Blaise Zerega: Hello everyone and welcome to Alta Journal's California Book Club. It's a thrill to be here tonight for the conversation with the amazing Isabel Allende and our host John Freeman, who'll be talking about The House of the Spirits, just an amazing novel.
My name is Blaise Zerega, I'm Alta Journal's editorial director and I'm broadcasting tonight from San Francisco.
Once a chat comes up, I'd encourage everyone to please say hello and let us know where you're joining from. To get things started, a little bit of housekeeping, please.
The California Book Club is our free monthly gathering featuring books that reflect the wonderful diversity and humanity of life in the golden state. And in the weeks leading up to each California Book Club gathering, alta online.com publishes numerous articles, interviews, essays, using an excerpt about that month's pick. And if you haven't had a chance to read the dozens of pieces on Isabel Allende and her The House of Spirits, you can go back and do so.
Tonight's conversation will also be videotaped, so you'll be able to go back and watch that as well. All the articles that are posted on our site are free for the California Book Club. They're also included in the newsletter, which is free. Lots of free things. I encourage you to please sign up, it's a terrific newsletter and I think you'll love it.
This club would not be possible without the amazing support of our partners, namely the Los Angeles Public Library, San Francisco Public Library, the Huntington USC Institute on California in the west, some of our favorite bookstores, Book Passage, Book Soup, Vromans, Diesel: A Bookstore, Books Inc. Green Apple Books, Bookshop West Portal, Narrative Magazine, and ZYZZYVA.
And you too can support the work we do by becoming an Alta Journal member. It would help us produce these in-depth articles, essays, and interviews with authors like Isabel Allende.
For just $50, you'll receive the award-winning Alta Journal quarterly, which includes full digital access to the archive and our online exclusives, as well as this totally cool California Book Club hat. It's available in four different colors. And so watch for tomorrow's thank-you email and recap. It'll contain a link to this great deal or sign up tonight at altaonline.com/hat, or you can visit altaonline.com and become a digital member for just $3 a month.
Without further ado, please let me turn this over to the host of the California Book Club, John Freeman.
John Freeman: Thanks, Blaise. It's really nice to be here. Hello everyone. Coming from as far away as Bangor, Maine and Hong Kong and Sacramento, Omaha, Kodiak, Alaska, as well as just around the corner in Los Angeles, where I'm coming from today.
Nostalgia as a term can sometimes be used as a pejorative, as an excessive sentiment, but if you've ever been away from home and you can't go back because home is lost or you can no longer go back for other reasons, the Greek meaning of nostalgia, which literally means the path home is full of pain, is not a surprise.
It was out of this powerful feeling nearly 50 years ago that Isabel Allende began what would become one of the most indelible works of literature of the 20th century, A family epic, a significant political tale, a saga of love, and its opposite, set in a house in an unnamed country wherein we meet four generations of a family. The book is called The House of the Spirits.
Since it came out 41 years ago, she has published another 20 novels, several works of non-fiction, including Paula, A Memoir. She has become a US citizen some 30 years ago, and she has lived for many of those years in the great State of California.
She won Chile's National Literature prize and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Tonight though, for the next hour, we get to talk to this extraordinary writer, Isabel Allende, about the book and how it emerged from her, how she did it, how it came to be what she thought it was as she was writing it.
It is my dear honor to welcome her. Please join her from all parts of the globe. Snap your fingers, clap your hands. This is the next hour with Isabel Allende.
Isabel Allende: Greetings to you. Thank you for having me here. It's an honor.
Freeman: So nice to meet you and to talk to you about this book, which I adore. Here's my edition, which is a paperback edition from the early 1990s. You have the original first edition cover behind you, over your left.
Allende: This is the original in Spanish, and this is a special edition for the 40th anniversary with exactly the same jacket, which amazingly 40 years later, still looks modern, it still works.
Freeman: Well, we could say the same about some people on this Zoom call, but why don't we say the same about this book to begin with. Rereading it, I'm bowled over by the energy of it, by the design, by the orchestration of themes and hearing you talk to [David Yulan] or reading that interview that you did recently for alta.com., I was struck by something you said, which was that you weren't sure what it was.
So I wonder if, for all of us here who've loved and read this book, if you can take us back to that time period, you in exile in Venezuela, you're having trouble finding work as a journalist and you begin this book kind of as a letter to your 100-year-old grandfather. And what did it become? How did you work on it?
