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Latin lady of letters: ‘Story Hunter’

SAUSALITO — Latin American novelist Isabel Allende (“The House of the Spirits”) will be the first to admit that she’s an incurable “story hunter” with a “vicious” imagination, that love and violence dominate her writing, and that the first time her mother told her, “Sit with your legs crossed,” she became a feminist.

She will also say, in a voice as soft as silk, that to write fiction, you have to be ready to betray.

Betray?

“You’re going to use lies to go deeper into an event or a person in order to obtain some truth,” says Allende.

But Allende is as much a contradiction in person as some of her words would seem to be contradictions in terms. Petite, attractive and warm, she appears far too gentle to be the author of such aggressively romantic and powerful prose as can be found in any of her published works.

Born in Peru, she moved to Chile with her mother when her parents were divorced and she was 3. Growing up in her grandparents’ house in Santiago, she discovered books and formed strong alliances with the women in her family, her grandmother and especially her mother, who remains her most trusted friend and editor.

Precocious and curious, Allende began a career as a journalist in Santiago when she was only 17, doing well at it until the 1973 military coup that toppled her uncle — Chile’s president, Salvador Allende — forced her to flee to Venezuela with her husband and children.

Exile in Caracas had a paralyzing effect. For eight years, this successful television commentator and print journalist couldn’t write. But when word came in 1981 that her grandfather, whom she adored, was dying, she sat down to write him a letter. It was Jan. 8 and the letter turned out to be the start of her first novel, “The House of the Spirits,” now an international hit film by director Bille August.

“It was a lucky book, so I kept that date as a lucky date,” says Allende, explaining that every year she makes herself start new work on Jan. 8, “out of superstition, but mainly out of discipline.” And so it was that on Jan. 8, 1988, she began “The Stories of Eva Luna.”

Allende had written the preceding book, “Eva Luna,” at 45, newly divorced from a husband of almost 29 years and flush with self-affirmation as a writer and woman.

“Writing ‘Eva Luna’ was joyful. I felt that she was speaking for me, talking about being a woman, about politics, about writing. It was wonderful to put on her lips things I had wanted to say all my life.”

Eva Luna being a storyteller in the style of Scheherazade, it was natural that she would eventually spin the tales alluded to but not told in that novel. They became Allende’s next book, “The Stories of Eva Luna,” a whimsical collection of flamboyant stories that closes with the saga of the tragic Azucena and the journalist who, hoping to save her, experiences his own epiphany.

“That really happened,” Allende says, describing a volcanic eruption in Colombia where lava melted snow, causing an avalanche of mud and rocks that covered a village. “Hundreds died, among them this little girl, Omaira Sanchez, who was trapped in the mud for four days.”

Allende witnessed the girl’s anguish on television and was haunted by the vision of this child who stared and wouldn’t talk. She decided to exorcise the memory by writing Omaira’s story.

But it did not work out that way. Omaira Sanchez continued to haunt her and in 1992, when Allende’s daughter, Paula, became ill with a rare genetic disease and slipped into a coma, Allende remembered Omaira.

“Paula was paralyzed, trapped in her body,” recalls Allende. “The first time I saw her in intensive care, I remembered Omaira. In a strange way, she had been telling me that I needed to be prepared. When Paula died a year later, I made my peace with Omaira, too.”

Balancing love, marriage, children and writing was, for Allende, the juggling act it usually is for women.

“I could not write when my children were little,” she says. “I started when I was nearly 40, in the kitchen at night. I didn’t have a room in which to write and I didn’t have time. I worked 12 hours a day (as a school administrator). So balance was based on tremendous effort. But I’m very energetic, very healthy. I can focus.”

Allende now lives in San Rafael, but works in a nearby Sausalito studio separated by a driveway from husband William Gordon’s law office. As she chats in the studio, she paints a clear picture of how she utilizes the creative environment.

“When I come here every morning, I create my ceremonies, my space. We live in an extended family,” Allende explains. “When I go back tonight I cook for 10 people. So I need to get away. I didn’t lose my family after the military coup in Chile. We were scattered all over. When I came here I was able to reunite some of us. We may not all be blood related, but we have been able to create a family that works.”

Of her six-year marriage to Gordon, whom she met at one of her lectures, Allende says fondly, “Willy had read my second novel, ‘Of Love and Shadows,’ and written to a friend that ‘the author understands love the way I do.’ We locked in right away. We both had the impression that we had gone in circles for a very long life and were meant to meet.

“I do believe,” she says softly, “that there is a spirit and that this (life) is like a station in a very long journey. That’s why I don’t feel deprived that my daughter died. I was privileged to be with her spirit for 28 years. I also believe that if we are aware of that dimension of the spirit, it is easier to tap into the collective unconscious. I think that because I spend so much time in silence and solitude, I tap into something that is there.

“It was obvious with ‘House of the Spirits.’ I didn’t have an outline. When I started I had a thousand characters and wrote in a torrent of words. In the end I realized 70 years had passed and some characters had not aged. In the exuberance of the storytelling, I forgot such essential things as keeping track of the time!”

Allende has been writing for 12 years and now faces different demands: Interviews, lectures and, with the April 1 U.S. release of “House of the Spirits ,” movie junkets. Privacy is hard to come by.

“But when you want to do something very badly, you do it,” she says. “It’s like falling in love. You do the craziest things just to be with the other person. Writing is like that. If you fall in love with a story or it haunts you in such a way that you have to write it, you find the time.”

Sylvie Drake is artistic associate of the Denver Center Theatre Co. and director of media relations and publications for the Denver Center of the Performing Arts. “Stories,” a production of the Denver Center Theatre Company, plays at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts through April 9.

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