In her new novel, In the Midst of Winter, Isabel Allende writes about the unexpected convergence of three lives in the midst of a massive winter storm in Brooklyn. It’s an intimate look at human connection and the weight of trauma, but it also encompasses some of the most talked-about issues of the present moment, including immigration and the harrowing effects of political turmoil around the world. In advance of Allende’s reading at the Brooklyn Public Library this Tuesday, we talked with her about the origin of the new book, the Albert Camus quote that inspired it, and more.
You mentioned in the acknowledgements for In the Midst of Winter that it grew out of a meeting with friends where you’d discussed different ideas for a project. Did it emerge from that conversation fully-formed?
There were many ideas. I selected a few–not consciously, I wasn’t taking notes. I start my books on January 8th, so this was two weeks after this brunch that we’d had. Some of the ideas that were expressed there stayed with me. They connected somehow to the moment I was living. For example, when my daughter-in-law said to write about refugees, I realized that we have been working with undocumented immigrants and refugees for some time; this was a very prevalent theme in our lives right now. They mentioned my past in Chile, and the military coup; I remembered a friend that I had in Chile who, unfortunately, died. That served as the model for the character of Lucia.
Slowly, the book shaped up–but it didn’t happen to me immediately. The ideas they gave me didn’t give me a book. It was the push to get started into something. I didn’t know what it would be, until two or three weeks into the book, when there was that terrible blizzard that hit the East Coast and paralyzed New York. That was the idea I needed, the big metaphor I needed to put the book together. I had that quote from Albert Camus that said, “In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer.” So: the blizzard, the snow, the winter, and three characters that are living in an emotional long winter, and they find themselves in an adventure that forces them to find the invincible summer they have inside.
Where was the first time you encountered the Camus quote that gives the book its title?
I had heard it at the Omega Institute. Eckhart Tolle mentioned it months before; I had written it down in a little notebook. When I start writing, I usually look over the notes I’ve written during the year to see if there’s anything there that I can use. The sentence jumped out at me–I felt at that moment that I was living in a long emotional winter. My marriage had ended; I was getting a divorce at an age when people don’t do that–over 70. My agent died. Some very close friends died. My dog Olivia died. It was a time of loneliness, and of feeling stark in a sort of grey place. A sort of winter. So that’s why I related to that sentence so strongly. I somehow felt that, by writing a story based on that sentence about that, I was exorcising my own winter, and I would find my summer.
Was that the case?
At the end of the book, you allude to the 2016 presidential election. Did the lead-up to the election have any impact on the novel?
No. When I started writing the book, Trump wasn’t even a candidate. During the following months, after he became the candidate, the whole thing was so ridiculous that I never thought that he’d become the president. By the time he became President in November, the book was done. It’s not related to him. The plight of refugees had been in the air before Trump. He just picked up on that, but it was there. It didn’t affect the book. I think I would write a different book today; the same book would be different today, after the election.
When you’re writing a book like this, with three characters who each have complicated backstories along with an event that brings them together, did one of these elements come before the other?
First, I imagined the three characters in the house in Brooklyn, the house that we had rented. It had a separate unit in the basement that was rented to somebody else with a separate entrance. So, first I had the house. Who lived in the house? The owner in the house was this professor at NYU. The renter was a person who was a guest lecturer at NYU. But they don’t have much of a relationship. I created that in my mind, and I knew that the most important character for me to develop was the young, undocumented, Guatemalan girl.
I had the three people, but I wasn’t clear about what would happen to them to bring them together and force them to do something that they never would have done in normal times–take a huge risk, defy the law, and opt for solidarity and compassion. That is what changes them, what pulls them out of that introverted, cold place where they are living.
You alluded to the Omega Institute, which also shows up in the novel. How much of the scenes set in upstate New York were based on real places and areas you were familiar with?
Nothing is fictionalized. I researched place and time very carefully. Everything that you read about Guatemala and the crossing of Mexico and what it is to be smuggled into the United States. All of that is thoroughly researched–I didn’t make that up. I didn’t make up the storm in New York, the places in Brooklyn, the lakes in upstate New York. All of that is researched carefully. Most of the times, I have been in the place, so I have a feeling of how it looks: the light, the smell. Every place is like a person; it has a personality.
What was your own experience with the blizzard that sets the novel’s plot in motion?
I wasn’t there. My experience [in New York] had been the holidays, when it was warm, almost like spring. I had been in very cold storms in New York, in Brooklyn, because I go every year to spend the holidays in New York. In Brooklyn, mostly, because my daughter-in-law’s family is from Brooklyn. We always rent a house, and we go with all of the family to be with her family. I’ve been there in other storms.
What attracts you to writing about winter–or generally using winter in fiction?
I don’t use winter in my fiction very often. My first two books were based in Chile, my third was in Venezuela–they’re tropical. And I’ve lived in California for thirty years. I write about the places I’ve lived, that I know better. This is my first fiction set in a snowstorm.
You talked before about how you begin new books on January 8th. Is that sense of ritual important to you in other aspects of writing as well?
Having a date to start is important to me because, like every other writer, we tend to procrastinate. To make the commitment to sit down and write a book is like falling in love. It’s a full commitment. It’s hard to get to that point–you really have to be passionate about the story. Unless, like me, you have a sense of discipline. I know that that’s my starting date, so I prepare for it: I do all the research before, I clear my calendar. Everyone around me knows, because I’ve already written 23 books, that from that day on, I’m unavailable. I don’t travel, I don’t do social things. It’s more of a practical thing to have a day to start.
Rituals? I don’t have many, except the ritual of writing every single day. I get up early, I walk my dog, and then I light a candle in my little office and I write. And I write and write and write; that’s my job.
After having written this book, have you found that it’s had any effect on the work you’ve done since then?
No. The book has been out in Spanish for a year now, and I hear comments and reviews from readers. Every book stirs different emotions and brings me different questions and forces me to be very clear about who I am and what I have written. There’s a big responsibility that comes after the book is published, when you have to explain it, or answer questions about it. Probably, it’s too soon to tell in what way this book has affected me or the other books I’ve written. Every book is like a bubble: it stands by itself. It’s not connected to anything else.
Photo: Lori Bara