Allende: First I have to say that I had been living in Venezuela in exile for several years, and I think I was sort of paralyzed in many ways, my life wasn't going anywhere.
My husband was working in a province far away. We'd get to see each other every two months. My kids were growing and they didn't need me so much. I couldn't find a job that I really liked. I had a job at that time, 12 hours a day, working in a school.
And so I had the feeling that nothing that I was doing really represented me, that I was going to be 40 years old with nothing to show. And at that point I got a phone call from Chile that my grandfather was dying, and I used to write to him often.
And so I began another letter for him, which somehow I knew he would not be able to read because by the time the snail-mail got the letter to him, he would probably be either incapacitated to read it or dead.
And I started writing to tell him that he could go in peace because I remembered everything he had ever told me, all the anecdotes of the family, my grandmother, his own life, everything.
And to prove it, I started retelling him the story of my great-Aunt Rosa, who was my grandfather's first fiance. And she died in mysterious circumstances, apparently poisoned. That was never clear in the family and was never talked about the way she died, but her photograph, a very old sepia portrait, was always on the piano.
And my grandfather would say that she was beautiful as a mermaid. So I grew up with the idea that this grandmother who looked all brownish there, she was like a mermaid. She had green hair.
So I started telling my grandfather in the letter, the story of my great-Aunt Rosa, and I gave her green hair just because, because of the mermaids.
And then as soon as I did that, something shifted. I knew that it was not a proper letter. I knew that I was doing something else, but I didn't know what. I didn't know if it was a chronicle of the family or a memoir or fiction. It didn't have a shape for me. I didn't have a script. I didn't know what the heck I was telling and where it was going, but I would write only at night in the kitchen, in the apartment in Caracas.
So on the kitchen counter, I had a little portable typewriter and there I would type and type and type without any plan, just pouring out everything.
Now, when I look back, I've always said it was an exercise in nostalgia. I wanted to recover everything I had lost in exile, my grandfather to begin with, the family, the stories, my little tribe, my work, my house, everything. My country, of course.
And at the end of the year I had 500-and-something pages on the kitchen counter, and it didn't look like a letter anymore. That was the House of the Spirits. A very dirty manuscript, you may imagine because there were no computers. So manuscripts were... I mean, delete, that would be a white liquid that you put on top and then you blow it until it dries, and then you put it back in the typewriter and you type and it has to be the same number of letters to put it in that space.
So you had to think carefully before writing a sentence, cut and paste, cut with scissors, paste with glue. That's how it was done.
Freeman: Yeah, we called that whiteout. I remember using that.
It's extraordinary hearing this description of how the book was written because it feels so inevitable as you read it. And one of the things I love about it so much are these long, deep, rich paragraphs, which you don't often see in fiction anymore because people are typing on screens and we get used to shorter and shorter paragraphs.
And as you were describing the stories of your family that sort of began the germinal stages of this book and that letter to your grandfather about your aunt who had been possibly poisoned. Of course, in the book, Clara's sister is poisoned, and it is that moment that kind of starts her life as a seer because she had foreseen this happening, something happening in her dreams, and then it comes true. And she becomes silent for a number of years until of course, Esteban, who is in love with her sister, comes back to the city and marries her and begins a very painful life for her.
The question I want to ask you about, I guess is about silence as an actuality and as a theme, Clara is silent, there are other people who don't speak in this book. At some point, the narrator, who we find out at the very end of the book who it is, tells us she's reading diaries or that she knows these things because of letters.
And so can you talk a little bit about your relationship as a writer in that time to silence, what it meant for you, how it lived in your life as a woman and as a journalist, and what you wanted in shaping this novel to say about silence in the lives of these characters?
Allende: John, I didn't want to say anything. I had no idea what I was doing. We can find meaning to things and there is meaning, I'm sure. But as a writer, I mean at least that's the way it happens to me, I write out of impulse, intuition, in a very organic way.
I just pour things out and of course, they're inside me, so they must mean something to me, but I'm not intentionally trying to analyze it or give it a meaning in the book.
I was a very solitary and quiet child. I spent much of my time in silence, and reading. I grew up in a place and a time when there was no television. We never went to the movies and the radio was forbidden in my house because it had vulgar ideas or something.
