemporary novel.

I have been writing historical novels for a while; I was tired of researching. All my grandchildren were teenagers. I saw all the dangers they were exposed to. Through the Internet, anyone can approach them. Pornography, crime, drugs, video games — everything is violent. Gore is not enough anymore. Fortunately they are all in college now, so they survived the teenage years.

Every parent must wish for a Chiloé an island like the one in the book where you can send kids to keep them safe.

My husband's son — when he was 13, my husband sent him to a school in Oregon, and they kept him safe for three years. In "Maya's Notebook," the girl is rescued right in time.

Featured Stories



Top Trending Videos