Isabel Allende on the essential element – passion

Isabel Allende
I’m Alan Alda and this is C+V, conversations about connecting and communicating

Isabel Allende: I think that The House of the Spirits was like an exercise in nostalgia, trying to recreate the world I had lost, to reunite those who were displaced my family and friends. In a way to save my own memory, because after some time, I was beginning to forget people and places and stories, the wonderful stories that my grandfather would tell me.

That’s Isabel Allende. Her 1982 novel The House of the Spirits, was a breakthrough for women writers in the genre known as magical realism. In our conversation we talk about her writing, her work to empower women, her passions – and her thoughts on flirting…

Alan: 00:00 Isabel, I’m so excited to talk to you. This is so great that we can talk this morning.
Isabel Allende: 00:05 Well, my honor, absolutely.
Alan: 00:07 No mine. You said something once that really interested me.
Isabel Allende: 00:13 Oh, please don’t quote me because I never remember what I said.
Alan: 00:15 Well, I will not quote you exactly but it was something like, “What’s truer isn’t truth.” And I think you said-
Isabel Allende: 00:15 A story.
Alan: 00:24 … story. So tell me about that. How is story truer than truth?
Isabel Allende: 00:29 Okay, let me give you an example. Sometimes when we look at the news, we are overwhelmed by the problem, let’s say famine in Ethiopia. And we know that there are hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people who are starving. But then after you’ve seen it two or three times on TV, you lose connection with it because it’s just numbers is too much. But if a journalist follows one person, one woman who is carrying her baby and is dragging along her other children to try to get to a tent of the Red Cross for help you follow that person you know the name, you know the face, you know the children, you know who will die on the journey. And that’s the story and you can connect to the story, you connect to one person to the drama of one human being. Is not numbers anymore.
Alan: 01:31 Yeah, there’s no question that we respond to one, I mean, it’s supposed to be Stalin who had said, “If you kill one person, it’s murder. But if you kill millions, it’s a statistic.”
Isabel Allende: 01:43 Exactly.
Alan: 01:43 Yeah. We it’s hard for us to handle the abstract notion of suffering and hard for us to handle the abstract notion of suffering, unless we can visualize one person’s suffering. I think that is so true.
Isabel Allende: 02:01 Yeah, I think the job of the storyteller is to connect the story with the heart of the listener.
Alan: 02:14 Right.
Isabel Allende: 02:15 More than the mind.
Alan: 02:17 Which gets me a little bit to your notion about passion. I get the impression that passion is really important to you both as a writer and as a person. Am I right about that?
Isabel Allende: 02:31 Well, I don’t have a choice do I? That’s the way it is.
Alan: 02:37 What makes you so passionate? Is it your culture? Is it your own personality? Is it something you strive for? What’s your relationship to passion?
Isabel Allende: 02:49 I think first I’m very healthy. Then I am usually very curious and enthusiastic about certain things. I’m not passionate about everything. I’m passionate about a few things that I really care for. And I really care for to the point that I would give my life for that. But those are very few things. And then I’m passionate because I’m very romantic. So if I fall in love with a guy who doesn’t deserve it to begin with, I invent the perfect lover and I am passionate for a while, around 20 years and then I fall out of love. And it takes me like eight years to-
Alan: 03:36 Wait, wait, for 20 years you can be in love with this imaginary person who’s being played by this inadequate lover.
Isabel Allende: 03:43 I’ve done it twice. And then it has taken me eight more years to get rid of the person.
Alan: 03:43 Oh my gosh.
Isabel Allende: 03:51 Oh, my god.
Alan: 03:53 This calls to mind for me, a question that I had about passion. That does passion put you in danger of losing your senses of not being rational?
Isabel Allende: 04:07 Yes, of course. But isn’t that the way we want to live?
Alan: 04:11 Oh, is it?
Isabel Allende: 04:11 Or we want to live a rational life. A bland, rational flat life, is that what you want?
Alan: 04:18 No, I want a healthy mix.
Isabel Allende: 04:20 Uh huh.
Alan: 04:24 What can we find out from that, aha?
Isabel Allende: 04:28 That given a choice you would choose a passionate life. I am right now recently married, I married two months ago, at my age, go figure. And my husband is a man who has had a safe life. His life has been even. He never had to look for a job. He married his sweetheart from high school. And he had a wonderful marriage for 42 years. Unfortunately, she died. But he had wonderful children, wonderful grandchildren, no problem until he met me. And then when you ask him, how is it to live with a person like me, he says it’s like being a kid and wake up every morning knowing that you’re going to the circus. Because my life-
Alan: 05:16 Knowing what?
Isabel Allende: 05:18 That you are going to the circus. Because he says that it’s a permanent show. A circus going on. And he says that this ongoing melodrama things that happen in my life. He had never experienced that before.
Alan: 05:40 So he’s comfortable with the drama. How do you-
Isabel Allende: 05:44 No, I don’t think he’s comfortable, I think he’s very uncomfortable but he chose to do it so.
Alan: 05:53 This is so wonderful, you’re open and personal when you speak. And I wonder how, I don’t want to intrude on your privacy but what’s an example of something unexpected you give him that he has to live with, and in some way seems to admire? What would be an example of a surprise you come up with.
