Born in Lima, Peru, and raised in Chile, Bolivia, Europe and the Middle East, novelist Isabel Allende is a literary legend. Her first novel, "The House of the Spirits," was published 25 years ago and told the story of four generations of a Chilean family.
She followed it with 11 additional novels, a trilogy of children's books and a memoir, "Paula," dedicated to her beloved daughter who died tragically at the age of 28.
"Daughter of Fortune" "Portrait in Sepia" and "Ines of My Soul" are three of her more recent novels, each one evocative and elegant in style. "The House of The Spirits" was made into a feature film starring Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close. "Of Love and Shadows," released last year, starred Antonio Banderas.
Now comes her second memoir, "The Sum of Our Days," a beautifully written, reflective and witty book, which continues her life story from 1995 to the present.
Allende always writes in Spanish, even though she speaks excellent English. "I use three dictionaries just to write in Spanish," said Allende during a phone interview from her northern California home.
"I have an excellent translator, Margaret Sayers Paden, who is 80 years old," she said. "She translates and then we go line by line, working very closely together until it's finished. Sometimes, I'm so close to the text that I can't see the problems until I read it in English."
Allende never studied literature but worked as a journalist in Chile until a coup drove her uncle, Salvador Allende, from office in 1973 and replaced him with the dictator Augusto Pinochet. As a political refugee, Allende settled in Venezuela with her first husband, Miguel Frias, a son and a daughter. She was there for 13 years, always thinking Chile's democratic traditions would regain control.
Her marriage was shaky and she was financially bereft. So, when her 99-year-old grandfather became seriously ill, she used his illness as an excuse to write, using a portable typewriter on the kitchen counter, the treatise that would become her first book .
"I was pouring out all I had inside, but I didn't expect it to be published," she said.
Allende said she "enjoyed the freedom of ignorance. Now I'm very critical of my own writing, because I know what I'm doing."
Her memoir has "an element of fiction in it," Allende said. "You act as a god by deciding what to tell." She refers to her family members as "the tribe," all of whom are not blood-related. The tribe she writes about is noisy and they often face tragedy.
After her divorce in 1988, she married an American lawyer, Willie Gordon, and combined her family with his in Northern California.
Willingly relinquishing her own privacy, she writes of the drug addiction of Willie's daughter, Jennifer, who had a child but died young due to her life of debauchery. Allende battled with her daughter-in-law, who leaves Allende's son, Nico, for the woman who is engaged to Willie's stepson.
She worries about the rare disease, porphyria, which runs in her family and killed her daughter, Paula. She regrets that no research is being done to prevent or cure it. "It's very difficult to identify and the symptoms vary. My son, Nico, and two of my granddaughters have it."
(Porphyia is a group of eight disorders involving body chemicals that differ considerably from each other. Often the disorders affect the skin or the nervous system.)
In the book, she also discusses the tragic happenings in the lives of her close friends, Tabra and Juliette. She tells how she chose the woman she wanted to be Nico's second wife. She candidly details her own mistakes and refers to herself with self-deprecation.
She often refers to other women who are allegedly more beautiful than she is, i.e., Sophia Loren. When told she is still beautiful at 65, she said, "Thank you, but you have only seen pictures."
Speaking of Willie, she said, "Now we're happy because we're old and have worked through so many problems. We're in love. Not to say we'll always be in love. When he gets older, I might have to put him in a nursing home and go find someone else!"
Allende attributes her writer's inspiration to her travels. "I go to other countries with no motive, then years later, that sentiment opens my mind about what goes on in the world. People who don't travel become provincial."
She admits to being "very disciplined" as a writer, starting a new project every Jan. 7 "unless I haven't finished the one I'm working on. Sometimes, I have a place but no story. I use no outline."
When asked if Anthony Banderas represented the only threat to her marriage to Willie, she said, "Tony Banderas is the most serious threat to my mental health! But when we went to a movie premiere with Catherine Zeta Jones, Willie was enthralled with her!"
Willie also has become a novelist, too. Initially, Allende doubted he could do it, but she helped him and now he is successful. Once in a car together, he turned "solemn, then said, 'You came to change my life!' I said, 'Of course. Your life is a mess!' So I redecorated the house and remodeled him."
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