Guest Host: Tom Gjelten

A little girl says goodbye to her parents in Poland. They’re shipping her off to America because it’s the eve of World War II and she’s Jewish. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever see them again. In her new life in San Francisco, she meets and becomes intertwined forever with the son of her wealthy relatives’ Japanese gardener. Love, loss, fate and a bit of magic – all are present in the latest novel by Isabel Allende. The works of this Chilean-American writer have sold 65 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 35 languages.


  • Isabel Allende Author of author of 22 books, including the novels "Ripper” and "The House of the Spirits," several memoirs and a trilogy for young readers.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt from THE JAPANESE LOVER: A NOVEL by Isabel Allende. Copyright © 2015 by Isabel Allende. Reprinted by arrangement with Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

The Japanese Lover


  • 11:06:54

    MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. Isabel Allende's new novel begins in a San Francisco retirement community, but her characters are very much alive, most of all, an aging artist with a magnetic spirit and possibly a Japanese lover. Allende is now in her 70s and knows well that a long life inevitably brings sorrow and loss, but love and passion can endure.

  • 11:07:24

    MR. TOM GJELTENThat's the story in her new novel. It's titled "The Japanese Lover." Author Isabel Allende joins me from a studio in New York City and you can be a part of our conversation. Call us at 1-800-433-8850. Email us at You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter. And we will be taking your comments and questions from all those sources.

  • 11:07:52

    MR. TOM GJELTENIsabel Allende, I know you've been on the DR Show, "The Diane Rehm Show" several times, but I'm personally pleased to have this opportunity with you and I know you have legions of fans among our listeners.

  • 11:08:04

    MS. ISABEL ALLENDEThank you, Tom, for having me on the program.

  • 11:08:07

    GJELTENAnd I'm sure your fans are pleased you have this new novel, "The Japanese Lover," because you were dropping hints for a while there that you might be slowing down.

  • 11:08:17

    ALLENDEYeah, but you know what, if I'm not writing, I bother everybody. My family wants me writing so they don't see me at all.

  • 11:08:28

    GJELTENAnd it occupies of every day, it sounds like, from what you have talked about.

  • 11:08:33

    ALLENDEMany, many hours, but they are wonderful hours in which I feel like God. I can create a universe, move my characters anyway I want. It's just great.

  • 11:08:44

    GJELTENWell, in this new novel, Isabel, you touch so eloquently on various themes. Love, spirituality, aging, loss. I'm not sure where to begin, but let's begin with first reviewing the setting. Like at least two of your previous books, you set this novel in the San Francisco Bay area, which is where you live. Are you setting it sort of in this setting that has now become so familiar to you for a reason?

  • 11:09:17

    ALLENDEWell, because the story sort of happened there, the seed for the story was something that a friend of mine told me. We were walking the streets of New York and she said -- we were talking about our mothers and she said that her mother, who was 80 years old, had had a Japanese gardener as a friend for 40 years. And I said, well, maybe they were lovers. And she said, no, why would you think that?

  • 11:09:45

    ALLENDEBut in my mind, of course they were lovers, of course. So I started imagining love at 80. How would that be? And I love very close to The Redwoods. That is a retirement home very much like the one I describe in the book, a very original one. So I used that as a setting and my characters just came the way they were, a Jewish older woman and a Japanese gardener her same age.

  • 11:10:14

    GJELTENAnd that retirement home, you call it Lark House and it's a very unique retirement community, although I guess it sort of fits with our impressions of what the San Francisco Bay area is like.

  • 11:10:29

    ALLENDEIt could only happen in San Francisco.

  • 11:10:30

    GJELTENOnly in San Francisco. You write, "Lark House residents tended to have myriad religious beliefs, which made their funerals rather complicated ecumenical affairs." You say that "several of the residents" and you describe it, basically, as a home for aging hippies, it seems like.

  • 11:10:46

    ALLENDEYeah, aging hippies, artists, musicians, intellectuals, but all leftist. There are like four Republicans in the whole place.

  • 11:10:54

    GJELTENAnd I think you said 244 Democrats or 244 of the residents who voted for President Obama versus just a half dozen or so Republicans. And when they enacted -- when the administrators of the home enacted a ban on smoking, they had to clarify they meant marijuana as well as tobacco, you write.

  • 11:11:12


  • 11:11:15

    GJELTENWell, tell us a little bit about the woman that lives there, who lives there, Alma Belasco.

  • 11:11:20

    ALLENDEWell, Alma Belasco is the daughter of a Jewish family in Poland and right before the invasion of the Nazis, they send their children away and she ends up in the house of her aunt and uncle in San Francisco, wealthy people who adopt her and love her. And she finds there, a family. She grows up there and she never has the need to work to make a living. She becomes an artist.

  • 11:11:49

    ALLENDEBut since her childhood, when she was eight years old and she met the son of the gardener, Ichimei, and falls in love with him as a child, all her life she will be in love with this man and everything separates them. At that time, the '40s and the '50s and the '60s, it was illegal to marry someone from another race. They were separated by race, but culture, by wealth, by social class, religion, everything so they could never have a life together, but love endured. And so that's the story.

