Just as we had our tremor in Napa, California, I got this letter from Isabel who is in Chile visiting her parents:

Dear ones,
The latest earthquake, (6.4) hit near Santiago when I was with a friend in the tiny elevator of my parent’s old building. The building suffered some damage in the 2010 earthquake, one of the biggest ever recorded, that also provoked a spectacular tsunami. The building is a little slanted, just a little, but enough to alter the alignment of the elevator. Imagine the scene: no electricity, pitch dark and we, stuck in the elevator screaming for help, while it rattled against the walls with terrible noise. It was like being inside a tolling bell. In the meantime, my parents – 94 and 98 years old – were alone in their apartment in total darkness. Chileans keep calm in geological catastrophes, I think they even enjoy them. Nobody panics, everybody helps… we love drama! My parents held hands and prayed, while all the males in the building volunteered to rescue us. There is no emergency device for this prehistoric elevator, so they had to move it manually from the top and finally, when it reached the fourth floor, they could open the door a foot or so. It was high, but we crawled out and fell in the strong arms of our heroes. All this was achieved in only half an hour with one flashlight and two candles. Now I take the stairs. This is my workout: eight floors up and down the stairs several times a day.


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Amy and Isabel

Isabel and Amy at the Americas Society in New York City, April 15, 2014, just before Isabel received the Gabriela Mistral award. Photograph by Elsa Ruiz, courtesy of the Americas Society.

Isabel and Amy at the Americas Society in New York City, April 15, 2014, just before Isabel received the Gabriela Mistral award. Photograph by Elsa Ruiz, courtesy of the Americas Society.

We all love Amy Goodman and the folks at Democracy Now!, a progressive and independently syndicated daily newscast, which airs on Pacifica Radio here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Focusing on topics largely ignored by the mainstream media, the nonprofit Democracy Now! starts with a 15-minute wrap-up called the “War and Peace Report,” which is translated daily into Spanish. Amy is the host and executive producer of the award-winning program.

P.S. Democracy Now!’s website is also available in Spanish.

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The Next 20 Years

from the left: Nicolas Frias, Elizabeth Share, Isabel Allende, Sarah Kessler, Chandra Ramirez and Lori Barra in the front row

The Cast of The Isabel Allende Foundation—from the left, back row: Nicolas Frias, Elizabeth Share, Isabel Allende, Sarah Kessler, Chandra Ramirez and Lori Barra in the front row

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Isabel Allende Foundation, which Isabel launched in honor her daughter Paula, who died in 1992 at age 28. Twenty years is a big deal, and Lori, who runs the Foundation, thought now might be a good time for all of us at the office to sneak away for a Calistoga weekend retreat with Isabel to discuss what the Foundation’s next 20 years will look like (well…at least the next few years). It’s all very exciting, especially when you realize that the Foundation’s grant awards have grown 1,000 percent over that almost-20-year period. One thousand percent! Pretty impressive…

People are always asking Isabel about Paula (her daughter), Paula (the memoir) and the Foundation, so before we head out of town for our retreat, I wanted to post a response she gave during a recent Q&A:

Writing Paula, a memoir about my daughter, kept me from going crazy after she died. I cried a lot while writing that memoir, but my tears were healing; writing was my way of mourning. After the book was finished, I felt that my daughter was alive in my heart, her memory preserved. And the response of the readers worldwide has been incredible; I receive messages almost daily from people who are reading the book. Paula touched people all over the world, and it was a very successful book. But from the beginning I kept all the income from the book separate from everything else. I knew I wanted to use the money to honor Paula; I just wasn’t sure how. Three years after writing the book, I came up with the idea of establishing a foundation in my daughter’s memory. Paula was passionate about helping the disadvantaged, particularly women and girls, and the Isabel Allende Foundation is guided by our shared vision of a world in which women have achieved social and economic justice. Of course, social and economic justice for all is easier said than done. Although the foundation has grown in scope over the years, the world is filled with hardship and deprivation, and what we do is just a drop in a vast ocean of need. As a result, over the years I have learned that it is most effective to focus our efforts on specific, achievable goals, and so the foundation supports nonprofit organizations dedicated to providing women and girls worldwide with reproductive self-determination, healthcare, and education, as well as protection from violence, exploitation and discrimination.