So what could I do? Just read. I didn't have the freedom to play in the street like my brothers, and so I became very quiet. And then during the time of my puberty and part of my adolescence, I was really silent. I would say hello and goodbye just because I had to, but if I could not speak, I wouldn't speak. In that inner world of mine, I didn't need to speak.
Later, people who have analyzed the book have said that that silence represents the people that have been silenced, women who have been silenced or who have no voice but I wasn't thinking of that when I wrote it.
Freeman: You had many lives before you wrote this book. You were born in Peru, you lived in Santiago, you moved to Bolivia and Lebanon, you were married and worked in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe before this book was written.
And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about living in various places and how that affected you, you think, if at all as a writer, and how having a variety of experiences made it possible for you to retell, if at all, some of the stories you were going to retell because you were writing as a 40-year-old woman and not a young person. And so you were possibly understanding in ways you wouldn't have, childbirth, motherhood, the beginnings of midlife.
Allende: I grew up as a daughter of diplomats. My father was a diplomat and my stepfather was a diplomat as well. So I was displaced all my childhood and my adolescence.
And finally when I could really get back in Chile and plant roots there, I decided I was never going to move again. And I was married, I had two little kids and I was really happy. I had a job that I loved as a journalist, but then we had a military coup and I had to go as a political refugee to Venezuela, then I became an immigrant in the United States.
And because of my work and my circumstances, I have had to travel all my life. And when you ask me from where you are, I would say Chile, but just because it sounds exotic, not because I really belong there, I haven't been there for decades.
Do I belong in California? Somehow, yes, but I have an accent and I will always be a foreigner here as well.
So where do I belong? I belong in my books, in my memory, in my work, and I'm very happy here but my roots are really in the books, I would say and in memory. I think all that affects the way I write and the fact that I have been in so many places, I know so many cultures, gives me a sort of, I would say a very inclusive view of the world. Nothing is quite strange or alien to me.
I feel at ease almost anywhere because people are people, they're all the same. I mean with differences in language or color or customs, people are the same. We all feel the same way.
When I write, my works are about relationships and about connections. It's about the characters more than anything else, more than the stories. And they're the passions that move. These characters are universal and that's why my books can be translated to 42 languages and they work in other languages.
Now, I have no idea how the translations are. They might be awful. Who knows? It doesn't matter. The story sort of translates because what I talk about is what you and I feel, and it's always the same. We all want the best for our kids. We are all afraid of more or less the same things, we love and fear and want and dream alike.
Freeman: This is a good time to ask a question from the audience. Elaine writes via email, "Do you have a sense of the difference in questions that come to you from your readers based on country and in terms of receptivity to your levels of realism and mystery?"
Allende: I get hundreds of emails. I open my computer in the morning and you see this long rows of emails and it's just discouraging sometimes. Will I have enough life to answer all this?
The questions are similar. More women than men, many of the questions are very personal. People who have connected to one of my books for a particular reason. For example, when I wrote Paula, I got a lot of correspondence of people who had losses. Paula was my daughter and she died prematurely, and that's what the book is about.
And so people who are mourning or have losses or have a divorce or are going through something tragic for some reason, they write to me and they want to know if what they are feeling is okay. They connect with the book at a very sentimental... let's say, in a very sentimental way.
And then I get letters that are funny, especially from young people. I get a letter, for example, for a young woman, she's 28 years old, and she says, "I am in this abusive relationship. This guy treats me very badly, but he's so seductive and he promised me that he will change. And I believe him because really he's very smart. He knows that he's putting our relationship in danger."
And I answer back and I say, "Let him go now. He's never going to change. He's going to get worse. Don't waste your time." This is on Monday. On Friday I get a letter from the boyfriend who says, "Why did you say that to my girlfriend? Now you have to write her back and tell her that..." whatever.
So there's that kind of connection that is extraordinary. And some people also ask if I believe in ghosts, if the spirits in the book are real or they are metaphors, that kind of question, I also get.
Freeman: I'm going to ask you about your idea of character and fate because one of the really compelling things about this book as well as other books, is you see characters over time and you see them change. You see them love, you see them grieve.
And this book in particular, Esteban is such a complicated mix of grief and longing, of tenderness and rage. And I thought of him when you described the radio being forbidden growing up because he smashes the radio his granddaughter is listening to because she is listening to the songs of her mother's ex-lover. How do you feel about fate and character? Do you think people can change or do you think they become more essentially themselves?
Allende: I think that we have character traits that we will have all our lives, but we can learn to handle them and we can change a lot.
