Isabel Allende is in an enviable position. At 51, the Chilean-born novelist is internationally admired, with five bestsellers already published in 27 languages and a sixth book on the way. And soon her audience will be even wider, thanks to the imminent release of two films based on her novels: "The House of the Spirits" (starring Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons and Winona Ryder, opening Friday) and "Of Love and Shadows" (which will open later this year).
But although Allende is poised for newfound cinematic fame, don't imagine that it is because she has courted Hollywood's attention. On the contrary, when the U.S. publication, in 1985, of "The House of the Spirits" created interest among agents and producers, Allende put the kibosh on the bidding.
"I was not very impressed, to tell you the truth," she explains in an interview in her work studio here. "I had the feeling that most of the offers were from producers or directors who just wanted to get the option so that nobody else could make the movie, not because they had a vision of it or any interest in the story. It's a very complicated story, and I didn't think it was possible to make it into a comprehensible film."
And several years later, when Bille August, the Danish director of the Academy Award-winning "Pelle the Conqueror," approached Allende about making the film, she flatly turned him down.
"He didn't pay any attention," Allende says with a laugh. "He just came to San Francisco, rented a theater and showed me 'Pelle.' I was very impressed. Afterward we had a cup of coffee, and within 20 minutes I realized that he was totally in love with the story of 'The House of the Spirits.' He knew the book by heart, all the characters, everything. And he had a very clear vision of how that could be turned into a two-hour movie."
August's vision did not include much of the surrealist imagery that Allende's work is known for.
"He was very clear about what could be done and what could not be done," she says. "He said that all the magic elements of the book would have to be eliminated."
The director defends his decision as a way of making the film believable.
"It was a question of balance all the time because supernatural effects in a movie can look ridiculous, and it becomes a sort of special-effects story," August explains. "Since the story deals with such powerful realism as well, we decided to do it this way."
But this is nearly heretical, considering just how important magical realism--the dreamlike Latin American literary style pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez--is to Allende's book and, in fact, to her own life. Her work space, in a former coach house just across a cobblestone alley from the law offices of her second husband, William Gordon, reflects the fantasy of her imagination. Antique embroidery, folk carvings and clay artifacts that look as if they were unearthed by Indiana Jones are mounted above doorways and the fireplace mantle.
Rows of first editions of her books straddle long shelves on a wall behind her desk. Allende herself is petite and lovely, dressed like one of her heroines in a long green velvet gown with a wispy black vest thrown over it. Verdigris pendants in the shape of tiny tree frogs, moons and stars dangle from her earrings. Her warmth and good humor are infectious, but she is also intensely focused, a New Age earth mother with the mental acuity of a Harvard MBA.
"The House of the Spirits" spans three generations of a mythic South American family, the Truebas, that closely resembles Allende's own.
It begins shortly after the turn of the century with a romance between the autocratic patriarch, Esteban Trueba, and Clara, his clairvoyant wife, then moves on through decades and innumerable plot twists into a disturbing present in which Esteban's leftist-leaning granddaughter is arrested and tortured by a right-wing dictatorship that threatens to destroy both the family and their country. The similarity between the story and its characters and Allende--the niece of the former Marxist president of Chile, Salvador Allende Gossens, who was assassinated 21 years ago during a coup--and her family is undeniable even if some of the details are quite different.
"It is loosely based on my family," she acknowledges. "It started as a sort of a chronicle of the family, but in the very first paragraph I realized that fiction had taken over."
So Allende's great-aunt did not have green hair, as does Clara's sister, Rosa the Beautiful, in the book, and her grandfather was not a rapist and murderer like Esteban. Nor could her grandmother play the piano with the lid over the keys, as Clara does in the novel.
"But she could move the ashtray without touching it," Allende allows, warming to talk of her remarkable clan. "She practiced telepathy all her life and had premonitions in dreams. The Catholic Church was then very powerful and they did not approve of this. My grandfather, who was a very conservative Catholic, did not think it was dangerous or sinful; he just didn't like it very much, because it was not scientific. Then one day, my grandmother came up with the idea that maybe it was not the souls of the dead that moved the three-legged table--it was the extraterrestrials. And then my grandfather approved, because that was scientific, and from then on he participated in the seances.
"That is the kind of family I come from," she says, laughing. "I didn't have to invent anything."
As her book became more popular, Allende says, she noticed that members of her family became more and more like the characters in it:
"Now the fiction has replaced the real story of the family, and we live this sort of fantasy that these things happened. When I saw the movie, I realized immediately that the fiction of the film is 10 times bigger than the fiction of the book. Very soon we will have the photographs of Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep on the piano. They will be my grandparents. I will have all these famous people as my relatives."
Allende does have some other strong feelings seeing Streep, Irons, Ryder, Glenn Close and Vanessa Redgrave cast in such a quintessentially Latin story.
"I was surprised that (August) chose such an Anglo-looking cast. Everybody is so blond ," she says with a shrug. "But it is true that in Latin America, the upper classes look very European."
Redgrave, who plays the matriarch, Nivea, describes Allende's work as a story that is not related only and specifically to one country but to many.