Isabel Allende: 06:16 For example, one thing that can be really uncomfortable is that I have a very public life. And in some places like Chile or Spain or some other places, I can be very easily recognized in the street. And so people approached me and they want to take a selfie or they are invasive. And for a person who’s not used to that it can be a problem. So he’s not used to it, but he bears it and he understands that that’s part of the package, you can’t choose about that. And there are many other things. For example, I am an animal lover, so I have two mutts and I sleep with the dogs, so he has to share the bed with two dogs and a lover. He wasn’t used to that but he’s getting used to it.
Alan: 07:09 Did he ever try to negotiate a place in the bed to get the dog out of the bed? Did he ever try to do that?
Isabel Allende: 07:20 Yeah, that was the first day, and that was that. He realized that he wasn’t going anywhere. That’s the dogs place.
MUSIC BRIDGE
Alan: 07:38 Did you start the first feminist magazine and Latin America or at least in Chile?
Isabel Allende: 07:46 It was not exactly like [inaudible 00:07:49] magazine, but it was a feminine magazine that was the first time we had something like that in Chile in the late 60s. And it was, for me, the most splendid time of my life. I was young, I was discovering a language to express all the anger that I had, the feminist anger that I couldn’t name because I didn’t know anything about feminism I just had the feelings. And then to discover that there was a movement out there, that there was an articulate language to express it, that there were very determined goals for this movement. That was great. It was a great time in my life.
Alan: 08:35 And yet, I’ve read that in the magazine you wrote pieces that were not overtly angry, but were funny that you were using humor as your tool, do I have that wrong?
Isabel Allende: 08:52 No, that’s correct. I discovered very early on that you can say almost anything with humor and kindness, that people receive it much better than an angry message. And I do understand that anger you really need anger as a tool many times in life. But in this particular case when you have to fight against traditional male chauvinism, the macho, the Chilean macho. You can’t imagine what the Chilean macho is. You have to fight against that, it was much better to do it with humor.
Alan: 09:31 I’m taking a second to clear my throat while you have a sip. You remind me of a tradition that I think I observed when I was in Chile. I was in Chile 16 years ago and my life was changed. Not just changed, it was saved by a doctor who I’m grateful to for the rest of my life. I have 16 years-
Isabel Allende: 09:55 In Chile? This happened in Chile?
Alan: 09:57 Yeah, I was on top of a mountain interviewing astronomers in an observatory. And I had an obstruction in my gut that would have killed me within a couple of hours and a doctor in the bottom of the mountain was able to save me. I think of Chile with very, very great fondness. I think of it as a place where I was reborn. So in a way I think that I come from Chile too. But one of the things-
Isabel Allende: 10:32 I’m so happy. I love my countries it’s beautiful. It is a beautiful country.
Alan: 10:36 It is beautiful. I love the people and I’m very grateful to Chile. But I noticed and this comes out of our conversation, you reminded me as we were talking. I think I saw a traditional way of men greeting women for the first time. It seemed to me that it was expected that they would kiss the woman on both cheeks upon meeting her, not on the second or third meeting.
Isabel Allende: 11:03 Well, but we kiss everybody.
Alan: 11:06 Do the women do that when women meet each other? Do they kiss each other [crosstalk 00:11:11]?
Isabel Allende: 11:10 Yeah, man don’t kiss each other.
Alan: 11:12 No.
Isabel Allende: 11:12 But women and women kiss each other all the time.
Alan: 11:15 Yeah. That’s interesting, nobody minds.
Isabel Allende: 11:21 You know what? No, no. When I signed books in Chile, I have to expect three kisses.
Alan: 11:26 Three?
Isabel Allende: 11:28 Yeah. Two kisses when people hand me the book, then I sign it and before they leave they kiss me once or twice more. So by the end of the event, I have a cold, an acne you may imagine.
Alan: 11:44 I imagine you have to wash your face for a couple of a couple of minutes.
Isabel Allende: 11:49 But sometimes I say please I have a cold so no kissing. Nobody pays any attention. You get the kissing anyhow.
Alan: 11:55 Anyhow. I know, well that’s the thing about passion is you lose your sense of germ theory.
Isabel Allende: 12:01 Oh, well I don’t believe in germs. I don’t believe in germs I can drink water from the [crosstalk 00:12:08].
Alan: 12:09 How can you not believe in germs? Say that again.
Isabel Allende: 12:11 Do you believe in germs? Have you ever seen a germ?
Alan: 12:14 You can see a germ in a microscope.
Isabel Allende: 12:18 Well, I don’t have a microscope. So why would I worry?
Alan: 12:22 No, no, I think you’re engaging in magical realism, right?
Isabel Allende: 12:26 No, no, no, I’m not Alan. Roger, my husband washes everything. Therefore, when he gets out of the United States, he gets sick. Because he catches all the germs. I’m so used to germs and bacteria that I never get sick.
Alan: 12:40 That’s different. That’s different because so you do believe in germs. You just want to get friendly with them?
Isabel Allende: 12:47 Yeah.
Alan: 12:48 Okay. Just wanted to straighten that out.
MUSIC BRIDGE
Tell me about magical realism. How do you describe it? I love it by the way. I love reading your writing. I love Garcia Marquez. It’s funny because too often a complaint I have against a novel is that it’s a wanton rumination in the writer’s imagination and yet the imagination is so active in magical realism but it seems real to me. That’s real as a dream to me. What’s your description?