A very recent example in my life, I just got married, very recently-
Freeman: Mazel tov.
Allende: Thank you. And this guy was born and worked and lived all his life in New York, a total New Yorker with an accent that I don't understand.
And so we fell in love. He came to visit several times and it was just crossing the continent. It was just too complicated. Eventually he made the decision, he's a widower, to sell his house, give away everything it contained and move to California.
I had to throw away his clothes because nobody dresses like that in California with a three-piece suit, nobody, and a tie. He changed completely. And now he retired, he's 80 years old and he took three classes in UC, Berkeley. He's studying Spanish, he's doing all the stuff that he never did in his very secure and perfect life.
He's taking all the risks and changing completely into another person, which is a much more interesting person than the one I knew before.
So it is possible to change, but the main traits, I think they remain, I mean, physically, for example, we can do a lot to be slimmer or fitter or whatever, but you will never grow in height. You will never look very different of the person you are, no matter how much plastic surgery. I mean except for Kim Kardashian or whatever her name is, Kardashian. Who changes that much with plastic surgery? No one.
So it's interesting, I think that there's a lot we can do. My mother would say that we are born with a set of cards, and those cards are the ones that we have to play the game of life and we cannot change the cards, they're given to us. And that's race, family, gender, age, and many other things but you can play the game better or worse.
And with the same cards, some person can make a fantastic life and another person can just be ruined from the very beginning. So it's not all fate, but there is an element of fate in who you are, where you were born. I was not born in Ukraine, I'm safe from what's going on in Ukraine because I wasn't born there. So that's already fate.
Freeman: Yeah, there's an extraordinary lottery in where and to whom we're born and as what, I mean we could have been born as another species.
Allende: Of course.
Freeman: And in your books, and especially in this book, the love to whom you give your heart or fall in love with is often a big changer of fate, it is for many of the characters. When one of the characters marries a sort of dissolute crook of a Frenchman with strange sexual taste, her life takes a very sad turn for a bit, and just Clara's life being connected to Esteban.
And I think one of the things that lends drama and power and tragedy to this book is watching where people's lives could have gone another way. And that seems to be also the case in grief. Esteban's response to his mother dying, for example. It could have brought out a tenderness in him.
And I wonder if you could go back to that scene where he goes to visit her and she's bedbound, she's being eaten by worms. And I can't get that scene out of my head, having read it weeks ago. And as much as love is a part of this book, death is this other thing that is clawing at it. It's gnawing at it in the themes.
And I wonder if you can talk about death as a subject of this book. I know you're not trying to say anything, but it feels like there are plagues, there are ants, there are things that are kind of chipping away at people's lives. And is that a force that you felt as you were writing it?
Allende: I think it's part of life. We are come here to lose everything, and things do deteriorate, decay and die. And I was conscious of that since I was a little girl and it's present in all my books. Death is a huge subject in all my books and losses in general, as love is and friendship and solidarity. Those are also themes that are repeated.
And the other thing that is always in my book is power. Some people have power to abuse and they can abuse power. The patriarch in the House of the Spirits, and other characters in other books and death is always present. Sometimes as liberation, like in the case of Clara, and some of the people who are tortured and they would rather die and they do.
And other times it's a terrible loss. In the case of Esteban, he's the only character in the book that lives from the first page to the last. The women come and go and they are the narrators of the story, but the central character, the thread of the story is Esteban Trueba, who is a man who changes enormously along the way and is motivated mostly by pride, by power and by rage. He's a man with a terrible character.
And the model for this character was my grandfather, who was not an assassin like Esteban and was not a rapist, and he was an incredibly honorable man, but he was a man consumed by rage that all his life he had to fight to control it because anything could make him go out of his mind.
To give you an example, he was a very young man, asleep at home with his wife in the bed and in these houses, the old houses then, the windows or the doors were just on the street, there on the street. There was no garden between the street and the house. And he heard a noise and he thought that someone was breaking into the house and he took a gun and opened the window and shot from the back, someone.
Fortunately he missed, it was a student who had touched the window with his umbrella and he realized that he could have killed a person out of rage and he never had a gun again in his life or in his hands. He was terrified of what he could do.
Now, this man also was madly in love with his wife, with Clara, my grandmother, madly in love, adored her, admired her, but tried to control her completely, possess her completely. She couldn't have a life but the life that he could give her, the life that he could have with her. And she was a free spirit, she was like water in his hands. He could never quite grab her.
