"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Isabel Allende may be a little in love with the risqué. She celebrated her 50th birthday by publishing a reverie on aphrodisiacs, complete with her mother’s erotic recipes. She confesses to a fantasy of swimming in rice pudding: “I dived in, and that delicious creaminess caressed my skin, slipped into all the crevices of my body, filled my mouth.” She tells me that she has read her daughter’s love letters and that they are “pornographic” and “wonderful.”
Certainly, the Chilean writer, who stormed onto the literary scene nearly two decades ago with the magic realist hit “The House of the Spirits,” does not stifle concupiscence. Her novels abound with secret basement love nests, illicit couples tiptoeing through snoring houses and aching for a hidden corner and the repeated rape of servant girls by a desirous patron. New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani derided Allende’s most recent novel, “Daughter of Fortune,” as a “bodice-ripper romance”; Allende says her readers were outraged that there wasn’t more action.
Going through her stream-of-consciousness, autobiographical writing, though, she’s really not a sensationalist; she’s just at ease with sexuality — playful, spirited, unabashed. Maybe she is the quintessential Latin lover. I see her at a book reading and find that her compact 5-foot frame is graciously buttressed by curves like those you’d find on a New Age fertility goddess; her jovial eyes captivate the almost all-female crowd.
She writes with abundance, never offering a quiet meal when a boisterous crowd can feast on “puff pastries, delicious vegetarian dishes, spongy tortillas and enormous cheeses from the countryside” (this while “fasting” during Holy Week). Common objects become animate beings, descriptions take on palpability; an aging boat, for example, is a ship “crisscrossed with ancient marine scars, a crust of mollusks on her matronly hips, exhausted joints moaned in the pounding seas.”
Allende tells me — as if you can read her work and not know — that she is a passionate person. Through her seven books (all of them bestsellers in at least one of the nearly 30 languages in which they are published), she suggests that some part of her psyche still inhabits a culture light-years removed from the liberal San Francisco Bay Area where she now lives. In that remembered place, there is brutal machismo, there is an entire language just for love and there is a power to sensuality and mystery that doesn’t coexist easily with the rational and pragmatic United States. In her writing, Allende chases that past with the gleeful determination of a child desperate to catch a miracle of color and life in a butterfly net. She is drawn inexorably to the years spent in Chile, between her childhood abroad as a diplomat’s daughter and her adulthood abroad, first as an exile in Venezuela during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (who overthrew her uncle, Chilean President Salvador Allende), and now as an immigrant to California. Many of the seemingly tall tales wrapped into Allende’s impassioned love stories find roots, or at least inspiration, in her own familial legends.
She pulls the cover off some of these personal secrets in “Paula,” a family memoir written to her dying daughter, and in “Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses.” This ancestral lore is lush with humor and preposterousness. Allende’s grandmother is a clairvoyant, who uses her telepathy to send a sugar bowl skittering across the table. Her mother-in-law sits bare-bottomed in the living room, entertaining guests as she potty-trains Paula. Allende’s memories of this fantastical family have been steeped, no doubt, in her potent imagination, but not a word seems phony. Just the opposite. I fear Allende may be too truthful.
I find myself nervous for the friends and family who appear in her books: the ex-husband who must suffer her admission of cheating on him; the son, whose love life I surreptitiously track, meeting his wife in one book, and a new girlfriend in the next. I’m taken aback when Allende identifies by name those who’ve inspired characters in her novels, and even hints at one friend she’s saving for a future tale.
Allende may be a little in love with other people’s stories. No, it’s more than that. She is a top-notch, passionate story snitcher. And I find myself wondering if the people who know her best don’t demand immunity from fictionalization.
Is anything off limits?
You know, my mother and I write a letter every day. We keep in touch in a very intimate way, and we have an agreement that I will never tell her story, and that when she dies I will destroy her letters. I’m not going to comply with that part of the agreement though, so that after she dies I can open a letter a day for the rest of my life and always have the voice of my mother. I have 35 years of letters in a closet. But that’s off limits. I know that her stories, her privacy, the things that she has told me in those letters are something that I can’t touch.
When I wrote “Paula,” I didn’t have the intention of publishing the book, so I told the story in a totally candid way. When I showed the book to my mother and my stepfather and my son, they worried. They said, “Well, here we are with all of our names. Here’s Ernesto and Paula’s privacy, everything exposed.”
