LYNN NEARY, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.
When Isabel Allende wrote her first novel, "The House of the Spirits," she was living in exile in Venezuela. She had moved there with her family after the 1973 military coup in Chile, in which her uncle, then president of the country, died under suspicious circumstances.
Since then Allende has never stopped writing. Considered one of Latin America's greatest authors, she is perhaps best known as a novelist. Her latest book, "The Sum of Our Days," is a sequel to "Paula," a memoir written about her daughter who was only 28 when she died from an enzyme disorder.
Isabel Allende joins us now to talk about her new book.
Ms. ISABEL ALLENDE (Author, "The House of the Spirits"): Oh, thank you so much for having me.
NEARY: Now, as I mentioned, "The Sum of Our Days" is a sequel to your memoir "Paula." And it begins with your family scattering Paula's ashes in the forest. And I wondered as I read that how difficult it was for you to return to that difficult time and that personal territory again in your writing.
Ms. ALLENDE: It wasn't difficult at all. I had other difficulties but not remembering and not the emotions. I write a letter to my mother every day and so all the events are very fresh for me. When I writing this memoir I just went through the letters and I could remember everything very clearly because of the letters.
And the emotional part wasn't hard either because many years have gone by and I have learned to live with the spirit of my daughter in such a wonderful and comfortable way that I miss her, of course. I would love to have her alive and I could talk to her but she's in my heart.
NEARY: And you talk to her all the time in this book and…
Ms. ALLENDE: Yeah, I do.
NEARY: …in your life as well.
Ms. ALLENDE: But in real life I do. I'm sitting in the car and I'm driving and the traffic jam and I'm talking to her.
NEARY: Well, I love this idea that you talk to your daughter all the time and you write letters to your mother all the time. What an incredible connection you have there.
Ms. ALLENDE: Well, before when my daughter was alive, the three of us, my mother, she and I, would write and send copies of the letters to each other. So it was this strange ongoing conversation that never stopped.
NEARY: Well, I wanted to ask you about spirituality because I have a sense from this memoir too that the spirit is very important to you.
Ms. ALLENDE: For example, in the case of my daughter, I have never seen her ghost but she's so present in my memory that it is as if her spirit would be with me all the time. Now, what's the difference? Is this a real spirit or is just my memory?
For practical effect it's the same. And I allow in my life the possibility of unexplainable things to happen, like premonitions, dreams that are very powerful and that somehow clear the way for a lot of stuff, especially the writing.
So why stick to what we think is real? We think that reality is what we can control. That's reality. But there's a lot that we can't explain or control that also happens in many levels and I'm interested in that as a writer and as a woman.
NEARY: Well, this book is so much about your family and your friends. And you call them your tribe. How are they a tribe?
Ms. ALLENDE: They are a tribe because we are not blood related. We have come to be together because we have things in common and we love each other. And we have made the decision to live in this sort of emotional compound. We all live more or less in the same neighborhood a few minutes away from each other, we share food, we share clothes, we share children, we help each other. Very much the way I grew up.
And it's rare nowadays to have something like that in a city. It still happens in the countryside maybe but in cities it's hard. And we have created this wonderful thing. And the book was published already in Europe - in Spain, Italy and Portugal - and I'm getting hundreds of letters from people who have a nostalgic feeling for community, for family.
So I see there's that need that I always had, but I see that other people have it too.
NEARY: Why are women so important to you? So much about this tribe is about the women who have helped you get through some tough times.
Ms. ALLENDE: Women have been important in my life emotionally and in many, many other ways. And I've been working with women and for women all my life so I know them so well. And in this tribe that we have in California, women are really important because we manage the tribe somehow.
I think that every woman should have a circle of woman and meet regularly, share their lives, be in touch. There's nothing some comforting and so wonderful as your women friends.
NEARY: And you mentioned too that you had to create this. This didn't just happen.
Ms. ALLENDE: Oh no, it didn't happen. I came here because I fell in love with a guy and I'm still with the guy. But he didn't have much of a family and I didn't know anybody. I didn't even speak English, so it was very hard in the beginning to feel at home. I didn't feel at home for many years.
And then slowly my son came, my grandchildren were born here, friends came around us and we created this little nest.
NEARY: And his family, his children, his grandchild, they're also part of this tribe.
Ms. ALLENDE: He had a very, very problematic family. His three biological children were drug addicts. So it was very hard to form a family with them because they were not around. And actually his daughter died a year after my daughter died. So it was a very hard time for us as a couple. But we've overcome a lot and slowly these kids are getting better and coming back to the family.
NEARY: I wanted to ask you about writing, and the difference between writing fiction and memoir. Because, of course, you first became famous as a novelist and now your memoirs, of course, have also become very well read. Which is more difficult for you?
Ms. ALLENDE: Memoir. I can write fiction because I'm allowed to lie as much as I want. Nobody's checking. But when I write a memoir the people I talk about -I know I don't talk about myself only; I'm part of a group. So the other people have other versions of how things happened. Everybody wants to look good, and it's hard.
My mind works like the mind of a storyteller. I want the highlights, the lowlights. I want the tension, the rhythm, the tragic. That's what interests me. But lives are not like that. And so, for example, my daughter-in-law's infertility problems. I see only the highlights. I don't see much of what went in her soul, all the trauma to her body and all that.
So when we talked after the book was written I realized how much I had missed.
NEARY: You once said writing is a silent introspection, a journey into the dark caverns of memory and the soul. Fiction, like memory and dreams, moves from revelation to revelation. I imagine that does not happen with memoir but it happens in…
Ms. ALLENDE: It does.
NEARY: It does happen with memoir as well.
Ms. ALLENDE: It does because you work with memory. And as you remember you connect to things. And then you go deeper and deeper into layers of truth. You make these connections and it's like going into caverns of the soul. And you know more about yourself than other people.
Memory's a very tricky thing, very tricky.
NEARY: Let me just ask you one other thing. You've had such an amazing life and you've experienced a lot of tragedy in your life. What would you say now? What brings your greatest joy now?
Ms. ALLENDE: Love, the love I have for my children, for my work, for my husband, for my dog, for my friends, for nature, for causes. I'm in love with such causes that make me feel alive and youthful in a way and connected. All that is important to me.
NEARY: And that's what this book is about really.
Ms. ALLENDE: It's about love and about family and friendship and relationships and crazy people and stories. I collect stories. That's what's interesting about my family, is that they're all crazy and so it's so easy to write about them. You need a weird family to be a writer.
They say exactly the contrary. The family says that it's too bad that they have a writer in the family because there are no secrets, you know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: Well, thank you so much for being with us.
Ms. ALLENDE: Thank you.
NEARY: Writer and storyteller Isabel Allende. Her new book is "The Sum of Our Days."
Go to NPR.org/Books where you can read an excerpt about the day Isabel Allende scattered her daughter Paula's ashes.