Isabel Allende: 13:36 To describe it, I would have to compare it with fantasy.
Alan: 13:40 I’m sorry. With what? My connection is not so good. What?
Isabel Allende: 13:43 I’m sorry. That to describe magic realism, I would have to compare it with fantasy. The invisibility cloak of Harry Potter is fantasy. No one has ever seen an invisibility cloak. It’s in the imagination of the writer and if you want to believe it, you do but, but there’s no proof that that ever existed or will exist. But magic realism would be the invisible Indians of the Amazon. And the invisible Indians really exist. And they are invisible because they paint their bodies in the colors of nature. And they walk so swiftly among the trees and the vegetation that they can be two yards away and you don’t see them. So magic realism would be the invisible Indians without explaining what it is. I would just say, well, and I was surrounded by invisible Indians, and don’t explain. That magic realism.
But if I say I wrapped myself in the invisible cloak, then nobody believes that. That has no manifestation or explanation in real life. So what is magical realism is accepting that there are mysteries that we see in our lives. That we see the manifestation of those almost miraculous things that we can’t explain or control. But they are there. Intuition, imagination, prophetic dreams, coincidences. That feeling that you’ve been in that place before that you were there that you were another person that we have all experienced that has no explanation yet. It might have it in the future. But right now we don’t know enough about the brain to know from where that comes. That’s part of my magical realism.
Alan: 15:41 In a way, I was kidding you when I said your germ theory is a kind of magical realism. It kind of does conform to what you just said about the Indians, there is an explanation for why they’re invisible. But if you leave out the explanation, it feels more magical, but it’s not always true
Isabel Allende: 15:41 Exactly.
Alan: 16:08 And that’s how you are about germs. You said first there are no germs. “Did you ever see a germ?” But what you were really saying was, there’s a whole germ thing going on, but I don’t have to go through it in the worst possible way. And don’t have to explain the reality. What I call reality, I don’t know. Do you have a different sense of reality?
Isabel Allende: 16:33 Yes, probably. I was raised in the house of my grandparents when I was little, and my grandmother, who died Unfortunately, when I was very young. My grandmother spent her life experimenting with the paranormal. For example, trying to train herself for telepathy. She had three friends, and the four of them were called the white sisterhood. They were experimenting all the time with telepathy, trying to communicate, for example, sending apple pie recipes across the city. And the recipes never quite work but not because telepathy wasn’t working, but because they were terrible cooks.
My grandmother would have seances to call the spirits on Thursdays around a round table that I have in my house. This is my dining room table. And according to the legend, the spirits would move the table. This is a Spanish table that weighs a ton. You need two men to move it. And according to the legend, as I said, my family legend my grandmother could move it with one finger. I grew up with it with the idea that everything is possible. That you have to be open to the mystery. Of course, there’s a lot of craziness around this but just from a literary point of view, it will enlarge us and enriches everything.
Alan: 17:58 Well, it is exciting it does enlarge my imagination to read your magical realism. And I too experimented with the paranormal when I was a young man when I was in my 20s. I was reading all these reports of what sounded like scientific exploration. So I did experiments on my own.
Isabel Allende: 18:25 Like what?
Alan: 18:28 For instance, when I was with a group of people, I’d see if we could draw the same picture without knowing what anybody else was drawing.
Isabel Allende: 18:38 Could you?
Alan: 18:39 Well, after two or three tries, most people were drawing a car. But that was possibly because for the first two tries, we compare notes with what we had drawn, and we started to get agreement on what we were going to draw next at an unconscious level.
Isabel Allende: 18:56 Oh, I see.
Alan: 18:57 I always had an explanation for it. I think when it was fun to believe that it was happening and useful to believe it because we were getting closer as a group, that was one thing. But I still wonder if telepathy is possible. It doesn’t seem totally impossible, but I don’t have any evidence that it exists. So I’m more interested in evidence.
Isabel Allende: 19:27 There are animals that communicate telepathically like whales.
Alan: 19:32 There seemed to be, my wife’s dog stood at the door for three days before her brother came home from the war.
Isabel Allende: 19:40 Wow.
Alan: 19:41 It makes you wonder, and animals do have behavior to make you wonder, but I don’t think we have real evidence. Do you know of evidence for that?
Isabel Allende: 19:49 Well, I just came back from a conference in which they were presenting the cutting edge of what is happening in science, in arts, in culture. They are like Ted Talks. One of the people who talked, talked about this sense that certain animals have to communicate. It’s like a common consciousness. It’s a sixth sense. So if something happens where sperm whale, two miles away from the group, the group feels it, is not that they are hearing anything, it’s a feeling. And that’s a form of telepathy. I think it’s possible and it’s brought maybe we did have it and we’ve lost it. And maybe we will be able to get it back. I don’t know. That’s what my grandmother’s explanation would have been.
Alan: 20:54 She was actually trying to communicate apple pie recipes telepathically?
Isabel Allende: 21:00 Yes. What’s wrong with that? I mean, if you can’t communicate numbers, why can’t you communicate recipes?
Alan: 21:07 It sounds… People in the control room are shrugging in agreement. Why not? Well, I don’t know. It just seems like an apple pie recipe is so complicated.
Isabel Allende: 21:19 That’s because you don’t cook.
Alan: 21:20 Well, I never made an apple pie, you’re right.
