Even though she has a brand-new novel out, and another in the can, Isabel Allende is a little bit grouchy on a recent Tuesday afternoon.
Why would the best-selling and critically acclaimed author of "Paula," "Of Love and Shadows" and, most recently, the swashbuckling new retelling of "Zorro," be cranky?
"I'm anxious because at this stage I usually have an idea and am writing," Allende said by telephone from her home in San Rafael, Calif. "My family wants to put me in an institution."
You see, Allende begins each book on Jan. 8. No compromises. On that date in 1981, she was living in Venezuela, in virtual exile from her native Chile, and received a call that her beloved grandfather was dying. She began a letter that day that would eventually become her first novel, "The House of the Spirits."
"It was such a lucky book from the beginning," she says, "that I kept that lucky date to start."
Midway through 2003, Allende was approached about the Zorro project. Zorro Productions, which owns the rights to the swashbuckling rogue created by golden-age screenwriter Johnston McCulley in serial potboilers of the '20s and '30s, was interested in a novel on the original caped crusader.
"They said, 'We've done everything with this character - movies, TV, every medium - except a work of literature,"' Allende says. "They gave me complete freedom over the final product, as long as the hero was a man with a cape, mask and sword. I had so much fun writing it."
Zorro Productions will release "The Legend of Zorro," starring Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, on Oct. 28 and has plans to launch a young adult series of Zorro novels in 2006, as well as premiere a "Zorro" musical play with music by the Gipsy Kings.
"But we did work closely with Isabel - we became good friends - and supplied her with a lot of research materials," says John Gertz, president of Zorro Productions.
"I remember what was billed as the first creative working session with her," Gertz adds. "I've worked with a lot of creative people and expected it to be a back-and-forth discussion of ideas, a brainstorming session. But she came in, sat down, and spun us a tale that lasted for at least an hour, fully formed. She was a million miles ahead of us."
Allende began researching the character and the period in colonial Spanish and Alta California history when Diego de la Vega transformed himself into the masked man in black.
"On Jan. 8, 2004, after six months of research, I sat down at my computer totally in love with Zorro," she says. "It affected my marriage," she adds with a chuckle.
Born in 1795, Allende's Diego de la Vega is the son of a wealthy Spanish landowner and a half-Shoshone, half-Spanish woman warrior. An excellent horseman and swordsman, he grows up free-spirited and inquisitive in luxury and privilege. At least until the pirates attack - but that's another story.
"I love the fact that he's heroic and romantic and full of zest for life," Allende says.
At 15, on the eve of his departure for Spain to finish his education, Diego's Indian grandmother, the shaman White Owl, sends him and his "milk brother" Bernardo, a full-blooded Indian, into the forest for their initiation into manhood and the tribe. It is a fox, or zorro, who looks after Diego and becomes his totemic animal.
"You must cultivate its skill, its cleverness, its intelligence," White Owl tells him. "Like the fox, you will discover what cannot be seen in the dark, you will disguise yourself, and you will hide by day and act by night."
Spain in 1810, controlled by Napoleon, is afflicted by petty violence, poverty, hunger and guerrilla warfare. The church, through the Inquisition, still holds the country in a stranglehold, despite French attempts to liberalize Spain.
Into this atmosphere drops the idealistic young Diego. He studies at the School of Humanities and with Spanish sword master Manuel Escalante, sharing all his lessons with brother Bernardo.
When a wealthy, arrogant young man named Rafael Moncada strikes Bernardo, thinking him a servant, Diego fights his first duel, taking a bullet in the arm and then shooting his own pistol honorably into the ground. Fueling the fires of hatred is Moncada's vow to marry Juliana, the woman Diego loves. Zorro is born.
"My greatest challenge was the scenes with the swordfights," says Allende. "People are used to seeing them on a huge screen, larger than life, and how do you do that in words?"
Allende's "Zorro" reads like a rollicking adventure yarn, but it has typical Allende underpinnings as well: strong women, the fight for justice and the underdog challenging the establishment.
"If Zorro was alive today, he would be defending the Latino agricultural workers and the workers in the sweatshops," Allende says.
Allende, who is the niece of Salvador Allende, the Chilean socialist president who was killed during Augusto Pinochet's 1973 coup, has lived in the United States for nearly 20 years. She can be critical of the country she ultimately loves.
"In the United States, people are so unaware of other people in the world, unless we attack them or there's a tsunami or something," Allende says. "We don't even know where the rest of the world is.
"But there are a lot of things I love about the U.S. Here, you have the space and opportunity to be anything you want. You do not have to be the same person as your grandparents. In my country if you are the son of a cook, you are always known as the son of a cook."