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Perfect, Sarah, You Are A Genius!

Isabel in one of her debutante dresses, getting her high school degree.

Isabel in one of her debutante dresses, getting her high school degree.

I made the title of this blog “Perfect, Sarah, You Are A Genius!” because ordinarily when Isabel speaks to me, even in email, it goes more like: “Sarah, you look like a hippie! At least make an effort!”

Here is why I am a genius, at least according to Isabel. During a recent research mission, Isabel asked me to find out about debutantes in San Francisco, circa 1950. After Googling the subject and making a few phone calls. I dug up some vintage photos and a fine place to hold a ball—both in terms of history and style—and it made her happy. Not my appearance, mind you, but my work. That was a nice moment. Perhaps to reward me, Isabel included this debutante story:

I was a debutante once. I am not kidding. And I had the most gorgeous white satin gown. For my second ball I had an aquamarine gown with rubber lining for fake breasts because mine were too small. When dancing, the boy held me tight and the rubber things were pushed in and became concave. I looked at my chest in horror. I took a deep breath, trying to push them out. And out they came—with the most embarrassing POP!

Occasionally you need to pat yourself on the back. I learned this from hanging around my daughter’s third grade classroom. When the kids know the answer to a question, they pat themselves on the back to acknowledge their feat, all without interrupting the lesson. I know I am interrupting myself here, but oh well…At least you get a charming story from Isabel that otherwise would not have been told!

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Sweet Guest Blog

Today I have a treat for you: a blog post written by Isabel’s new assistant, our very own Chandra Ramirez! Chandra recently spent a day in San Francisco with Isabel, who was filming an introduction to Dulce Rosa, an opera based on one of her short stories. After they returned to the office and Chandra began to fill us in on the day’s events, I had an idea: “That sounds like a blog post, Dapper Dan!” Here, then, is the story of their adventure, direct from Chandra:


As you may remember, an opera based on “Una Venganza” (“An Act of Vengeance”), one of Isabel’s short stories, saw its world premiere May 17, 2013, at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Entitled Dulce Rosa, the two-act opera by composer Lee Holdridge and librettist Richard Sparks was directed by Kenneth Shapiro and—very exciting!—conducted by Placido Domingo. (Read about Isabel and Willie’s attendance at the opera’s premiere here.)

After Dulce Rosa’s three-week run, the producers requested that Isabel film an introduction to the opera that they could take on the road. (Think Laura Linney introducing Downton Abbey on PBS.) So a couple of weeks ago Isabel and I were picked up in a fancy black town car and driven across the Golden Gate Bridge to a very hip film studio in San Francisco. There was a green screen, a best boy, a gaffer, sound guys, camera people, etc. You get the picture: a whole lot of running around and yelling of action, cut and the like.

There was also Miles Berdache, Isabel’s make-up artist of choice, whom I got to meet for the first time. He is brilliant with his brushes, pots and potions, but more important, he is a genuinely nice guy. Not only is he active with the Soroptimists, an organization that helps women and children around the world, but he also volunteers at a local hospital by giving free massages to oncology patients. Miles was on the ready the whole afternoon, dashing in to take the shine off of Isabel’s nose or freshen her lipstick. As you can imagine, Isabel adores him. If you have an event coming up and need some fancy make-up done, check him out here

That is Miles taking off the shine. He's a sweetheart.

That is Miles taking off the shine. He’s a sweetheart.

