Risk-taking is author's way of life
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About Charlotte Vale-Allen

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Charlotte Vale-Allen On Writing

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Book Reviews

Daddy's Girl

Island Nation Press

Katharine Marlowe

How to Contact Charlotte


By Susan Pennell-Poletek

``No one is coming with your life in a suitcase. You must take control and assume responsibility for yourself.'' - Charlotte Vale-Allen

Charlotte Vale-Allen, best-selling author of 34 novels, snips a section from her cigarette with a pair of dedicated scissors; her solution to taking charge of a habit; and says: ``There's only so much complaining you can do, then you have to stop whining and fix the problem.''

She's frank, bold and curious. Her wit and easy laugh make her immediately likable.

``You know, I was just a poor kid who grew up on Queen Street collecting milk and pop bottles to make sure we had white bread and bologna. But even as a child I knew I had a great gift, I could understand the dynamics of human interaction.'' She jumps to answer the phone.

Light jazz and guitar rhythms slip around her sunny, eclectic Toronto penthouse. A collection of glass bottles, paperweights, framed still life's (Charlotte's own photography) and walls crammed with mounted book jackets, echo her complex character. Her bedroom faces the rest of the apartment through an enormous window. There's a lot of glass. No secrets here; she's shared them all.

Charlotte's successes - sales exceeding seven million copies in 20 countries, and one of the most borrowed authors from libraries - has been virtually ignored in Canada. She claims she is, ``A writer who is Canadian, not a Canadian writer.''

Allen, however, has set more books in Canada than other commercial writers, but her monetary success and the fact that she lives in Connecticut, she believes may be part of the refusal to acknowledge her success here.

``It's amazing to me,'' says Allen. ``In the rest of the world I'm well respected.''

A fact testified by the cover quote on her latest book Mood Indigo by world-renowned British author, Colin Dexter, of the Inspector Morse Mysteries, ``Another treat for the Vale-Allen fan club, of which I've been a member for many moons.''

Allen casually slips in and out of accents punctuating her anecdotes with four-letter words - but she speaks with such elan that the words seem dignified.

Allen met Dexter in Oxford during a promotional tour for Dream Train (a novel about, and commissioned by, the Orient Express); Dexter and Allen have remained good friends - like most people who meet her.

At 18, she disguised herself as a messenger boy and slipped backstage at the Royal Alex to deliver a fan letter to Bette Davis. Davis loved the letter and called her. They became friends.

In 1961, three years later, Allen had legally adopted the name, Charlotte Vale, from a character played by Davis in a 1942 movie Now, Voyager, and left her father and her troubled life behind to immigrate to England. Years later Bette Davis gave her the cover quote for her first book.

She didn't begin writing until after a decade as a singer, actress and cabaret/revue performer. In 1971, she was a wife and mother, and decided to take her childhood grief to the typewriter. She began her chilling autobiography, Daddy's Girl, exposing her torment as a victim of incest. The book does not sensationalize the horror, (it is written with the clarity of a person recalling a tragedy - her entire childhood) but rather, serves as an example, a guide, for other victims to go on with their lives and realize that they are not at fault, moreover, that they are not alone.

In the early '80s, while speaking for the Canadian government on behalf of victims of child abuse, Allen pointed out that the phone book had listings for police, fire, ambulance, etc., but no phone lines for children.

She deliberately exhales a ribbon of smoke, and says with satisfaction, ``Now there is.''

During her effort to ``peel off the scab from her life,'' she discovered her talent for writing. Her novels were published long before Daddy's Girl, which was considered too controversial in the '70s. Her fiction brings the universal experiences and emotions of women (``their interior lives'') into close focus. Readers will always see themselves, their reactions and perhaps situations in Allen's novels. Mistakenly, Allen has been categorized as a Romance novelist, but as writer Lynn Crosbie points out in Quill and Quire, Allen's books ``are not escapist fiction, (but) the means of escape.''

Allen explains the misinterpretation of her work as a sort of filing error.

``No one (booksellers, critics, librarians) knew how to categorize my books.'' She slaps the table, marvelling at the irony. ``The whole reason I started writing fiction was the fact that the books I wanted to read didn't exist!''

She thinks of herself as an interpreter: ``Taking the experiences that are central to all women and translating them into a form that is more accessible. It's about finding that you're not alone in your experiences.''

She smiles and adds in her sultry voice, ``My books are like the world's longest phone call.''

Allen's need to stay in print for herself and her fans propels her life. ``Auntie Bette and I never could suffer fools gladly,'' says Allen.

When agents and publishers hesitated to accept Mood Indigo (the novel takes place during the 1930s, an era publishers seem to believe readers aren't interested in), Allen, who set the story in that time frame so her characters would be unravelling a mystery without getting caught up in the ``techno-babble'' of a contemporary whodunit, took things into her own hands. She believes that publishers are ``caught up in the bottom line and bestsellers, leaving steady-selling authors squirming in midlist never-never land.''

She adds: ``The strangest thing I've learned is that talent is not its own reward. Never assume anything's a given, 'cause if they gave it to you, they can take it away.''

She believes that along with ``enormous luck'' and perhaps self-delusion, one must always believe in oneself. ``Because,'' she says, ``if you don't believe in yourself, who's gonna?''

She refused to accept the rules and founded Island Nation Press, and published Mood Indigo herself. She is determined to run Island Nation Press with authors in mind.

``Authors will be involved with the production of their work from cover to font choice.'' She admits that being a publisher is a monumental commitment. ``The problems you have as a writer are multiplied by 400. I'm doing this one-armed paper hanger drill, but things are getting done. I can do this.'' The phone rings - again.

Ziggy Lorenc (CityTV/Bravo!) is on the phone. Ziggy has penned a ``facto-ficto'' autobiography Life On Venus Avenue: Confessions Of A Wash And Wear Virgin. Ziggy warned everyone at the book launch about meeting strangers, ``Because, you never know when they will change your life.''

Lorenc describes her book as a recounting of life as a ``sane person in a madcap career.''

She's a character in Moses Znaimer's ``Living Movie'' and her delightful book is, as Allen explains, ``Quintessential Ziggy - quintessential now.'' The book satisfies both the fast-paced channel-surfer type and the die-hard, devour-it-all-at-once-even-while-you're-stirring-the-soup reader.

Everyone in Ziggy's book gets a good-natured ribbing; her co-workers, Jim Carrey, Wayne Newton and her family. ``Not bad,'' says her sister, Barbara. ``I come off as a terrorist, but that's okay.''

Both women live with public misconception of who they really are - obviously a unifying trait.

``When I heard someone say Charlotte was the most hated woman in Canadian publishing I just knew she was doing something right,'' says Lorenc.

And Allen recalls that prior to being interviewed by Lorenc for ``Ziggy'' (on Bravo!) that, ``There were 400,000 opinions about this sweet woman. I simply had to meet her.''

Allen's publicity material defines her as a risk-taker, but when asked about it she raises an eyebrow and leans forward, ``Honey, just living is a risk.''

She claims she called her publishing company Island Nation Press because she's ``an island of one.''

But that's doubtful - her words have beaten down taboos and have spoken truths for all women - her island's going to be heavily populated.