Cathy Marie Buchanan Interview by Cassandra Campbell
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to present an interview with Cathy Marie Buchanan. Cathy is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel The Painted Girls, which was a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Week and a Good Housekeeping Book Pick. Cathy is also the New York Times bestselling author of The Day the Falls Stood Still. She has written several short stories appearing in premier Canadian literary journals and is the recipient of grants from both the Toronto and Ontario Arts Councils. Conducting the interview is Cassandra Campbell, an Audie®-nominated narrator and winner of several AudioFile Earphones Awards. Cassandra is also an actress, director, and commercial and documentary voice-over artist. Blackstone Audio published the audio version of The Painted Girls, narrated by Cassandra Campbell, Julia Whelan, and Danny Campbell, simultaneously with the hardcover on January 10, 2013.
CASSANDRA CAMPBELL: Welcome, Cathy and thank you for taking the time to join us today.
CATHY MARIE BUCHANAN: My pleasure.
CC: The Painted Girls has received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and has been selected as a best book on several top industry lists, including Kirkus Reviews, Barnes and Noble, People, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. Were you surprised by such a positive reaction?
CMB: Yes, I was surprised. It’s funny because when you’re sitting up here in Toronto, it feels a little bit like magic when your book appears on the New York Times bestseller list, or when it gets a full page in People or a line in Vanity Fair. But you know it isn’t magic. There’s a whole team of talented, creative, diligent people who are working very hard to make sure they get The Painted Girls in all the right people’s hands.
CC: I’ve read that Edgar Degas’s famous Little Dancer, Aged 14 inspired you to write The Painted Girls. What drew you to this era in Paris and to the story associated with that sculpture?
CMB: When Little Dancer, Aged 14 was unveiled back in 1881 by Degas, it was to reveal something very strange by the standards of the day: a young ballet girl dressed in her practice clothes, wearing a wig of real hair, a fabric tutu and fabric slippers. The public took one look and was horrified. They called her a flower of the gutter. They said that her face was imprinted with the detestable promise of every vice. The notion was underpinned by a long history of often less-than-noble liaisons between the wealthy men who were seasons’ ticket holders at the Paris Opera Ballet and the young ballet girls. I think it’s the nature of art to take on new meaning over time, but the degree to which this was the case for Little Dancer—this shift from detested object to beloved object—is so dramatic, and I think it’s the thing that made the sculpture irresistible to me.
CC: How did the storyline of The Painted Girls develop?
CMB: I first came upon the history of this sculpture when I was watching a television documentary that focused specifically on the artwork. In addition to discovering the seedier side of the Paris Opera Ballet, I also learned about the privation of the young girl, Marie van Goethem, who modeled for the work. Her father, a tailor, was dead. Her mother was a laundress. She was trained at the Paris Opera and Ballet School and later promoted to the corps de ballet. I couldn’t help but think that this young, poor girl Marie must have been very hopeful when Degas singled her out to model for him. It made me wonder how she felt when she saw the strange sculpture. How had she faired when the public looked into the sculpture’s face and saw little more than depravity? It was a beginning really of imagining a life for Marie van Goethem.
CC: Did you intend to write a book about the sisters, or did that develop from the subject as you were writing it?
CMB: No. I didn’t intend to write a novel about sisters. When I first conceived the novel, my intention really was to set down the story of Marie van Goethem, this model for the artwork, but soon enough her sister, Antoinette, was demanding equal time. I think now that it was inevitable that my story would hold up a magnifying glass lens to sisterhood. I think a writer’s preoccupations quite naturally find their way onto the page, and for me, I’ve got three sisters and each is deeply loved by me, despite some pretty alarming teenage rows. I’ve spent time contemplating the mysteries of sisterhood, the rivalries, and the love, and I think I continued to contemplate that when I was writing The Painted Girls, and it just naturally became part of the story.
CC: How did the aspect of murder play into the plot? I’ve read that there’s a historical basis for that part of the story.
CMB: When Degas exhibited Little Dancer, he exhibited it alongside a pastel of a pair of teenage boys who were on trial for a grisly murder. Art historians contend that more than the shared exhibition of these two artworks—the sculpture Little Dancer and this portrait of these teenage boys—links the artworks. They suggest that in each of the artworks Degas was working to imply the depravity of his subjects. There was a thinking in society that you could tell a person’s criminality—or tendency toward crime—based on certain facial features. If your forehead was too low, if your jaw thrust forward, if your cheekbones were too broad, you were more likely to commit crime than a person who looked otherwise. Degas incorporated these features into Little Dancer and also into the portrait of the teenage boys, and he did in fact call the portrait of the teenage boys Criminal Physiognomies, so I think this idea of innate criminality and these facial features that indicated it was a notion that Degas bought into. Marie and the teenage boys would have inhabited the same underbelly of Paris, and while there is no historical evidence that Marie knew these boys in real life, I was fascinated by the idea of these characters that Degas captured in his artwork, by the idea of their paths crossing in real life and the way that meeting might alter fates.
CC: Cathy, we have a question from a fan that was posted on the Downpour Facebook page. The listener would like to hear about your personal ballet experience.
CMB: I studied classical ballet quite seriously throughout my teenage years and also into university. I also taught class and danced with a small regional company for a number of years. Interestingly, the studio where I took most of my classes had some of the Degas ballet girl prints tacked to the walls. I know I felt a kinship with those dancers. Sometimes when Degas painted or drew them, he captured them in all their glory on the stage, but often as not, just like me, they were stretching at the bar or rolling the stiffness from a shoulder. I think ballet was such a lovely part of my growing-up experience.