The whole shoot took about three hours and Isabel was as charming and gorgeous as always, summarizing Dulce Rosa on film for people like me who go to the opera and have no idea what’s going on. She did the scenes in both English and Spanish and kept the crew laughing with her self-deprecating humor. Isabel insisted she was not an actress, but those of us in the office know better. She is a consummate performer.

If you’re lucky, Dulce Rosa will be coming to a city near you. We’ll post dates and locations once we know them. 


And here we are Chandra and me enjoying a nice Summer day.



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Isabel’s Summer Reading List

Book Passage, in Corte Madera, Calif., has been Isabel’s favorite bookstore for 26 years. It’s like an extension of her home and office: there she has a mailbox, she does press interviews, she meets readers and other writers, and she teaches at conferences. All her book tours start with an event at Book Passage. The staff knows her well and chooses the best books and audiobooks for her. I try to order books from Book Passage before I look elsewhere—before I look to the “river in Brazil,” for instance. Here is Isabel’s summer reading list, which was compiled with help from Book Passage owners Elaine and Bill Petrocelli.


All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr

After she lost her sight at age six, Marie-Laure’s father made her a scale model of their pre-World War II Paris neighborhood. She learned every nook and cranny with her fingers, knowledge that enabled their escape a few years later when the Germans occupied the city. At the seaside village where she and her father fled, Marie meets Werner, a German officer trained to be merciless as he searches for members of the French Resistance. Their story shows what can happen when good people encounter evil.


Love and Treasure

Ayelet Waldman

As Jack is dying, he shows his lawyer granddaughter a jewel-encrusted pendant and begs her to find the rightful owner. Jack was an Army officer in charge of guarding the so-called Hungarian Gold Train at the end of World War II–a train filled with treasures taken from Hungarian Jews on their way to concentration camps. Grounded in history, this exciting novel is full of twists and compelling characters.



Ruth Reichl

A food critic, memoirist, editor, and now novelist, Ruth Reichl brings us Billie, a young woman who lands her dream job at the revered food magazine, Delicious. When the magazine suddenly closes (remember the day Condé Nast killed Gourmet?), Billie is asked to stay on to answer questions from readers. Exploring the defunct magazine’s library, she finds a trove of old letters from a reader to the late James Beard, famous chef and food writer, and a mystery is unlocked.



Lily King

It’s the 1930s and Nell Stone, who has already written a famous book on the erotic habits of the children of a New Guinea tribe, returns to the island continue her research. The fictional characters are loosely based on Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson. Anthropology, sex, a bullying husband and an irresistible lover make King’s Euphoria a treasure.


We Are Called to Rise

Laura McBride

Contemporary Las Vegas is the setting for this outstanding first novel told in the very different voices of two women, an immigrant boy in elementary school and a damaged veteran of the Iraq war. A marriage falls apart, the boy’s Albanian family can’t figure out how to exist in an alien environment and the veteran must confront his demons. These unforgettable characters refuse to go away even after you finish the book.


China Dolls

Lisa See

As World War II begins, three friends find themselves competing for one showgirl role at San Francisco Chinatown’s exclusive nightclub The Forbidden City. Ruby is Japanese and desperate to pass as Chinese so she won’t be sent to a Japanese internment camp, Grace has fled her abusive Mid-western family, and Helen, who grew up in Chinatown, hides her own secret. The author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan beautifully explores the intricacies of friendship.


We Were Liars

E. Lockhart (written for teenagers but adults are loving this gem)

A distinguished family is vacationing on a private Massachusetts island when something happens to the teenage daughter. Each morning when she wakes up, she can’t remember anything that happened before. One thing becomes clear: this family is living in its own mythology. We Were Liars is mystery page-turner that will keep you up all night.


Under the Egg

Laura Marx Fitzgerald  (For 8 to 12 year olds but adults will enjoy it too)

Theodora lives in a 200-year-old townhouse with her fragile mother and her grandfather’s legacy: $463 and a rather mundane painting of an egg. When Theo discovers that there is a masterpiece hidden behind the picture of the egg, she realizes grandfather, who was a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wasn’t who she thought he was. This adventure into the secret world of art will fascinate kids and make them want to take you to the museum.


