Dogs play a role too.
I think when you open up to animals, something happens to a soul, a sort of tenderness, a humor that is very special.
Do you still write in Spanish?
I can write nonfiction in English, but fiction happens in the belly, it doesn't happen in the brain. I just can't go through the process of a dictionary — no, no, no. It needs to flow, like a dream, and that happens in Spanish.
When you were a journalist in Chile, you spent the day with the great poet Pablo Neruda, at his home.
I was in my early 30s, a month before the military coup. He invited me to his house. I thought, oh my God, I must be the best journalist in this country if Neruda wants to talk to me. After lunch I said, "I'm ready for the interview, Don Pablo." He said, "What interview?" I said, "The interview — I came to interview you." He said, "Oh, my dear, I would never have an interview with you. You are the worst journalist in the country. You lie all the time. I am sure that if you don't have a story, you make it up. You put yourself in the middle of all the stories. Why don't you stick to literature, where all these defects are virtues?"
We keep hearing warnings about the death of literary fiction.
I hope not! If literary fiction dies, I die too. Who would employ me? Nobody! Humanity has this need to hear stories because they connect us with other people, they teach us about our own feelings. We feel less lonely when we see other people going through the same things, even if they're fictional characters.
Neruda's body was just exhumed, because of suspicions about how he died after the 1973 coup. The body of Chilean President Salvador Allende, your cousin, was exhumed two years ago, and it was confirmed that he committed suicide during the takeover. Do you think such scrutiny of the past is good?
Yes. Many people object, but I think it's good. It's important to know the truth. How can you write history or think about the present without knowing the truth?
You write a good deal about death, but Americans seem uncomfortable with talking about dying.
They have all kinds of euphemisms. Nobody says my daughter died [Paula Allende died of a rare disease when she was 28]. She "passed away" or she "passed," ways of saying it without the word "death." This obsession with being young, looking young, is part of this horrible fear of death.
I am not afraid of death at all. I witnessed my daughter's long agony, a whole year that she was in a coma. My daughter died, and a few weeks later, my granddaughter was born. That moment of death and the moment of birth are so similar, it's like going through a threshold. I don't think I will meet my daughter at the end of a long tunnel and she will waiting for me with angel wings, no, but her spirit is part of the universal spirit like mine is.
You are a "magical realism" writer. Does it exist in U.S. literature?
With American writers like Toni Morrison, you find that sense of the magical world. And this country has more New Age stuff than any other country in the world. People are hanging crystals on their necks, convinced they will save them from catastrophe, or consulting astrologers or psychics. It is crazy. When it's another country, we call it "magical realism" or superstition. When it's us [in America], it's religion.
Any prospect of a film of "Maya's Notebook"?
I have had bad experiences with Hollywood. I've spent a fortune on lawyers discussing contracts for years, and then at the end I can't sign them because they want everything forever in the universe and other planets [yet] to be discovered. They even want the copyright of my characters, so if I use my own characters in another book, I have to pay them a royalty. It's ridiculous. I don't want to deal with that.
And yet moviemaking is such a powerful storytelling medium.
It is, but unable to fill my soul. They did a good movie with "The House of the Spirits" and "Of Love and Shadows," but that was awhile ago.
You always start a new book on Jan. 8, the day you wrote a last letter to your dying grandfather. What's your next book?
There's another book that is in the oven already. It's called "Ripper," and it's a thriller. It happens in San Francisco in 2012.
Another book that didn't require too much historical research?
I [wrote it] faster because [of that]. Research takes a long time. "Island Beneath the Sea" [about Haiti and slavery in the 18th century] was the most difficult book to research. It was so messy, the time of the French Revolution. But I only got one comment of a mistake: that there are no scorpions in Haiti!
Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.