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Originally published June 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 1, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Theater

This old "House" opened a lot of doors for Isabel Allende

Gracious and sunny over the phone, the Chilean-born, California-based author said she never expected such a stellar literary career.

Seattle Times theater critic

Theater preview


"The House of the Spirits," based on the book by Isabel Allende, previews Tuesday-Thursday, opens June 8 and runs through June 24, presented by Book-It Repertory Theatre at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; $15-$40 (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).

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"I wrote that book exactly 25 years ago. It's now the 25th anniversary of the book in Spanish. It opened the door for all my other books."

That is Isabel Allende talking about her breakthrough 1982 novel, "The House of the Spirits." The panoramic work chronicles the historical, mystical and the psychological forces in the life of a South American clan. And a play based on the international best-seller debuts next week in Seattle.

"House of the Spirits" was the gateway to a stellar literary career that now includes 17 works (memoirs, novels, short-story collections) by Allende. They've been translated into 30 languages, and sold more than 51 million copies.

Gracious and sunny over the phone, the Chilean-born, California-based author said she never expected such a career. "When I wrote 'House of the Spirits,' I really did not know what I was doing," she says.

"I was living in exile in Venezuela. I had no experience in literature, never studied it. I was a good reader and had done some journalism."

Theater preview


"The House of the Spirits," based on the book by Isabel Allende, previews Tuesday-Thursday, opens June 8 and runs through June 24, presented by Book-It Repertory Theatre at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; $15-$40 (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).

The book, she explains, "started out as a letter to my grandfather. Then it suddenly shifted into this novel.

"I was so ignorant about these things. I was just having fun! I needed to tell the story. I wrote it on a little portable typewriter, back when you had to make carbons of everything."

Despite the huge success of "The House of the Spirits," Allende hasn't re-read it, or any of her books after publication. ("No! Never! What if I found mistakes I couldn't fix?")

Yet when Seattle's Book-It Repertory Theatre came knocking, Allende happily agreed to let it adapt "House of the Spirits."

"I trust that they've invested so much talent, work and time into it," she says. "They are doing so much and trying so hard. They're celebrating the book."

Allende (who wrote a few plays herself, long ago) was especially impressed that the show will feature 18 actors in some 75 roles.

Adapter-director Myra Platt notes that even with the big cast, it's very tricky compressing a narrative that covers three generations of a Chilean clan inspired by Allende's own family.

"I did have to cut some characters and their stories," says Platt, "but I've tried to preserve what I hope will give a sense of the fabric of the novel."

The book has been dramatized several other times — most famously in a 1993 film with a star-studded cast (Meryl Streep, Vanessa Redgrave, Jeremy Irons).

"I liked it, and it's done well on DVD," says Allende. "But Hispanic actors in L.A. complained it was a Latin American film, with non-Latin actors playing most of the big roles."

Platt says nearly half of her cast members are Latino, but feels Allende's story "has a lot of universality."

"House of the Spirits" does reference, however, the turmoil in Chile during the 1970s.

In 1973, Allende's socialist uncle, Chilean President Salvador Allende, was deposed in a military coup, during which he committed suicide.

A brutal military regime led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet took over. And Isabel Allende was among many who fled to political exile. Two characters in the novel resemble her famed uncle: The Candidate and The President.

Since 1988, Allende has lived in the Bay Area, writing and lecturing prodigiously. (In 2003, Seattle Public Library honored her with a "Seattle Reads Isabel Allende" celebration.)

Her next book is a memoir, "The Sum of Our Days." It comes out in the U.S. next year and looks at her recent life with her immediate family, which includes her grown son, Nicolas; second husband, William Gordon; and several grandchildren. (A daughter, Paula, died in 1992 after a short illness; Allende established the Isabel Allende Foundation in her honor and wrote a 1995 memoir, "Paula," about the experience of losing her daughter.)

"This was the most difficult book I've written," Allende confided about "The Sum of Our Days." "I had to run things by my family. And you know what? Everyone has their own different version of reality."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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