At Home with the Spirits

At Home with the Spirits

Isabel Allende Portrait

Inner sanctum: A small room within Isabel Allende’s writing casita was designed for meeting with her prayer group and is filled with books and meaningful objects. Photo: Lori Barra

Lori Barra

In the course of researching and writing 19 books, Isabel Allende has roamed from the porn shops of San Francisco’s Castro District (Aphrodite) to the heart of the Amazon (City of the Beasts), and conjured everything from post-colonial South America (The House of the Spirits) to the California Gold Rush (Daughter of Fortune).

Thus it comes as no surprise that her home in San Rafael, California, is populated with evocative objects acquired along the way – a 17th-century polychrome saint, smiling beatifically; a 10-foot Amazonian blowgun embellished with bright green parrot feathers; a fan’s tribute wrought in the form of a trompe l’oeil book whose handmade paper pages spill over with amulets. Each provokes a memory and provides a jumping-off point for yet another story – a litany of tales at once fantastical and true.

I was surprised to learn that you are a dedicated beader. Like many people, I think of words as your medium and can’t imagine how your writing, travels, and humanitarian work allow time for other métiers.
I’m actually very crafty. I can sew. I can knit. And I paint, especially when my mother comes to visit. This is a very Chilean thing, by the way. Before the age of technology and cell phones, it was considered not very feminine to be sitting down and doing nothing. So you would be visiting at someone’s house, or drinking in a bar, and also, say, knitting. It’s part of the culture to make things.

Your necklaces are so vibrant, and seem to glow with a mix of new and vintage stones. How did you get interested in beading?
Well, that is a story. It all started soon after I came to the United States, around 25 years ago. I went to the hairdresser because I wanted to dye my hair purple.

Of course.
Of course. So the hairdresser said, ‘Oh, that would look good on you. I have only one other client with purple hair,’ who turned out to be this jewelry designer named Tabra. And she told Tabra that she had met a woman from Chile, a writer who also wanted to have her hair dyed purple. And Tabra asked, ‘Would that be Isabel Allende? If so, I must meet her, because The House of the Spirits is the most important book I have ever read.’

Soon I got a call from my hairdresser saying there was someone who wanted to see me. So I stopped by and I happened to be wearing a pair of earrings that this woman had made. When Tabra saw my earrings – and I learned that she had read my books – we became close friends and she started teaching me how to bead. We have traveled all over — to India and Guatemala — and she takes me around to gem fairs to hunt for more beads.

It sounds like a plot from one of your novels. Speaking of which, I see boxes of beads here in your casita where you do your writing.
It works out quite well. I write here at my desk, and when I feel tired or stuck in a scene, I just turn my chair around to this table and bead for a while and completely forget about the book. Beading requires a lot of attention. If you miss one bead, you have to start all over again. That clears my mind so I can go back to the writing. It’s like a form of therapy.

This is a very personal space; every object resonates with memories and associations. Your daughter, Paula, died when she was only 29, and there are the rag dolls you made for her when you were pregnant.
Of course at the time there were no sonograms, but I had a dream and I knew she was going to be a girl and that she would be called Paula. When she fell sick in Madrid and I brought her back to the United States, I went to her apartment to pick up some clothes and I saw the dolls sitting on her bed. They reminded me of this overwhelming love I felt for her even before she was born, and now they’re in my office where I can see them every day.

Who taught you how to make them?
Among the many things I used to write about for magazines in Chile was decoration and home furnishings, and this is when I met the woman who was to become my best friend. Her name is Pia Leiva, and she would show me how to create these craft projects, so I could describe it to the readers.

Pia is my soul sister. Although we could not be more different – in our politics, our religion, and the way we live – she has the best heart I’ve ever encountered. She’s funny and so generous. She had been living in Guatemala for some time before I met her, where they have the most beautiful crafts and embroidered fabrics. I think that’s where she acquired some of the freedom with which she combines colors and puts things together.

I’m reminded of the beautiful green-haired Rosa from The House of the Spirits, embroidering her tablecloth with magical creatures …
Yes. Pia is always, always making something. In my house I have three gorgeous icons she hand-embroidered and pieced together with bits of fabric and buttons and little beads. And whenever she visits I gather old scraps of fabric and she turns them into beautiful patchwork bags and purses.

In the shrine I made for Paula, which is inside an old Indian chest that I painted, there are pictures of Pia and her husband, along with a lots of other photos and objects … a tie that Paula gave to [my husband] Willie [Gordon], a cross made out of nails by Chilean prisoners in a concentration camp, and a dried rose. When Paula died, Pia planted a rosebush at her house in the country in Chile where she lives, and every year she sends me the first bloom.

But the most important thing about Pia is that she’s magical. She sees ghosts – and therefore she’s full of stories. So half the crazy stories in my books come from Pia. Every time I visit her I take notes, because she comes up with the craziest things.

With a friend like that, you really don’t need an imagination!

Deborah Bishop is a writer and editor in San Francisco.