COLUMN

Ignored at home, successful abroad

She doesn’t get the attention she deserves because she doesn’t come out of the academic world, is not waspy or intellectual

DIANE FRANCIS October 15 1990
COLUMN

Ignored at home, successful abroad

She doesn’t get the attention she deserves because she doesn’t come out of the academic world, is not waspy or intellectual

DIANE FRANCIS October 15 1990

Ignored at home, successful abroad

She doesn’t get the attention she deserves because she doesn’t come out of the academic world, is not waspy or intellectual

COLUMN

DIANE FRANCIS

When the late, great Bette Davis played Charlotte Vale in the 1942 movie classic Now, Voyager, she unknowingly helped an 11-year-

old Toronto girl to survive a hideous childhood of incest. The movie’s climax showed the character Charlotte transformed from fat frump to a divine creature with arching eyebrows and flawless skin. “And I said to myself, ‘That’s me,’ ” recalls the little girl, now on the sunny side of 50 and sitting cross-legged in her posh Toronto penthouse. “I thought to myself, my skin will clear up, I’ll grow a chest and I’ll become something some day.”

Scar tissue formed, and the little girl symbolically shed her past by legally adopting the once-fictitious name Charlotte Vale, adding Allen after she married. Then she went on to become arguably Canada’s most financially successful female writer, making millions of dollars in the fiction big leagues. Seven million copies of Charlotte Vale Allen’s 27 books have sold in 17 countries, and this summer she was cited as one of the 100 most-borrowed authors from British libraries—and the only Canadian on the list. Despite all that, she’s never been profiled in any Canadian magazine. I think that’s unfortunate.

“She doesn’t get the attention she deserves because people don’t consider her work credible,” says childhood friend Brooke Forbes, a CBC Radio producer in Toronto. “The fact that it’s terribly readable and terribly successful somehow doesn’t count. She’s ignored because she doesn’t come out of the academic world, is not waspy or intellectual. But she works hard and has overcome adversities most people would never dream of. Her parents were awful.”

Allen calls her work “commercial fiction” as opposed to “literary fiction,” a distinction she draws as merely the “use of adjectives.” “I’m into narrative drive,” explains Allen. “I’m not interested in set dressing. I’m taking you on a journey through some heads.”

Her latest, Painted Lives, portrays a strong-

willed heroine and her voyage through several tumultuous relationships. Her books are enjoyable stories about relationships, but Allen bristles at the romance label, then adds: “My agent once said to me, ‘Why care what people call it? People who buy your books thinking they are like pulp romances are getting a much better read than they thought they were buying.’ ” Her first book, Daddy’s Girl, was her only nonfiction work. It was a groundbreaking autobiography about incest that is still a reference found in many children’s aid shelters throughout North America. Allen links her awful personal past with her current proclivity towards plots that pit women against adversity. “My father was a bad person,” she recalls, “and I try to champion women to themselves. I’m concerned about how people live with violence or disfigurement or handicaps. I know what it’s like to live with violence.”

She often writes in 12-hour bursts, and divides her time equally between homes in Toronto and Norwalk, Conn., 40 minutes from Manhattan. Last year, she grossed $390,000, and $485,000 the year before. Such wealth affords her a jet-set existence, maintaining a busy social life in Toronto and a work life in Connecticut. Such schizophrenia obviously

suits her. She’s fun-loving and irreverent, spicing her conversation with four-letter words, witty anecdotes and an impressive set of accents. Says Allen: “Of course I’ve written shit, but everyone who writes has done that. Hey, I’m the only author I know of who did on-thejob training.”

Allen was a bright student who skipped two grades, then dropped out of high school in Toronto to work as a secretary. She studied acting at night and dreamed of becoming a movie star. Then, in 1959, she met her idol Bette Davis, who was appearing in a theatrical production of The World of Carl Sandburg at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Allen disguised herself as a messenger boy, slipped backstage and convinced Davis’s maid to hand the actress a fan letter. “She called me, said it was one of the best letters she’d ever read, asked if I had tickets for the show and invited me backstage,” says Allen. “We exchanged letters and years later became good friends. She loved my books because, I think, I write about the kind of women she always played. Feisty. She even wrote the cover quote for my first novel.”

By 1961, Allen had saved money enough to flee her father and move to England to begin a 10-year sojourn on the road as a nightclub singer with wisecracking patter. Three years (“playing dumps”) in England were followed by years (“in more dumps”) in Toronto and gigs in the U.S. Midwest, entertaining (“in dives”) in places like Mason City, Iowa, and Indianapolis. Finally, she moved to New York City, married a well-born American executive, had a daughter and settled down to married life and motherhood in Connecticut. “Writing became compelling,” she says. “I didn’t have to put makeup on and put my tits on display and sing in a bar to make a living.”

She wrote Daddy’s Girl in 1971, but it was too controversial to be published then. She put it aside and cranked out nine novels, the last eight of which were published one after another from 1976 onwards as paperbacks. Then she “graduated” into the hard-cover big leagues during the late 1970s. Recalls Allen: “My first husband went to school with every head of every New York publishing firm. Use contacts? Damn right I did. It still took me four years to get published.”

While safely ashore, Allen’s happy ending was only possible because she has had moxie enough to entertain in front of her classmates at dances as well as to tackle careers in the rough-and-tumble worlds of show business and writing. She says that she’s now buried her past, along with her real name, which she declines to divulge. Allen’s own life, like her novels, has a happy ending. “My mother is still alive and 80 years old and survived the book,” she says. “It would be so embarrassing for her now if the name came out. I feel if you reach a certain age and are still blaming other people for your problems, you are severely retarded. I remember she asked me once, ‘I guess I’ve been a bad mother, haven’t I?’ Right there, I was faced with the decision: should I wipe her out for the rest of her life or absolve her? I said, ‘Given the circumstances, you were the best mother you were capable of being.’ ”