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Interview Isabel Allende

'Out of the night, when the full moon is bright, comes a horseman known as Zorro. This bold renegade carves a Z with his blade, a Z that stands for Zorro. Zorro, the fox so cunning and free. Zorro, who makes the sign of the Z.'

- Zorro, Disney, 1957

'I am compelled to recount these adventures because it serves little purpose for Diego to risk his life for the sake of justice if no one knows of it.'

- Zorro, Allende, 2005

Isabel Allende
Stacey Knecht


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SK — You’ve described yourself as the kind of writer who ‘can’t work with an outline’. Once you start, you don’t know what the book is going to be about. Yet here you were, commissioned to write a book about Zorro. Was that a problem?

IA — Not really. They offered me the job. They came to me and said that they wanted someone to write this book because they had already done everything else – movies, comic strips, everything about Zorro, except a work of literature. At first I thought it had nothing to do with me, the whole subject, and I wouldn’t be able to do it. But then I started watching the movies and I fell in love – I fell in love with the character and the project. And I had all the freedom in the world, because this was about the first 20 years of Zorro, before he actually becomes Zorro. So my job was to explain why he becomes Zorro. I did have certain limitations: the time, the place, the fact that he wears a black costume: a mask, a sword, and a whip. And that he had a horse called Tornado. That was it. For the rest, I was free. I decided to make him Mestizo – that is someone with a Spanish father and an Indian mother – and to make him whimsical and fanciful and goofy and all the things that I could create, that were mine. So I felt very comfortable with that. It never felt like an assignment. I did write an outline for the owners of the character, so that they could approve it, but I wrote it very vaguely, so that I would have the freedom to change. Because once you start a book, you don’t know where it’s going. Sometimes you find yourself in a dead alley and you have to move in another direction. That happened a couple of times, and it was fine with the owners. It’s a very organic process. You go blindly, and then the characters start doing things! And when they do things, that’s when the book starts.

SK — When you say ‘they’, you mean the owners of the Zorro copyright?

IA — Yes, it’s a company, called Zorro Productions. In 1917, Johnston McCulley wrote a book about this character, and a few years later, another man bought the rights from him and sold them to Disney, and they did all the movies. Then he recovered the rights and they created this production company and ever since then... I mean, even if you buy a Zorro costume, the copyright belongs to them. So if I had come up with the idea of writing a book about Zorro myself, I couldn’t have done it without their permission. They’re very strict.

SK — You say you felt unfamiliar, at first, with the material. The funny thing is that when I read the book, I thought: this is the perfect Isabel Allende story. It seemed to have everything: the strong heroine, the fight against injustice, the spirituality, the earthiness. If they hadn’t come to you, it wouldn’t have surprised me if you had come up with it yourself.

IA — (laughs) I don’t think I would have come up with it, because I never would have thought that I had anything in common with Zorro. But now I feel very connected. Many things in the life of that fictional character are things that I care about. Like the fight for justice, the fight for the underdog, the connection with the Indians, with the land. But also the fact that the book is told in the ironic voice of a woman –

SK — You yourself chose to tell it in that voice…

IA — Yes.

SK — So, you made it ‘your story’.

IA — Yes. I even called her ‘Isabel’…

SK — I noticed! (both laugh) I also noticed that there was very little dialogue in the book.

IA — Yes. I usually avoid dialogue. Sometimes dialogue keeps the story moving, but there are also many times when the dialogue is the problem. Because how should these people speak? In old Spanish? That would be a problem for the reader. But if you put it into modern Spanish, it sounds strange. So when they talk, they talk very briefly. It’s only a few sentences here and there.

SK — Diego/Zorro is an endearing character. There’s a passage in which somebody points out to him that Diego is ‘flesh-and-blood’, but that Zorro is ‘a phantom’. And it’s true – something does change in him whenever he puts on the mask. What did you do, as a writer, to make him two-sided?

IA — Some of that is already given by the costume. Like all the action heroes – Spiderman, Superman, Batman, who are all the sons of Zorro, because Zorro is the first one, they are all copies of him. They all have the costume, the mask, the cape, they all fight for justice, and they all have a double personality. That was also true of the first Zorro: the first Zorro movie was made by Douglas Fairbanks, in 1920. It was a silent movie. And there, he also separates both characters. When he is not Zorro, he’s effeminate, a little stupid, and very weak. And when he puts on the mask, he changes. It’s like me with make-up. Every morning I put on my make-up, and before I put on my make-up I’m not me, it’s somebody else.

SK — (laughs) What happens when you take it off again?

IA — I’m not me! So the last thing I do before I go to bed is take off my make-up, because it’s not me, not at all. If I could, I’d never show my face without make-up in front of my husband, but that’s not easy. (laughs)

SK — So Zorro was the first in a line of superheroes, some of whom were invincible. Superman, for instance: you couldn’t kill him, unless you used kryptonite. But Zorro is…

IA — … totally human. There’s something that I really love about him. All the modern heroes, the action heroes, rely on gadgets. They have weapons that can destroy the world. Everything is very bloody. It’s all about killing. Zorro is about humiliating the adversary, but if he can avoid it, he will not kill. He doesn’t have any gadgets, except his ability with the sword. The fencing is very personal, it’s not a weapon you shoot from a distance.