Cathedral of the Wild

Boyd Varty

A story of transformation that inspires a great appreciation for the beauty and order of the natural world. With conviction, hope and humor, Varty makes a passionate claim for the power of the wild to restore the human spirit. A memoir about growing up in a wildlife conservation park in South Africa and in the Varty family, who are as wild as the wonderful animals they protect.

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First Graduation

Isabel sent me this note from Southern California where she attended her first grandkid’s graduation:


Andy Frias (or Mana, as I have always called her) is the first of my grandchildren to graduate. And she did it with honors! The rest of the family and I were very proud of Mana and happy to be together after months of separation. The whole tribe met at the ceremony in Pitzer. Alejandro and Sabrina are also studying in the area, Nicole traveled from New York, Lori, Nico, Celia, Sally and I from Marin County, etc. Cali, Alejandro’s girlfriend, and Devin, Nicole’s boyfriend, also attended. Devin interrupted for a day and a night his hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to Canada; he has already walked 500 miles and will be hiking until the end of September. The extended family and friends filled two rows of chairs and screamed to their hearts’ content when Mana, with her white and orange gown and her bright pink hair (not a wig) received her diploma.


The speaker, Van Jones, environmental and civil rights activist was absolutely great. He was profound, funny and inspirational. He talked about facts versus truth; ego versus soul; and fate versus destiny. As an activist, he has been in situations in which all the economic and political facts were against him, but he fought for the right cause – truth – and he won. He said that his ego got very big when he was working with Obama at the White House, and then it was smashed by hateful press from Fox News; but he recovered his energy and his vision when he could do his work from the soul. The soul cannot be smashed. He explained that fate is what we are given at birth, like race, gender, nationality, health or disabilities, etc. and often we cannot change it. But each one of us also has destiny. A tiny acorn’s destiny is to become an oak tree. Like the acorn, we can fulfill our destiny or not. That is our life’s work. At the end he told the graduates: don’t let the facts discourage you, search for the truth; keep your ego small and your soul big; whatever your fate may be, go out in the world and fulfill your destiny.

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Roses for Paula

I just received the following note from Isabel and it is so sweet that had to share it with you all:


Dear Sarah,

Twenty years ago my friend Pia Leiva planted a rose tree in her garden in Chimbarongo, in Chile, in memory of my daughter Paula. She gave me a graft and I planted it in my garden in California, where it grew into a healthy and lovely tree. Every year, when the first rose blooms, she dries the petals and sends them to me for my altar. Now it is autumn in Chile and her roses are dormant, but mine are coming out, so in every season there are pink roses for Paula somewhere in the world. Thank you, Pia…


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Random Q+A for Isabel

Isabel in Garden of Hope, San Dominican School May 1st 2014

Isabel in Garden of Hope, San Domenico School May 1st 2014. We got to dine with a sister and feasted on food from the garden!

I recently asked Isabel to tell me about the last three books she read and loved. Here are her answers:

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose is a fascinating historical novel set in Paris before and during the Second World War. I liked the way Prose weaves several different stories and characters to create a rich tapestry of a very interesting time.

Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 11.01.26 AM

Another book I loved is Dirty Love, by André Dubus III. Disturbing and sexually explicit stories by a great writer. Each story is haunting; I couldn’t get them out of my mind for weeks.


The third book I have to mention is El héroe discreto by Mario Vargas Llosa (in Spanish). As a matter of faith, I read everything that Vargas Llosa writes and I am almost never disappointed. Set in Peru, this is a story of blackmail, betrayed love, courage and fate.


(It’s hard to get Isabel to sit still more than once in a great while, so since I had her in front of me, I decided to throw in a few more questions):

What’s your favorite fan story? Can you tell me about a memorable fan/reader experience?

