Candace Allen: Dance to the music of fame

A path-breaking film-maker from a family of innovators, Candace Allen turned to fiction to explore the life of a pre-war musical superstar. Sue Fox meets a fifth-generation pioneer
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The Independent Culture

There are some women who would look a million dollars dressed in a bin-liner. The writer Candace Allen, understated but head-turning, is one of them. Another is the subject of her first novel, Valaida (Virago, £14.99), based on the real American jazz trumpeter, Valaida Snow. "Growing up in the black community, Valaida would have learned that it was important to go out looking your best," says Allen. "As a performer, she always looked fabulous."

Allen's novel describes both the glitz and the degradation of a woman who "lived large, blazing a trail with charismatic energy and inimitable style". In her book, she writes a lot about clothes. A German literary agent suggested that what she had done was to use clothes as a metaphor for the transitory nature of fame and wealth.

With a self-deprecating peal of laughter, Allen cuts to the quick: "I'm a coloured woman who likes clothes, writing about another coloured woman who likes clothes. What mattered to me was trying to make some sense of what it felt like to wear wonderful gowns, or having to step into an outfit which was musty with someone else's sweat. For somebody like Valaida, who cared so much about her appearance, how did she cope in 1942, when she was in a Danish prison, having to wear prison uniform, and use a comb which couldn't possibly get through her hair?"

In the segregated Thirties, Valaida Snow's name was rarely out of the black newspapers. National polls regularly voted her the biggest female star in the black community, sometimes ousting Ethel Waters. "Today, you could compare Valaida to Madonna. She had far more raw talent than Madonna, but people who saw her on stage said she was an amazingly charismatic performer who had this way of distancing herself from the audience."

Allen has brought to life an extraordinary woman working in a predominantly male world. It's a life so ripe for a blockbuster movie that I'm curious to know why this former Hollywood screenwriter - the first African-American female member of the Director's Guild of America - has put herself through the hoops of writing a novel instead of producing a film script.

"Screenwriting gave me a sense of structure," she answers. "I still think of chapters as scenes, but writing a novel is a totally different craft. I didn't write the book with the intention of it becoming a film, because I wanted to do all the things you're not allowed to do when you're working on a screenplay. To play with rhythm and sentences, to go through different levels of consciousness and explore my characters in ways you just can't do with a film."

Allen's book is an imaginative work of fiction - albeit based on her painstaking research in Europe and America. "The book is my own speculation on how Valaida might have evolved to what she became."

In an American newspaper library, trawling through the Amsterdam News, Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier, Allen met a man who was writing a biography of Sammy Davis Junior. "He asked me if there was an easier way to research. I told him, 'No. You just have to sit there, day after day, with that out-of-focus microfilm and read every single inch'."

By her own admission, however, Allen is addicted to research. "Since I was a small child, the biggest high for me has always been the challenge of discovering a new place, a new fact, or something which was just surprising." Part of the way through her first draft, she was invited to do a reading at Harvard University, where she had graduated in art history. After she had read her portion, the history professors were fairly sniffy.

"One of them said to me, 'It is history, you know.' If I'd done all this work and research, why didn't I make the book part of the legitimate canon? But there were huge holes in her life. As a historian or biographer I could not have created a childhood for Valaida or amended her letters from prison. I could only do that as a novelist." Asked if her book was going to be the source text on Valaida Snow, Allen replies: "I'm probably the source text, but the book is not."

Allen was born in Boston, the oldest of three children. Her parents moved to rural Stamford, Connecticut, when she was six. Her father, a dentist, is still in practice there. Her mother, a psychiatric social worker, died from complications of surgery when Allen was 12. Apart from her fifth and eighth grade years, when there was one other girl from a desegregated family, Allen was the only black girl in her public (as in "state") school classes.

