Today I’m happy to welcome Cathy Marie Buchanan, bestselling author of THE DAY THE FALLS STOOD STILL to Between the Sheets. Cathy’s latest release, THE PAINTED GIRLS, has been featured in USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, and People magazine and has just opened this month!
About the Book
A heartrending, gripping novel set in belle époque Paris and inspired by the real-life model for Degas’s Little Dancer Aged 14 and by the era’s most famous criminal trials. Following their father’s sudden death, the Van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where she will be trained to enter the famous Ballet and meet Edgar Degas. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds employment—and the love of a dangerous young man—as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s Naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir. Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change,The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.”
What is your personal history with ballet and how did it help to inspire you?
I studied classical ballet quite seriously throughout high school and during the early years of university, and danced with a small regional company for a number of years. In the studio, I would sometimes take a moment to gaze at one of the Degas prints tacked to the walls. I felt kinship with his ballet girls, sometimes glorious on the stage but often as not, rolling the stiffness from their shoulders at the barre. Years later I would come upon a documentary on Little Dancer and discover the seedier side of the Paris Opera Ballet and the privation of the young dancer, Marie van Goethem, who had modelled for the work—revelations that flew in the face of my teenage notions of the ballet girls tacked to the walls. The lives of those girls and more specifically the life of Marie van Goethem differed from my own in startling ways. Hers was a story I wanted to tell.
What drew you to Degas’s sculpture of the Little Dancer Aged 14?
On its unveiling in 1881, the public linked Little Dancer with a life of vice and young girls for sale. She was called a “flower of the gutter”, and they said her face was “imprinted with the detestable promise of every vice.” The notion was underpinned by a long history of less than noble liaisons between the wealthy men who held season tickets and the young ballet girls. While it is the nature of art to acquire new meanings over time, the degree to which this is the case for Degas’s now beloved Little Dancer made writing about the sculpture irresistible to me.
One focal point of your novel is the relationship between sisters. Did you intend The Painted Girls as a tribute to sisterhood?
When I first conceived the novel, my intention was to set down Marie van Goethem’s story, but soon enough her sister was demanding equal time. I think now that it was inevitable my story would hold up a magnifying lens to sisterhood, that deliberate or not, a writer’s preoccupations find their way onto the page. With three sisters of my own—each deeply loved by me despite alarming teenage rows—I have often found myself contemplating the mysteries of sisterhood—both the rivalries and the profound love.
The Painted Girls tells Marie van Goethem’s story and also that of the teenage boys Degas drew on trial in the criminal court for a sensational murder. How are these artworks linked?
Degas exhibited Little Dancer alongside the portrait of the boys, and art historians contend that more than the shared exhibition links the artworks. They suggest that in each, Degas sought to imply the depravity of his subjects. “Scientific” findings of the day supported notions of innate criminality and particular facial features—low forehead, forward-thrusting jaw—that marked a person as having a tendency toward crime. Those features are incorporated into Little Dancer and the portrait of the boys, and Degas did in fact title the portrait “Criminal Physiognomies.” Marie, Émile and Michel inhabited the same underbelly of Paris, and while there is no evidence that they knew each other in real life, I could not stop myself from imagining their paths had crossed, the ways in which such a meeting might have altered destinies.
The city of Paris comes to life in your novel. Did you take a trip to Paris to research? Care to share any highlights?
I did. Highlights included visiting Marie van Goethem’s apartment and Degas’s studio, researching in the Paris Opera’s museum, and touring the Paris Opera and taking in a ballet there. Best of all, though, was attending a class of fourteen-year-old girls at the Paris Opera Ballet school. Though thirty years and a continent away from my own days at the barre, I was struck by how familiar the exercises, the corrections and the music were to me. It made me think how similar my training must have been to Marie’s.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Write every day. Don’t wait for inspiration. It might never come.
CAFÉ AU LAIT OR ESPRESSO: Café au lait. I am new to coffee drinking and am being gently broken in
FAVORITE DISH: Salad niçoise with seared tuna.
HIDDEN TALENT: I am a capable seamstress. It might not come as a surprise to those who’ve read my debut, The Day the Falls Stood Still.
BIGGEST VICE: I really like salt.
BEST PLACE ON EARTH: My cottage. By the lake at sunset. Margarita with salted rim in hand.
CATHY MARIE BUCHANAN is the author of The Painted Girls and The Day the Falls Stood Still. Published January 2013, The Painted Girls received a starred review from Kirkus and is a People Magazine Pick, a Good Housekeeping Book Pick, an Indie Next pick, a USA Today New and Notable selection, a Barnes & Noble Staff Pick, an Entertainment Weekly Must List pick, a Chatelaine Book Club pick and a national bestseller in Canada. The Day the Falls Stood Still, her dedut novel, was a New York Times bestseller, a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection, and an IndieNext pick. Her stories have appeared in many of Canada’s most respected literary journals, and she has received awards from both the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council. She holds a BSc (Honours Biochemistry) and an MBA from Western University. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto.
Visit Cathy at her website HERE.