I have been writing for 33 years and I have very loyal readers who write to me frequently. Every day I get dozens of messages from all over the world. It would be impossible to choose a favorite story.

If you could spend a week with any writer, living or dead, who would it be and why?

I would not want to spend a week with anybody except my husband and my dogs. A dead writer in his or her coffin would be my choice, but if I name the person it might bring bad luck. Evil eye, as they say. Wow! I just remembered Mark Twain. I could spend several weeks with him, he was funny, exuberant, great storyteller, handsome and sexy.

What are some of the best questions you have been asked either by journalists, fans or readers?

Some of the best questions I have heard over the years:

1)    Are you going to keep writing? Why? Isn’t it time to retire?

2)    Why don’t you write an erotic novel before it’s too late?

3)    Could you give me an idea for a novel and introduce me to your publishers?

What does success mean to you? Do you think you are successful?

I think I am successful as a writer and not so much as a person. I still have much to learn and grow emotionally and spiritually.  I wish I could also grow physically….Success for me means that I don’t have to worry about being published, that nobody edits my books or tries to tell me what to write, that I am my own boss, that I can make a living and support many people with my work. Success happens in an external circle.  Inside, I am the same person I was before. I know who I am, I am still in my skin, I do not rest on my laurels.

When are you happiest?

My happiest moment of the day is at dawn, meditating in bed (“beditating”) while scratching Dulce’s belly. (Dulce is one of my dogs.)

I am happy when I write, when I make love and when I have the feeling that I have done something good for somebody. Being generous makes me happy.

Dulcinea the beauty

Dulcinea the beauty

Recently, when I was with you on a book research mission, we met some dear older people at a retirement community. I was so touched at the end of our meeting when one of the women said, “Find what makes you happy and feed it.” What is it that you are feeding?

Storytelling. I was at the senior community researching a novel—that is, I was feeding what makes me happy.

What gets cut when you write? Is there a big pile on the floor of paragraphs and passages that don’t make the grade…and can I have them??

Sarah, don’t be silly. I write on a computer. How would I know how much is changed, cut, pasted, moved, etc.?  Only when I have told the whole story do I print it; then I correct on paper and go back to the computer. There are very few printed drafts, but thousands of virtual ones.

Just for fun, if you were to choose the cast for a movie adaptation of Ripper, who would you pick to play the part of Amanda? What about Ryan? Indiana? Blake?

Please ask somebody else this question.

So, if you are reading this I will ask you. Who should be cast for the movie Ripper? I have some ideas. It’s fun to think about, send your suggestions in a comment.

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I learned about the Center for Early Intervention on Deafness (CEID) from my 8-year-old daughter, who spent the fall visiting the school with her 3rd grade class. I was so impressed when I realized she was learning a lot of sign language, and was curious to learn more. So when I heard that CEID was hosting an informational open house one Saturday, my daughter and I, along with Lori, headed over for a visit.

CEID is a beautiful little school. Located just across the Bay in a sunny pocket of Berkeley, CEID teaches communication skills to children who are deaf or who have profound hearing loss, as well as to their families. Early intervention—within the first five years—is crucial in maximizing the communication potential of hearing-impaired children, and gives them a foundation that can set them up successfully for the rest of their lives.

CEID is pretty holistic in that it provides a mix of services, from the Outpatient Newborn Hearing Screenings to parent and child classes that enhance communication and sign language skills. If you have a minute, take a look at their site and see the work they do; you might also want to check out the link to their donation page and the link to their wish list.

Nan, the beautiful service dog and helper, at CEID with a few of the kids.

Nan, the beautiful service dog and helper, at CEID with a few of the kids.


Here are some photos I took of our recent visit (our second one; my lucky daughter got to take the morning off from school to revisit this bright little spot in the world!). We had a great time and fell in love with the staff and the kids. That pretty yellow lab is Nan, a service dog/staff member at CEID and a recent graduate of Canine Companions for Independence (another organization we LOVE!).

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