SK — It’s confrontational.

IA — Yes. And so it requires smartness, bravery, skill, athletics, a lot of stuff that is not required today by the action hero. What you need today is: gadgets. So that’s why I feel that he’s such a charming character. He’s a mixture of Robin Hood, Che Guevara, and Peter Pan.

SK — Peter Pan? Because he’s such a boy?

IA — Yes, he’s always a boy. At the end the narrator says that he’s too old for this shit (laughs) – but he’s still doing it. Get over it! Get a life! He wants to be Zorro. Part of his charm is also that he falls in love with a woman who cannot love him back.

SK — Why does he do that?

IA — I think I wanted him to be very vulnerable. I didn’t want him to be James Bond. I hate James Bond movies. They’re about male chauvinism, stupid women, and gadgets. If you remove the gadgets and the technology from James Bond, he’s retarded! What would he do without the clock where you press a button and it explodes into an atomic bomb? He’d be lost! But Zorro relies on himself, and his intelligence, to come up with solutions.

SK — From the very beginning of the book, he’s constantly learning. Learning from people around him. He seeks out teachers…

IA — Yes, he’s learning to become what he will eventually become….

SK — Without even knowing, perhaps, what it’s all leading to.

IA — And he gets in trouble… He’s a very hyperactive boy. To me, it was very important to make the contrast with his brother, with the Indian boy. Because he’s his alter ego. The other boy is introverted, serious, wise, connected with the land…

SK — He doesn’t speak…

IA — That’s right… he’s all ‘inside’. And Zorro is all ‘outside’. All vanity, and showing off. His brother keeps him rooted, and protects him. The contrast between them allowed me to create a more playful Zorro, much more playful.

SK — Was Bernardo your creation as well?

IA — Bernardo was a character that existed in the old movies. But he was deaf and dumb, he played the clown. He’s a very disturbing character to me, because he’s politically incorrect in every way. He was treated as if he were brain-damaged. I wanted to create someone who didn’t speak because there was a tragedy in his life, not because he was a clown.

SK — And by choice.

IA — Yes. He chooses not to speak. And by choosing not to speak, he enters another dimension, another world, which allows him to see what other people don’t see. People really don’t notice him at all, so he’s able to get information. He can be in the room, and you don’t even know that he’s there. The complete opposite of Zorro. Everybody notices Zorro, all the time.

SK — Was he originally called ‘Bernardo’?

IA — Yes, but when I decided that I was going to use the character of Bernardo, I told Zorro Productions I was not going to treat him the way he had been treated in the movies, I wanted somebody totally different, maybe I should change the name… But they said, no, keep the name, and do whatever you want.

SK — He’s such an important part of the book, it’s hard to imagine the story without him.

IA — For me it would have been impossible to write the book without him. Because I needed him to highlight Zorro. They highlight each other.

SK — I’ll bet there are bits of you in many of these characters…

IA — Yes, but you never know. You never know what it is…

SK — One of the characters I’m particularly curious about is Regina. At one point she says that she dreams in her own language, which certainly rang a bell for me, as a long-time expatriate. You, too, have been living outside your native country for many years. I wonder how you felt about Regina, and how she evolved.

IA — She’s a historical character. She really existed. In the early1800’s, in the time of the missions in California, the Indians were scattered tribes, they didn’t even speak the same language. They had sign language – which is where Bernardo’s sign language comes from. And they traded, but there wasn’t just one nation, one people, they were scattered, in a vast land. And each one of these tribes was very small. Then the missionaries came, and the Spaniards, and they occupied the land. They started taking things away from the Indians. Mainly the hunting places. There was never an uprising of the Indians, except once, in which several tribes got together, under one chief, and attacked the missions. Several of the missions had to be evacuated. Finally it was discovered that the Indian chief was a woman: a 21-year-old woman called Toypurnia. She was arrested and taken prisoner, and eventually she married a Spanish soldier. She was given a Christian name and lived as a Christian until she couldn’t stand it anymore. I took her story from a history book, so it was very easy to create the character. But I did feel very connected to her, because she’s a total outsider. She loves her husband, she loves her son, she tries very hard, but she never really belongs there. And she can never be who they want her to be. She’s a warrior: you can’t put her in a corset, in a hacienda. What will she do there? She’s wild.

SK — She’s quite convincing. So are the duels, by the way. How do you know so much about fencing?

IA — (laughs)Oh! That was the hardest part! You know why? Because we live in a visual era. In a time when, for a fencing duel, you have four cameras. And you take a shot from every angle and show it on a big screen in Technicolor. In novels of the nineteenth century, a duel was described in words, and people were used to the idea of reading the words and picturing them, imagining them. But today they can’t. It was hard because I had to learn all the fencing terms. And then once I had the terms, I realized I couldn’t use them, because nobody knows them, except the people who do fencing! I needed to play out every movement to be able to describe it, but then the descriptions were too long. I even bought a book about fencing choreography, like they use in the movies – you can buy a book about anything! – but the book was in English, and I write in Spanish. So I started translating the parts I was interested in, but it was just too complicated. And besides, the choreography was meant for the image on the screen, but you can’t use that in a novel. The text needs to be real – it was a great challenge.

