Q. You have been an army officer, lawyer, and writer. Do these professions have anything in common?
A. Certainly discipline is required for all three and dealing with human nature is a part of every profession as well. I served in the Army because I was obligated to do so, but being a lawyer was something I had wanted to do from the time I was seven years old. My years as a lawyer helped me prepare to be a mystery writer. I have a very good understanding of how the legal system works and what people do to try and get around in it as well as to get something from it, not always easy in the American system of justice.
Q. How did you become a writer?
A. Everyone is surprised that I started writing, but I have a family history in the arts. My father was a writer and an artist. I also have a half brother who wrote mysteries as a sideline. When I graduated from the university I was asked what I wanted to do in life and I answered that I wanted to be a writer and a lawyer. I was too hyperactive to sit and write when I was young, so I always knew I would be sixty before I could be still long enough to hear the voices of my characters. You must also remember that I have studied with a real master, Isabel Allende. Being married to her for more than twenty-seven years helped me learn a lot about writing.
Q. Is Duelo en Chinatown your first book?
A. Yes. Duelo en Chinatown is my first published novel. I wrote another one and I was advised it was a "trunk book." In other words, I was told to open the trunk in my bedroom, put the book in it, close the trunk, and leave it there. Duelo en Chinatown is based on a short story called "All You Can Eat." A friend of mine read that short story and told me it was better than my trunk book. It later became the first chapter of Duelo in Chinatown.
Q. Who was the reader that liked your short story better than your trunk book?
A. When I first started writing I was so happy with what I was doing that I asked a few friends of mine if they would be readers. One was a woman who was my court reporter for the last forty years. Her name is Susan Uccelli. She is one of the people who told me that "All You Can Eat" was better than my trunk book. There were others, including Isabel.
Q. Is Duelo en Chinatown based on a real story or is it pure fiction?
A. It is a purely fictional work. I'm not sure exactly how I ended up with Chinatown as my setting; let's just say it evolved. One day when I was in San Francisco I saw a Chinese albino. I knew immediately I had the Mr. Song character. From that point on, the writing just started to flow.
Q. Tell us a little more about that day when you where in San Francisco and you saw the Chinese albino.
A. I had decided that I was going to have an herb shop in my book and I was working out the description of it in my mind, but I hadn't painted a picture of the proprietor. One day, I had to go to downtown San Francisco on some business. Coming back home I drove by the outer fringe of Chinatown on Kearny Street. It was there I saw a Chinese Albino dressed in a business suit. It was a gift I just couldn't believe. With that sighting, Mr. Song was born.
Q. Did you visit Chinatown often while writing your book?
A. I've spent a lot of time in Chinatown during the many years I've lived in the Bay Area. It's a very important San Francisco neighborhood and there's almost nothing boring about it. I spend time there even now. For many years my law office was only a few blocks away from Chinatown.
Q. How long did it take you to finish the novel? Can you describe your writing routine?
A. Because I continued to practice law on a part-time basis, I only wrote part-time, usually in the afternoons. I also belonged to a writing class. For class I am required to turn in ten pages every two weeks. It took me two years to finish The Chinese Jars and every other book I have written since then.
Q. During those two years did you ever have nightmares about any of the characters or become obsessed with any of them?
A. Yes, I do have dreams and nightmares about the characters, especially when they are doing something that is out of character. I don't think obsession is exactly what happens, but when I have the character the way I want him or her, I get very excited and can hardly wait to have them interact with the others. That's a very critical part of writing for me, getting the character down, but to tell the truth it happens very naturally if I get the silence I need to develop them.
Q. Why is it that your first book was published in Spanish before being published in English? How did you arrange to be published by Ediciones B?
A. Juan Pasqual, was then the publisher of Ediciones B. He is an old friend of mine, and really became my padrino as a writer. He wrote me a letter some time in 2004 telling me he wanted to publish a book of my photography. Instead, I sent him the manuscript of The Chinese Jars, and asked him to read it. He liked it and agreed to publish it. The book was written in English and translated into Spanish.
Q. Who are your literary influences?
A. The writers who have most influenced me are William Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Geoffrey Chaucer, Arthur Conan Doyle, Earl Stanley Gardner, and a hundred other great storytellers I've read over the years. I have also been influenced by numerous authors who write about forensic medicine.
Q. Isabel's novel, The Infinite Plan, is based on a story you shared with her about your life. How did you tell that story to her?
A. The telling of that story went on for over four years. During that time we visited all the places my family traveled in those years. In the end, we even found the house my father built. It was very emotional because when we found it, it was abandoned. The tree he and I planted together in 1942 was forty feet high, but dead, its branches stripped of all their leaves. There was a big trash dumpster by the house. I sat on the steps and cried. A month later Isabel wanted to see it again so we went back. It had been demolished.
Q. To what extent do you identify with Gregory Reeves, the protagonist in Isabel's novel The Infinite Plan? Was your life as adventurous as his?
A. The Infinite Plan is a true emotional story of my life. Of course it also includes fiction. I identify with Gregory Reeves because his experiences are based on many of my own. I know it's hard to believe, but my personal life has been much more complicated and exciting than his. Isabel just said that people wouldn't believe it if she put it all down the way it actually happened.
Q. Was your childhood like Gregory's? Did you have a kind of marginal life in a Chicano neighborhood? What else can you say about that time in your life?