We are taking a short break in my conversation with Isabel Allende. When we come back, Isabel tells me how she came write her breakthrough novel, The House of the Spirits.

MIDROLL
This is C+V, and now back to my conversation with Isabel Allende. We pick up her story when, in 1973, Salvador Allende, her father’s cousin, was overthrown in a coup.
Alan: 42:16 After the coup took place, did you have a problem having the same name as the person who had been assassinated and a new government taking over that was repressive, did you have a problem having the same name?
Isabel Allende: 42:35 Well, there was repression for everybody who spoke up, everybody who opposed the government, everybody was a leftist, for journalists, for intellectuals, for workers. Half the population was terribly repressed, and there was some people that were benefiting from the situation. And they wanted an authoritarian government. They put up with the repression. Most of Allende’s family left the country immediately, 24 hours after the coup, the Mexican Government sent a plane to bring to Mexico, the family and the closest collaborators of Allende. And I was called to see if I wanted to leave, but I thought that it was crazy to leave because we have no experience, no tradition of military course in Chile, we didn’t know what it was. And all information was censored that we didn’t know what was going on. I thought, “No, I’ll stay and just wait, wait this out, and things will come back to normal soon.” No one expected it except the military for the dictatorship to last 17 years.
I stayed in Chile. My husband was not at all involved in politics, but he was horrified at what had happened at the coup and at the repression. I got involved in trying to help people, because we didn’t know the consequences at the beginning. And then as I got more and more in trouble, of course, I lost my job, but many people did. I don’t think it was because I was called Allende. Maybe I was watched more closely but I was in the same situation that many other journalists were, most of them. And then when I felt that I was in a blacklist, that I was being threatened, that I was being watched, then I realized the risk I was in, I had to leave. I left first with the idea that I would come back soon to my country. And then when it was really obvious that I couldn’t go back, then my husband reunited with me and my children in Venezuela. He brought the children.
Alan: 44:59 Did you then start to write The House of the Spirits? Did you then start to write The House of the Spirits in response to your experiences in the coup?
Isabel Allende: 45:12 No. We got to Venezuela with no money, with no connections. In Latin America, connections are everything. And my husband got a job but not in Caracas. He was away most of the time, we would see each other every two months. And I stayed in Caracas with the kids and did all odd jobs to make a living but couldn’t work as a journalist, the only thing that I knew how to do, that was in 1974. And I wrote The House of the Spirits in 1981. And I think that by 1981, I was quite desperate. I had the feeling that my life wasn’t going anywhere. My marriage was collapsing. My children were very unhappy, they wanted to go back to Chile. Nothing was working.
Alan: 44:59 Did you then start to write The House of the Spirits?
I think that The House of the Spirits was like an exercise in nostalgia, trying to recreate the world I had lost, to reunite those who were displaced my family and friends. In a way to save my own memory, because after some time, I was beginning to forget people and places and stories, the wonderful stories that my grandfather would tell me.
MUSIC BRIDGE
I heard you say once that you wanted to give women in Latin American literature, their own voice, almost maybe perhaps for the first time. Is it true that up until recently, the male voice has dominated.
Isabel Allende: 25:53 In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, we had what was called the boom of Latin American literature. The world was astonished at the fact that there were these incredibly fantastic writers coming from a place where until then they have been unknown. And this coincided with the fact that in Spain, where the great publishers and… Where Franco was in power, and there was very strict censorship. So very few things could be published in Spain. And then they discovered these writers that were writing in Spanish, this books that didn’t have to go through censorship. And they started to be published in Barcelona and exported back to Latin America underworld. And this movement of the boom was created or happened. They were all male, all male writers. There was not one female voice in the boom. Then when I wrote The House of the Spirits in 1982, it was said for a while, that I was the only feminine voice in the room. And then they said no, no, she doesn’t belong to the boom, she’s post boom.
Being post whatever is not nice, but that’s what I was. That was my place. But what happened was that the sudden success of The House of The Spirit created an awareness in publishers that there were a lot of Latin American female voices that had been ignored or silenced. And they started publishing more and more of these women writers that have been there all along. Women have been writing in Latin America since Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in the 16th century. It’s not that we were not writing it was more because of the culture and the way things are. We were silenced, ignored and now there are many, many more Latin American women writers being published. And it is not only about being published, is about being reviewed about being taught in universities, in colleges, so that people… what I’m trying to say is that women didn’t get the respect.
Even if they were writing, there was no respect for women. And in a way, I have experienced it myself. I have written 24 books, almost all of them have been bestsellers. I’m sorry, this sounds very vain. I shouldn’t be saying it myself. You should be saying.
Alan: 25:53 No, it’s just a fact.
Isabel Allende: 28:40 No, you should be saying it. But let me say it.
Alan: 28:41 I’ll be saying it when we’re done with our conversation. Don’t worry.
Isabel Allende: 28:50 I don’t have the guy that a 19 year old kid in Chile, who’s writing a memoir may have it if he’s a boy. It takes for women, three times more effort and time to get half the recognition that any man gets. And that’s in every field.
MUSIC BRIDGE
Alan: 07:38 Did you start the first feminist magazine and Latin America or at least in Chile?
