Isabel Allende

If you Google her name, you’ll learn there are “about 1,980,000 entries for Isabel Allende.” And with good reason; hers has been an eventful life. Born in Peru; learned English in Lebanon; married at 19, self-educated through extensive reading of William Shakespeare; exiled to Venezuela when her uncle, Chilean President Salvador Allende, was assassinated; became a journalist and a playwright before writing her first novel, The House of the Spirits, which was made into a film starring Jeremy Irons, Antonio Banderas, Glenn Close and Meryl Streep.

Seventeen years and half a dozen books later (including Aphrodite, about sex, food, and aphrodisiacs), Allende, living in Marin, wrote Daughter of Fortune. “It’s a historical novel,” she says, “the story of a Chilean orphan [girl] who roamed California’s Gold Rush territories, dressed as a boy, looking for a lost love, but who eventually finds so much more; she finds freedom.” Daughter of Fortune, an Oprah Book Club selection in 2000, has been published in 35 languages and had a worldwide release of 650,000 hardcover editions and over 800,000 in paperback.

During this February and March, in a reading program titled One Book One Marin, everyone in the county is encouraged to read Daughter of Fortune, then join discussion groups and attend seminars where the book will be discussed (see accompanying schedule). On April 17 at 7 p.m., at San Rafael’s Pickleweed Recreation Center, Allende will be interviewed by local radio/TV host Dario D’Arrigo and on April 20, also at 7 p.m., at Dominican University, she will appear in conversation with KQED’s Michael Krasny. The public is invited to both events, which are free of charge.

What are your hopes for the One Book One Marin project?
To see One Book One Marin continue on a regular basis and become a tradition in Marin. I understand that is what is now happening in Seattle. I would love to see [the program] become something that brings people together. It’s a very interesting idea—to have an entire community discussing one theme—especially if the theme concerns the immediate area and its history and involves ideas that were once prevalent and are still prevalent now, such as immigration and femininism.

How long did you take writing Daughter of Fortune?
Oh, many years; probably seven. I came to the United States and Marin in 1987 because I fell in love with the story of Willie, who’s now my husband, and I wrote that book, The Infinite Plan. But even prior to that I was thinking about Daughter of Fortune because I’ve long been fascinated by California history. So in 1990, I started the research and continued for two years. But then my daughter Paula got sick and died and, in 1993, I wrote Paula, a memoir about her. And after that, I continued researching but couldn’t write—I was too sad. For many years, I had writer’s block. So to get myself out of that horrible mood, that depression, I wrote a nonfiction book about lust and gluttony; that was Aphrodite, which I finished in 1996. And then I wrote Daughter of Fortune. So it took many years of research.

Where—and how—did you do your research for the book?
I read numerous books on California’s Gold Rush, I spent days in Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, and I read all the books by (former state librarian) Kevin Starr regarding that time period. Also, I wanted to read the letters written by the miners who came from Chile to California, so I went to a library in Santiago as well as the Bancroft.

Fortunately for me, it was the Gold Rush’s 150th anniversary and there were exhibits, films and lectures in Oakland and San Francisco—I went to all of them. I even watched old westerns on television; they helped me with how people dressed and lived. In doing research, whether in a library or my office, I would mark passages in books with stickers and then made piles of books on the floor according to themes. Next, I pinned notes on the wall indicating where I read things so I could find them when they were needed. It’s a long process.

Do you have a case in point?
Yes, I remember reading somewhere that during the Gold Rush a bottle of champagne was cheaper than a glass of milk. Not because there were no cows, but because no one was interested in milking cows—they were too busy digging for gold. Also, bottles of champagne were easier to transport than milk. But I couldn’t rely on my memory. I had to be sure that I wasn’t making up a detail like that—one that really gives a sense of time and place to a book. So I would write down the book and the page where I read about the champagne and milk, place it on the wall, and be able to go back to it when I needed it.

Did you know what you were looking for while researching Daughter of Fortune?  Or did themes come out of the research?
Themes came from the research, definitely. All I knew going in was that the story would be told by a foreigner, possibly a woman. But then I learned that at first very few women came here during the Gold Rush. An exception would be the prostitutes, and theirs was a very sad life I didn’t want to write about. However, in doing the research, I did find that some women came to California and dressed like men. One of them, she called herself Charles, distributed the mail. And though the men knew she was a woman, they treated her like a man, say, when she walked into a bar. But in other cases, women dressed like men, acted like men, and no one knew any difference for years until they were preparing a body for a funeral. I thought this was a very interesting idea, a Shakespearean change of identity idea. By then, I knew my protagonist would be a woman, possibly a Chilean woman, but a woman who dressed like a man. And that’s how I got Eliza Sommers, whom readers meet in the first sentence of Daughter of Fortune.

Is it true that eroticism is a theme in many of your novels?
In all of my novels. There are certain themes that are always in my books. They are sex, death, violence, political issues and women’s issues. And I always try to write about individuals who are not sheltered by the big umbrella of the establishment, either because of their sexual preferences, or because they’re delinquents, or foreigners. When I can get the story from the perspective of the outsider, I feel more comfortable writing it. It would be hard for me to write about, for example, people from the Midwest with common sense—unless I could tell it from the perspective of an outsider, or a foreigner, who’s observing, at a certain distance. That’s why I like historical novels so much; they give you that distance.

When you write, is it in Spanish or in English?
With nonfiction or memoirs, I write in English; my novels, I write in Spanish. Fortunately, I have an excellent translator in Margaret Sayers Peden, an 80-year-old academic who lives in Missouri. Many times, because Americans don’t like to talk about sex or violence or death as Latinos do, she has saved me. “Ahh, Isabel,” she’ll say, “this is a little too direct for American tastes,’ or ‘I’m going to tone this down a bit for you.’” And I do not dream of correcting her.

Is writing a novel—for you—a torturous experience?
It’s never torturous. The only time it was torturous was when I was writing a memoir, especially when I wrote about my daughter Paula, who had died. But when you write a novel it is never torturous. And there is a reason for that: if it is a work of the imagination, you are like God. You can do whatever you want. Who is going to say anything? The critics may demolish you, or the readers may say this is horrible. But you own your book; you can do what you want with the characters.

However, when you write nonfiction—and I know this because I was once a journalist—you must stick to the facts as much as possible. And when you write a memoir, though it is always subjective, there are other people involved, many of them still living, so they have to be considered and that’s often difficult. But writing a novel is never torturous, it’s fun, always fun; writing Daughter of Fortune was fun.