In 1994, I was introduced to one of the greatest story tellers ever. Her characters and their histories reminded me so much of the stories my grandmother told me of her mother's life before the border was ever a thing. It seemed fitting that I discovered her in the town that my grandmother loved.
I walked out of the theater and onto the streets of San Juan Capistrano, the streets that my Nana had walked on as a young girl, dazed by the movie I had just seen, The House of Spirits. I had waited for the credits to find out who wrote such a beautiful family saga. Isabel Allende. I don't remember if it was that day or later that week, but I remember going to my favorite bookstore in Laguna Beach to buy the book.
Over the years, I've picked up several others, including a signed copy of The Infinite Plan, addressed to someone sharing my same birth name. It was in a stack of books at Carlsbad's Dove library that were being sold for $1. I couldn't believe the luck. I'd always wanted a signed copy of an Isabel Allende book, and there it was with my name on it! The novel was based in East LA where we spent many years visiting family, and once again, her story spoke into my life.
Another favorite of mine was Paula, her memoir recalling the death of her beloved daughter. Reading that book, you can feel the love and anguish of a mother slowly losing her child, while telling the stories of her life and her family's history. Woven throughout were the stories of the personalities who eventually ended up, in the form of all or a bit of a character in any one of her books. There were also many personal moments that reveal a well lived life and many colorful dinner conversations.
Last week, I finally got to see her live. Unfortunately, she didn't do a personal signing after her chat, but we were all treated to a signed copy of her latest book, In the Midst of Winter. The title is from a quote that has graced my Facebook wall at least once. "In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer." That quote stayed with me all last winter when we were without a home. It was as literal as it was figurative in my life.
The acoustics weren't the best in the old historic theater at the University of San Diego, so instead of recording the audio, I jotted down a few gems.
From my notes at An Evening with Isabel Allende in San Diego:
Regarding erotic scenes. "Mother doesn’t like them. She says, Why do you write this? People will think you’ve done this! If she only knew!"
Regarding technology in writing (i.e. Google for research): "Tech doesn’t give you personal stories. History is written by the winners." That’s why she does personal research. For Daughter of Fortune (great story, by the way). she went to Chile to research letters written back to families by Chilean miners in California.
Regarding technology in reading: “The need for humanity to hear stories will always be there, regardless of how the story is told." In other words, book, audio file, digital... people will always want to hear stories.
Q: What is your dog's name? A: "Dulce." (Ummmm, hello... that means Sugar! HOW ARE WE NOT RELATED???) She goes on to tell the story about a dog from a litter that had not been picked up and was going to be euthanized. They saw a picture of the dog and thought, okay, let's go save the dog. When they arrived, they saw that the dog had a big bulging tumor in her eye. "They had taken the picture from other side!" The crowd laughed. She went on to say, of course they took it home and got her tumor removed.
For her character of a soldier, she had a friend who knew a Navy Seal who had been on the Osama Bin Laden raid. She got herself invited to his apartment and found out that "he wasn't a big bully that I had imagined." She described his less intimidating stature, his knowledge of wine, and his affinity for classical music.
Regarding her personal faults: "I fall in love with men and it’s a problem." (I hear ya, Isabel!) "The women my age have taken care of their bodies, going to spas, doing yoga, eating well... But the men... gah!"
Q: Why do you think people enjoy your books so much? A: "I think it’s because I write stories that happen to us... Maybe that’s the connection."
Regarding Paula: "I get letters every week from women who have lost a child... You learn to live with the memory and the love and the spirit inside. ... I have my daughter with me all the time, in a good way... I carry her with me, even when sometimes it’s painful. I love that pain."
Regarding the book tour for Paula: She didn't want to go on a tour because it wasn't a celebration. "My son said, 'Mom, this is not a book tour. This is a spiritual practice.' Every stop, I just got up and shared. It was an extraordinary book tour."
Q: Why are there so few men here tonight? (Side note: I thought this was a stupid question. Why did it need to be asked? The whole evening was just lovely and then like a needle scratching a record, that question was asked. Lame. But Isabel was much more gracious than I might have been.) "I always have more women at my events. Women connect more with the kind of books I write. I don’t write thrillers... I don’t write manuals." The manuals line got a big laugh.
Q: Do you write your stories in Spanish? A: "Everything I do is in Spanish. I talk to the dog in Spanish. I cook in Spanish. I make love in Spanish."
Q: Where do you write? A: "My favorite place to write is at home. I wrote House of Spirits at the kitchen counter in Columbus." She could only write evenings and weekends because she had a full time job. "By the third book, I had a room of my own."
Later, she wrote short stories only because she had to get out of the house because the man she was married to was a mess. "He's still a mess!" She left to escape his chaos and in those moments of escape, scratched out several short stories.
And then she said the line that I will remember forever...
"If you want to write, write anywhere. It’s like when you are in love. When you are in love, you can do it in the back of a Volkswagen. There is no manual for writing just as there is no manual for making love."
Q: What would you tell Isabel 50 years ago. Answer: “Waste time. Chill.”
Q: How do you deal with grief? A: "Share. The moment you start sharing and open up, you realize that everyone is willing to come close and hold you. Just go out and talk.
Toward the end, she talked about knowing that she did not have much time left in this world. The interviewer reminded her that her own mother was 95. "Yes, but I don't want to be OLD like my mother!"
I'll be selfish and say that I hope she does grow old like her mother and that she continues to scratch out her beautiful stories.