Isabel Allende: 07:46 It was not exactly like Ms.magazine, but it was a feminine magazine that was the first time we had something like that in Chile in the late 60s. And it was, for me, the most splendid time of my life. I was young, I was discovering a language to express all the anger that I had, the feminist anger that I couldn’t name because I didn’t know anything about feminism I just had the feelings. And then to discover that there was a movement out there, that there was an articulate language to express it, that there were very determined goals for this movement. That was great. It was a great time in my life.
Alan: 08:35 And yet, I’ve read that in the magazine you wrote pieces that were not overtly angry, but were funny that you were using humor as your tool, do I have that wrong?
Isabel Allende: 08:52 No, that’s correct. I discovered very early on that you can say almost anything with humor and kindness, that people receive it much better than an angry message. And I do understand that anger you really need anger as a tool many times in life. But in this particular case when you have to fight against traditional male chauvinism, the macho, the Chilean macho. You can’t imagine what the Chilean macho is. You have to fight against that, it was much better to do it with humor.

I’m just remembering about our talk about feminism, did I see you say in the interview once that your daughter said that she felt feminism was outdated?
Isabel Allende: 21:40 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Alan: 21:41 What does she mean by that?
Isabel Allende: 21:42 She was 16 or 17, 16 years old. And she felt that everything was already done. And the fact that I kept working as a feminist, being a feminist, preaching feminism was dated. And it should my age and it was not in any more and wasn’t necessary anymore. And then a couple of years later when she entered the workforce, and she went to the University and all that she changed, of course, and realized that she had been very sheltered in a feminist household. And then when she got out in the world, she realized that everything needed to be done. We had achieved a lot, my generation did. But there was much more to be done. Look, this is my job, and I work with this. And the situation of women in the world is appalling, appalling. We are here in the United States in the Western world appalled by the Me Too movement. By the fact that harassment, sexual harassment is taken for granted by most men, they think they have the right.
But in the world, rape is a weapon of war, to destroy women and destroy communities. It’s so effective, that now they’re raping men. The girls that are married at eight, two men who are in their 40s. And by age 12, they are giving birth. This is happening today. They are selling people, they are selling women and girls like slaves. We have so much to do. And this is when we were talking about passion. I’m passionate about this.
Alan: 23:26 What do you do as an activist to work against this? What efforts do you make?
Isabel Allende: 23:33 I have a foundation.
Alan: 23:35 Tell me about that.
Isabel Allende: 23:36 A large part of my income goes to the foundation, and my daughter in law with another friend called Sarah, they run the foundation. And our mission is empowerment of women and girls. We were working in many areas more than 100 programs. But after the election, we have to narrow our scope and focus on certain things that have become very relevant at this point in our country, especially. One is reproductive rights health, another one is fighting against exploitation and abuse of women. And of course, empowering women so that they can support themselves and their children. Because if they are economically dependent, then there is no feminist at all. I mean, you don’t have choices. This is the work we do. And if you are in any way interested, just Google my name and the first thing that comes up is the foundation and you will see how many programs we support.
Alan: 24:45 Oh, that’s great. Good. Is it mainly in this country or does it extend around the world?
Isabel Allende: 24:53 We would like to reduce it to a few places but unfortunately, once you start with the problem, you cannot let it go. Because it’s not a matter of just making a check, you follow through sometimes for many, many years. So we have programs in Chile, in Mexico, in India, in Nepal, in the United States, especially in the border now. So we unfortunately are extended too widely.
MUSIC BRIDGE
Alan: 25:26 You’re very writing seems to accomplish much of what you’re talking about. I heard you say once that you wanted to give women in Latin American literature, their own voice, almost maybe perhaps for the first time. Is it true that up until recently, the male voice has dominated.
Isabel Allende: 25:53 In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, we had what was called the boom of Latin American literature. The world was astonished at the fact that there were these incredibly fantastic writers coming from a place where until then they have been unknown. And this coincided with the fact that in Spain, where the great publishers and… Where Franco was in power, and there was very strict censorship. So very few things could be published in Spain. And then they discovered these writers that were writing in Spanish, this books that didn’t have to go through censorship. And they started to be published in Barcelona and exported back to Latin America underworld. And this movement of the boom was created or happened. They were all male, all male writers. There was not one female voice in the boom. Then when I wrote The House of the Spirits in 1982, it was said for a while, that I was the only feminine voice in the room. And then they said no, no, she doesn’t belong to the boom, she’s post boom.
Being post whatever is not nice, but that’s what I was. That was my place. But what happened was that the sudden success of The House of The Spirit created an awareness in publishers that there were a lot of Latin American female voices that had been ignored or silenced. And they started publishing more and more of these women writers that have been there all along. Women have been writing in Latin America since Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in the 16th century. It’s not that we were not writing it was more because of the culture and the way things are. We were silenced, ignored and now there are many, many more Latin American women writers being published. And it is not only about being published, is about being reviewed about being taught in universities, in colleges, so that people… what I’m trying to say is that women didn’t get the respect.
Even if they were writing, there was no respect for women. And in a way, I have experienced it myself. I have written 24 books, almost all of them have been bestsellers. I’m sorry, this sounds very vain. I shouldn’t be saying it myself. You should be saying.
Alan: 25:53 No, it’s just a fact.
Isabel Allende: 28:40 No, you should be saying it. But let me say it.
Alan: 28:41 I’ll be saying it when we’re done with our conversation. Don’t worry.
