Daddy's Girl Grows Up Charlotte Vale-Allen pulverizes publishing
By Diego X. Jesus and Mark London
Million-selling Canadian novelist Charlotte Vale-Allen pulls no punches in dealing with issues confronting women.
She is, though, ever the optimist. Her most powerful weapon as a writer has always been her ability to make women "real," to take readers of both genders inside their heads, and let them know precisely how they feel. It's tough not to care about an Allen character.
They may be victims of child or spouse abuse, but they are also survivors who use their wits and strengths to defy and overcome their tormentors. Such is the theme of Allen's Dreaming In Color, which includes a list of real organizations dedicated to helping victims of domestic violence — testament to the author's conviction that women can find help from one another, and empowerment in themselves.
Allen has said that although her books are about women, they are written for everyone. To that end she addresses issues of both social and emotional significance. Her autobiography, the acclaimed Daddy's Girl — in which she comes to grips with a childhood made almost intolerable by her sexually abusive father — was her first novel, but in 1971 it was deemed too controversial by editors. It wasn't until 80, after she'd gained success as a novelist, that the groundbreaking book was published.
Born in Toronto, Allen lived in England in the early 60s working as a television actress and singer. She returned to Toronto briefly, performing as a singer and in cabaret revues until she immigrated to the States in 66. She sold her first novel, Love Life, in 74, and has since sold over seven million copies of her 30-plus novels, published in all English-speaking countries, in Braille, and translated into more than 20 languages.
A film buff and an amateur photographer, Allen enjoys foreign travel. She finds cooking and needlework therapeutic, and is a compulsive player of computer Solitaire. The mother of an adult daughter, she makes her home in Connecticut. Though she's grown cynical about the book publishing business, she happily agreed to pass on her wealth of wisdom, culled from a long, captivating career, to IN.
IN: After 30 years of writing, what prompted you to become a writer and how did you get started?
CVA: I had always wanted to write about my childhood experiences — primarily because I haunted the libraries when I was a kid, looking for something that would explain what was happening to me and why. I was 14 before I discovered that there was a name for it (incest) and I was hurt and indignant that there was nothing on the shelves to help me. So I promised myself that I would one day write that book so that when other kids went looking for it, it would be there. I certainly didn't think that a book like this would make me rich or famous although I confess to having a desire for fame (like most every other kid on the planet.) It was a somewhat amorphous longing for accolades and acceptance, a high-level form of public apology to compensate for our suffering — almost every abused human being feels much the same thing. (Predicated on the reader mail generated by Daddy's Girl, I can only conclude that this is true. The vast majority of those who contacted me wanted to write a book about their experiences. I always advised them to write a journal instead.)
Unfortunately, in 1970 when the first draft was completed, the subject matter scared the crap out of people. The book kept coming very close to being accepted — to the point of talking contracts — and then I'd be back out on the street with my manuscript. I have never accepted a "no" when I believed absolutely in the rightness of what I was doing. So I decided that (since I loved the writing process) I would become a successful writer and then they (the publishers) would have to accept Daddy's Girl. And, in essence, that is exactly what happened. I have to qualify this by saying that back then, in the early 70s, publishing was still a viable entity — where an editor could fall in love with a piece of work and just buy it. S/he didn't have to pitch the manuscript in an editorial meeting to a bunch of corporate doorknobs with no interest in books, writing or authors, along with a projected profit-and-loss statement for the manuscript, and hope to prevail. (This, by the way, is the current form of insanity in publishing and has been for a decade or so.)
I got published because my late husband went to prep school with a number of boys who ultimately became the heads and/or editors-in-chief of every major New York publishing company. I had an entree; one connection led to another and I was lucky — the timing was right. But I owed a lot to Walt, my husband, because he opened the door. He was a lovely fellow and hugely proud of my accomplishments.
IN: How would you describe your books and topics in an overall sense?
CVA: I am a writer who creates character-driven novels. I've always, as a reader, been far more interested in character than in plot — in the sense that if I care about the characters, I will care about what happens to them. So I would have to describe myself as an issue-oriented writer who creates character-driven novels, wherein the characters are the plot.
IN: What inspires you most to write?
CVA: Historically, issues pertaining to women that grab my attention drive me. Like so many others, I like to write about people overcoming adversity — but not in any typical fashion. The adversities I prefer to write about are the emotional ones, the events in a life that are crippling and that must somehow be "managed." When I first began writing fiction, I focused on male-female relationships primarily. I was young then and my focus was on my own relationships. I am happy to report that I did eventually grow out of that and move beyond, into the wider realm of general interpersonal relationships.
IN: Who have been the most influential people during your writing career?
