MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Writer Isabel Allende creates strong women in her novels. Her most famous is the House of the Spirits. Her latest novel, Ines of My Soul, is in the voice of a 16th century woman, Ines Suarez, a Spanish seamstress who goes on to become a conquistador of Chile, Allende's native country. Ines Suarez was a real figure in history, her story largely lost to time, so Isabel Allende could reimagine it.
Ms. ISABEL ALLENDE (Author): The first sentence just popped out of my - I wouldn't say my head - my womb. It was I am Ines Suarez, townswoman of the city of Santiago de Nueva in the kingdom of Chile. And that's how I felt. I felt that I was her and that the story could only be told in her voice. This story so removed in time, and the place also so removed, that the readers would not feel close to the story if it was not told by her.
BLOCK: And it is quite a remarkable odyssey that this character takes. How did you first hear about the real life Ines Suarez?
Ms. ALLENDE: Ines Suarez was the only Spanish woman that accompanied 110 conquistadors that founded Chile. They went there in 1540. Ines didn't leave any writings. She was the concubine of one of the captains. (Unintelligible), her lover, the captain general of the conquest in Chile, wrote many letters to the king, but he never mentioned Ines because it was a clandestine love affair. He was married.
However, he was tried by the Inquisition and there were 59 charges against him, and nine of the charges were because he had this woman with him. So there in the records of the Inquisition she's mentioned extensively. And then by researching the lives of the men that came with her, I could sort of visualize the time and the place and discover her.
BLOCK: The way you tell Ines's story, she travels from Spain to the new world in 1537. She's about 30 years old. And she's going to find out what has happened to her husband, who has gone in search of El Dorado and has disappeared.
Ms. ALLENDE: Yes, which was unheard of. At the time women were not allowed to travel alone, and she traveled a long time, all the way from (unintelligible) to Cusco, Peru, and then with many adventures in between. And then in Cusco, she found out that she was a widow. He had died. And instead of returning to Spain, she stayed and became the lover with a passionate love affair with a man that was very wealthy and powerful, Pedro (unintelligible), and he had a dream of glory. He didn't care for the money. He didn't care for the power. He just wanted glory. His name in history. And that's why he decided to go to the end of the world, a place called the Cemetery of Spaniards, Chile. And he goes there with a few men that followed him and this woman at his side.
BLOCK: How do you navigate that tricky line? I mean, she is a conquistador. She is part of a very brutal campaign in Chile against the native people there, even if she's not actively participating in all of it. She does have moments when she is just as ruthless as some others to protect the people she is with.
Ms. ALLENDE: She lives in a very cruel time and the conquistadors were brutal. But when they came to America they found also very brutal civilizations there. The Aztecs were savages really, and the Incas in Peru were not as bad, but they were also very repressive and cruel. So the confrontation between these two cultures was very, very violent, and she was part of that. I don't think she questioned it that much.
However, when she came to Chile, she developed admiration for the Mapuche, the Indians in Chile, the most fierce in Latin America. Great warriors and people who had no attachment to any material. She admired their love of the land and the way they lived.
But of course it was a time of war. You take sides. And for me as a writer, I had to take both sides. Of course the natural instinct is to be on the side of the Indians, but this happened 500 years ago and there's no way that we can change that. We have to try and understand it. And I am the product of both cultures. I am Mestisa. If I am not Mestisa by blood - because my family would deny any Indian blood, although I would be very proud to have it - I am Mestisa by culture. I come from both cultures, so I can understand both and I feel entitled to speak for both.
BLOCK: How did you imagine Ines's motivation in wanting to be part of this conquest of going to Chile and setting up a new society there?
Ms. ALLENDE: There is only one motivation. Lust and love. She was in love with this guy, and this is why I would have followed him. Not for any other reason. I don't think I would go anywhere for gold or fame, but I would go to the end of world following a man that I'm in love with.
BLOCK: And you do have many scenes where Ines's passion is quite explicitly detailed.
Ms. ALLENDE: I think she must have been a very passionate woman to do what she did. First of all follow her husband, this husband that was like a ghost, follow him to the end of the world, and then follow (unintelligible). And then marry somebody else and make him happy for 30 years. She must have been a very passionate woman.
BLOCK: When you were writing these scenes of brutality and endless methods of torture and evil doing, did you ever get numb to it yourself?
Ms. ALLENDE: No, no. I heard for the first time I was in touch with torture when I was living in Chile during the military coup in 1973. We had had the most solid and the longest democracy in the continent, and in 24 hours it ended with a military coup, and it was unbelievable. The things that people are able to do to other people.
When in this country they passed the Torture Bill, I was totally horrified, horrified because this means that people have no imagination. They cannot visualize what means torture. So I've never been numb to this and when I was describing these things in my book, I was just as horrified as I am now talking to you.
BLOCK: How did you get past that then to write about it?
Ms. ALLENDE: Well, I write about it because I think that we learn from history. First of all, we realize that things were not very different before and that we make the same mistakes over and over. I think it is very important to look at the past and see what people are capable of doing. And Americans are no different from the rest of the world. So we are not saints. And I say we because I am a citizen. We are not saints. Nobody is. And I think that by writing about these things I sort of exorcise them. I come to terms with the fact that there is evilness in our nature and we have to fight against it constantly and be aware of this evil side that we all have.
BLOCK: I'm curious about one last thing about the process of writing and stopping writing. How hard is it for you at the end of a project like this to let go of a character whom you've been as involved with as Ines Suarez?
Ms. ALLENDE: Oh, it's so easy, so easy.
Ms. ALLENDE: At the end of the book I just give up. Okay, I'm fed up with all these people. I don't want them in my life. I want to go out of this room and start my life again. I'm always delighted when I finish a book, and I never read it again. I never go back to it because I'm already in another project.
BLOCK: Well, Isabel Allende, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.
Ms. ALLENDE: Thank you, Melissa.
BLOCK: Isabel Allende's novel is Ines of My Soul. You can hear more of our conversation about her writing process and read an except of the book at NPR.org.
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