Isabel Allende: 28:50 I don’t have the guy that a 19 year old kid in Chile, who’s writing a memoir may have it if he’s a boy. It takes for women, three times more effort and time to get half the recognition that any man gets. And that’s in every field.
Alan: 29:10 There’s no doubt, there’s no doubt. Tell me when are heard, and allowed to be on the stage, so to speak, is their contribution… Can you say their contribution is materially different from that of men? Is their point of view, do the way they view see the world differently or not? How do you see it?
Isabel Allende: 29:40 It’s very different. I think that we are different biologically and culturally. Men see the world in terms of hierarchy of win and lose. Women see the world as a circle, in a more communal way. In times of danger, men fight or escape, testosterone, adrenaline. In times of danger, women gather the children in the middle and they make a circle. And they try to negotiate. They try to compromise. They try to find solutions that are not fighting because they would lose the fight if it’s a physical fight, so they protect each other. So there are ways of thinking that are different. When you have had a baby growing inside you, you of course see the world on life in a different way than a man who we never experienced that. You will experience other things, other ways of handling life than women and together we can have a wonderful world if we are men and women together, managing it. The world cannot be managed by men alone. It’s a terrible mistake.
Alan: 31:06 I’ve had conversations with the primatologist Frans de Waal who has observed female chimps, especially alpha female chimps, who were able to break up fight among the powerful males rather than cause fights. They could use their influence in the tribe to bring about more cooperation. And their reaction seemed to be very much what you were describing, which is to reach out rather than to strike out.
Isabel Allende: 31:53 Yes. We care for the children and we care for… We cultivate the land, two thirds of the agricultural work in the world is done by women. We not only bring life through our wombs, we bring life in everything we cultivate, everything we do. We respect life much more than men will ever do.
Alan: 32:18 I’m going to throw you off balance, but I don’t mean to, how does that fit in with flirting? Because you’ve said you like to flirt.
Isabel Allende: 32:28 Of course I like men, but I don’t want men to manage the world.
Alan: 32:32 Right.
Isabel Allende: 32:32 Yeah. I like them. Of course I like them and I enjoy them. There’s a lot of good things about men.
Alan: 32:41 I’m trying to understand flirting, because as far as I know, I don’t flirt.
Isabel Allende: 32:46 You’re a flirt too. You don’t need an explanation.
Alan: 32:50 I don’t what, say that again?
Isabel Allende: 32:52 You are a flirt too. You don’t need an explanation about flirting, do you?
Alan: 32:57 I do because I don’t think I flirt.
Isabel Allende: 32:57 You don’t?
Alan: 32:59 Maybe I do unconsciously. Yeah. Or have I been flirting on this phone call?
Isabel Allende: 33:04 Of course you have.
Alan: 33:05 Oh my God. I didn’t even know it. I was at dinner last night knowing I was going to speak with you today. And I went around the table and I asked everybody, especially the women. Do you flirt? What is flirting? How do you flirt? Let me ask you, how do you flirt when you flirt? You’re happily married. But you flirt right?
Isabel Allende: 33:31 Of course I flirt, at my age, it sounds a little ridiculous. But I still do. Let me give you an example. I separated from my husband, my second husband after 28 years together 20 years of love and eight years to get rid of him as i said before. So that adds up to 28. And then I thought “Okay, at my age I’m going to be alone.” I bought a very small house with one bedroom and I said I’m going to live in with my dog. And then a guy who heard me on NPR and started to write to me every morning and every evening for five months. Until finally when-
Alan: 34:10 One guy got infatuated with you from NPR and wrote you for five months?
Isabel Allende: 34:15 Yeah. And then finally we met. And then when we met, what is my way of flirting? He invited me out for dinner. And after the appetizer we were in the main course, I said, “What are your intentions? Because I’m 72 years old. I don’t have any time to waste.” So that was flirting. And the poor guy choked in the ravioli. But he didn’t escape. And eventually he married me. It works.
Alan: 34:45 Oh, wow. That’s funny, because when you said you didn’t have any time to waste when you were 73.
Isabel Allende: 34:52 72
Alan: 34:53 That didn’t sound like flirting to me. That sounded like an injection of reality into the dinner.
Isabel Allende: 35:00 But there are many ways of flirting. And I am past or maybe I never was in a position to flirt with stiletto heels and showing legs and breasts. No, that wasn’t my style, because I didn’t have the raw material. My style was the mind. And shocking guys out of their skin.
Alan: 35:25 Shocking them?
Isabel Allende: 35:26 Yeah.
Alan: 35:27 Like what?
Isabel Allende: 35:29 Like to say, what are your intentions in the first day.
Alan: 35:35 What is going to lead to, right?
Isabel Allende: 35:39 Well, it lead to marriage actually.
Alan: 35:41 Yes. Well, you’ve got down to business, how much longer did it take after that statement, that reality check?
Isabel Allende: 35:48 Oh, that was quick. That was very quick.
Alan: 35:51 And you got married soon after? How long after?
Isabel Allende: 35:53 Well, he moved to my house very shortly after that. And we try to live in this little house. And when we realized that it was working. We got married. We married two months ago.
Alan: 36:05 Oh, this is wonderful.
Isabel Allende: 36:07 And you know what? It’s very nice, because I know that I will love him for 20 years, and then eight more by then I will be dead. This will be probably my last marriage.
