It was an honour to meet the author of The Painted Girls which was chosen for the 11th annual One Book, One Brant. This County of Brant Library program reported 360 individuals had signed up to read the book and many of these readers attended the event to get their book signed by the author today.
Kathy Marie Buchanan grew up in Niagara Falls but had ties to Brant County. She had spent time visiting her maternal grandparents just outside Burford, even enjoying trips to the Lion’s Park in Paris (this is a memory we share as I loved going to this park with my grandparents and have enjoyed it with my own children)! She pointed out her own mother in the crowd!
The author had the crowd chuckling when she talked about the #1 question she is asked: Did you always want to be a writer? In fact, she emphatically said that no, she had not wanted to be a writer. She shared that she disgraced herself in high school english which was her lowest mark and that she is a terrible speller. In university, she chose her courses carefully, never once writing an essay and graduating with a degree in biochemistry. She worked in finance and technical sales until “her world shifted” when spell check became mainstream and she began to wordsmith documents.
She told the audience that she had always had an artistic side, studying classical ballet in high school, sewing and designing her own clothes and taking creative continuing education courses as an adult. She ended up in a creative writing course where her first assignment was to describe her childhood room in one page and was hooked. This led to her first book, The Day the Falls Stayed Still in 2009.
Trying squeeze in writing time while working and raising 3 boys was a challenge and she ended up making the decision to write full-time. In the first year, she published a handful of short stories and collected enough rejection letters that “could wallpaper my office”. She confided in the group that along with self-discipline, writers must be able to handle rejection. She talked of her goal of writing for 4 undistracted hours each day, mostly in the morning as she feels she “is smartest in the mornings” and had the audience laughing when she said that she knew it was a good writing day when she was lost in the book and startled with the thought of “oh my God, I forgot to pick the kids up!”
Buchanan told the group that she watched a BBC documentary on the “petit rats” and the Paris Opera House which sparked her interest in writing The Painted Girls. She took 6 months to research The Painted Girls, starting off broadly researching France and then
narrowing the scope to Ballet in Paris, then Ballet at the Paris Opera House and then Degas and then Marie’s own history. She took a research trip to Paris and while at the Opera House, she found programs with Marie’s name on them, drawings of the costumes and mockups of the set. She even found Marie’s address and was able to walk into her building, climbing the narrow stairs and looking out onto the courtyard she later described in the book. The highlight of her trips was attending a class of 14 year old ballet girls at the Paris Opera seeing that they used the same music and heard the same corrections that the author had experienced as a girl.
For Buchanan, the first draft is the hardest as there are a “million decisions to make”
which can be “paralyzing” in their commitment as she gets to know her characters. Unlike other authors who form their characters prior to writing, she gets to know her characters as she writes – they go from “shadowy characters” to “flesh and blood people”. She finds the rewriting process as the “most loveliest time of writing a book” as she cleans up the writing preparing for hand off to the agent.
The second part of the talk discussed the actual Painted Girls including power point slides of art by Edgar Degas including sketches of ballet girls, the killers and of course, the sculpture. This piece of hard experienced terrible reviews at the time yet became a beloved example of art many years later. The public, of the time, were aghast at seeing a “girl for sale” yet the Paris Opera offered girls a chance out of poverty. The male ticket holders could purchase tickets to le foyer de la danse, a type of gentlemen’s club where wives were not permitted and the men could watch the scantily clad girls warming up at close proximity.
Although Buchanan told the audience that there was no evidence that Marie knew Abadie (one of the teenage boys accused of murder), she linked the two in the story since Degas was painting their pictures at the same time as the “petit rats”. He highlighted the scientific findings of the day linking certain facial features to a tendency for crime which Marie and the boys shared.
Through question period, the audience learned that Buchanan is working on another historical fiction in the year 60AD which she shared has been very difficult to research due to a lack of history recorded in text. We also discovered that she prefers Margaret Atwood (Blind Assassin, Alias Grace and The Handmaids Tale) as well as Eugenides, Cunningham, Alice Munro and Carol Shields.
Along with writing two New York Times Best Sellers, Buchanan is an engaging speaker who generously shared her writing experience. She had the audience considering the unfortunate situations of the “petit rats” while keeping them chuckling at other times. She was inspiring and I am pleased to have a signed copy of The Painted Girls!