  • 11:12:22


  • 11:12:23

    ALLENDEIt's a story about memory and secrets and love.

  • 11:12:28

    GJELTENAnd love that begins at the age of 8 and is still alive at the age of 80, what does love at the age of 8 have in common with love at the age of 80?

  • 11:12:38

    ALLENDEI think it can be just as passionate. As children, when we fall in love as children, it's an overwhelming emotion that takes over and can last for years. I remember that as a child because I did fall in love when I was very, very young. And now that I am over 70, I'm not 80 yet, but I will be, I know that I can love just as passionately.

  • 11:13:07

    GJELTENAnd Alma is now, when the book opens, living at Lark House and she's holding onto this memory of -- and she, in the meantime, has been married to someone else, has a child from that marriage. Ichimei, the son of the Japanese gardener, is approximately her age. He has married someone else in the meantime and has his own children. They still are very much in two different worlds, aren't they?

  • 11:13:35

    ALLENDEVery different worlds, but they meet secretly. And there is a young couple in the book, Alma's grandson and a woman, a young woman who works in this retirement home called Irina. And Seth and Irina are very curious about the secret life of this old woman. Why does she disappear once or twice a week and why doesn't she receive this lover in her own apartment? She has an independent apartment. Why all the secrecy? And that's the whole story, what happens there.

  • 11:14:14

    ALLENDEAnd please don't say how it ends, okay?

  • 11:14:15

    GJELTENI won't. There are many unanswered questions and we are going to be very careful not to go there. But just to give a sense of the power of their love, during -- there was a period when they were meeting secretly and having an affair. And you have a section of your book where you describe that in beautiful terms. Can you read a little bit of that for us, Isabel?

  • 11:14:41

    ALLENDEOkay. "The memory of those blessed months when she and Ichimei met at the motel where they couldn't switch off the light because of the cockroaches that emerged at night from the corners of the room was able to sustain Alma in later years when she stridently tried to drive out love and desire and replace them with a penance of fidelity. With Ichimei, she discovered the multiple subtleties of love and pleasure. From frantic, urgent passion to those sacred moments when they were lifted by emotion and lay still in bed side by side staring endlessly into each eyes, content and sated, abashed at having touched their souls deepest levels, purified from having striped away all pretense and lying together totally vulnerable in such a state of ecstasy, they could no longer distinguish between joy and sadness, the elation of life or the sweet temptation of dying there and then so that they would never be apart.

  • 11:15:50

    ALLENDEOnly the two of them existed from the first longing kiss as they crossed the threshold and before they even locked the door, vicariously standing up, flinging off their clothing which lay where it fell, their naked, quivering bodies each drinking in the heat, savor and smell of the other. The texture of skin and hair, the marvel of losing themselves in desire until they were exhausted, of dosing in one another's arms for a moment, only to renew their pleasure. The jokes, laughter and whispered secrets, the wonderful universe of intimacy."

  • 11:16:29

    GJELTENIsabel Allende, if I may say so, you seem to write effortlessly, incredibly, about love and passion. I'm...

  • 11:16:38

    ALLENDEYou know, it's interesting because I was writing this book at a moment in my life when my marriage was ending. I was married for 27 years with a man that I adored and my marriage was ending. So I was -- this book is an exploration of love. I was asking myself the question, can love endure? Is romantic love a fantasy or is it something that is real? What is passion? Those were the questions that I was dealing with at that moment.

  • 11:17:10

    GJELTENBut a lot of it's been a prominent theme in all of your writing, has it not?

  • 11:17:15

    ALLENDEYes, it has. I think it's the force that moves the universe and moves us as people. It makes us human.

  • 11:17:22

    GJELTENAnd the wonderful thing about your new book is, as we said before, that you talk about how love can endure and take on different manifestations at different stages of life. I also want to talk to you about your great wisdom about aging and I have many points in your book where you write so eloquently and wisely about what it means to grow old, also about spirituality. You touch on so many important themes here, Isabel Allende, you have written 22 books, including the novels "Ripper," and "The House of the Spirits," your first and perhaps most famous, as well as several memoirs and a trilogy for young readers.

  • 11:18:03

    GJELTENAlso, you won the Presidential Medal of Freedom a year ago. I want you to tell us about that when we come back. Stay tuned, I'm Tom Gjelten.

  • 11:20:01

    GJELTENAnd welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today. And my guest is Isabel Allende, who has a new novel, the Japanese lover. And Isabel is on the line with us from a studio in New York City. And Isabel, we were talking before the break about love. I want to read, if I may, this epigraph that you -- with which you open the book. It's really quite extraordinary.

