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Isabel Allende's newest historical novel tells familiar story of refugee life


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Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight: Jeffrey Brown has a conversation with a much honored writer, Isabel Allende, whose new novel, "A Long Petal of the Sea," draws upon historical events spanning -- spanning from the Spanish Civil War to the 1973 coup in her native Chile as inspiration.

It's part of our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: In 1939, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, then serving as a diplomat, commissioned a ship to help 2,000 Spanish War refugees make their way to Chile.

That and other historical episodes and figures over the next 50 years formed the backdrop of the new novel "A Long Petal of the Sea."

Author Isabel Allende experienced some of that history herself. An internationally renowned writer, her books have sold more than 70 million copies. In 2014, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.

And she joins me now.

Nice to talk to you again.

Isabel Allende: Hi. Nice to talk to you.

Jeffrey Brown: You're writing a big, sweeping, multi-character story. You have done this before. That's not new.

But this one is grounded in a very particular history, right?

Isabel Allende: In one event.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Isabel Allende: And this is the journey of a ship called Winnipeg, a cargo ship that transported 2,200 refugees from the civil war in Spain to Chile.

Jeffrey Brown: And what drew you to this story? What grabbed you?

Isabel Allende: I heard the story when I was a young kid.

I was born in 1942, and this happened in 1939. But some of those people were friends of my family. So I knew vaguely about it. But I really heard the story from one of the passengers when I was living in Venezuela.

Jeffrey Brown: So, there were real people involved.

Isabel Allende: Real people, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

And then you created the characters?

Isabel Allende: I created the fiction.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Isabel Allende: But the historical facts are so perfect for a novel that I didn't have to invent anything. It was a book easy to write. Everything was there. It wrote itself. I typed.

Jeffrey Brown: That's how it felt? Oh, you typed?

Isabel Allende: Yes. I just typed.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

So, the two main characters are refugees from the civil war. Franco takes over. They're forced to leave to make their way to Chile, right?

Isabel Allende: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Tell me a little bit about what happens to them.

Isabel Allende: Well, when they cross the border into France as refugees, they end up us as prisoners, practically, in a concentration camp.

The day that Franco attacked Barcelona -- and that was the last bastion of the republica -- half-a-million people walked to the border of France in a terrible winter day.

And what would France do with half-a-million refugees at the border? Eventually, they let them in, and they put them in concentration camps. It seems like a familiar story.

Jeffrey Brown: It does seem like one. And one can't read this without thinking about echoes even to today.

Isabel Allende: The narrative against the immigrants is now the same as it was 80 years ago.

And then they come to Chile. In Chile, they have a life. And then, in 1970, we had a government, a democratically-elected government, center-left, which was with a socialist president, Salvador Allende.

Three years later, the right wing, helped by the CIA, topple the government. And many people went again into exile as refugees, and among them, some of the ones that had come in the ship many years before.

So, life goes in a circle, you know? And from a historical point of view, it's fascinating.

Jeffrey Brown: How much did you rely on research, and how much of this is your imagination?

Isabel Allende: I have written several historical novels. And I researched the facts very much. So I want to be absolutely sure that that part is true, because that's the foundation.

If I have a solid foundation, I can create the fictional story on top of it, and it is believable. And my first responsibility as a fiction writer is for you, as a reader, to believe my story. So that's where facts come in. And they are real facts, not alternative facts.

Jeffrey Brown: And so you were telling me earlier that this book almost wrote itself, right?

Isabel Allende: Yes, because the story stands for itself.

Jeffrey Brown: But did -- in a sense, are the characters writing themselves here, or are you creating the characters?

Isabel Allende: I think they write themselves, and they are pushed by their events.

They need to get on the ship. So I need to marry them. And those things happen in the process, that the events around their lives, that most of them are out of their control, decide what they do, in a way.

And I feel that that's my life. In my life, all the crossroads, all the moments when everything has changed has been completely out of my control, and my only choice has been to how I feel about it.

For me, it's easy to understand the feelings of all -- of displacement, of leaving everything behind, of starting from scratch, or always looking back, thinking that you will go back someday.

Jeffrey Brown: There is a another real character in this book. And that's the poet Pablo Neruda, right, a very socially engaged and committed writer.

You use lines from his poetry at the beginning of each chapter. And it made me wonder how you feel -- or do you feel a kind of responsibility as a writer, as an artist, to look at our times and address it?

Isabel Allende: It comes naturally. I don't want to deliver a message. I'm not a sociologist or a politician.

I just want to tell a story. But, sometimes, the story are in the air. We hear so much about refugees and migrants and displaced people, that my three last books deal with that in one way or another, because it's there. It's in the collective consciousness right now.

Jeffrey Brown: All right. The novel is "A Long Petal of the Sea."

Isabel Allende, thank you very much.

Isabel Allende: Thank you, Jeff.

Judy Woodruff: So interesting.

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