A Talk With the Diva of Magical Feminism
Washington — Isabel Allende has a cold. Bronchitis, actually.
She’s normally a hugger. Not today.
“Don’t touch me,” she warns, thrusting her arms up to avoid the slightest possibility of skin-to-skin contact. “I’m all germs.”
It’s Wednesday and the Chilean novelist is in a plush, sun-streamed sitting room in the Madison Hotel in downtown Washington, one of 15 cities she’s visiting on a nearly month-long book tour for Maya’s Notebook.
Allende “despises” book tours.
The airports, the lines. “Traveling is just really for young people.”
She loves The People.
“The people who show up at readings love your books. They’re not going to throw tomatoes at you.”
Even sick — and she describes her ailments in glorious detail — she oozes a fanciful, roaring energy. Makeup, tastefully applied. Thick, light brown, highlighted hair. Mani-pedi, glossy red. And she’s adorned in silver jewelry sparkling over a black peasant skirt and long, gauzy sweater. Describing her as glamorous is like saying swimming pools are wet.
This is Allende at 70 — the 5-foot melodramatic diva of magical feminism.
She likes that word — melodramatic. And she uses it often and proudly. As in:
∎ “I have been in love all my life, with different men, of course. It’s beautiful and melodramatic.”
∎ “My life has loss. … But I’m also happy in my life, and it’s a good life, melodramatic and filled with a few people around me who love me and support me and I trust them, blindly.”
∎ “My characters are always quirky, a little off and melodramatic. Those are the only people I am interested in.”
She talks freely about her lovers; her brooding, unrequited romances; her hidden desires. (About actor Antonio Banderas, she joked to the Observer in 2008: “I dream of devouring him naked and covered in guacamole.”) She’s been married for some 20 years to her second husband, Willie Gordon, an American lawyer-turned-writer. She says she’s still in love. “All husbands can be improved,” she says, laughing, “but he’s pretty good, considering.”
She’s had mixed reviews on some of her recent works — from a meticulously researched historical novel about slavery in Haiti to a trilogy of children’s adventure books. She chafes at the thought of retiring.
“I just finished writing another novel!” It will be out in January and is a thriller that was “fun, pure entertainment to do. And, no — I won’t tell you the plot.”
Plus, writing calms her “demons.” Two of her stepchildren have died of drug-related causes, one in 1994 and the other five weeks ago.
“We are all in mourning right now,” she says.
In 1996, she started the Isabel Allende Foundation in memory of her daughter, Paula, to finance women’s health and social justice projects in places such as Nepal and India. Paula: A Memoir was her tribute to her 28-year-old daughter, who died after complications caused by the genetic disorder porphyria.
“Writing a book is like being pregnant — it just starts moving,” she says, taking a sip of tea with honey. “It does help with your demons, with your obsessions. Writing is all I can do, the only thing that I can do. I can’t do anything else.”
A cousin of the deposed Chilean president Salvador Allende, she thinks of herself as a writer compelled to speak out about the abuses of power. But her latest book was inspired by her grandchildren and her concern that their obsession with technology is rotting their imaginations.
In the novel, Maya finds redemption when she gets off drugs — and her cell phone — and starts exploring nature, the sea and the spirits on an island in Chile.
“Young people today, they are texting while they are on a job interview!” she said, her perfectly groomed eyebrows rising. “We all need time. Time to reflect, to be bored. In boredom, creativity expands.”
But not all creative endeavors get her support. She describes herself as a “short and mean grandmother” who has little patience for “ordinary artwork” done by children. “I can’t believe when parents just hang it up, if it’s just two red lines and a blue one. I always believe in telling the truth.”
She gets up suddenly.
She has to leave. Now.
La Allende must rest. (She has a speaking engagement that evening at National Geographic.)
She apologizes, again, for being sick. She says she is so out of sorts that she isn’t even wearing her signature perfume: a combination of a men’s cologne and a women’s fragrance. She finally agrees to jot down the names of the scents and does so in a perfectly feminine cursive. She swears a reporter to secrecy.
Allende jets down the hallway toward her room. “My mother always said, ‘As you age, you have to smell good and be kind.’ ”
And then she disappears.