CVA: I would have to say all the authors whose books gave me such pleasure — primarily Dickens. I read his books — at least one a year — to remind myself of the power of a great narrative with brilliantly drawn characters. Even modern writers like Dick Francis (I tend to prefer mysteries and true crime) made an impact. He continued to grow and refine himself as a writer until the day he chose to stop. It is a very rare writer who, after success has arrived, will continue to do the work, dig deep to create well-thought-out people and plots. I just love good books by talented writers — they are rare and wonderful to find. Cold Mountain, for example, was just an exquisite gift to the public. So too are the Harry Potter Books and anything by Thomas Harris.
IN: When researching for a new book what methods do you use how do you keep the scenes, characters, plot, etc. organized?
CVA: I will walk around stewing over the issue I want to pursue. Then I have to create the kind of woman (usually) who would find herself dealing with that issue. After weeks of preoccupation, when I've figured out where I want to begin and, roughly, where I want to end, I'm ready to dive in. I have to know the opening; once that is firmly in my mind, I am able to begin. As I go forward, I keep a Word file with a list of the characters and their physical descriptions, ages, tics, etc. I find I often have to refer back to the file to refresh myself about things like eye color or height. After a 100 or so pages, it's easy to forget — but hugely important to remain consistent.
IN: What would you tell new writers about the process(es) of writing that you use that might help them to establish successful writing careers (other than "keep writing" or "write what you know")?
CVA: The one thing I have always told would-be writers when approaching a book is to deal in short stories. In other words, aim for 10 pages with a beginning, a middle and an end. When those 10 pages are just right, go on to the next 10 pages with the same characters — another beginning, middle and end. When you have 30 or so of these 10-page chunks, you have yourself a book. A good number of people have taken this advice and gone on to complete whole manuscripts and get published. It makes the idea of a whole novel more manageable. It's just too daunting to think in terms of 400 hundred pages.
Personally, I get too tired even to begin if I think in terms of anything bigger than 10 pages. Once the first draft is completed and it's time to polish, there's a nice body there with some meat on the bones. At that point, it's pure pleasure to refine, to polish and to sculpt. I adore the self-editing/revising stages. I also enjoy editing other people's work — which I've done a number of times.
IN: To date you have published 39 books. When dealing with publishers, agents and publicists are there any special insights and/or pitfalls you can pass along?
CVA: I am the last person on the planet qualified at this juncture to give advice. My name alone will get my calls accepted just about anywhere. But because the infamous computer numbers are down (Barnes and Noble, most notably, but the other chains too) publishers don't want to take me on because it means they'd have to do serious hard work to get my numbers back up. The entire publishing industry is now run on numbers. The big box stores (WalMart/Sam's Club, Costco, etc.) demand such huge discounts on the books that the publishers basically use the titles as loss leaders to get word-of-mouth going via the exposure these places offer. The unit (per book) cost of production is now so astronomically high that publishers just won't go near a book unless the author has connections that can guarantee publicity. As if! It's just ridiculous. The industry basically wants the writer to be a marketer; it's not enough to create the product. One must now be ready, willing and able to get out there and be a showman too.
That said, a first novelist has a better chance of getting published at this point in time than I do — with a fan base of over 5,000 and sales of over 8,000,000. Those details are irrelevant; publishers/agents just don't give a rat's ass about an author's history. They prefer writers not to have any history; it makes it easier to sell them. I do hope I don't sound bitter. I am more weary than anything else. It's really hard trying to deal with people bereft of imagination in a business that is entirely dependent upon that very thing. People in publishing have become fearful ass-coverers and it's incredibly sad. When I began 30-odd years ago, it was still an entity where true excitement was generated when a house found a well-written book. Now, the quality of the writing is way down on the list, if it's even on the list. It's all about the saleability of the author.
IN: What are the greatest challenges facing new writers on the path to becoming successful authors?
CVA: Interestingly, in the early 80s I was agenting myself and my writing was moving into places that I really liked; I was expanding, reaching for different forms. Then, alas, I signed on with a major New York agency and my agent up front told me she didn't like my then-latest novel. I tried to pretend it didn't bother me but it did. I phoned her and confessed that I was bothered by that and she allowed that she liked my forthrightness. But I made a huge error in not listening to my inner voice that said, "Don't go with this woman. It's a mistake." As it happens, it was the biggest mistake of my career. She got me bigger and bigger contracts but didn't nurture my career, didn't do battle for me and, I think now, actually in some way disliked me. I stayed too long at that party and, 12 years later, when it was over, she'd managed to do critical damage to my career. From that point on, it was me agenting myself again, grappling with editors and publishers and pissing them off for all kinds of reasons.