  • 11:20:26


  • 11:20:29

    GJELTENAnd this is part of a poem by Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz. And the epigraph goes like this: "Pause, shadow of my elusive love, image of my most dear enchanter, Beautiful illusion for whom I did gladly Sweet fiction for whom I live sadly." How did you find that? And tell us a little bit about Juana Ines de la Cruz.

  • 11:20:53

    ALLENDEWell, Juana Ines de la Cruz was the first feminist and a great writer that lived in Mexico 500 years ago. And she was an extraordinary writer that was silenced by the church for many years. And she wrote incredible poetry and prose, too, talking about the position of women in the society and also a lot of spiritual work.

  • 11:21:23

    GJELTENAnd in this particular case, about love and about the power of love, and particularly the love that is a fiction for whom she says she lives sadly.

  • 11:21:37

    ALLENDEWell, I think that when we fall in love, we invent another person. And I have this theory of the Christmas tree syndrome, which is what happens to me all the time. I fall in love. And then I pick up this man, because I'm heterosexual, and adorn him with all kinds of Christmas ornaments and think that he's extraordinary and unique. And I create a fiction that can last decades. But eventually, one by one, all these ornaments start to fall off and I'm left with a dead pine tree. So love can be a fiction. And we have to work on maintaining it alive with...

  • 11:22:30

    GJELTENAnd it can be a real challenge.

  • 11:22:31

    ALLENDE...imagination and passion. Yeah.

  • 11:22:33

    GJELTENIt can be a real challenge, can't it, to keep it alive for years and years and years. That's something that...

  • 11:22:36

    ALLENDEYes. Yes. And it has to be a work of both of them. I don't think that one person can sustain it. It has to be something that the couple does together.

  • 11:22:46

    GJELTENWell, Isabel, let's go back to your book. Because this is a very unique kind of love that these two people have. And, as you suggested earlier, as you said earlier, it is -- there are two young people in your story that are very curious about Alma and the Japanese gardener. First of all, Irina, she's from Moldova. And I'm wondering how many of our listeners even have any idea that there is a country named Moldova.

  • 11:23:13

    ALLENDEWhere, yeah, where that is.

  • 11:23:14

    GJELTENWhere did you come up with that?

  • 11:23:15

    ALLENDEIt's near Romania.

  • 11:23:16

    GJELTENIt is near Romania. It's between Romania and Russia.

  • 11:23:18

    ALLENDENear Romania, yes. Yes.

  • 11:23:20

    GJELTENWhere did you come up with that?

  • 11:23:22

    ALLENDEWell, I have a foundation. And my foundation's mission is empowerment of women. And the year when I was writing this book, my foundation was concerned mostly with human trafficking. And there is a lot of human trafficking with young women that come from that area, from Romania and Moldova. And so we had some cases like that. And that's how I got up the -- I got the character.

  • 11:23:48

    GJELTENAnd her mother had, herself, been a victim of trafficking.

  • 11:23:52

    ALLENDEOf trafficking also, yes.

  • 11:23:53

    GJELTENRight. Uh-huh. Well, in so many of your novels, and in this one again, you write about real-life situations with great accuracy and conviction. Your last -- one of your recent novels was about the life of a female slave in the Caribbean in the 18th century. You dare to write about settings that are unfamiliar to many readers. And I'm guessing it requires a lot of research on your part, in order to make these accounts meaningful to your readers.

  • 11:24:28

    ALLENDEWell, I start my books with research, researching place and time. That is the theater where my characters will act and they will move. If that research is accurate and deep enough, the story is very believable. The story can be fiction but, if the facts are true, the reader surrenders to the story...

  • 11:24:51


  • 11:24:52 ways that they would not if that was not very accurate. But in this case, with the Japanese lover, I didn't have to do much research. Because it's a contemporary story that happens in a place I know very well. I had to research, of course, the internment camps for the Japanese and ageing and the retirement home, that kind of stuff. But it wasn't hard research at all.

  • 11:25:17

    GJELTENBecause Ichimei, the son of the Japanese gardener, along with the rest of his family, disappears from Alma's life at the time of World War II, when Japanese Americans all over the West Coast were rounded up and sent to internment camps. And that becomes a crucial element in your story, because it brings about this long separation of the two.

  • 11:25:38

    ALLENDETheir first separation, four years and a half, in which the Fukuda family, with 120,000 other Japanese Americans, were in these internment camps. And they lose -- they lost everything they had. And then, at the end of the war, they were not allowed to return to the places of origin. So the Fukuda family does not return to California. That makes the separation even longer. And it was a surprise for me. I knew vaguely about these internment camps, which are really concentration camps, but I didn't know much. And the fact that it -- the Fukuda family would have necessarily been in one of those camps, enriched the story tremendously. It changed my whole perspective of their relationship and of the destinies of those people.

  • 11:26:35

    GJELTENHow important is it for you to have your novels, your stories, have sort of topical importance, and include in them, you know, real-life stories of injustice and prejudice and suffering that, you know, have occurred throughout history?

  • 11:26:53

    ALLENDEI don't do that on purpose.

  • 11:26:54

    GJELTENYou don't?