"I mean, after all, why have millions of people in every country read this book?" she asks. "The essence of what I have to do in this role is not connected with trying to convince anybody that I'm Latin American. It's to do with what kind of a person is this lady."
Bernd Eichinger, head of Constantin Films and producer of "The House of the Spirits," says: "You need stars in this movie because the characters are bigger than life. The film is set in a realistic environment, but it is more in the tradition of the movies that we did with big stars in the '50s." Eichinger feels strongly that August's sensibilities were right for "The House of the Spirits" and has just begun another film project with the director, based on "Smilla's Sense of Snow," the best-selling novel by Peter Hoeg.
Despite the differences in their backgrounds, Allende was comfortable passing the reins of the film to a Scandinavian director "because I like the restrained passion of the Scandinavians--you know there is a lot going on, but you don't see it on the surface."
Nor do criticisms from some in the Latin American community about the European bent of the film and director disturb her.
"I say this is not my movie; this is Bille August's movie," she says. "I write a book, and I feel that the book is mine as long as it is sitting on that desk. But then one day it is published, and the very moment you publish it, you give it away. It is gone! It is a creature that has its own life."
Besides, she adds, "I don't intend to write Latin American stories. I try to write universal stories. The way we are and the way we live and the great passions and dramas and tragedies are always the same. The fact that they are set in Chile or Venezuela or California doesn't mean much."
Allende is herself a film buff, with "Schindler's List" and "The Crying Game" among her recent favorite movies. She also admires the way books by Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado were made into the films "Gabriela" and "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" and the smooth translation that Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate" made to the screen. While she likens "The House of the Spirits" to epic films like "Dr. Zhivago" and "Fanny and Alexander," she says "Of Love and Shadows" is more like a Costa-Gavras thriller.
"It's like 'Missing' or 'The Official Story'--it has that tone," she says. "One thing I have learned as a writer is that every story has a rhythm, a way of being told. My first novel ("House of Spirits") has the tone of old things, told and retold. The second story ("Of Love and Shadows") is based on a political crime that really happened in Chile in 1973, and the tone of the book is very journalistic."
She is also wise enough to realize that in film, the director has the last word:
"Films are dialogue and action; you don't use language as you do in a book. The wonderful part about literature is that you use the reader's imagination, experience and sensibility to create an atmosphere. In a movie, you are trapped in a chair and you watch."
"Of Love and Shadows," directed by Betty Kaplan and starring a mostly Latin cast, will be released by Miramax later this year. The story came from Allende's own experiences as a young journalist in Chile and in Venezuela, where she fled after her uncle was deposed.
"It represents a time after the military coup in 1973," she says. "I left Chile in 1975, so for a year and a half I lived in this state of terror, and I was a journalist and knew what was going on and I could not write about it because of the tremendous censorship. Later, when I was living in Venezuela, I heard about the bodies that had been found in an abandoned mine in Chile. Among the bodies were five members of the same family--a father and four sons. And for five years the women of the family looked for them, asking in concentration camps and prisons and hospitals.
"One day they were called to the morgue and they could identify some keys, a comb, hair, a piece of a blue sweater, some bones. They were lucky because most relatives of los desaparecidos (the disappeared) never find anything."
The story of the political murders haunted Allende for several years.
"When the time came to write my second novel I did not have to think about it; the thing was there," she says. "That's why when I saw the movie, I felt so rewarded. The movie conveys the emotions, the fear, the love, the lust. I was really touched."
Allende's own life has been marked by tragedy, most recently and terribly by the death, last year, of her 28-year-old daughter, Paula, of complications brought on by a rare hereditary disease, porphyria.
"She was in a coma for a year and I brought her home and took care of her," Allende says, stifling tears. "That changed my life and my writing completely. It is as if one life stopped and another starts. A life quite different from the other one, and Paula is the guide. She's the guide because when she was like a doll in the bed, I could only communicate with her in dreams, spiritually."
She is almost finished with a memoir in which her daughter figures strongly.
"Going back to every moment of that awful year and writing about it forces me to revise who I am," she says. "Why do I write? For whom do I write?"
Before, Allende says, her books seemed to have messages yet she never thought very intensely about them.
"Now, for the first time, I know that it is the message that I have to tell, and I have to find a way of telling it."
When the memoir is finished, Allende wants to attempt a screenplay.
"It is not the right time now, but I would like to learn the craft, because you can do with movies what you can never do with literature," she says. "You reach an audience that is a million times greater, and the impact that a movie has in one afternoon is so much greater than a book can have in a hundred years. And then in a movie you have elements that you never have in literature. You have music, you have the wonderful acting. If you have good actors, you have what they create for each character."
But wouldn't she miss the opportunity to layer her writing with the extraordinary descriptions and detail she is known for?
"No, I wouldn't, because I am good at telling the story and all the rest is work," she states. "What I love is to spell out the story in the first draft and then afterward I spend years, sometimes, creating the atmosphere, working with every word, every adjective, to make it"--she pauses, searching for the right adjective--"efficient. That takes a lot of time and work, and sometimes it's not as interesting as just telling the story."