January 8th

This post is also available in: Inglés

January 8th has come and gone, and here is a news flash: Isabel did NOT start a new book! She did not. Ever since January 8, 1981, when Isabel first started writing a spiritual farewell to her dying grandfather—a letter that later become her first novel, The House of the Spirits—she has begun all of her books on January 8th. Isabel was in exile in Venezuela when her grandfather was dying, and she was unable to visit him. This is what she told me about that letter:


I remembered everything he had ever told me—about his life, the family anecdotes, the history of our country. As soon as I began the letter I realized it was not a normal letter; it was part novel, part memoir, part family saga and political chronicle. My grandfather died without reading the letter and I continued to write at night and on the weekends in the kitchen of our apartment. I had a day job in a school and I worked 12 hours a day, so I didn’t have much free time, but I was obsessed with the writing. By the end of the year I had 500 pages of a very dirty manuscript on the kitchen counter. My first novel, The House of the Spirits, had been born. It had coffee and food stains, and some of the pages had been corrected with Typex so much that they looked like cardboard. Remember that computers didn’t exist at that time; I wrote in an old small typewriter. Correcting wasn’t easy. If I needed to add something or change a paragraph, I had to write it on another page, cut it and insert it with scotch tape, so some pages were much longer than others; the manuscript was difficult to handle. When it was done and my mother read it, she objected to the villain’s name because I had given him my father’s family name (on his mother’s side). I had to find a name with the same number of letters; once I did, my kids, Paula and Nico, went page by page looking for the word, erasing it with Typex, inserting the page back in the typewriter and typing the new name that would fit exactly in the space. We did it very carefully but we missed one instance and the first edition of The House of the Spirits has a weird character that appears only once and no one knows who the heck he is. A critic thought it was magic realism…

Eventually Isabel got a computer!
This story changes slightly every time I hear it—often at one of her readings or just when I ask about it—but I love it because, in the end, perhaps it is me remembering it differently every time. Either way, it’s a charming story and I am glad to have this version first-hand for the blog. 

The House of the Spirits was a huge success in Europe and on the advice of her agent, Carmen Balcells, Isabel wrote a second book, again starting it on that 8th day of January. This time the start date was for luck, since Carmen had warned that a first book, though not easy, was often charmed; the second could prove her skill. That second book, Of Love and Shadows, also did well, and so the third book, Eva Luna, was also started on January 8th. It, too, was a success and that’s when Isabel says it became scary:

What if I started writing on another date and the book was a flop??
She continued:

After a few years and a few books, January 8th became a good habit; it gave me discipline. By then my life was complicated—I had to travel, lecture, do innumerable interviews, I was getting tons of mail—so if I didn’t organize my calendar I would never have the time, solitude, and silence I needed for each book. That’s why I have kept January 8th as my sacred day in the year, the day I lock myself away and start a new book. I have not started something new every year, because sometimes it takes me more than a year to write a book, but I have started every book on the same day.

In 2002 I decided it was time for me to take a sabbatical and fill up my reservoir; I had been working too hard for too long. I wrote down my sabbatical resolution, put it in a sealed envelope, and placed it on my altar. Then I forgot about it.
Eight years later I found the envelope and decided that I really, really needed that sabbatical. I cleared my calendar for 2011.  

This is my year of resting, reading novels, playing with Olivia (my dog), learning crafts, dancing, walking in the woods, and charging my batteries.

So what was Isabel doing if she wasn’t locked away on January 8th beginning her next novel?

On January 8th I spent the day in a spa…


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