CC: Your first book The Day the Falls Stood Still had a lot of success as well. It was a New York Times bestseller and a Barnes and Noble Recommends Selection and an American Booksellers Association Indie Next Pick. What was it like to get such rave reviews on your first novel?
CMB: I was once asked if I felt like a rock star, and it did bring a funny story to mind. Once I’d hung up the phone shortly after getting the wonderful news from my agent that The Day the Falls Stood Still had been sold to the publishers, I realized that I had about fifteen minutes to get my son’s friend a birthday gift and then get back to his school in time to pick him up. I looked out the window and I saw that uncharacteristically my husband had taken our car to work. I whipped on my boots and coat and went trudging through mounds of snow, and as I broke into a sweat I realized, book deal or not, nothing much had really changed.
CC: Who or what would you say has been your biggest influence?
CMB: That’s a really tough question. I read really broadly. I will say though that Émile Zola’s work was really instrumental in shaping The Painted Girls. In the 1880s—it was quite common—writers would tend to write about the more privileged classes, but when Zola wrote about the Parisian underclass, what he focused on was the Parisian underclass of my time period. So many of the grittier details of The Painted Girls come from things I learned from reading his work.
CC: There’s another fan question that comes from one of the staff at Blackstone, which is that since both of your novels are historical fiction, she was wondering what draws you to this genre?
CMB: I really do love doing the research. There sort of comes a point where I have to force myself to stop researching and put fingers to keyboard and get writing. I think the appeal is that I really like creating another time and place. I think that’s the draw. Never say never, but writing contemporary fiction holds much less interest for me.
CC: And how do you research the settings and the time periods?
CMB: For The Day the Falls Stood Still, I spent a lot of time looking in a local history collection at a Niagara Falls public library. There were also a couple of books that really surveyed Niagara’s history that I relied on quite heavily. For The Painted Girls I used a lot of art history texts. There is in fact one that focuses specifically on the sculpture that I used quite extensively called Degas and the Little Dancer. For the details around the criminal trials and the murders that we spoke about, I actually used Le Figaro, the newspaper from back in 1880. They’re actually all scanned and online at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s website, so I used them extensively. I also traveled to Paris, which was absolutely wonderful. I was lucky enough to find the apartment building that Marie van Goethem had lived in. I saw Degas’s studio. I did a lot of the research right in the Paris Opera’s museum, which has got to be one of the most glorious places to research. I toured the Paris Opera and I went to see a ballet there, which was lovely. Best of all though, I was given permission to attend a class of fourteen-year-old girls at the Paris Opera Ballet School. It was interesting because despite being thirty years and a whole continent away from my own days at the bar, so much was the same—the practice clothes, the criticisms, the music, the corrections—and it really did make me feel that there was part of my experience that was very similar to young Marie van Goethem’s.
CC: When did you begin writing?
CMB: I’ve been writing for about fifteen years and about ten of that has been writing full time.
CC: What is your writing process and style?
CMB: I’m quite a disciplined writer. I start writing pretty much at 8:30 in the morning, as soon as my kids are off to school. Kind of five days a week. I don’t wait for inspiration. I worry that it wouldn’t come.
CC: How did your career progress into writing full time?
CMB: There was about a four-year period where I was still working full time in the corporate world by day and then in the evening I was cramming in some writing or else taking a creative writing class. The decision to leave the corporate world and focus exclusively on my writing came out of a conversation with my husband about having a fourth child. That conversation took place at a time when my three children were quite little, and I was very much in the mind that I couldn’t fit one more thing into our very full lives, let alone another child. It was my husband who reminded me that at one point I’d said that I wanted to get serious about my writing, and he suggested: “Well, why not now? Why does that have to be something you want to do in the far-off future?” It was really the first time I considered the possibility, and shortly thereafter I did leave the corporate world and focused exclusively on writing.
CC: Can you give us any early ideas about what your next project might be?
CMB: Yes. I’m working on another novel, historical again. This one is set in Iron Age Britain on the eve of the Roman conquest.
CC: Well, Cathy, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. We’re really excited about the audio version of The Painted Girls and we’re looking forward to your next works.
CMB: Thank you.
Grover Gardner: Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview of Cathy Marie Buchanan by Cassandra Campbell. You can find The Painted Girls and more at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in January 2013.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
The Painted Girls
Paris, 1878. Following the death of their father from overwork, the three van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without their father’s wages, and with what little their mother earns as a laundress disappearing down the absinthe bottle, eviction from their single boarding room seems imminent. With few options for work available for a girl, bookish fourteen-year-old Marie and her younger sister Charlotte are dispatched to the Paris Opera, where for a scant seven francs a week, the girls will be trained to enter its famous ballet. Their older sister, stubborn and insolent seventeen-year-old Antoinette, dismissed from the ballet, finds herself launched into the orbit of Émile Zola and the influence of his notorious naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir—and into the arms of a young man who may turn out to be a murderer.
Marie throws herself into dance, hoping her natural gift and hard work will enable her to escape her circumstances, but the competition to become one of the famous étoiles at whose feet flowers are thrown nightly is fierce, and Marie is forced to turn elsewhere to make money. Cripplingly self-conscious about her low-class appearance, she nonetheless finds herself modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized in his controversial sculpture Little Dancer, Aged 14. Antoinette, meanwhile, descends lower and lower in society and must make the choice between honest labor as a laundress and the more profitable avenues available to a young woman in the Paris demimonde—that is unless her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie derails her completely.Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is ultimately a tale of two remarkable girls rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her individual salvation, if not survival, lies with the other.