I am an eternally displaced person. I was born in Peru, my father left when I was 3, then we moved to Chile, where I was raised. Then my mother married a diplomat, and I traveled all over with him. We became political refugees after the military coup in Chile, and eventually I immigrated to the United States. Since then, my books have taken me all over the world. Unfortunately, on book tours you don’t get to see anything, but I have written 26 books, and in all of them a sense of place has been important.
I’ve traveled to all of the places in my books. For example, I have three young adult novels, and the first one is set in the Amazon. I went twice, the first time just as a tourist, and I thought I would never be able to write about it—it’s so alien. Then, when I wanted to write this trilogy for young adults, I remembered the Amazon, so I went back, and I could create my story, because the place gives you everything. So traveling has given me 26 books.
I go to a place without any intention of any kind—I just enjoy it; I look around. I’m very curious about food, traditions, and the history of the place, of course. I walk in the markets. I talk to people. I try all the food in the streets, which makes everybody sick, but I have a gut that is made of iron; I can drink the water from the Ganges.
Then, later, when I remember and I want to write a book, I go back. At that point, there’s more organized research. But the idea is to see the world. Some places stay in your mind, and some don’t. I don’t think I could write about Venice, because Venice is so cliché. What are you going to say about Venice? But you can write about a village in Burma—much more interesting.
Sometimes I think I have to write about a place, but it doesn’t happen. I had that experience in Guatemala.
I just fell in love with the country—oh, the color! The color stays with you forever, the people in the villages with those colors in their clothes. And then you study the recent history there, and it’s horrendous. I’ve been there twice, thinking I had to write about this gorgeous place, but I could only create one character. The character from In the Midst of Winter comes from Guatemala, and there is a whole chapter about Guatemala, and that’s all I could do with it. I would have loved to write a whole novel.
I used to attend a travel writers’ conference at Book Passage in Corte Madera, near where I live in California, and what I learned is that travel writers and writers who are inspired by travel take notes constantly. They write what they ate on the plane—who cares?—but they write everything, because you never know what you’re going to use. The days blend into each other, and you forget completely what you saw the day before, so you must get to the hotel and write down everything: all the details of the food, of what you saw, of the beads you bought, of what you talked about—everything is important. And what is most important is what doesn’t work, because a happy traveling experience doesn’t give you any material for writing. Think about it: The trips you remember are the ones when there were problems.
My version of taking notes was writing letters to my mother, who died right before the pandemic. Every single day of my adult life, I wrote a letter to my mother. Sometimes there were places where I couldn’t even mail the letters—for example, when I went on safari in Africa—but I still wrote them every day, and then at the end of the trip I sent her a big envelope with all of the letters in chrono- logical order. If I want to remember what happened on that trip to Kenya, I just go to the plastic box that has the year when I went to Kenya, and inside are the copies of my letters to my mother.
I have 24,000 letters between my mom and me. Of course, not all of them are travel writings, but if I was traveling, I would tell her everything. If you’re not going to write a diary, find someone you can write letters to—and be very precise. And also, by the way, you can lie; not everything has to be the truth. Not even a little exaggeration—a lot of exaggeration!
Isabel Allende’s new novel, Violeta, is out from Ballantine Books on January 25.