As a blizzard blows through New York City, 60-year-old NYU professor Richard Bowmaster faces a series of surprises. His car slams into the back of a white Lexus. The young Latina driver emerges, tries in vain to shut the trunk lid that is popping open, and speeds away as Richard hands her a card with his contact information. Baffled by the suspicious event, Richard heads home to end his hectic day, but soon finds the driver of the other car on his doorstep needing help.
More surprising twists are in store, as readers of Isabel Allende's delightful and deeply moving new novel, In the Midst of Winter, will soon learn. Richard's journey is enriched and entwined with two women who enter his life: Evelyn, an immigrant from Guatelmala, and Lucia, a visiting professor who lives in the downstairs apartment of his home. This beautifully told story—a blend of mystery, romance and historical fiction—embraces the personal histories of these three unique characters, uniting them in unpredictable ways.
Allende, who lives in Northern California, has written more than 20 books since her international bestseller, The House of the Spirits, was published in 1982. We asked her about the inspiration for In the Midst of Winter, the origin of the title, the novel's three fascinating central characters and more.
You said in a TED talk, “All stories interest me and some haunt me until I end up writing them.” What was it about this story that haunted you?
At the beginning I really didn't have a story, I had a time, a place and a snowstorm, and then the characters came to me. They were hiding somewhere, waiting for me to find them. Each one of them had a traumatic past, especially the young Guatemalan immigrant, who was inspired by real cases like hers that I have seen in my foundation. Those stories haunted me and still do, months after I finished the book.
Can you tell us a bit about the quote from Albert Camus that inspired the book’s title: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” When did you first read it and why did this passage stick with you?
I heard the quote at a conference in the Omega Institute, a spiritual retreat upstate NewYork, which the characters in my novel end up visiting. It resonated with me because I was going through one of those apparently endless winters that sometimes happen in life. I was getting divorced after 28 years of marriage, my beloved agent and three close friends died, also my dog had died. I felt that I was stuck in a grey and cold place, but the quote reminded me that I have an invincible summer in me. That summer has saved me from many dark periods, except the illness and death of my daughter. That was the longest winter in my life.
In the Midst of Winter skillfully combines three personal narratives, the beginnings of a love story and an evolving mystery. While writing, how did you work to blend all of these elements into one cohesive story?
I imagined the structure of the novel like a braid. My job was to blend three strands evenly and neatly. Each piece of the braid represented one of the stories. The characters were very different but they had something in common: they were emotionally wounded by events of their past.
“I have to admit that, like Lucia, I am vain, bossy and impulsive; I get in trouble and fall in love easily.”
Lucia seems similar to you in many ways—she’s passionate, romantic and eager to get the most out of life as she grows older. Do these personal similarities between you and your character make it easier, or harder, to write about her?
Although Lucia resembles me, I was not thinking of me when I developed the character. I based Lucia on a couple of Chilean journalists who had similar experiences. One of them was a feisty, powerful, sentimental, smart and generous friend who unfortunately died of recurrent cancer some time ago. But I have to admit that, like Lucia, I am vain, bossy and impulsive; I get in trouble and fall in love easily.
In contrast to Lucia, Richard appears to be a taciturn and distant loner. What are his redeeming qualities?
Lucia likes Richard because he is very smart and quite handsome, but mostly because she guesses that under his cautious and cold appearance he has a kind heart. She was right, as is proven in their common adventure. Also, she believes that he is a wounded man in need of a good woman. That has irresistible appeal to most Chilean women. We love projects. Richard is a long-term project, a challenge that would require a lot of work. Perfect for Lucia.
You’ve been a longtime resident of the San Francisco Bay area. Why did you decide to set this novel primarily in Brooklyn? As a Californian, what’s your attitude toward New York City?
The closest people in my life are my son, Nicolas, and Lori, my daughter-in-law. She is from Brooklyn and every year we all come from California (my grandchildren included) to spend the holidays with her Italian family. Brooklyn has become my second home and I am blessed to be part of Lori's noisy and sentimental extended family. I like New York City . . . for a week or two, when I visit for work or for the theater and restaurants, but it is too intense for me, I can't handle it alone. In California I live in a cottage by a lagoon, in silence and in nature, in the company of a silly dog, ducks, geese and some insane swimmers who train in the cold waters of the lagoon.
Snow, cold, blizzards, wind—how do you react to winter weather? Love it or loathe it?
I love my Northern California weather, but if I was forced to choose, I prefer cold winter. I do very badly in the heat. In winter one can always add layers of clothing and survive, but there's no escape from humid heat. How can you look good and think straight if you are sweating? Also, when placing my characters in a novel, winter is way more dramatic than summer. I can't imagine Anna Karenina in Jamaica, can you?
You are known not only as a writer, but as a feminist. How do Lucia, Evelyn and/or Richard exemplify the message of women’s rights and liberation?
I never try to give a message in my fiction. When I see that an author is trying to preach to me in a novel, I feel insulted. If I find a message, it should come between the lines; I will discover it if it resonates with me. The ideas, feelings and experiences of the author appear unavoidably in the writing. Why does the author choose those stories and no others? Because he or she cares about those issues. Why those characters and no others? Because they speak for the author. I write about strong women who overcome great obstacles and manage to do so without bitterness. I don't invent them, I meet them in my life and in my foundation. Those women don't preach feminism, they live it.
Your account of Evelyn’s experiences in Guatemala and her journey to the United States is harrowing. What was your research process for that storyline?
Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazarios gave me a detailed account of the crossing of Mexico and the border with the United States. Beatriz Manz, from the Center for Latin American Studies in UC Berkeley helped me with the research about the genocide of Indigenous people perpetrated by the government in Guatemala in the '80s and its legacy of violence, corruption, poverty and gangs. Of course, I have been there a couple of times. I have traveled extensively for many years and I can testify that Guatemala is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The character of Evelyn and her story is based on cases I see in my foundation, as I said before. We work with refugees.
Lucia and Richard show true compassion and empathy for the undocumented immigrant Evelyn. Do you believe this is a timely or a timeless message?
The world is experiencing a refugee crisis, not the first or the last. After the Second World War there were millions of refugees in search of a place to plant roots. Now that refugees have reached the shores of Europe, it is called a crisis, but really the great migrations of refugees happen in Africa and Asia. Most refugees are escaping from a situation of life and death, they are escaping from extreme poverty, violence, war or natural disasters, yet they are seldom received with compassion, quite the opposite, they usually face hostility and discrimination. Compassion is always timely and timeless. Why do we forget this essential truth?
You’ve written more than 20 bestselling books and won countless awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. What inspires you to keep writing?
The loyalty of my readers keeps me going in those rare moments when I suspect that I may have reached the age of rest. I love writing, I love storytelling and I love the innumerable messages of encouragement and gratitude I get from my readers. I suppose I will keep on trying to write for as long as I have a brain.
Author photo (c) Lori Bara