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One Foot In Chile: An Interview with Isabel Allende

Best-selling author Isabel Allende brings her latest novel to San Diego


Photo by Lori Barra

With a career spanning 20 books, including her acclaimed debut The House of Spirits, Chilean-bred author Isabel Allende now explores a multigenerational love story sweeping from present-day San Francisco to Poland and the U.S. during World War II in The Japanese Lover. On November 30, Allende will be in town to chat about the novel during the annual author’s luncheon for Words Alive, a San Diego–based nonprofit that brings reading programs to underserved communities. We spoke with Allende about the books she’s reading and life in California.

What was the inspiration for The Japanese Lover?

My friend told me that her mother who was 80 had a friend for 40 years who was a Japanese gardener. I assumed they had been lovers. She said, “No, of course not!” But in my mind, they were! It was just the seed that my friend planted, and it developed into this story. I think many of the themes in the book are relevant today in my life—the end of love, aging, loss, death, friendship, family, memory.

What books would we find on your shelf?

You would find very little, because I give them all away! I live in a small house. I have to get rid of my books. Right now I’m reading Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. I just finished The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. I have a very good friend who owns a bookstore where I live, and she selects the best fiction for me. 

You’ve lived in the Bay Area for 27 years. What brought you here?

I fell in love—or lust!—with a guy. I came here to spend a weekend to get him out of my system. I forced him into marriage, and we were together for 27 years. I love it here, but I will always feel that I’m a foreigner. I have an accent, I don’t look like everyone else, but I also feel like a foreigner in Chile because I’ve been away for so long. In a way, I have one foot here and one foot in Chile.

Why are books so important?

When I was a girl there was no television in Chile, so I spent my life reading. I got an idea of the world and a fascination with people. The more I read, the more I travel, the more I live, the more I realize we have so much in common with others. Art in general teaches us about our humanity and what happened before us. It’s a way of keeping the collective memory alive. 

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