  • 11:26:55

    ALLENDENo. I'm not trying to deliver a message or to teach a lesson or -- no. Things -- I just want to tell a story. And depending on the -- of where the story happens and when, well, these elements come up. If I'm writing about a person that is 80 years old from Jewish origin, and a Japanese person who's the same age, of course these elements would come up in their lives. Those would be the turning points in their lives. So it's not that I do it on purpose. It just happens to be that way.

  • 11:27:28

    GJELTENBut is it true that at one point you imagined that you might become a journalist?

  • 11:27:32

    ALLENDEI was a journalist.

  • 11:27:34

    GJELTENYou were a journalist, weren't you?

  • 11:27:35

    ALLENDEYeah. I was a journalist when I was young, a lousy journalist. But I was a journalist. And so what I learned in that profession has helped me tremendously as a writer. I learned to research, to do an interview so that you can extract from the person what the interviewed doesn't want to tell you, to use language effectively, to grab the reader by the neck and not let the reader go. All those things are important in journalism and of course they are important in writing literature.

  • 11:28:14

    GJELTENLet's -- may I ask how old you are?

  • 11:28:18

    ALLENDESeventy-three. I look good for my age but that's from a distance.

  • 11:28:21

    GJELTENWell, no. You, I've seen you up close and you look good at any distance, Isabel. So, but let's talk about aging. Because I think one of the things that's most beautiful about "The Japanese Lover," is the wise and tender way that you talk about what it's like to age, to grow old -- not ancient. Ancient -- you draw a distinction between being old and being ancient.

  • 11:28:46

    ALLENDEThere is a distinction. You know, my stepfather is 100. My mother is 95. And there's a big difference between my life, in my 70s, and their lives. It all -- I think that what determines if you are old or ancient is dependency. Some people can start depending on 70 and others at 90. So that is what really marks a difference.

  • 11:29:12

    GJELTENLet me just -- can I just read a few things that really caught my attention in your book? Writing primarily about Alma, because she is in her 80s, but more generally Irina, the caregiver, is talking to Seth, Alma's grandson, about what it's like to care for older people. And she says, "We want her loved ones to be safe. But what they want for themselves is autonomy." That's something -- that's a point that I think many caregivers will recognize. That even though the older people that they're taking care of need protection, they don't want to give up their freedom and their autonomy.

  • 11:29:51

    ALLENDEMm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And we want to keep them safe. So we want them tied in a wheelchair, if possible, so that they don't harm themselves or others. But that's not the kind of life they want.

  • 11:30:03

    GJELTENYou also say, about Alma and her old friend, Lenny, who was very close to Alma's former husband. Lenny comes to live with her in Lark House and they get old together. They grew tired of making all these efforts to stay young and active, and gave into the temptation of simply resting.

  • 11:30:27

    ALLENDEMm-hmm. So they -- at the beginning, they started going to the opera and they'd drive to Bolinas and they'd have oysters for lunch. And then it becomes so tiresome that they just sit down and hold hands and remember the past.

  • 11:30:41

    GJELTENMm-hmm. And it's actually quite beautiful, isn't it? I mean, and that is something that Alma, as she gets older, she is -- she gets a lot out of her past. We won't talk about the ending here.

  • 11:30:50

    ALLENDEYeah, this book is -- well, but this book is very much about memory.

  • 11:30:54


  • 11:30:55

    ALLENDEShe's -- I mean, Irina is trying to find out about her life.

  • 11:30:59


  • 11:31:00

    ALLENDEAnd Alma is slowly offering her memories to Irina.

  • 11:31:09

    GJELTENBut I do have to say that you also make clear that growing old is a terminal process. You write, Lenny tells Alma, "Very few old folks are happy, Irina." Actually, he's talking to Irina. "Very few old folks are happy, Irina. Most of them are poor, are not healthy and have no family. It's the most fragile and difficult stage of life, more so than childhood, because it grows worse by day and there is no future other than death." So you do not hold back on writing about the sad and difficult parts of growing old.

  • 11:31:46

    ALLENDEYes. And as it says there in that paragraph, it all depends on your resources and how healthy you are. These people in this book are very privileged in a way, because they live in a very nice place and they have enough resources. They are still alive mentally and more or less healthy. But most people in the world are not. And now we age for a very long time. Before, people would retire at 65 and be dead by 70. Now we live 30 more years. And we don't have the economic resources and our society is not ready to offer a decent life to people who are aging and who are not protected anymore. We live in a culture in which, what the values are, you have to productive, young, beautiful and successful. And that's not what aging is about.

  • 11:32:47

    GJELTENIsabel Allende is the author of a new novel, "The Japanese Lover." I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Isabel, share with us, if you will, a little bit about your own mother. You said she's 95. What's -- how is she doing and what's your relationship like with her? And what have you learned from her in writing about aging?

