Author Interviews
4:04 pm
Sat January 25, 2014

The Mystery Of Isabel Allende: Author Explores New Genre

Originally published on Sat January 25, 2014 6:53 pm

Isabel Allende planned to retire in 2011. Instead, she wrote a murder mystery.

The New York Times bestselling author is known for her unique style that blends historical reportage, memoir and literature. Her books have sold over 60 million copies and are translated into more than 35 languages.

Coming out this month, Ripper is Allende's first foray into the thriller genre. The novel takes place in San Francisco, and centers on Amanda, a teen sleuth hooked on crime novels and a macabre online game called Ripper. When a rash of killings strikes the city and her mother disappears, Amanda takes it upon herself to investigate, and is drawn into a dangerous mystery.


Interview Highlights

On research

I went to a mystery writers conference ... and I learned a lot not only from the faculty — and in the faculty we had forensic doctors, detectives, policemen, experts in guns, etc. — but from the questions of the students. For example, if I inject my victim with a blood thinner and I stab the victim 13 times and then I hang the victim upside down in the shower, would the blood congeal in the bathtub? I would never come up with that kind of question or that kind of situation. But if you ask me now ... I am an expert. I can kill anybody and not be caught.

On writing in a new genre

The book is tongue in cheek. It's very ironic ... and I'm not a fan of mysteries, so to prepare for this experience of writing a mystery I started reading the most successful ones in the market in 2012. ... And I realized I cannot write that kind of book. It's too gruesome, too violent, too dark; there's no redemption there. And the characters are just awful. Bad people. Very entertaining, but really bad people. So I thought, I will take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but it is a joke. My sleuth will not be this handsome detective or journalist or policeman or whatever. It will be a young, 16-year-old nerd. My female protagonist will not be this promiscuous, beautiful, dark-haired, thin lady. It will be a plump, blond, healer, and so forth.

On San Francisco, the novel's setting and Allende's home

Twenty-six years ago I was passing by on a book tour without any hope of ever staying in San Francisco. But I met a guy, very exotic to me — he was blonde with blue eyes — and I just had a fling that turned out to be love. I moved to San Francisco to spend a week with him and get him out of my system; I'm still here 26 years later. Now I'm stuck with a husband.

On adapting Ripper for the screen

Let's not talk about Hollywood. ... They want the rights to do the movie and everything else they can think of, forever. There's no limit to the contract — 'In this universe and universes to be discovered' — I'm not making this up: This is in the contract. And they also want the copyright of the characters, so I lose my characters, and if I want to repeat them in another book I have to pay them a royalty. Give me a break.

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.

Isabel Allende is known for her wildly popular novels full of strong women and magical realism. But her new book, "Ripper," is different. It's a grisly murder mystery about a brilliant young girl on the path of a serial killer. The regular host of this program, Arun Rath, sat down with Isabel Allende last week. She began by describing her main character, Amanda, inspired by her own granddaughter.

ISABEL ALLENDE: A nerd, with a hood, beautiful without knowing that she was beautiful and playing games online. And one of the games she would play was Ripper. And this is a role-playing game in which the players create a character around - avatar - that has weaknesses, flaws and skills. So with those skills and limitations, they play the game. And their whole idea is to catch Jack the Ripper in London 1888. So I just moved the action to San Francisco 2012 for the kids to find the real murder in real crimes.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's interesting you mention your granddaughter because it's a very kind of young world of online sleuths and people cracking codes and that kind of thing.

ALLENDE: Well, I'm surrounded by young people. You know, I'm always now the oldest and the shortest person in the room.

(LAUGHTER)

ALLENDE: There's nothing good about it. I carry around a little stool to stand on when people want a picture with their cellular phones.

RATH: But that must give you a certain perspective though, right?

ALLENDE: Yeah, a very low perspective.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: So this book, a thriller, is not something that we really would associate with Isabel Allende, and it opens with a kind of a compelling cliffhanger. What led you to a thriller?

ALLENDE: It wasn't my idea. In 2011, I announced that I was going to retire, and my agent panicked. So she says: No, no, no. You have to write a book with your husband. My husband is a writer of crime novels. His name is William Gordon. And so I had to accommodate to his style because that what's he writes. So we decided we'd give it a try. Well, we almost divorced. We ended up fighting like dogs, because he has an attention span of, let's say, 11 minutes, and he writes in English.

I can write for 11 hours, and I write in Spanish. I research. He invents. So we ended up fighting because I was sure that I would end up writing the book while he would get half the credit. Not a good deal for me.

RATH: How did you strike the balance between research and imagination and your warring approaches?

ALLENDE: I research and I study. I went to a mystery writer's conference at Book Passage, here in Marin County where I live. And I learned a lot from - not only from the faculty - and in the faculty, we had forensic doctors, detectives, policemen, experts in guns, et cetera - but from the questions of the students.

For example, if I inject my victim with a blood thinner and I stab the victim 13 times and then I hang the victim upside down in the shower, would the blood congeal in the bathtub? I would never come up with that kind of question or that kind of situation.

RATH: Yeah, not something that I spend a lot of time thinking about myself.

ALLENDE: Yes. But if you ask me now, now I'm an expert. I can kill anybody and not be caught.

RATH: Were there any, you know, the conventions of this form that you found especially difficult to adapt to or anything that you just had to rework to fit yourself?

ALLENDE: Well, the book is tongue in cheek. It's very ironic. And I'm not a fan of mysteries. So to prepare for this experience of writing a mystery, I started reading the most successful ones in the market in 2012. And that was the Scandinavians - Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo and that kind of people. And I realized that I cannot write that kind of book. It's too gruesome, too violent, too dark. There's no redemption there. And the characters are just awful, bad people - very entertaining, but really bad people.

So I thought, I will take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but it is a joke. It's tongue in cheek. My sleuth will not be this handsome detective or journalist or policeman or whatever. It will be a young 16-year-old nerd. My female protagonist will not be this promiscuous, beautiful, dark-haired, thin lady. It will be a plump, blond, healer and so forth.

RATH: The book is set in San Francisco, and it's a - in ways, it's a very loving portrait of the city. And this is the city that you've chosen now to make your home. Can you talk about...

ALLENDE: Look, 26 years ago, I was passing by on a book tour without any hope of ever staying in San Francisco. But I met a guy, very exotic to me - he was blonde with blue eyes - and I just had a fling that turned out to be love. I moved to San Francisco to spend a week with him and get him out of my system. I'm still here 26 years later. Now, I'm stuck with a husband.

RATH: And in San Francisco.

ALLENDE: Yeah, but San Francisco's wonderful.

RATH: So this book, you could really seeing this becoming a movie. Are we going to see this thriller, "Ripper," become a movie?

ALLENDE: Look, my dear, don't - let's not talk about Hollywood. They want everything.

RATH: I'm right next to Hollywood. I have to ask.

ALLENDE: Well, I'm not willing to sign a contract. They want everything. They want the rights to do the movie and everything else they can think of, forever. There's no limit to the contract. In this universe and universes to be discovered - I'm not making this up - this is in the contract. And they also want the copyright of the characters. So I lose my characters. And if I want to repeat them in another book, I have to pay them a royalty. Give me a break.

RATH: OK. You hear that, Hollywood? Isabel Allende is looking for some reasonable producers.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: Isabel, it's been wonderful speaking with you.

ALLENDE: Thank you very much.

MCEVERS: That was the regular host of this program, Arun Rath, speaking with Isabel Allende about her new thriller "Ripper." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.