A. My childhood was pretty much like Gregory's. I did grow up in a marginal Chicano neighborhood. It was a rough and dangerous place to be at that time. It was during the Second World War. Los Angeles at that time had the largest Mexican population outside of Mexico City, but the Mexicans had no power. There was a great deal of anger between the races. The whites had all the political power so they made the rules, and a lot of them were very unfair. Being a gringo in the middle of all those Chicanos made me understand racism as perhaps few others do. I was treated very badly at times, but I have remained deeply attached to the Hispanic culture and over 95% of my clients were Latino immigrants, most of them illegal.
Q. Who took care of you when you were a child?
A. My young life was difficult because my father died when I was six and my mother was not a strong person. From the time of his death, I was on my own. I had to make all the decisions and sometimes I made the wrong ones. When I was fourteen, I realized that I had to take care of myself because no one else was going to help me. From then on I always had three jobs and made sure I paid attention at school.
Q. What kind of stories did your father write? Did he read them to you? In what way were they an inspiration to you?
A. My father wrote "The Infinite Plan," "Physic Enfoldment," and a few other works. He invented a religion and wrote books about how to practice it. We borrowed the title of The Infinite Plan, for Isabel's book. He never read anything to me, but he used to give me psychic readings. I thought that his writings were crap, but the very fact that he had the talent to write was an inspiration. Because he died when I was so young, it's one of the things I most vividly remember about him.
Q. You and Isabel met later in life. You both have had tough experiences such as the deaths of your daughters. How would you describe your life with her?
A. Yes, Isabel and I did meet as adults and we suffered great pain together as anyone who has lost a child will understand. We've had many other problems. I had a very difficult young son who was hyperactive and suffering from a bipolar disorder who caused us all kinds of hell, but we lived through it. He subsequently died of a drug overdose at the age of 36. Our life together was very meaningful. We had many shared interests and we grew together and took care of each other in ways that sometimes seems magical. In the end we divorced after 27 years of marriage.
Q. Did you change roles with your wife this time? Did you write in the casita by the pool where Isabel writes? Did she cook for you as you do for her when she writes?
A. No I did the cooking and left her to work on writing. Isabel did cook sometimes, but only when there was a complicated meal to be prepared. As a matter of fact, since I then wrote with pen and ink I did a lot of writing in various parts of the world, including Chile, when she was on one of her tours. I had my own office downstairs in our house and I had an office in Sausalito.
Q. Did Isabel encourage or influence you to start writing and be published? Did she advise you about writing? Did she comment on the manuscript?
A. Isabel is one of the masters in the art of writing and I have learned from her. I did the same thing as a young lawyer. I worked for a man who was a real genius as a trial lawyer. It made all the difference. When Isabel wrote The Infinite Plan we talked it through for four years. I've been involved in talking over all of her books since The Stories of Eva Luna so you see, it was like learning by osmosis. Isabel has always been very supportive but she had nothing to do with my starting to write. I always intended to do it. She has given me advice on my writing and she has looked at the drafts of my work, but we write differently.
Q. Do you feel pressure publishing a book and being the husband of one of the most important writers in the world? Or a little bit anxious at least?
A. No. I always intended to write. When we met, I told her I was going to write what turned out to be The Infinite Plan. She smiled and said, “Let me write it, I'll do a better job.” When I was 60 and it was time for me to start writing I knew what I was doing. My books are totally different than hers. But to tell you the truth I am very surprised at the success I've had. However, it would be silly to think of us being in competition. Mine are books written by a lawyer, not by a protégé of Isabel Allende. Of course I'm anxious about publishing my work. Anyone would be.
Q. Do you manage the Isabel Allende Foundation?
A. I did help run the foundation for the first couple of years, but now is has a professional executive director. I am asked for my legal opinion from time to time, but the foundation also has its own attorneys.
Q. From whom do you study writing? How long have you been taking his class?
A. My writing professor's name is Clive Matson. The class is held at my house every two weeks and we have been meeting since 2002. There are usually four students and the professor.
Q. Is it possible you will publish a book of your photography?
A. I have never seriously tried to publish a book of photographs. In December 2004, I went to South America in a small plane owned by a Chilean friend of mine, Agustin Huneeus. When I returned, I put some of the photographs together with a story line but I didn't like the outcome so I put it aside until I had more time to focus on it. I haven't yet gotten back to it but may someday. I like photographing people more than places and have been all over the world taking pictures. Among the countries I have enjoyed photographing are China, Vietnam, Mexico, Central America, Guatemala, South America, Ecuador (including the Galapagos), Peru, Chile, Argentina, Australia, Bali, and of course the United States and Europe.
Q. Duelo en Chinatown marked the beginning of your career as a writer? But since then you've written more books, haven't you?
A. As of now I have a total of six books published. All of them are published in English and in Spanish. In English they are The King of the Bottom, The Ugly Dwarf, Fractured Lives, The Halls of Power and Unfinished. In Spanish they are El Rey de los bajos fondos, Vidas Rotas, El Enano, Las Esferas del Poder, and Caso Abierto.
Q. What else are you working on?
A. Right now I'm working on short stories. I was going to publish a book of them next year. Instead of I have decided to just complete five of them and send them to magazines in the USA and in the Spanish speaking world.
Q. You and Isabel are now divorced. What happened.
A. I guess life happened. We were together for 27 years. We had good times and rough times. We are still very good friends. I don't know what else to say.