  • 11:33:10

    ALLENDEI have learned everything from my mother. She is 21 years older than me. So she's 21 years ahead, opening the way for me, showing me how every state of life is. And we have a very close relationship. We write to each other every single day. Now, by email, before it used to be snail mail. And my mother's brain is the brain of a 30-year-old person but her body is not. So she's very dependent because she cannot do anything by herself except write to me. And I see the process very, very closely, the process of aging.

  • 11:33:48

    GJELTENWhat do you write about? Does she just...

  • 11:33:49

    ALLENDEEverything. We write about dreams, desires, expectations, memory, losses and the daily stuff, which is not important really -- what we had for lunch is not important -- but memories, very present in our letters.

  • 11:34:09

    GJELTENDoes the fact that your mother is still alive inhibit you in any way, in terms of what you write?

  • 11:34:14

    ALLENDEYes, of course. I could not write an erotic novel. I have to wait until she dies. But she's immortal.

  • 11:34:21

    GJELTENAnd are you intending to do that at one point?

  • 11:34:22

    ALLENDEWell, if she doesn't die soon, I won't have the energy to do that. Or the pheromones.

  • 11:34:31

    GJELTENWell, you -- notwithstanding the fact that your mother is still alive and that makes you perhaps a little bit more shy, you've been pretty open about your own -- some of your own fantasies. I don't -- I'm trying to decide whether I should ask you about Antonio Banderas or not.

  • 11:34:45

    ALLENDEWell, I've always been in love with Antonio Banderas. And I, years ago, I had an erotic dream with him. I had a dream that I placed a naked Antonio Banderas on a Mexican tortilla, slathered him with guacamole, rolled him up and ate him. I still dream of that.

  • 11:35:04

    GJELTENYou've had that dream more than once. But always Antonio Banderas?

  • 11:35:09

    ALLENDEAlways Antonio Banderas. And he's eternally young in my fantasy.

  • 11:35:13

    GJELTENUh-huh. Well, so are you, I am assuming as well, right? Isabel, I want to share with you an email that we got from Ricardo. Ricardo says, Hello, Isabel. I took your course in Latin-American Cinema at the University of Virginia in the late 1980s. At the time, I remember you said that the map of South America has the shape of a sad heart. He's wondering if you still think of your native continent in that same way? And he also wants to know what you think of the current socio-political region in South America.

  • 11:35:49

    ALLENDEWow. That's a long answer. I do, I mean, the shape of Latin America is the shape of a heart. And at the time, when -- in the '80s, it was an ailing heart, because half the continent was living under some kind of repressive government, a military dictatorship or the equivalent. And masses of people were running away from their own countries and trying to find refuge in other countries. That has changed and now we have democracies almost everywhere. And the continent has more stability than ever before. So I'm very optimistic about Latin America.

  • 11:36:27

    ALLENDENow the focus of the world is not in Latin America anymore. People are looking at the Middle East. And they have forgotten that Latin America exists, which is very good for us. Because the CIA is not intervening there and we have been able to develop our democracies much better.

  • 11:36:44

    GJELTENDo you travel back to Latin America very often?

  • 11:36:47

    ALLENDEAll the time. I go to Chile often because of my parents.

  • 11:36:50


  • 11:36:51

    ALLENDEAnd I'm in touch, permanently, with my country.

  • 11:36:55

    GJELTENIsabel Allende is the author of a new novel, the latest of her more than 20 books. It's called "The Japanese Lover." She is with us for the whole hours. You can join our conversation. Remember, our phone number is 800-433-8850. I know there are millions of Isabel Allende fans around America and abroad. So please join us with your questions or comments. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will go to the phones, we'll go to your tweets, we'll go to your messages and we'll talk about Isabel Allende's new novel and all the life experiences that went into it. I'm Tom Gjelten. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:01

    GJELTENHello, again. I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today. And it's my pleasure to have as my guest Isabel Allende, whose new novel is, "The Japanese Lover." And, Isabel, Ted has sent an email. "I assume that Spanish is Ms. Allende's first language, but would like to know if she writes in English or Spanish when creating her novels."

  • 11:40:24

    GJELTENWell, I think we know the answer to that. You have been asked about this many times. And you still write in Spanish. You've lived in the United States for a long time. And of course you speak English fluently. But you do write in Spanish.

  • 11:40:39

    ALLENDEWell, all the organic things in my life happen in Spanish and writing seems to be one of them. I can write a speech in English, but fiction happens in the womb, not in the brain. If I had to process it through dictionaries, I don't think I could be able to write so easily.

  • 11:41:01

    GJELTENDo you have any idea how many of your readers are reading you in English, as opposed to Spanish? And, of course, your books have been translated into many languages. But I'm interested in English versus Spanish.

  • 11:41:11

    ALLENDEWell, most of my readers read in Spanish because my books are first published in Spain. And then they go through all of Latin America. I don't know the numbers, really.

