inspires a novel
By Marjo Johne
19th-century French artist best known for his
paintings depicting the young ballet dancers
of the Paris Opéra. Now hailed as a ground-
breaking masterpiece, Little Dancer Aged 14
was widely criticized by audiences who found
the wax figure’s face ugly and vulgar—a “bes-
tial effrontery,” in the words of one critic.
Buchanan, who studied ballet in her
youth, was fascinated by the documentary’s
account of Marie van Goethem, the young,
impoverished ballerina on whom the sculpture was modelled.
IF WRITERS ARE born and not made, then
the innate scribe within Cathy Marie
Buchanan was exceptionally adept at staying
concealed for much of her life.
Buchanan, a Toronto writer who made
the New York Times best-seller list with her
debut novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still
(HarperCollins, 2009), never saw herself living the writing life, even after she discovered
she had a way with words.
“So many writers say they had always
wanted to be a writer, but that wasn’t the case
with me,” says Buchanan, who explains she
became “smitten” when she took a creative-writing course while working in technical sales at IBM.
She spent six months doing research.
She travelled to Paris, where she watched a
class of 14-year-old dancers at the Palais
Garnier, home of the Paris Opéra. She visited the apartment building
on rue de Douai where van
The Costco Connection
Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls
is available in most Costco warehouses.
Encouraged by her husband,
she eventually left the corporate world to pursue writing
as a career.
Goethem had lived with her
mother and her two sisters,
Antoinette and Charlotte.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll try this
for two years to see if it
pans out,” recalls Buchanan,
a 49-year-old mother of
three boys ages 14 to 18.
Marjo Johne is a Toronto-based journalist.
Cathy Marie Buchanan
“I saw how dark and
dingy and narrow the stairwell was,” she recalls.
When Buchanan started
writing, her intention was
to focus on Marie van
With the January release
of her second novel, The
Painted Girls, there’s no
doubting or denying that
Buchanan is a writer, born and made—a masterful narrator who can start with historical
people and places and overlay them with
powerful stories from her imagination. It’s a
skill she ably demonstrated in her first novel,
a love story set against the tumultuous backdrop of Niagara Falls at a time when hydroelectric power was changing people’s lives.
“But I write every day. I don’t wait for
inspiration. I try to write first, for about four
hours a day, and do less taxing things in the
afternoon,” she says.
The first few months she spent writing
The Painted Girls were a difficult time, says
Buchanan, because she was also travelling and
promoting The Day the Falls Stood Still. But
she knew the story she wanted to tell in The
Painted Girls, and by the time her first book
was released she had nailed her characters.
“The Painted Girls sold at auction in the
U.S., where a bunch of editors were interested
in it,” says Buchanan. “I spoke to each of them
on the phone to get a feel for them and for
them to get a feel for me—a lovely process to
She may soon get to do it all over again.
Buchanan has started work on a third novel,
this time a story set in Celtic Britain, based on
a news article about a body found in a bog.
“I’m in that place where you’ve polished
and finished a book that’s hit the shelves and
then you start again with a first draft,” she
says. “It’s an exciting journey.” C
“But then Antoinette’s
character started speaking
up,” says Buchanan. “And the
book also became about sisterhood.”
Buchanan certainly had a lot of sister-
hood material to draw from in her own life;
she grew up one of four daughters.
“We were extremely close, but like Marie
and Antoinette we had our challenges,” she
laughs. “We used to throw punches at each
other and hit each other with this wire brush.”
The idea for The Painted Girls came to
Buchanan while she was watching a docu-
mentary about Little Dancer Aged 14, a con-
troversial sculpture by Edgar Degas, the
It took Buchanan about three and a half
years to research, write and rewrite The
Painted Girls. She describes herself as a slow
writer who produces, on a good working
day, about 500 words of copy.