"I was a normal American kid," she says, "except that I was a black kid growing up in a white environment. In junior high we two black girls were forced to attend after- school dances where we stood by the wall for the entire time. Nobody would ask us to dance, and we knew they wouldn't. It was excruciating but, in a sense, it was our job. Being part of the African-American middle class was about making progress. Moving into this beautiful neighbourhood with its fabulous ponds, where we could ice-skate in winter and play football in yards, was part of that progress. "

Allen says she didn't really have a social life until she went to Harvard. "As teenagers, my friend and I started going out in the southern part of Stamford, which was mostly full of kids from working-class black families. But downtown, I was also an outsider because I was in the top class at school and so obviously headed towards an Ivy League college. That still didn't stop me hankering after boys who didn't want anything to do with me."

Outsider status, says Allen, has given her a writer's gift - "tremendous insight into both sides. Being the only one in my primary and secondary school was seminal because it made me become an observer. As a reasonably educated member of the middle class, one of the major challenges of writing Valaida was to put myself inside the head of somebody who didn't have that same kind of bourgeois morality controlling her life."

Her aunt, Billie Allen, one of two people to whom the book is dedicated, is a theatre director. She had been one of the first black dancers in a white show, an original cast member of Leornard Bernstein's On the Town. Aunt Billie opened up a world of dance and performance to her college-bound niece who might, if she hadn't been too tall, have become a dancer herself. "My first screenplay - which I didn't sell - was about a dancer."

At Harvard, Allen was active in the radical student action which led to the establishment of the Afro-American Studies department. She also danced with an Afro-Cuban troupe. But by the time she got to graduate school, Allen wanted to make films more than she wanted to dance: "To be inside the illusion rather than perform."

She dropped out of her course at New York University School of Film to join the Director's Guild training programme. Working in California as a first assistant director, Allen was directing backgrounds: "I could go into an empty space, and see everything - how to fill in a scene and where to cut." It was a craft that would prove incredibly useful as a novelist.

Years before she ever dreamt of writing fiction - and impatient with the time it was going to take for her to make the jump from assistant to director - Allen started writing for film. "I thought that if I could write a screenplay I was proud of, it would be as important to me as directing."

After several rejections, she wrote a period action adventure. It was taken on by an A-list star, but never made. Allen laughingly refers to the experience as "Hollywood Nightmare No 1". After 'Hollywood Nightmare No 2' - "Think The Player and go downhill from there" - she packed her bags and moved to London.

For the past nine years she has been married to the conductor Sir Simon Rattle, to whom, along with Aunt Billie, Valaida is dedicated. It's a second marriage for them both; they had been friends since 1980. "I'm lucky that Simon really likes jazz. He was brought up as much with Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Woody Herman as with other musicians. He's been very supportive of what I was trying to do but didn't interfere. Except once. I'd written a musical bit. He said it wasn't right and I'd have to do it again. "

In the course of writing Valaida, Allen's first reader was her husband. "Simon took a year out to study Yeats and Faulkner at Oxford, so he's a far more diligent reader of literary fiction than I am." Being Mrs Maestro alongside the writer Candace Allen meant that it took her seven years to complete Valaida, "In between renovating a house and writing another screenplay. People who know about the classical music business know what my life is. They are more appreciative of what it took to get the book done. At times it felt like I was in a marathon with myself, writing something that nobody wanted."

Allen hopes her next book won't take as long to complete. "But it could easily take four years. I'm thinking about something which is incredibly challenging, and an area about which I know far less. I got to the end of one novel so I know I can do it. Now I need to push the boundaries and frighten myself again."

Biography

Candace Allen, 54, is a fifth-generation college-educated female on her father's side. Her great-great grandmother was one of the 13 former slave girls who comprised the first class of Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating from Harvard, she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked in film production for 18 years. Allen has been an assistant director and a Hollywood screenwriter. She was the first African-American female member of the Director's Guild of America, and is a founder member of Reel Black Women - a professional organisation for African-American women in film. Candace Allen has been married to the conductor Sir Simon Rattle for nine years. She worked as language and 'attitude' coach for his recording and performances of Bernstein's Wonderful Town. Valaida (Virago) is her first novel. She lives in London.

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