The primary point of their anger was my by-then deep knowledge of the publishing business (literally) and my refusal to accept ghastly cover art. Basically, they wanted me to lie down and accept getting screwed as if I'd signed on as an upscale hooker rather than a writer. It was deeply demoralizing constantly to have to fight my "child-editor" who was from a privileged background and had absolutely no insight into any form of privation; it was equally demoralizing to have to battle for appropriate art (the photos on my last two novels, Fresh Air and Sudden Moves, are mine).
Publishers truly think writers are incapable of doing more than one thing. The fact that I was also a photographer and had studied art in New York simply irritated them. My cover suggestions were always ignored and I did a lot of battling which, in the end, was a large part of why my last publisher (like all the others) just gave up and essentially allowed the books to die stillborn.
IN: Do you think it advantageous for a writer to be part of a writers union or guild?
CVA: Initially, when I was first approached in 76 I couldn't see the point of joining the Authors Guild. I had an agent, why did I need a union? I joined in 83. I didn't have an agent at that point and thought I might have recourse to use the Guild. But to this day I am honestly not sure why I joined. (I'm not a group sort of person.) That said, they've been very helpful when I've needed information — i.e. how to get permission to use copyrighted art for a cover. And they do have a fund to help authors in difficulty. I read the newsletters with interest but I cannot truly say why I'm a member. So I guess it isn't terribly important — if I can't give a reason why I pay the annual dues.
IN: When one of your new books is launched how important is touring, readings and book signings to help ensure success and book sales?
CVA: Touring/reading/book signings have always, in my experience, been a complete and utter waste of time. People in stores are flat-out intimidated by the sight of their favorite author sitting expectantly at a table behind a stack of his/her latest books. They'll peer around the edges of bookcases, waiting and hoping some intrepid soul approaches. Only then will they come forward. I have spent a lot of hours making nice with bookstore employees. The only readings that were successful were those I did at Harbourfront in Toronto, Canada where a culture of readings is firmly in place. Otherwise, all the touring/readings/signings I did were doses of depression. I stopped touring quite some time ago because I thought the money would be better spent on print ads. Of course the publishers just designated the money elsewhere, so there was no tour and no ads.
IN: You have published under the pen name Katharine Marlowe. Why's that?
CVA: Back in the old days, publishers believed that if an author published more than one book a year s/he would be competing with him/herself. Stephen King put an end to that absurd notion. But I was producing more than my publisher felt comfortable publishing. Hence the pseudonym. Ironically, the Marlowe books got fabulous reviews and she was taken far more seriously as a writer than I was. Perhaps, it was because after my first novel came out in hardcover (and I knew I'd starve to death) I shifted over to paperback originals. At that time, people who wrote paperbacks were considered trash-purveyors, rubbish-writers. Not so now, when people will do anything to get published anywhere. Ironic.
CVA: My web site a gift from a friend back in 96, at a time when very few people (of any ilk) had sites. She was a very wise woman and we intentionally kept the site very simple. Shortly after it was up, I read a piece in the New York Times about a fellow who had created a book site at his home; it gave specifics about the components required to create an online store. I ran with that information and got my online store up and running almost concurrently with my foray into print-on-demand technology. Again, I was one of the first independent publishers (I started my own publishing company in 97) to see the genius of print-on-demand and immediately started putting all my rights-reverted titles into digital format to keep them in print. Because I have so many titles, my online-store has always paid for itself. It's the only place on earth where everything I've written is available. I absolutely love the Internet!
IN: What's next on your agenda?
CVA: Next for me is a cross-country drive in early May with a friend, from Connecticut to Seattle; my first vacation in many years. There appear to be no books in my future but I still find myself mulling over two of the partial manuscripts that got submitted in the past couple of years. Agents and editors went berserk over both of them but no one was willing to publish either one. So I guess I'm retired ... hmmn.
Visit Charlotte's Online Store Bibliography: Novels: Becoming Claudia's Shadow Daddy's Girl Destinies Dream Train Dreaming in Color Fresh Air Gentle Stranger Gifts Of Love Grace Notes Hidden Meanings (includes Another Kind Of Magic.) Illusions Intimate Friends Julia's Sister Leftover Dreams Love Life Matters Of The Heart Meet Me In Time Memories Mixed Emotions Moments Of Meaning Mood Indigo Night Magic Painted Lives Parting Gifts Perfect Fools Pieces Of Dreams Promises Running Away Somebody's Baby Sudden Moves Sweeter Music Times Of Triumph Time/Steps The Young Person's Dreambook (an abuse workbook)
As Katharine Marlowe Heart's Desires Nightfall Secrets
Diego X. Jesus is a Dominican-born American freelance journalist and associate editor of IN who makes Toronto his home approximately half the time. Otherwise, we don't know where he might be. Email:Diego X
Mark London is a Toronto based freelance writer and associate editor of IN who has been with the FWO-Int'l from the early years volunteering much of his time in assisting young writers' careers. Email:Mark London