Alan: 36:23 How do you keep it going? There are disagreements in every marriage, what do you do about that when it happens? Do you have a passionate all out fight? Do you do you remember you only have 20 years? [crosstalk 00:36:40] What do you do?
Isabel Allende: 36:43 In this case, it’s different when I was younger. I’m very polite, actually. I don’t fight screaming or slamming doors. None of that. But I’m very strong about what I want. And I never compromise for what I want. But in this case with Roger, I realized that we don’t have much time. How many more years of health and strength and how many more do we have? Five, 10 we don’t have one day to lose. You have to get rid of all the pettiness, the jealousy, the little fights, the stuff that sort of blurs the real meaning of why you are together. I just took overlook a lot of stuff that before I would have not overlooked. I wish I had known this before in my life. Maybe I wouldn’t have two divorces behind me.
Alan: 37:36 How young were you when you realized, you know what you wanted? Did it go back to your girlhood?
Isabel Allende: 37:44 Yes, yes. Very young, very young I knew I didn’t want to live like my mother, I adored my mother, but I didn’t want to be her or live like her. I wanted to be like my grandfather, I wanted to be independent, to have my own money, to have my car, to not give explanations to anybody, make decisions. I must have been six or seven when I was already thinking that way. Well, my mother thought that there was something wrong with me. So I was taken to the doctor many times to see if there was something wrong, physically wrong.
Alan: 38:19 You were suffering from independence?
Isabel Allende: 38:21 Suffering from… Yeah, independence and therefore, anger. I was solemn and angry because I couldn’t get what I wanted. And then I saw that my brothers could get it in puberty, it was very clear that my brothers had a kind of independence and a kind of life that I couldn’t have. I was, I think the smartest among the three kids. I was a very good student and I read all the time. But nobody thought that for me to go to college was something desirable. I was going to get married and maybe work as a secretary for some time and have kids that was my future. And my brothers were forced to go to college and to get a profession, not me. In a way I lucked out because I ended up writing. But I don’t have higher education of any kind.
Alan: 39:18 That’s so interesting. And here you fill libraries with your books now and fill universities with classes about your books. Which you did, through sheer determination and this sense of independence that you took on as you write. Very interesting, very interesting how you got that sense at the age of six or seven.
Isabel Allende: 39:44 Or maybe early and my mother says that I was a feminist when I was born, but I don’t, that’s exaggerated. But my mother was always afraid for me. She would say, “I understand, I understand. But please be discreet. Everything can be done elegantly without noise.” Feminism without noise wouldn’t be feminism.
Alan: 40:13 What was the… Excuse me. I’m thinking of the time of the coup in Chile when Pinochet took over-
Isabel Allende: 40:29 Yeah September 11, 1973.
Alan: 40:30 … and not just took over, killed Allende.
Isabel Allende: 40:32 Yes.
Alan: 40:34 Was your husband at the time a cousin of Allende?
Isabel Allende: 40:40 No.
Alan: 40:41 How did you happen to have the same name?
Isabel Allende: 40:43 Well, he was first cousin of my father. And it’s an interesting situation. Because I didn’t know my father, my father abandoned my mother when I was not even three years old and I never saw him again. Well, I saw him once. But I had to identify his body when he died in the street. But that was many, many years later. I grew up without my father. And the only person from my father’s family, the Allende family, was Salvador Allende, who eventually became the president of Chile. But he was for me, just to know, we call him uncle because in Chile, it goes by generations. He wouldn’t be my cousin, he would be my uncle over there. I met him as a child then my mother married a very good friend of his. When he became president, he appointed my stepfather, Ambassador to Argentina. My stepfather would come every more or less every two months to Chile, it’s only an hour flight, to report directly to the President.
And in those opportunities when he would come to Chile, we had family gatherings for lunch, or a dinner maybe. I saw him not very frequently but there was some relationship.
Alan: 42:16 After the coup took place, did you have a problem having the same name as the person who had been assassinated and a new government taking over that was repressive, did you have a problem having the same name?
Isabel Allende: 42:35 Well, there was repression for everybody who spoke up, everybody who opposed the government, everybody was a leftist, for journalists, for intellectuals, for workers. Half the population was terribly repressed, and there was some people that were benefiting from the situation. And they wanted an authoritarian government. They put up with the repression. Most of Allende’s family left the country immediately, 24 hours after the coup, the Mexican Government sent a plane to bring to Mexico, the family and the closest collaborators of Allende. And I was called to see if I wanted to leave, but I thought that it was crazy to leave because we have no experience, no tradition of military course in Chile, we didn’t know what it was. And all information was censored that we didn’t know what was going on. I thought, “No, I’ll stay and just wait, wait this out, and things will come back to normal soon.” No one expected it except the military for the dictatorship to last 17 years.
I stayed in Chile. My husband was not at all involved in politics, but he was horrified at what had happened at the coup and at the repression. I got involved in trying to help people, because we didn’t know the consequences at the beginning. And then as I got more and more in trouble, of course, I lost my job, but many people did. I don’t think it was because I was called Allende. Maybe I was watched more closely but I was in the same situation that many other journalists were, most of them. And then when I felt that I was in a blacklist, that I was being threatened, that I was being watched, then I realized the risk I was in, I had to leave. I left first with the idea that I would come back soon to my country. And then when it was really obvious that I couldn’t go back, then my husband reunited with me and my children in Venezuela. He brought the children.
