Artists Propelling Vale-Allen's Vision

by Daryl Jung, from Now Magazine, June 21, 1990

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Charlotte Vale-Allen On Writing

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Daddy's Girl

Island Nation Press

Katharine Marlowe

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Toronto-born author Charlotte Vale-Allen believes deeply that artists possess a much sharper vision of the world than most others.

In her new novel, Painted Lives, she follows the stormy life of artist Mattie Sylvester, the aged widow of internationally renowned artist Gideon Sylvester-one of the most fiercely independent, headstrong characters Vale-Allen has ever created.

But this is also true to form, as all of her books deal with the lives of artists, particularly women artists. In Painted Lives, she paints the portrait of a woman who, although elderly, is still vital, energetic, and angry. It is consequently a story about women's rights-to their own thoughts, their bodies and, most importantly, the fulfillment of their artistic talent.

While the vision of women artists has been a prevalent and recurring theme in all of her books, Vale-Allen is ambivalent about being called a feminist-or accepting any label with a potentially political slant.

"I shudder at categorizing myself like that," she says. "There are so many negative connotations that are attached to any 'ism,' and they make me very nervous. The only kind of category I would apply to myself is 'raging liberal.'"

Decisive Women

"I want to encourage women to be decisive, and to be responsible for themselves, rather than depend on men for their identities.

"But in terms of my feelings on women, I like to say that I can see both sides. Today, if you say you're feminist, it means you're looking at women to the exclusion of the other half of the population. And that's not realistic, because we must live together."

Vale-Allen's attentions turned to literature after starting out as a singer. Her compulsion to write began with her first book, Daddy's Girl, an autobiographical account of the experience of incest. And although she met with resistance from publishers, she persevered to become the first woman to give a mainstream voice to an experience no one was talking about.

"I didn't decide to do anything, actually," says upbeat Vale-Allen at her Toronto home prior to Tuesday's reading at Harbourfront. "When my father died in 1970, I decided I wanted to write a book about my childhood, because up until then there wasn't a book for women who had been sexually abused. My idea was for the book to be useful to professionals as well as a supporting document for people who had been abused as children."

Luckily, Vale-Allen's husband had gone to school with the heads of "just about every publishing company in New York," so she had an instant inroad to the industry. She got to the point of contract negotiations for Daddy's Girl, but suddenly found herself out on the street with the book. Nobody, she realized, was about to publish a book on incest.

"And that really pissed me off," she says. "That's like telling me I can't do something, and if that happens it's guaranteed that I'll go out and do it. So, since I enjoyed the creative process, I decided to write other books, thinking that once I became an established author, they wouldn't be able to refuse Daddy's Girl. And that's what happened. After 15 books, I finally published my first one."

This kind of perseverance, as well as a series of happy accidents, has led to Vale-Allen's prolific career as a writer after starting out with theatrical leanings.

No one was more surprised than she when, in her 20s and so determined to be a star that she went to two drama schools at once, she found herself singing and playing guitar in English nightclubs.

When she came back to Canada in 1964, Vale-Allen was also surprised when she became a regular singer with Gordon Lightfoot on the stage of the old Steele's Tavern on Yonge Street.

"I never decided to make a living writing books-it just happened. I was making good money, and realized I'd be a fool to give it up just to trip around the country singing to drunks." ***