  • 11:41:23

    GJELTENDoes it bother you at all -- but you did have, obviously, a lot of readers in the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world. Does it bother you at all that so many readers are reading words that are not yours? How is it to, I mean, you just read the excerpt and you read it in English. Do you feel that those are your words? And how does it -- what is it like to know that so many of your readers are reading words that are not your own, actually?

  • 11:41:55

    ALLENDEWell, you know, language is like blood. It's very personal. And it's also particular to a certain culture. Sometimes -- let's say the word bread -- when Pablo Neruda writes a poem about bread, it has a different meaning from the same word in English. And we all know what bread is. But it has a much larger than life meaning in a country where there's poverty and where bread might not be available than in a country like the United States.

  • 11:42:28

    ALLENDESo of course the translation cannot be absolutely faithful to the original text. But often it's better. I feel that sometimes when I read a paragraph or two of my own work in English, I can read it with a distance of another language and I think it sounds better, actually.

  • 11:42:52

    GJELTENDo you go back and go through your English translations and change them, you know, if you find perhaps a phrase that was translated in not quite the way that you intended for it to be meant? Do you change things?

  • 11:43:03

    ALLENDEWhat -- sometimes it's lost in translation -- is irony, humor, which is also very particular to a culture. So I go very carefully through the English translation. That's the only one that I can read. And I talk to the translators and we adjust a few things. But usually I have very good translators.

  • 11:43:27

    GJELTENLet's go now to Vivian, who's on the line from Long Island, N.Y. Hello, Vivian. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:43:34

    VIVIANHello. Thank you so much for taking my call. It is so exciting for me to be speaking with Isabel Allende. I've loved your books. And I often use portions of your books in my Spanish -- high school Spanish classes because of the richness of your vocabulary. Can you hear me?

  • 11:43:55

    GJELTENYes, we're listening. We're listening, Vivian.

  • 11:43:56

    ALLENDEYes. Thanks. Oh, I'm listening.

  • 11:43:57

    VIVIANOkay. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. But on what you were just saying about translation, in 1997 my mother was fatally struck by a car as she was crossing the street. And…

  • 11:44:09

    ALLENDEOh, I'm sorry.

  • 11:44:10

    VIVIAN…all of the children came together. My brother was living in Paris at the time. And I came from New York. And when we arrived I was reading "Paula" in Spanish and my brother was reading "Paula" in English.

  • 11:44:25

    ALLENDEOh, wow.

  • 11:44:26

    VIVIANAnd we arrived there and my mother was in coma at the time. And we would read from our different "Paula" books when we were there at my mother's bedside. And…

  • 11:44:41

    ALLENDEOh, that's very moving.

  • 11:44:42

    VIVIAN…it was such a powerful link, which neither one of us knew that the other one was reading your book. And then a funny thing happened, I mean, you know, in the midst of all this tragedy. I had read about (unintelligible) in the book. And so had -- and I thought well maybe somebody might need this in all of that horror of the car accident. And so I bought some. And my brother came into my mother's bedroom where I was keeping things. And he said, oh, there's a funny smell here. And I said, actually that's the Valerian root.

  • 11:45:17

    GJELTENVivian, can I interrupt then because you're having a kind of private conversation with Isabel and I wanted to make sure our listeners know what you're talking about. You said now Paula was your daughter. And she got very sick. And she went into a coma and she died. And you wrote a book about her that's called "Paula," and that's what Vivian is talking about.

  • 11:45:37

    ALLENDEYes, yes.

  • 11:45:39

    GJELTENGo on, go ahead, Vivian. I just wanted to…

  • 11:45:42

    VIVIANYes. Your messages are so universal that -- and your themes are so important that no matter what language you read them in the richness of what you bring to the book, I think, transcends language. So thank you very much for the work you do.

  • 11:46:01

    ALLENDEThank you, Vivian.

  • 11:46:02

    VIVIANI'm a tremendous fan.

  • 11:46:03

    ALLENDEThank you. It is a very moving story. Thank you.

  • 11:46:07

    GJELTENAnd thank you, Vivian. Isabel, speaking of this experience, I think I read in an interview that you gave that your granddaughter was born shortly after your daughter passed away.

  • 11:46:19

    ALLENDEYes, yes.

  • 11:46:20

    GJELTENAnd you told your interviewer you had the extraordinary certainty that she was coming from another place -- this is your granddaughter -- the same place where my daughter had gone. And I just wanted her to tell me how is it over there. What is there? Where does the spirit go? That's a very -- you had a very spiritual thought at that moment. Can you talk about that a little bit?

  • 11:46:44

    ALLENDEWhen Paula died it was a long night. And I had -- I can't describe it. It was as if everything stopped. There was a stillness, a silence, an expectation of something in that room. And it was sort of painful and sacred and very mysterious. And when Paula died something left her body. My daughter was in a coma. She couldn't move. There was practically no difference between her in a vegetative state and her dead. However, something had happened. And then when my granddaughter was born, I could…

  • 11:47:32

    GJELTENHow much later was that?

