The Painted Girls author, Cathy Marie Buchanan, discusses her writing routine and her own foray into dance.
Did you always intend The Painted Girls as a tribute to sisterhood? I once heard the great Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod comment he did not so much buy into the old adage "write what you know" as some broader notion of writing about one's obsessions. I'd take it a step further and suggest that, deliberate or not, a writer's preoccupations find their way onto the page. When I first put pen to paper, my intention was to set down the story of the model for Degas's beloved sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. But soon enough her sister was demanding equal time. I think now it was inevitable that my story would hold up a magnifying lens to the mysteries of sisterhood the rivalry, the love. With three sisters of my owneach deeply loved by me despite alarming teenage rowsI have often found my mind lingering, wondering, stuck. What is it that provokes rivalry among sisters? And why is it so many of us the world over find solace in the strong arms of the sisters we love, that we so readily open our own? It was quite unintentionalthough no accidentthat I found myself pondering these questions as I imagined the story of Marie and Antoinette.
Were you a dancer? 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. I am a Licentiate of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance and taught young dancers in order to pay for my own ballet lessons. One of the great pleasures of researching The Painted Girls was attending a class of fourteen-year-old girls at the Paris Opéra Ballet school. Through 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 Marie's experience in the classroom and on the stage was a whole lot more similar to my own than one might expect.
Were you surprised to learn of the exploitation of the young dancers at the Pairs Opéra Ballet? I first learned about Marie van Goethem when I happened on a BBC documentary called "The Private Life of a Masterpiece: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen." To discover that back in 1881 the public had linked Little Dancer with a life of vice and young girls for sale certainly flew in the face of my modern day notions of the sculpture and ballet. Today Little Dancer is beloved, an object of pilgrimage for young dancers that world over, and ballet is by and large considered a high-minded pursuit. So yes, I was very much surprised to learn about the sway the abonnés held at the Opéra and their often less than honorable intentions with the young ballet girls. What ruffled my feathers most, though, was the way those privileged gentlemen so fully sidestepped any culpability. Forget their advantages of education and wealth. Forget that the ballet offered a chance for a poor girl to escape the gutter, to find some semblance of security. Any blame for the questionable liaisons fell squarely on the shoulders of the ballet girls. In the historical record they are accused time and again of corruption and depravity, of having the "lightest of morals."
What is your writing routine? I write every day, sitting down at the computer as soon as my boys leave the house for school. There does not appear to be any rhyme or reason to when I write well. The objective is always the same, to lose myself in the words I am setting on the page. And I have had moments when I look up from the computer, dazed. It takes a second to grasp that I am sitting at my desk, a further second to decide: Is it morning or afternoon? Have I had lunch? My head is lost in another time, another place, another life. It's when the best writing has come.
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