So, I made a copy of the manuscript and I sent it to every person who was mentioned, and everybody, including my former husband, got back to me saying it was fine with them. And then Ernesto, Paula’s husband, called. He was crying on the phone and said, “I think Paula would be happy to have this published. However, I think you have a very partial idea of who Paula was. You don’t know Paula the lover, Paula the friend, Paula the crazy, dependent, emotionally unstable little girl that I adored.”
And so he sent me a box with all the letters they had exchanged. They’re wonderful love letters, sexual letters, some of them really pornographic. It was shocking for me as a mother to read them, but it was also wonderful because I got to see a more complex person, the real Paula, not the one that I had invented or that I had raised and seen only from my angle. Parts of those letters I added to the book, verbatim.
In “Paula,” you depict your family as if it were the nectar of your soul, your very life force, which contrasts greatly with the way I think a lot of Americans feel about family. What do you think makes the idea of the “Latin family” so different from the American version?
The extended family in all of the third world is the only source of safety for a person. Your being exists in a community, in a family — if you are expelled, you’re lost. In the United States there is insurance, there is Social Security, there’s the government, there’s a lot of stuff. In other places, you know that if you are pregnant, if you are jobless, if you are sick, the only people who will be around you are your family. It’s a very symbiotic and, in many ways, pathological relationship, because you depend so much and you have to give so much back. It’s a heavy burden — a wonderful burden, but a very heavy one.
When I came to the United States, I had the feeling that I could invent a new life for myself, a new version of myself without anybody watching, without having to carry the sayings of my grandfather, the past of my mother — ahhh, free. It was a great feeling. Then as the years went by, I started to gather around me another extended family — people who are not even blood-related to me — because I can’t live without it.
It is the expatriate’s prerogative to change identities. How does that affect your writing?
I don’t think I would be a writer if I had stayed in Chile. I would be trapped in the chores, in the family, in the person that people expected me to be. I was not supposed to be in any way a liberated person. I was a female born in the ’40s in a patriarchal family; I was supposed to marry and make everyone around me happy.
The fact that I am a writer comes from the experience of being cut away from my roots and living in Venezuela, where I couldn’t find a place for myself, for years and years. And somehow I found a niche in the writing; I created a parallel world where I felt comfortable, a universe of my own. I tried to build or bring back all the losses — the country, the family, the memories, my grandfather, my grandmother, everything that I lost came back in the writing. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years, digging that unending well of memory.
What are you digging up now?
Right now I’m writing a book that started as a book for kids, well, young adults 12 years and up — and I have been flying. The writing is going quickly. Because it’s for kids I’m free to imagine whatever I want and I realize that the background of having lived in Latin America and having accepted since childhood the possibility of mystery, having understood that I know nothing, has helped me with this book a lot.
Can you tell me anything about this new book?
Well, it’s not done yet, but it’s the story of — no, I can’t tell you. [Laughs] Maybe you’ll read it.
You also have a book coming out in English this year.
Yes, “Portrait in Sepia.” It’ll be out in the fall.
You know, when I finished “Daughter of Fortune” — it is the gold rush seen from the eyes of a woman immigrant at a time when this was a male world of testosterone and violence and corruption and greed and a few women, most of them prostitutes. I didn’t want to write the story of a prostitute, so I wrote the story of this Chilean woman who comes looking for the man she’s in love with. She never finds the guy, and ends up with a Chinese doctor. When the book was finished, I thought that the ending was perfect for the story. It’s really about freedom, about a woman who was raised in a corset in Victorian times, in the most restrictive and repressive society in the world — that is, Chile — and she was able to discover the joy of freedom. So my ending was about freedom, not about love. But I started getting letters; the readers wanted to know why she and the Chinese guy never got in bed. Even my mother: “But what is this? I want them in bed, they don’t even kiss — what is this?”
I already had another book in mind. I wanted to write the story of Chile in the second half of the 19th century. It’s a fascinating time, a time of war, of very violent expansion for Chile; it was a very imperial and territorial country that took away a lot of territory from our neighbors. It’s a very important time because it shaped minds and it shaped a nation in a way, so when you see the brutalities that were committed in the ’70s by the dictatorship and everybody was so amazed that that could happen in Chile, well they shouldn’t have been. It had happened before; it was a matter of reading our history. So I was very interested in telling that story.