  • 11:47:34

    ALLENDEOh, very, very soon after that. I held her in my hands, took her out of her mother and cut the umbilical cord. And that -- when I -- when she was coming out and before she could even breathe, I had the same feeling I had had when Paula died, that there was something sacred and mysterious and fantastic happening. And I wanted my granddaughter to tell me, before she could forget, how was it on the other side.

  • 11:48:05

    GJELTENWhere did you come from?

  • 11:48:07

    ALLENDEWhere do you come from? Where do you go afterward?

  • 11:48:11

    GJELTENThat's extraordinary. I want to go now to Amanda who is on the line from Elizabeth City, N.C. Hello, Amanda. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:48:21

    AMANDAHello. Thank you. I just wanted to -- I haven't read your novel yet, but I'm so excited to read it because what you said specifically about the Christmas tree and how we sort of decorate it ourselves was just so -- it just really spoke to me. I'm always reading different novels and different books and things to sort of get new perspectives on love, specifically, because I just find that topic very interesting.

  • 11:48:48

    AMANDAAnd I just -- I didn't know if maybe you thought that -- if there's a connection between how we can see somebody or something and just love it so much. And other people don't necessarily see what we see. And if that's connected to the fact that we sort of have created that and we can really sort of love what we create. And I just sort of thought about that just now from hearing your metaphor about the tree and the ornaments. And that just really spoke to me and I loved it. And I just wanted to say thank you. And today's my birthday, so that was a really good birthday present for me to hear you say that.

  • 11:49:18

    ALLENDEHappy birthday.

  • 11:49:19

    GJELTENWell, happy birthday.

  • 11:49:20

    AMANDAThank you.

  • 11:49:21

    GJELTENHappy birthday, Amanda.

  • 11:49:22

    ALLENDEHappy birthday. May I ask you…

  • 11:49:23

    AMANDAThank you. I just thought that was great. Yes?

  • 11:49:26

    ALLENDEMay I ask you a question? Are you in love right now?

  • 11:49:30

    AMANDAI'm not sure. I'm really not sure. I'm -- really -- I'm sort of searching what the means. I feel like I have been in the past and, you know, I've had some negative experiences, as well. And I just feel like it is such a major thing for a human to go through. And that also sort of connects to your saying that you just think that love is really what connects us and makes us human. And I just love that. And I think it's so true. And I'm just constantly sort of, you know, battling with is this real and did I create this, you know. And is it even worth it? And that sort of thing. And just turning 27…

  • 11:50:07


  • 11:50:08

    AMANDA…and never having been…

  • 11:50:09


  • 11:50:10

    AMANDA…married or anything like that it's a really interesting topic.

  • 11:50:11

    ALLENDEWell, good luck.

  • 11:50:12

    AMANDAThank you.

  • 11:50:13

    GJELTENWell, Amanda…

  • 11:50:14

    ALLENDEGood luck, good luck.

  • 11:50:15

    GJELTEN…if you've never been married and are only 27, you're gonna go -- you're gonna be asking these questions over and over throughout your life. Don't you think, Isabel?

  • 11:50:23

    ALLENDEOh, absolutely. Absolutely. It will happen many times.

  • 11:50:28

    GJELTENBut, yet, you haven't given up on love. I mean, you…

  • 11:50:29

    ALLENDEOh, I have not at all.

  • 11:50:31

    GJELTEN…say that, you know, that the Christmas tree, by that you mean your spouse or your partner, maybe begins to lose some of the sort of fascination that you had for it at one point.

  • 11:50:40

    ALLENDEWell, we separated. So this is the first time in my life that I live alone. And I have an open heart and I'm ready to fall in love again. I know that I will, again, do probably the Christmas tree thing, but it doesn't matter. And I'm willing to take the risk and plunge into adventure and love and it's fine. And if there is suffering involved, okay, I'll take it. But I want to live and be alive and be in love.

  • 11:51:07

    GJELTENNow, you said -- well, when you separated from your husband you moved out of the house in which you had lived, which was a big house, I understand. And you moved into a much smaller place.

  • 11:51:16


  • 11:51:17

    GJELTENIs this part of, you know, one of the things that you talk about in your book is the -- whether it's Alma or other people, the idea of getting rid of your possessions…

  • 11:51:27

    ALLENDELetting go.

  • 11:51:28

    GJELTEN…the simplifying your life.

  • 11:51:29

    ALLENDEAbsolutely. Simplify. There's so much weight in what we carry around in life, stuff, clutter. And now I'm living that wonderful experience of cleaning up, letting go, getting rid of the clutter, having just what is essential or what makes you really very happy because it's beautiful, and nothing else. So goodbye to the rugs, goodbye to the paintings, goodbye to the collections of books. It's fine to be in a contained, small space.

  • 11:52:08

    GJELTENDo you still have a little casita where you go to write?

  • 11:52:11

    ALLENDENo. Now, the whole casita is where I live. And I live there with my dog.

