Therese here. Today’s guest is author Cathy Marie Buchanan, whose second novel, The Painted Girls, released just this week on 1/10. The Painted Girls is “[a] heartrending, gripping novel set in belle époque Paris and inspired by the real-life model for Degas’s Little Dancer Aged 14 and the era’s most famous criminal trials.” It’s an Indie Next pick and a Good Housekeeping book pick, and follows on the well-shined heels of her NYTimes bestselling debut, The Day the Falls Stood Still. Said Kirkus of The Painted Girls, in a starred review:
Buchanan does a masterful job of interweaving historical figures into her plot, but it is the moving yet unsentimental portrait of family love, of two sisters struggling to survive with dignity, that makes this a must-read.”
I’m so pleased she’s with us today to talk about obsessions–and how writing about them may translate into strong and authentic passages for the reader. Enjoy!
Writing Your Obsessions
Years ago I heard the great Canadian writer Alistair McLeod comment that he did not buy into the old adage of write what you know as much as a broader notion of writing about one’s obsessions. This, he argued, produces the best work. While I agree, I’d take it a step further and suggest that a writer’s preoccupations quite naturally find their way into her work.
When I first conceived The Painted Girls, my intention was to write the story of the model for Degas’s beloved sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. And that story—Marie van Goethem’s—is there, but soon enough her real life sister was demanding equal time. In the finished novel, the sisters clash. They brawl, clobbering and spitting hateful words, but they love each other, too, with the fierceness of a lioness guarding her young.
I think now it was inevitable that the story would hold up a magnifying lens to the mysteries of sisterhood—both the rivalries and the love. With three sisters of my own—each deeply loved by me despite hair-raising teenage rows—I have often found my mind lingering, wondering. What is it that provokes rivalry among sisters? And why is it that so many of us find solace in the strong arms of the sisters we love, that we so readily open our own? It seems to me no accident that I continued to ponder these questions as I imagined the story of Marie and her sister.
My experience was somewhat similar for my earlier novel The Day the Falls Stood Still. I set out to write an account of Niagara’s most famous riverman, a fellow with an uncanny ability to predict the whims of the Niagara river and falls. And, yes, I told his story, but as I wrote the first draft, my much-loved father died. The depth of my grief was astounding to me, as was my need to sort out what I believed. Where was my father? Why was he gone? Why had he spent seventy-four years on this earth? Why was I here? Was humankind’s existence entirely accidental? I will not pretend for a moment that I’ve figured any of this out. What did happen, though, was that my bewilderment found a home in the character Bess Heath. At one point in the story, after suffering a great tragedy, she says, “It is in these moments of despair I most miss the idea of God, the idea that life has meaning, the idea that we are something more than the product of the random variations and natural selection Charles Darwin put forth.”
That her words echo my preoccupation at the time is hardly a surprise. We take up pen or poise our fingers over a keyboard intent on giving our readers the experience of inhabiting another person, another time, another place. And that experience is crafted in a mind fixated on faith (mine) or prejudice (Tony Morrison’s) or the environment (Margaret Atwood’s) or knowledge (Geraldine Brooks’s).
What scrap of writerly wisdom I’m hoping to impart? Brood. Stew. Consider. Be open to your own life intruding on your work. And as for those nagging preoccupations that poke and prod and just won’t go away—close your eyes and let them mingle with your characters and plot.
The aspects of my work that readers have responded to most strongly are the explorations of sisterhood in The Painted Girls and faith in The Day the Falls Stood Still. Almost certainly it is from our obsessions—those ideas we spend endless hours turning over in our minds— that our best writing comes.