But because of all these letters, I decided to pick up a couple of the characters from “Daughter of Fortune” and bring them to the new book. I also picked up some characters from “The House of the Spirits,” so this new book “Portrait in Sepia” is like a bridge between “Daughter of Fortune” and “The House of the Spirits,” and my publishers are going to publish it like a trilogy.
What do you think about the arrest of Pinochet?
Finally the truth is coming out and it is more brutal than was ever expected. More people were killed and in more atrocious ways. There was a general on television explaining how they would pull out the eyes of the prisoners with knives, how they would chop the prisoners in pieces before they killed them — all this on television. For the families, it is good to finally know, on the one hand, that [their loved ones] are dead. But the suffering is just unbearable.
Pinochet has been under house arrest, and other generals as well. But no justice will be done. I mean it’s just impossible; no one will pay for these crimes and that is also painful. But I think the country needs to exorcise all the demons, open the graves, dig out everything and just expose the truth.
There is a percentage of the population — the extreme right — that denies everything with extreme arrogance, and when confronted with the facts says, “Well, they deserved it.” It’s a brutal experience for the rest of the people who suffered the repression.
There is also a refusal to accept the complicity, the fact that this happened because a large number of people allowed it to happen. And when a large number of people decided that it was not going to happen anymore it stopped. The Nazis wouldn’t have been able to get away with what they did without the complicity of the whole nation. And this can happen in any country — this can happen in the United States. The brutalities that whites inflicted on African-Americans wouldn’t have happened without the complicity of the whole nation — burning people alive, flogging them, branding them, bringing them in chains to this country. So no one is free, no nation is free of that capacity for brutality.
You say that when you write, you spend 12 hours in a room. Do you spend all of that time writing?
Most of it is spent writing. The writing is slow, but also it’s like going into another world in which I am the characters, I am every scene, I can smell it, I can look at it from different angles, I am totally immersed in it. Then, I go to bed at night and it stays with me and all my body is with the story and I start dreaming. I have a notebook next to my bed, and in the darkness I can write down a dream or something I think might help — most of it doesn’t, but sometimes it does. I’m tuned to the story completely, completely. Fortunately, it takes only a few months; otherwise I would be crazy, in an asylum. I really would. It’s hard for me to go out for a walk, to go to the movies. I don’t want to see anybody.
I try to let go of the intellect and just tell the story. I only read the page I have in front of me on the screen. Then when the whole story is told, I print it, wait a week and read it. I look at it for the first time on paper and with some distance and I know then what should be enlarged, what should be eliminated, what is repeated. And after that first reading, I write a second draft and then usually a third one in which I correct only language, and then I send it to my mother. And that’s the first time I confront the book with somebody else, and talk about it. It’s a very solitary pursuit.
In Spain, I send the book to my agent, who gives the book to my publishers. Nobody ever gets back to me saying, “You know what, I don’t like this part on Page 40″ or “Why don’t you change the ending?” Nobody. I have no editing.
“Daughter of Fortune” was an Oprah book —
I’m fascinated that this woman has the country reading. I’m a very good friend of Elaine [Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage] and she says every month people come to the bookstore and say, “Give me Oprah’s book.” They don’t know what the book is and they don’t care; they just want the book that Oprah selected because they trust her. I was fascinated by her personality and this airtight empire that she controls. She’s extremely powerful and charismatic and she’s herself. There’s nothing fake about her.
It must’ve been great for your book sales.
When they published “Daughter of Fortune” in the United States, they did 120,000 of the hardcover, which is a lot, and then when Oprah announced the book in her show, they printed 600,000 copies more. That’s the power of that woman.
How many of your books have been bestsellers?
All of them, and they’ve been long sellers. All of them are still in print. I’ve been extremely lucky. They’ve been translated into almost 30 languages now. It means that I can make a living writing, which is very important. Most writers spend most of their time teaching, doing seminars, journalism, other things, because they can’t make a living writing. It’s very hard.
I never expected this to happen. Never.
Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.More Kaitlin Quistgaard.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)