En español | To chat with Isabelle Allende is to take a journey, though not in the literal sense. Rather, a journey of the heart, filled with brutal truths, exhilarating passions, and the wisdom that comes from accepting, in Allende's words, that "we have very little control over our lives."
The acclaimed author recently met with AARP Segunda Juventud at her home in Sausalito, California, to talk about her new novel for young adults, City of Beasts. Being a storyteller, Allende also wove in tales of her own extraordinary life: of her enduring Latin American roots, which continue to inspire her though she has lived in California the past 15 years; of her adored grandchildren, who "commissioned" her to write City of Beasts. And, most revealing of all, the unexpected freedoms of life at 60.
In City of Beasts, a teenage boy, whose mother falls ill, finds himself on an adventure with his thrill-seeking grandmother, a reporter for an international geographic magazine. The two travel to the Amazon, on a quest to find a legendary creature, known as "the beast." Along the way, the boy gains an inner strength he never knew he had and the grandmother watches the transformation of her beloved grandson with admiration.
Allende, who researched the book by taking a boat ride up the Amazon, says the eccentric grandma in the book is not at all like her. But, the book's protagonist, Alexander Cold, is based on a real person, Allende's oldest grandson, Alejandro. All three of Allende's grandchildren (aged eleven, nine and eight) live a short distance from her i
Says Allende, "I've been telling them stories since they were born. When I tuck them in bed, each one of them gives me a theme or a word, or something, such as an elephant, a carnivorous plant, or a Martian. I'm sure they get together ahead of time and think up a subject that I couldn't possibly use, but I always come up with something. And, they're the ones who asked me to write this book."
City of Beasts is the first in a trilogy about Alexander Cold's adventures with his kooky grandma. Allende has already written the second book, which is set in the Himalayas. She has not yet begun the third, but no doubt, will count on her grandchildren for inspiration.
What do the grandkids think about having a famous grandmother? Replies Allende, "They don't think I'm famous at all. They think that I'm short, and they hate the fact that I put on lipstick. They see me making beds, getting them breakfast. I'm just their grandma. I don't think they perceive me as someone with a public life."
But, Allende has always lived a somewhat public life. Born in 1942 in Chile to a prominent family, she enjoyed a successful career as a journalist, author and playwright. She married, and had two children. Then, in the early seventies, she and her family were forced to abruptly flee the country and spend years in exile after a military coup deposed her uncle, Chilean President Salvador Allende. The family tumult and political drama of her native country, infused with a haunting spiritualism, became the hallmarks of her writing. Allende's first novel in 1982 , The House of the Spirits, which chronicled four generations of a Chilean family, garnered international acclaim, as did her eight subsequent works, including Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, Paula, and Daughter of Fortune.
Divorced in the late 1980s, Allende met Willie Gordon, the California attorney who would become her second husband, while on a book tour. "Here was this gringo guy who liked tall blondes. So, I had to convince him that in my past life, I was tall and blonde," she says, jokingly.
Fifteen years later, Allende says of the relationship, " I didn't know that I would find passionate love at my age, that I would be in love at 60 the way that I am, that I would have a relationship like the one I have with my husband, which is the most nurturing and wonderful thing in my life at this point."
The couple has been through "hell and back," notes Allende. In 1995, Allende's only daughter, Paula, grew seriously ill and died. The 1995 memoir, Paula, which interweaves Allende's personal history with a chronicle of Paula's illness, is considered by many to be the author's best work. Says Allende, "My husband's own daughter died a few months after Paula. We went through a lot of mourning. It was a mess. But yet, we've been able to find an inner circle in which there are only the two of us."
It's a circle that's easily expanded, though. Allende observes, "I have managed to reproduce an extended family where I live, with friends, and people that I've sort of adopted. My daughter was married to a man named Ernesto. After she died, I remained very close to him. Now, he is living in our old house, which is a block away, with his new wife. We hope they will have kids. Every Sunday, we have people in the garden and the pool-a full house. I spend my weekend cooking for everybody."
And, always, Allende reserves time for the grandchildren. She notes, "This has been said so many times that it sounds like a cliché, but it is true. You can enjoy the grandkids in ways that you could not enjoy your own kids. When I was raising my kids, I was so busy working. I was young. I was confused. I didn't have any time. And, I was always worried that something might happen to them. I concentrated on bringing them up in ways that would prepare them for life, and didn't spoil them."
As for the grandkids, Allende confesses, "I am the kind that spoils them rotten." She adds, "I don't try to teach them anything, or overprotect them. I know at my age that you don't control anything. I'm not afraid for my grandchildren. I have an incredible faith. A certainty that they will do fine, as I did, and as most people do."
Does she feel that one's "second youth" is better than the first one? "Not at all," says Allende. "I feel that this is another stage in life, but it isn't better than the one I went through. The first 60 years of my life was a time of stress, separation, abandonment, and great success. A lot of love, passion, trips, writing. All that mixture created a very interesting life."
Rather than feel we become better with age, Allende believes we become "more of what we are." She explains, "It's like training to be an athlete. Why would you suddenly be able to run the marathon? You have to train. Why would you suddenly be a happy old person? You have to train for that. You have to train by thinking positively. By keeping yourself healthy and staying connected to other people."
The best part of being 60, concludes Allende, is that "it is very liberating." She adds, "I don't care a bit what people think about me. I am not embarrassed, I just live a day at a time in a very joyful and playful way. I think that the next few years of my life will be interesting. But, they won't be better than the ones that I've already had."
Somehow, one feels Allende's journey has only just begun.