Alan: 44:59 Did you then start to write The House of the Spirits? Did you then start to write The House of the Spirits in response to your experiences in the coup?
Isabel Allende: 45:12 No. We got to Venezuela with no money, with no connections. In Latin America, connections are everything. And my husband got a job but not in Caracas. He was away most of the time, we would see each other every two months. And I stayed in Caracas with the kids and did all odd jobs to make a living but couldn’t work as a journalist, the only thing that I knew how to do, that was in 1974. And I wrote The House of the Spirits in 1981. I think that by 1981, I was quite desperate. I had the feeling that my life wasn’t going anywhere. My marriage was collapsing. My children were very unhappy, they wanted to go back to Chile. Nothing was working. And I think that The House of the Spirits was like an exercising nostalgia, trying to recreate the world I had lost, to reunite those who were displaced my family and friends. In a way to save my own memory, because after some time, I was beginning to forget people and places and stories, the wonderful stories that my grandfather would tell me.
Alan: 46:41 And now is it 30 books later? You’ve just published a new book. What would you say if anything has grown or changed in your writing or evolved to something that you didn’t expect, anything?
Isabel Allende: 47:00 Yes.
Alan: 47:01 In this latest book?
Isabel Allende: 47:03 When I wrote The House of the Spirits, I didn’t know that I was writing a novel, I had no idea what I was writing, it started as a letter from my grandfather. I had no idea what the industry of books is all about. I never read a book review in my life as most people never have. And I didn’t know that books were taught in universities, nothing. I was very innocent. And in a way I stepped into this mine field without knowing the danger or the expectations or anything. And that freedom, I have never had it again. Because with the success of The House of the Spirits, I lost my innocence. And many years later, my latest book, the experience of writing it, the writing, the process is the same. But the anxiety is not the same, because now I know what I’m doing. I have always the same publishers, I know that it will be published. I know that I know how to write a story.
I may have chosen the wrong story maybe but if I am given enough time, and I do give myself the time, I know how to write. I didn’t know that before. It has taken me many years to get that experience, the skill and the feeling of confidence that I didn’t have before.
Alan: 48:34 That’s interesting that you say that because that’s the last question of seven questions that we ask at the end of every conversation. Do you mind if I ask you the questions? They’re not embarrassing questions.
Isabel Allende: 48:46 Well, I don’t mind embarrassing.
Alan: 48:48 They’re about communicating and relating. Let me ask you, it might work my way down to the last one. The first question is, what’s the hardest thing you’ve ever tried to explain to someone?
Isabel Allende: 49:02 Feminism.
Alan: 49:03 Really, I see. This is so interesting. These are supposed to be short answers. But I want to have another conversation with you about why that was hard. But let’s go to the next question. How do you tell someone they have their facts wrong?
Isabel Allende: 49:24 I don’t know. I suppose I simply try to give them or that person the facts that I know to be right. But that doesn’t mean I will convince the person.
Alan: 49:37 All right. What’s the strangest question anyone has ever asked you?
Isabel Allende: 49:47 Your first question.
Alan: 49:53 Good. I’m glad I was here at historic moment. That’s good. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Isabel Allende: 50:02 I walk away.
Alan: 50:04 Just like that?
Isabel Allende: 50:05 Yeah, of course.
Alan: 50:06 Oh, great. You’re very frank. How do you like to start up a real conversation with someone you don’t know at a dinner party?
Isabel Allende: 50:16 Tell me your story.
Alan: 50:18 Tell me your story. And they tell you?
Isabel Allende: 50:20 Of course, everybody wants to tell their story. That was my way of flirting. Ask any man, tell me your story. And he will think that you are really interested and you can pretend to be listening.
Alan: 50:38 But only for 20 years? Okay. This is our next to last question. Tell me again. What gives you confidence?
Isabel Allende: 50:55 Experience.
Alan: 50:57 Good. Good. Now, the last question. What book changed your life?
Isabel Allende: 51:05 The House of the Spirits. It changed my life completely. I was one person with one life before. And when I wrote that book, and it was published, it changed my life forever. It gave me a voice.
Alan: 51:21 Well, I’m so glad you use that voice today. And it’s a pleasure to meet this other person. I’m curious about who the first one was. But I’m so glad to meet this one. Thank you so much for being here with me.
Isabel Allende: 51:31 Thank you Alan. Thank you.
Alan: 51:33 I really had fun with you.
Isabel Allende: 51:34 I hope I will meet you in person someday.
Alan: 51:36 Me too. I want to see how you flirt.
Isabel Allende: 51:39 Yeah, you’ll see.
Alan: 51:40 Okay. Bye, bye.
Isabel Allende: 51:44 Okay. Bye, bye.

End Credits
Isabel is a font of creativity. She’s written 23 books, sold 74 million copies, and had her work turned into 2 major motion pictures.
Yet, what interested me the most about her during our conversation is that she noted that there were a few causes that she was so passionate about, that she’d even give her life for them. She has been a lifelong advocate and true fighter for women’s reproductive rights, economic independence and freedom from violence for women around the world. Her foundation works tirelessly to invest in the power of women and girls in order to secure a more equal future for women. Isabel and I share this same passion, and I encourage you to visit her foundation at: IsabelAllende.org
And, to learn more about all of her accomplishments and incredible body of work, please visit: IsabelAllende.com