And then finally after her death, he established a relationship with her that was of equals in a way, and he kept talking to her. I remember vividly and he was not so old... This memory, I could hear him in his room, he had the door closed and I could hear him talking to her, just like a bad habit, let's say.
And at one point he had a stroke, he was 80, he recovered completely from the stroke, but at the beginning it was very scary. Half his body was paralyzed and I was with him all the time and he thought I was my grandmother. So he would talk to me as if I was my grandmother holding him and forcing him to come back to life.
So he had that complex relationship with her. So for me, it was very easy to create that character because I had the model, and to create the relationship between this strange couple that Clara and Esteban are, because I had very good models. I also had the model for Blanca, and the model for the perverted French count was my father. So I didn't have to go so far.
Freeman: Can you say a bit more about your father because that's a very provocative statement.
Allende: Well, no, this is what happened. I created a character out of the blue that was this count. Let me tell you, first of all, my father, my father apparently was a very smart man. He was a diplomat and he took his young family to Peru where they were living. My mother was married to him four years and had three kids in those four years.
So she was always pregnant or giving birth or breastfeeding, and he was debonair. He spent much more money than he made, so there were creditors all around. He had the biggest car in Lima, the wildest parties. And no one knew from where the money came. Were it drugs or was it? He was connected to the high society, to the political movers and shakers. He was into everything and one day he went to a party and never came back.
It's not that he died or he was kidnapped, he did not come back. And in the meantime, in the week that he didn't come back, my mother gave birth at home alone, with the creditors knocking at the door.
And so very soon she returned to Chile to her parents' house with one newborn baby, premature, who was in a very bad shape and a toddler who was me, and a baby. And so my mother was received by her parents and she had a roof over her head and enough resources to take care of these kids, but she was a poor single mother, really.
And my father, I never saw my father again. He never again appeared in my life. At some point when I did my first communion I think, my mother contacted him or sent him a message or something and he did not show up. And I was never interested in a person who was not interested in me.
So I never met my father until I was in my late 20s, and I was called to identify a body in the morgue. A man who had died in the street that had my last name, Allende, and his first name was the name of my brother.
And at the time my brother was in a cult and we had not seen him in four or five years. So I thought he was my brother who was dead, and I ran to the morgue, but before going, I called my stepfather and I told him what had happened.
And I got there first and that was the first time I saw a dead person. They showed me this body and I said, "It's not my brother. It's not my brother." That's all I could say. And then my stepfather came right behind me and he said, "That's your father." And that's the only time I saw him and my stepfather and I buried him.
Freeman: My goodness. It seems like a lot of characters in this book and in the other books, but this particular, they're under the sway of very powerful forces and ideas. Clara's children, or Jaime and Nicolas, they each get kind of wrapped up in different ideas about how the world is run.
And I wonder if you can talk about using those forces within a novel, as a way of describing how characters can change. Because love is a force, obviously, longing to be home is another force, but ideas are a different force and they're hard to explain. And I feel like you do it very well with Nicolas and Jaime here.
Allende: I think that you don't have to explain what they think, just show it. Have them do things that show who they are. For example, Nicolas is a free spirit, completely frivolous and crazy, and I had an uncle like that. I don't have to explain what he thought of the world. That uncle in particular, went to India and came back from India transformed in a sort of guru. That didn't last very long. But why explain what he thought about his ideology that he had learned in India, just show the crazy stuff he did.
And in the case of Jaime, he's based on my Uncle Pablo who was exactly the opposite. The most responsible and honest and wonderful human being, dedicated to service, to help, in a very quiet way. He would be incredibly generous and support a lot of people, and he didn't want anybody to know.
And so his generosity, his spirit of service, all that was easy to portray because it was in action. And then in the book, he dies in the book because of his political ideas. Not even political ideas because he's the doctor of the president. So he's not even an ideologist, he's just there doing what he knows how to do, serve and help.
Freeman: When I was a literary editor at the magazine, Granta, we put together a list of the best young Brazilian novelists who grew up under the sway of the Latin American boom and being told to some degree, also in their country, that they should be writing the peasant novel, as they described it, the novel, the political revolutionary novel of ideas.
And this book is obviously about a political change within the country, but as we've been talking and anyone who's read it will realize that those changes are described entirely in the lives of characters. It's not in their arguments or the ideas.
