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Chilean-American writer Allende seeks inspiration after loss

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- Isabel Allende begins writing all her books on Jan. 8. But when the day arrived this year, she struggled with writer's block.

The practice began out of superstition. She started writing her first book, “The House of the Spirits,” on this date and it became an international best-seller. She then kept it as a discipline. But it was a strange year (she doesn’t want to call it a bad one). A year away from writing after great losses: her publicist, two friends, even her beloved dog had died. Her marriage of 27 years had ended.

“So, this year, on Jan. 7th, I asked myself: What on Earth am I going to write tomorrow? And I felt that I didn’t have much of anything,” Allende said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. “I could not get a word or a sentence on the page.”

Allende’s 21 books have been translated into 35 languages and have sold more than 67 million copies worldwide. And yet, she says it took her weeks before she could finally get back to “the rhythm of writing.” Her new book still has “no shape, not even a working title.” Allende knows one character will be an immigrant and the theme of refugees will appear somehow. The rest is a work in progress.

“But I know that I’ll have love in some form, because at this moment, when I don’t have love, I want it. I’m not too old to fall in love,” said the 73-year-old Allende, whose 2014 TED talk on living passionately, no matter your age, has been viewed more than 2.7 million times.

The Chilean-American novelist was married to lawyer-novelist William Gordon for nearly three decades. Why did it end?

There’s an element of luck in love, Allende says, and sometimes circumstances interfere.

“And that, I think, is what happened between Willy and I,” she said. “Together, we lost three children. I lost Paula and he lost two of his children to drugs. Very few couples survive the loss of one child. Now, three?”

Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende (Official website)
Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende (Official website)

Allende wrote the memoir “Paula” as a letter to her daughter while she was in a coma, suffering from a hereditary metabolic disorder. She wrote a sequel, “The Sum of our Days,” to update Paula on everything that had happened in the world since her death in 1992.

Her most recent work, “The Japanese Lover,” is about a passionate affair between a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland and a Japanese-American gardener. It explores themes of memory and aging.

“Now, emotionally I’m fine. I’m living alone with my other dog, the one that’s still alive. I’m busy, interested in the world.”

That interest in the world is vast. She's concerned about the rise of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his targeting of immigrants and Muslims. Allende says Trump is effective because lower-middle-class workers in the United States feel disempowered.

“These people don’t believe in the American dream anymore,” Allende said. “Trump blames the immigrants. He finds a scapegoat, like Hitler found a scapegoat with the Jews. I think it's really scary. It’s good that we got to see that the anger is there and that that population is there and that we have to listen. But we also have to stop Trump.”

Allende works to help refugees and promotes family planning through the Isabel Allende Foundation, which empowers women and girls worldwide. In Chile, that means working to change what she says is a “medieval” dictatorship-era law that bans abortions, even for women who have been raped or whose lives are at risk.

She also has a lot to say about the craft that made her famous.

“Discipline is important because you may have wonderful ideas but if you don't sit enough hours a day to put those ideas into the computer, and work with those ideas, it’s useless,” she explains.

“I always compare it with sports. ... Nobody cares about your training. They only care about your performance. The same with writing -- there are thousands and thousands of pages of drafts that go to the garbage for one published page.”

Allende has won more than 50 writing awards in 15 countries. She’s received 14 honorary doctorates worldwide, and her works have also been adapted for films, plays, musicals, operas and ballets.

So how would she like to be remembered?

“Men think about their legacy. Women don’t. We’re more realistic. We know that we cannot control our image, our money or our legacy from the tomb,” Allende said. “I’d probably be remembered for a little while by my grandchildren, by my son, my great-grandchildren, maybe if they have a chance to meet me before I die, and that’s it. And I hope they can remember that I’m a good storyteller and generous person.”

She chuckles, and adds another thing: “I also hope that they don’t remember all the other stuff that’s not as good.”