Q&A with Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende's latest novel enthralls us with a heroine from long ago, and her talk turns to female leadership today.

By Melanie Rehak

Isabel Allende, 64, began her novel, The House of the Spirits, as a letter to her dying grandfather. Her memoir, Paula, was a letter to her dying daughter. Her latest treasure also arises from a sense of loss -- a missing history. Ines of My Soul (HarperCollins), a sweeping historical novel, retrieves the life story of Dona Ines Suarez, one of the founders of Chile, from obscurity.

MORE: How did you learn of Suarez?

Allende: I read that the land that is now Chile had been conquered by 110 brave, crazy Spanish bandits -- among them, one woman. She was mentioned between the lines by a few historians.

MORE: Ines blossoms with age. And you?

Allende: I hate that things start to deteriorate: memory and attention and the body. I hate that -- all the maintenance required to look barely decent. I try not to get fat, I put creams on my face, I do my hair. But I'm 64, and I am free. My grandchildren are teenagers and don't need me anymore, I have a great marriage, I like my work, I am respected. My life has meaning.

MORE: Do current politics affect your work?

Allende: They affect my life. I'm an American citizen. I travel a lot, and I'm embarrassed. The torture bill will legalize what was done in Chile and is the reason that I fled my native country. I don't think I can live where people are tortured by the government.

MORE: Is it a stretch to draw parallels between here and Pinochet's regime?

Allende: It isn't at all. The difference is that in Chile the crackdown happened in 24 hours, so you had to be with the dictatorship or against it right away. But in Argentina and in 1940s Germany, they took people's rights bit by bit. Every morning something else was missing. I am very worried.

MORE: On your Web site you mention that the real accomplishments of life happen "in the secret chambers of the heart." What do you have in there?

Allende: What I've done with my family. I have kept up with my mother, with a daily letter, for 40 years. I have started my life from scratch several times, and in every new place, I put together a little tribe, because I need community. I have women friends who are sisters to me.

MORE: There's so much passion mixed with politics in Ines of My Soul.

Allende: But romance and politics are not separate. It is well-known that men want power because they want women. They want to look good in front of women and be feared by men.

MORE: Chile has its first woman president, Michelle Bachelet.

Allende: That is real progress. Women presidents or prime ministers have usually been women who acted like men. But she is governing from a feminine perspective, and she has brought parity to the government: Fifty percent of the people in government are women. There is female energy in the management of the country.

MORE: Could such a change happen in the United States?

Allende: Right now, we would get a man in a skirt.

Originally published in MORE magazine, December 2006/January 2007.

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