February 2020

Shelf Life: Talking books with Isabel Allende

Interview by
Wouldn’t you love to explore a library or bookstore with your favorite author? Award-winning Chilean author Isabel Allende shares her favorite memories from among the stacks.
Share this Article:

Isabel Allende is a recipient of both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the PEN Center Lifetime Achievement Award. Her latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, is an epic saga set during the Spanish Civil War that follows two young people as they escape aboard poet Pablo Neruda’s real-life ship, the SS Winnipeg.

Tell us about your favorite library from when you were a child.
There were no libraries where kids could go in Chile during the 1940s—not even at school. My library was at home. I had an uncle who collected books, and I was allowed to read whatever I wanted. No censorship.

While researching your books, has there ever been a librarian who was especially helpful, or a surprising discovery among the stacks?
Usually I find the most valuable help from booksellers, because I tend to buy the books I use for research for my novels. When I need original documents for a historical novel, I contact librarians from the Library of Congress.

What are your bookstore rituals?
I go every day to my local bookstore (Book Passage) for coffee and browsing in the morning. First, I stop at the audiobooks shelf because I need stories for my commute. Then I talk to whichever bookseller happens to be there and get some input about new books, especially novels. Once a week, I talk to Susan in the children’s department. She keeps a list of my favorite books to give to kids when I need a gift and new releases she thinks I would like.

Read our review of A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende.

What’s the last thing you checked out from your library or bought at your local bookstore?
A CD of Tom Hanks’ short story collection, Uncommon Type, Ann Patchett’s recent novel, The Dutch House, as well as five children’s and young adult books for my husband’s grandchildren.

What’s your favorite library in the world?
It’s hard to name just one. I have visited several famous libraries, like the Library of Congress, where I received an award. If I had to choose, I would say the Melk Abbey library near Vienna. I was invited there to a meeting of religious leaders from all over the world and had the privilege of visiting the vault where the most valuable ancient manuscripts are kept. It was a memorable experience. I was even allowed to touch an incunable with white cotton gloves—while being watched closely by a Benedictine librarian who was almost as ancient as the book.

Do you have a “bucket list” of bookstores and libraries you’d love to visit but haven’t yet?
Two come to mind: Shakespeare & Company in Paris and El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires. The first because I have been there with no time to browse properly (it’s charming!), and the second because it’s set in a beautiful, old opera house. In a city with more bookstores per capita than any other in the world, El Ateneo is considered the most stunning.

Do you have a favorite bookstore or library from literature?
Probably the haunting library called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Carlos Ruis Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. But I am sure there are many more.

Bookstore cats or bookstore dogs?
I like all animals, but given the choice, I would like to have dogs at my favorite bookstore, so I could pet them while I browse and have my morning coffee.

What’s your favorite snack when browsing in a bookstore?
Hopefully excellent coffee and biscotti.


Author photo by Lori Barra

Get the Book

A Long Petal of the Sea

A Long Petal of the Sea

By Isabel Allende
ISBN 9781984820150

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Interviews