And I wonder when your book is described back to you or presented as a political novel or a novel about revolution in an unnamed country, which is probably Chile, how you feel or how you want to respond to that designation?
Allende: All my books are political because we live in a political world. The lives of the characters are determined by the circumstances around them, not only by where they are born and how they're born, but what's happening in the country. What happens to the family of Esteban Trueba in the micro world of Esteban Trueba is a reflection of what's happening in the macro world of the country. The country is changing as the generations of the family are changing as well.
When I was very young, I tried to write romance novels and I can't because it's a genre in which the characters live off their passions in a sort of limbo where the external world doesn't exist. It only exists to enhance their feelings, nothing else.
But because I write historical novels, I am very aware that history or the political moment in which you are living, determines a lot of your life, a lot.
I wrote a novel that was the most difficult book I've ever written called, Island Beneath the Sea, and it is the story of the slave revolt in Haiti. But I have a character there, and what happened to those characters, even the French Revolution in France affected those characters and their lives and the freedom or slavery. So I cannot detach my characters from the world, and therefore it's always political.
Freeman: That's very true too, of the Japanese lover, one of your more recent novels. There's a question from the audience which I think relates to the general things that we're talking about right now. This is from Jay, who wonders if you worry about the rise of authoritarianism around the world and if in particular, if you worry for the US given where you come from?
Allende: Yes, I do worry a lot. I think there is a rise of fascism in the world. Always, in every country there is around 40% of the population that would prefer an authoritarian government.
And usually those people are very conservative and they're very afraid of change. And when that is misguided and have the wrong political leader, it can turn to what happened in Germany, what happened in Italy, in so many places. That they are, I mean, the most civilized and cultured countries in the world, where a dictatorship can turn really bad.
I am very aware that that can happen in the United States, not because there is a majority that thinks that way, it's a minority that is very noisy and very disciplined in a way. They vote together, they think the same way and they are delusional in the same way as well. While the rest of us, and I think that probably you are in the same category, John, we are just there thinking that everything will be fine and sort of trusting that the good will always happen eventually. Well, it doesn't.
So I am aware of that constantly and I get really discouraged and angry at my grandchildren when they are not interested. They don't vote. What? What kind of world do you want? You have to participate in the world in order to make it happen.
Freeman: This conversation makes me want to talk to you a little bit about vengeance because vengeance is part of the dialogue of a kind of new fascism that a country will be taken back, that people who've been overlooked or been done wrong will finally get their just slice of the national pie.
And vengeance is a big part of the House of the Spirits. The cycle of vengeance which travels down Esteban's line through one of his bastards all the way to the end of the book, is terrifying. And I wonder if you see vengeance as a micro and macro force in your novel? Both it seems like, because it becomes part of the revolution. But do you as a political citizen see vengeance as something that is being stoked?
Allende: Well, that's what violence is all about. It's taking something, revenge, taking it back, it's all about that. And in the House of the Spirits at the end, the protagonist says that she has lived this chain of violence and it's time to break it. It's time to let go. It's time not to forget, but to forgive.
And there's a reconciliation inside her, although she has been raped and tortured and mutilated and she's pregnant, and she doesn't know who of the rapists is the father. And yet she can think that way. She can go beyond all that.
And I have been accused often, by very politicized people because of that ending, because that ending implies that you forgive the perpetrators. And so they are not responsible, they are not punished. And what Alba in the book thinks is that the more you punish, the more they will come back to you again and again. So it's one thing to the other and it never ends, a chain of violence, and this is the history of the world always.
Freeman: I've often wondered about the title of the book because there's two articles, The House of the Spirits, and the spirits could be many things, but I feel like one of the ways that the spirits appear in the book is the spirits of the past that are being called back as sources of possible punishment and vengeance.
Allende: But also of comfort.
Allende: The spirit of Clara that is in the house, is so present in the house that Alba sees her practically. She grows up with the idea that her grandmother is there and the grandmother is dead.
Freeman: And she speaks to her, and in crucial moments.
Allende: When she's in prison and she's dying, the grandmother comes and holds her and says, "The thing is to live, we are all going to die. Dying is not the point, living is the point," and forces her to swallow some water and to try to live.
