As I write this, it’s supposed to be spring, but Toronto is being hit with the usual April snow, this time in the form of slushy white pellets of freezing rain. It feels appropriate under today’s heavy grey skies to tell you about In the Midst of Winter, Isabel Allende’s latest novel.
November 2017, my dear friend Liz lured me down to Brooklyn because she had tickets to see Isabel Allende at the Brooklyn Public Library. We stood in a line that snaked around inside the building as far the children’s section and finally began inching back toward the main lobby where the talk was to be held. Before taking our seats, we were each handed an autographed hardcover copy of In the Midst of Winter. (Squeal of excitement!) From our places nearly at the back, it was hard to see either the author or her interviewer who were seated, and their amplified voices were not easy to hear in the high-ceilinged, reverberant cafeteria space. Still, I managed to take four pages of notes which helped me appreciate both her writing process and the book itself. “My calling,” she said, “was not the truth. My calling was fiction.”
She began by talking about the inception of the novel. Because her first novel, which she began on a January 8th, met with success, she has begun writing all her novels on that date as well, for convenience, for luck and for discipline. It was Christmas 2015 and with the date fast approaching, she was stressing that she didn’t know what on earth she was going to write about. Her family members began throwing ideas around and from that conversation the first seeds of the novel were sown.
I was curious about her writing process above all. She said she sits down and writes the first sentence that comes to mind, establishing the time, place and tone of the story. Other guiding questions she asks are “What is going to push the characters out of their comfort zones?” and “Under what circumstances would a minor incident be major to a character?”
Did she plot out her novel ahead of time, I wondered? No, she said during the Q & A, characters lead plot. She used to try to force a story in a certain direction, but now she just lets it flow. And what characters she conceives!
In the Midst of Winter is a brilliant model of the character-driven story. We get to know every detail of the three main characters’ lives. To keep us from getting lost in the non-chronological nature of such a story, the chapter headings tell us whose story we’re reading and from what period of their lives.
There’s Richard, an uptight vegan academic, living in a rundown Brooklyn brownstone. There’s Lucia, a visiting professor from Chile, renting his under-heated basement apartment, wondering how to make him fall in love with her. There’s Evelyn, a undocumented Guatemalan they take under their wing after Richard bangs into her car in the snowstorm of the century that has blanketed Brooklyn. Good people are boring, said Allende. People with common sense don’t make good characters. Contradictory, complicated, shifting, that’s what you want.
Allende explained that all of her characters have had loss, but have had different reactions to their suffering. At one point in my reading, actually, I found the suffering so intense, I had to put the book down and take a little break from it. Warning: you could probably figure it out from the title, but this is not a light summer beach read. In fact, I was forewarned about the themes of the novel from the talk, and reminded that a novelist can bring an idea closer than a journalist can, can tell the story of many, through one.
So from the characters who all have ties to South and Central America, the themes of violence without war, the plight of the refugee (coincidentally timely, Allende added), and of recovering from a trauma emerge. She also covers LGBT issues, human trafficking, breast cancer, depression and suicide, the enigma of Pentacostalism, Mayan pagan rites, and cats vs. dogs.
Lest you get the impression that this book is all gut-wrenching sadness, at its heart is an almost-comic situation: a dead body in the trunk of the car Richard hits. Lucia, anyway, is a character who has developed resilience and a ready laugh. One of her lines made me laugh out loud. Her ugly chihuahua, she thinks, “permitted himself the luxury of being both completely self-centered and grumpy, just like a husband.”
It’s also a very spiritual, even magical book. I find it interesting that the characters are all more or less pagan in their outlook on life, no doubt a reflection of Allende’s own beliefs. In fact, two key moments in the plot revolve around Evelyn’s connection to a jaguar spirit guide. Is this more than just the author’s personal beliefs, a sign of a return to paganism in the wider culture?
My only criticism is that Allende breaks the fourth wall a few times when she writes things like, “Over the next three days…, the lives of Lucia Maraz, Richard Bowmaster and Evelyn Ortega would become inextricably linked.” or “The slow exorcism of his past began that night…” But aside from a few sentences, it’s a beautifully crafted work that obviously comes from the heart of a woman who, like Lucia, is a bossy, vain romantic who still wants sex and love. (Not making it up—she told us so herself.)
My primary takeaways about writing from both her talk and the novel itself are 1) Characters, not plots, make the best stories, 2) Write from the heart or the belly, 3) A story is always about change. One last piece of advice she left us was “The result matters, so work, work, work. If it’s not working, cut it, it’s not ever going to work.”
I hope I’ve told you just enough about the story to pique your interest in In the Midst of Winter and that you’ve enjoyed, as I did, getting a glimpse backstage.