  • 11:52:17

    GJELTENWell, Isabel, it's been such a pleasure to talk to you. We, I wish we had talked more about your book because your novel has a lot of suspense in it. There are a lot of unanswered questions. Review for us, some of the questions -- a couple of the questions that, you know, that you -- that reader doesn't find about until the end.

  • 11:52:42

    ALLENDEWell, one question would be, what does Alma do? Why does she possibly meet this lover in secret? What is the secret and why? Irina has her own secret. What happened in her past that she has become this person who cannot connect to anybody and cannot look at anybody in the eye? What happened between Alma and her husband Nathaniel? What happens at the end of the book when Alma leaves this world? I think it's a -- all those secrets are like in the book. But they are all answered in the book.

  • 11:53:26

    GJELTENWell, they're not all answered, Isabel, because there's enough mystery, even at the end of the book, that it's sort of leaves -- it left me wondering about some things. I think you'd have to agree that not all the questions are answered.

  • 11:53:39

    ALLENDENo, that's true.

  • 11:53:41

    GJELTENIsabel Allende is the author of "The Japanese Lover." I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go now to Jeff, who's on the line from Indianapolis, Ind. Hello, Jeff. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:53:57

    JEFFThank you. Thank you, Tom. And thank you, Isabel. First of all, I wanted to thank Isabel for having female characters that are intelligent. That's so important. But…

  • 11:54:07

    ALLENDEThat's cute.

  • 11:54:09

    JEFFBut, you know, I write for a living, but it's more news releases and speeches and such. But in my spare time I write plays and poems. And I want to ask your experience. 'Cause sometimes I'll sit down and nothing will come. And then it's like all of a sudden it hits me. And I hear my characters talking to me. And I learn from my characters things I didn't know. Do you experience something like that?

  • 11:54:35

    ALLENDEAbsolutely. I start my books with no script, with a vague idea of where and when things will happen. And then the characters slowly walk out of the woodwork and the story starts to unfold. And they always surprise me. They -- one thing leads to the other that was totally unexpected for me. And, but I also have to admit that sometimes when I need a certain character, I look for a human model that I can use to create the character. Let me give you an example.

  • 11:55:10

    ALLENDEI -- when I was writing "Ripper," which is a crime novel, I needed a soldier. And I couldn't -- I don't know anything about the military. But I was very fortunate. And one of the Navy SEALS that was -- that killed Osama bin Laden was willing to talk to me. So I came to Washington and talked to him for three days. And got to -- it's not what the story -- the story that he told me. It's not the medals that he showed me or the photographs.

  • 11:55:37

    ALLENDEIt was his body language, his haircut, his hands, his apartment. What did he have in his bathroom cabinet? How -- what color were his sheets -- not that I went into his bed, but I went into his bedroom. So all that is so important. Sometimes you have to look for the character.

  • 11:55:56

    GJELTENNow how is it that you got one of the Navy SEALS who was involved in killing bin Laden to talk to you?

  • 11:56:03

    ALLENDEIt -- because I swore -- and I have kept the secret -- that his identity would never be revealed.

  • 11:56:07

    GJELTENBut was he a fan? Did he approach you?

  • 11:56:10

    ALLENDENo. I approached him through a person that was from his family.

  • 11:56:14

    GJELTENThat's amazing. We have Claire, from Houston, Texas, called us a few minutes ago. And she wanted to thank you. We don't have time to get to her call. But she wonders if you're coming to Houston for a book signing. I actually have a list of your upcoming book signings, Isabel. I don't see Houston on here. But I do see you're going to be in Washington, D.C., this Friday, November 13th.

  • 11:56:42

    ALLENDEI'm going to Texas. But I don't remember which city.

  • 11:56:44

    GJELTENYou're going to Austin. You're going to Austin, Texas…

  • 11:56:46

    ALLENDEAustin, okay.

  • 11:56:47

    GJELTEN…next Monday, November 16th. You're also gonna be in Kansas City and Albuquerque and in Phoenix. So you are doing quite an extensive book tour. And you…

  • 11:56:56


  • 11:56:57

    GJELTEN…must enjoy it or you wouldn't be doing it.

  • 11:56:59

    ALLENDENobody enjoys the traveling. I enjoy meeting my readers. That's the fun part. But the traveling, getting in planes every day, that's not fun.

  • 11:57:10

    GJELTENWell, it's a lot of work being a really successful author, isn't it?

  • 11:57:13

    ALLENDEActually, no.

  • 11:57:15


  • 11:57:16

    ALLENDEBecause I spend most of time alone in a room doing what I love. This promotion is once every two years.

  • 11:57:25

    GJELTENAnd come January 8th, you always being your books on January 8th. I'm guessing you're gonna be writing again.

  • 11:57:30


  • 11:57:31

    GJELTENIsabel Allende -- yes, right? Isabel Allende is the author of "The Japanese Lover," her new book. I'm Tom Gjelten. Thank you, Isabel. Thanks for listening.

  • 11:57:40

    ALLENDEThank you, Tom. Thank you, Tom.

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