Freeman: I'm resisting asking you a question about whether or not you actually believe in spirits because I often feel like that question is asked as if forms of belief and reality are ridiculous. And I'll tell you a micro story in the midst of this because I had a friend who had a terrible experience growing up who was abused. He wrote about it eventually in his 60s, and in the moment of his worst torture essentially, the Virgin Mary spoke to him and said, "You'll survive."
And he went on to become a very famous writer, a very rational person, and he never questioned that voice because that voice is what made it possible for him to survive.
And I guess I want to ask you, how do we living as somewhat rational beings in a plenitude of belief systems, respect the varieties of-
Allende: Humanity is obsessed with religion. We go to war, we commit horrible crimes and great deeds because of our beliefs. And what is religion? Magical thinking. It is the belief that there is something that you cannot see or touch or hear or whatever, that is important in your life that protects you or saves you or judges you or punishes you. But that's a belief, it has no grounds... I mean, no roots on reality and yet that is very respected. But if someone says, "Well, I believe that my grandmother talks to me," well, that person is crazy. That's superstition. That's probably Latin American or African.
I think that the mind, first of all is a very complex machinery. It's a very strange thing and we don't know how exactly it works. What happens when we are on drugs, for example, or when we are in terrible pain or when we are in shock, what happens to the brain becomes a reality, although we can be in a completely different reality.
Also, I think that children live in a magical world and sometimes they can extend that magic thinking to the rest of their lives in one way or another. I am not a religious person. I don't see ghosts, I don't do seances, but I live surrounded by the photographs of the people that I love. Most of them are not here anymore. They're dead and I'm connected. I'm surrounded. I am held by these forces and that is my magical thinking, that my son, who is an engineer, thinks that I'm crazy, but it holds me.
Freeman: I can see some of those photographs behind you. Would you feel comfortable pointing out one or two to us?
Allende: I don't know what you can see here, but for example, over there, that's my mom and my brother Juan. That's my stepfather that I adored. He was my real father, fortunately I had a father substitute. And that's my daughter and my son, that's my mom when she was little.
So all these people are around me. This is my daughter, I always have her here next to me. This is her. And I talk to them, not because I think they will answer, because I already know what they will answer.
For example, let's say that I have a problem with the family. I ask Paula and I know who she will answer. Paula would say, "Mom, what is the most generous thing to do in this case?" If I have... I don't know, other kinds of problems, if I have a literary problem, I talk to my agent, Carmen Balcells, who died and she was my mentor and the House of the Spirits was published only because she believed in the book after it was rejected everywhere.
Freeman: Wow. I'm going to read a comment from one of the audience members, [Elga Sepulveda], who writes, "I'm a huge fan of your books, and last month I read the Soul of a Woman. I wanted to let you know that you inspire me to do things for girls around the world and help them with education. I also read Violeta and it's a masterpiece."
Allende: Thank you so much. Violeta was inspired by my mom, not that my mother was like Violeta in the book. They had different lives, but the character, the personality, then physically, I imagine Violeta like my mom.
Freeman: And also from the audience, [Baghigi Vag]... Hello Baghigi... writes, "Speaking of political moments, how was your experience of appearing as an icon of South American storytelling and literature on Jane the Virgin during a moment in American history, when immigrant Latinx culture was under fire. It was empowering and inspiring to see your presence in a popular American TV show that also paid tribute to the telenovela and magical realism in your novels."
Allende: Yeah, I loved the experience. Did you ever watch Jane the Virgin, John? You did? Yeah, the premise was wonderful. She gets impregnated by mistake, by a crazy gynecologist, and she becomes a mother being a virgin.
So I had an appearance and I had to go to LA where I appeared three seconds, maybe. Those three seconds have been the most important thing that I've done in my life because people recognize me because of that everywhere. So it was fantastic.
Freeman: Oh, there's some more questions about your life as a writer. And this has appeared in interviews before that you always start writing a book on January the 8th, and John McNally and Barbara Weinstein have questions about that: "Can you talk about the routine, whether or not you ever vary from it? And given how many emails you're getting from fans and requests for things like this, how do you manage to stick to it in the modern life when there could be so many distractions for you?"
Allende: Well, I'm really disciplined and I wake up very early, so I work many hours. Well, I deal with the emails daily, I don't let them accumulate at all. I answer immediately, that's the only way I can handle it.
I start all my books on January 8th at the beginning because it was a lucky day, I had started my first book on that day but now it's discipline. I need to clear my calendar so that I can be as free as possible during several times a year, several months a year.