SK — Zorro is an odyssey, a journey to adulthood, to ‘Zorro-hood’! You’ve even said this was your premise: how did Diego become Zorro? It’s a cyclical journey, he returns to the place where he began. Do you think that one must always return home to become an adult, to achieve adulthood?

IA — According to Joseph Campbell: yes. It’s the journey of the hero. But I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think the journey of the hero is that you have to leave behind what is safe, and go out into a world that is unknown, and overcome a series of obstacles. You have helpers on the way, and villains on the way, and then, after a lot of trials, you achieve whatever it is and you have to bring it back home. And what you bring back home really is the knowledge, the wisdom. And the self-confidence that you can do it. But the physical act of going back home, maybe it’s not necessary. Maybe it’s just the fact that you’re going back home to yourself.

SK — Because some journeys just keep on going…

IA — … yes, without coming back to the physical place where you belong. I never went back to live in Chile, for example, and I feel that my life has been a journey. And my journey always refers to the land I left behind, and I keep writing about it, but I live in the United States, and I will probably stay and die there, because my children, my grandchildren, my dog, my husband, everybody’s there. So I still have a connection with the roots, but my journey has always been to get further and further away.

SK — Are you an adult?

IA — I think that I’m an old woman. I’m sixty-two years old, and I’ve lived a long life. Many lives, at once. But on the other hand, when I was writing Zorro, I felt like a young man of twenty. So I could be him, and I could enjoy being in the body of a young, athletic, charming boy, with big ears. (laughs) It was heaven!

SK — How long does that last, that feeling?

IA — It lasts all through the book. And now I’m writing another book, in which I have a female heroine, who is a historical character. And I am her - for the time being – I’m her, and it’s a wonderful feeling, too, because I’m not twenty years old this time, I’m thirty-seven, but I’m doing things that I would otherwise never be able to do.

SK — What are you doing?

IA — I’m fighting a war and I’m founding a country. It’s wonderful.

SK — Do you take the character outside of your workroom, too?

IA — All the time. I live with the person, I am the person. You know, my husband says that I’m charming, when I’m writing, because I’m absent. (laughs)

SK — (laughs) I’m not quite sure how to take that…

IA — I spend ten hours a day in a little cottage in the back of my garden, disconnected from everything. At seven o’clock Willy calls me and says, Dinner is ready! I don’t know what we’re going to eat, sometimes I come in with my eyes totally glazed – my grandchildren, I don’t even remember their names… and it’s another life. At night I dream… and sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with something that I remembered I did wrong, or a new idea, and I run, I run back to the little house, in my nightgown, because I really need to put it down on paper. My whole body starts to become the character in such a way that I know that when I am writing, and only when I am writing, I have dreams of babies. And the babies are the book. So whatever is happening in the dream to the baby, is also happening to the book, and I have not noticed. For example, the baby may be talking with the voice of an old man. And then I wake up and I tell the dream to Willy so I won’t forget. I wake him up: ‘Willy! Willy!’ And then the next day, ‘What was I dreaming, Willy?’ ‘You were dreaming that the baby was talking with the voice of an old man.’ ‘Ah!’ And then I go back to the studio and I know that there’s something wrong with the voice that I have not noticed. Something unconscious, an alarm that is ringing, and it comes in the dream. I’ve learned to pay attention. When I dream of a house, I know that it’s my own family. I usually have the dream that there’s a house and one of the rooms is messy. So I go inside and clean it up. And then the next room is messy, and the next one. And then I know that there is something that is not working in the family, that I have it in the back of my mind, and I don’t want to admit it, don’t want to see it. The dream starts bugging me until I have to pay attention, just like the dreams about the book. I think you have all that information, it’s inside you, but you just don’t know you have it. There’s so much noise and so much activity in the world that you don’t have time to connect – to connect things that maybe you’ve perceived without seeing them. You’ve overheard them, or you’ve felt them somehow, but you just dismiss them, because you have something very urgent to do. And then they’re gone. But inside you, you have all the information.

SK — Something about what you’ve just said reminds me of Bernardo, his perceptivity, and his muteness – his ability to be present without people noticing… it’s like an extra sense that he develops because he can’t speak. He’s not the first mute person in your work…

IA — I have a lot of them! (laughs) As a child… I was a very sullen little girl. I spent long periods without talking, or just the essentials: ‘Thank you’, ‘Please’, that was it.

SK — Out of anger?

IA — Probably anger, sadness...

SK — Or maybe you just wanted to be alone?

IA — My mother says that it was an exercise in imagination, more than sadness. But I was a displaced child. My parents were diplomats, I was always changing schools, I was very shy, changing languages, I never felt comfortable in my family, in my body, in the place where I was, in the language, in anything. And so I sort of found a place, a silent place, where I could read, I could make up stories, and that was my world for a long time. I’m very comfortable in silence.
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