By January 7th, everybody around me knows that I will not be available the next day. And so there's less social life, there's less demands, and somehow people respect the fact that I'm not available. So that helps a lot.
And I write many hours a day. But before, I used to have sort of almost puritan way of thinking, I have to write this much. Not anymore, I'm 80 years old, I'm done. So I decided that I would retire. I would retire from everything I don't like, but I like writing and I like researching. So I do that. But nothing else. I don't sign books. I don't go to festivals. I don't do blurbs. I don't do anything else, just what I love.
Freeman: Yes. And it seems to have worked, for a while I often saw that you were the most read novelist writing in Spanish around the world, which must be slightly an alarming thing to hear when you sit down on January 8th.
Allende: I don't think about that ever. Ever. I think of the story that I really want to write because if I don't feel that need, that passion inside, I won't be able to finish it. I've always finished everything that I write because I choose very carefully what I'm going to write about.
Freeman: As an editor, I have so many questions for you, which I'll have to shelve for another discussion. I'm going to return to something you said in passing, which is that a mentor helped you early on with this book. Can you go back to that and tell us a little bit more about her and take us from her involvement to the moment of publication of this extraordinary novel?
Allende: When I finished the House of the Spirits, I had 500-and-something pages, as I said, on the kitchen counter. I didn't know what to do with them. My mother thought, this is a book, and she sent it to several publishers in Latin America. We didn't even get an answer, nothing.
And then one day a woman called me and she said, "I am a secretary here in one of the publishing houses. I read your manuscript, and I think it's extraordinary, but no one will read it here. You need an agent, a literary agent." And she gave me the address of Carmen Balcells in Spain.
It was more complicated than that, but that's the way I got to her. And I was living in Venezuela, I sent her the manuscript by mail. And a month later she called me and she said, "This is a very good book, but anybody can write a good first book because they put there everything they know, everything they have experienced, everything they want, everything is there. The writer is proven on the second book, so don't quit your day job. And in the meantime, I guarantee you that I will publish this."
And she managed to get it published in Spain. And when the book was published in Spain, she invited me to Spain like royalty. I got there dressed like a person with luggage that didn't even have wheels. I mean, I was nobody, absolutely nobody. And she threw a party with all the literary agencia of Madrid and Barcelona... Caviar, the only time in my life I've seen caviar eaten with a spoon. Never like that.
So she treated me always with incredible respect as if she believed in me from the very beginning. And every time that I needed any help, she would be there for me, not from the literary point of view. She would not mentor me like a good editor would. She was no Maxwell Perkins, but she was the agent that fights for you. And she would say, "Remember, we are not friends. I'm your agent. You're my client." But she came to my kids' weddings. She was there when Paula died. She was my friend, my real friend. I miss her.
Freeman: Seems like a great way to end considering this is also a book about friendships and relationships between powerful women. This has been an extraordinary conversation, Isabel Allende. I'm so grateful to you for making the time for sharing all these stories with us for this beautiful and wondrous book, which if you're listening and haven't read, I envy you the experience of reading it the first time.
I want to say thank you to all the people in the audience, the many hundreds who've come tonight. This is a fabulous turnout, Isabel Allende, it's been just an immense pleasure.
Allende: Thank you so much, John. Take care.
Freeman: Take care to you.
Blaise, I think you're coming back to tell us now where we should send our thanks.
Zerega: There we go. All right, I think I'm on. Okay, great. Well, you could just listen to that conversation. Thank you so much, Isabel.
I mean, just amazing. Thank you. Wow. I mean, my mom's communicated with spirits my whole life, so did this book on so many levels. But big thank you to you, and big thank you to John. And big thank you to, I think everyone on the Zoom tonight. I think we had 1,000 people register.
Tonight's program was recorded, and it will be up on CaliforniaBookClub.com tomorrow, or just navigate over to Altaonline.com. You'll find it that way.
Please be sure to join us next month for National Book Award finalist Claudia Rankine and her amazing collection, Citizen. That will be on Thursday, April 20th at 5:00 PM.
And please don't forget the special offer to sign up for Alta Journal and get a special California Book Club hat.
It makes a terrific gift. Or you can become a digital only member for just $3 a month.
And finally, we would be grateful if you would participate in a one-minute survey that will pop up on your screens as soon as we end the event.
So thank you so much for tuning in tonight, and see you next time. And big thank you again to Isabel. Take care, everybody.