The Public Author

By Cathy Marie Buchanan

I’ve given numerous author talks, participated in dozens of panels and joined several hundred book clubs, either in person or via Skype. Much as expected, there are questions about inspiration, character and plot, and a great deal of curiosity about how I write a book: Do you write longhand? Every day? When you began, did you know how the story would end? What’s been a surprise are the questions about me: Do you have sisters? What’s your experience with suicide? Alcoholism? Do you believe in God? I answer honestly and haven’t minded (except perhaps once, when a reader, asking why I chose to pollute my novel The Painted Girls with so much vulgarity, preceded the question with a lecture worthy of an evangelist). I sometimes wonder, though, if there is anything to the argument that books ought to stand on their own merit, that authors ought not to exist beyond the printed page.It would be a notion I pondered as I lapped up the International Festival of Authors this year.

The reclusive author—one who would almost certainly decline an invitation to the IFOA—is nothing new. In the case of American poet Emily Dickinson, it was likely some form of agoraphobia, rather than a decision not to meet her reading public, that kept her housebound for 20 years. For J.D. Salinger, it was an intense desire for privacy that drove him to request his photo be removed from the dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye soon after publication, and then two years later, to move from midtown Manhattan to rural New Hampshire to take up the life of a recluse in earnest. For Cormac McCarthy, his near absence from public life seems to be linked to a dislike for the literary world. In the only interview he would grant in 15 years, he explained to Oprah his preference for the company of scientists over writers.

Italian writer Elena Ferrante famously keeps her identity private and does not tour to promote her books. The decision appears not to have arisen so much from the practical considerations of Salinger and McCarthy as from the idea that to know an author as a living, breathing entity dilutes the experience of reading her work. She told Vanity Fair “For those who love literature, the books are enough” and further explained herself in The Paris Review: “If the author doesn’t exist outside the text, inside the text she offers herself, consciously adds herself to the story, exerting herself to be truer than she could be in the photos of a Sunday supplement, at a book launch, at a literary festival, in some television broadcast, receiving a literary prize.”

Hmm. Has my extensive public blathering about, say, the profound love I have for my three sisters, despite some pretty alarming teenage rows, negatively impacted the experience of readingThe Painted Girls?

Caryl Phillips, Zadie Smith, Aleksandar Hemon and Eleanor Wachtel at IFOA 2015 © / Tom Bilenkey

Caryl Phillips, Zadie Smith, Aleksandar Hemon and Eleanor Wachtel at IFOA 2015 © / Tom Bilenkey

At this year’s Festival I listened with rapt attention as Miriam Toews mentioned tracing a thought she didn’t want to lose into the dusty surface of her car at a stoplight and as Anne Michaels described how indispensable self-doubt is to writing, how she always feels she is striving, and was moved by the absolute care and persistenceof such seasoned, accomplished writers in creating their art. Guy Vanderhaeghe spoke (comfortingly for me and, I expect, any writer) about knowing the imperfections, the places where he failed to do what he set out to do in Daddy Lenin and Other Stories, a book that had just won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Meg Wolitzer said every novel that works has an imperative, a reason to be, and I found myself contemplating that imperative for my novel in progress and know I will go on to consider it for the books I read. While this is only a smattering of all I’ve gleaned at this year’s Festival, I can’t quite imagine how any of it can lessen the experience of reading the contributing writer’s work. In fact, how could it be anything but enriching to me as both a reader and a writer?

On Wednesday night, I attended the 25th anniversary of CBC Radio’s Writers & Company at the Festival, and as though on cue, Zadie Smith settled any lingering doubt. She told the audience how she loved meeting writers through reading their work, how she felt she was experiencing their way of being in the world. Then she went on to describe how, when she was on tour with White Teeth, she made a point of seeking out a writer in each place she visited. In Chicago that writer was Aleksandar Hemon, who was also part of the evening’s anniversary panel. She turned to him and described how his knee bounced up and down as he spoke at their initial meeting, how very struck she was by his kinetic energy. “It brought so much to reading your work,” she said.

Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls is a #1 National Bestseller in Canada, a New York Times bestseller and has garnered rave reviews and been showered with special attention. Her debut novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, is a New York Times bestseller and a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection. 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, she now resides in Toronto.

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Five Questions with… Cathy Marie Buchanan

Style: "Neutral"Cathy Marie Buchanan, author of The Painted Girls, answered our five questions.

IFOA: Tell us about the first time you saw Edgar Degas’ famous sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.

Buchanan: I first saw Little Dancer Aged Fourteen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Painted Girls was well underway, and it was years after I’d happened on the television documentary The Private Life of a Masterpiece: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen that led me to write the novel. From the documentary I would learn that on its unveiling back 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 her face was said to be “imprinted with the detestable promise of every vice.” Such notions were underpinned by a long history of often less than noble liaisons between the young dancers at the Paris Opéra Ballet and the wealthy male season ticketholders. I’d also learn of the poverty of the girl—Marie van Goethem— who had modeled for the work. I was fascinated and knew her story was one I wanted to tell.

Buchanan, The Painted GirlsAs I stood before the sculpture that first time, what must have been a field trip from a girls’ school arrived. The little girls called out about how pretty she was. They stood in fourth position, hands clasped behind their backs, and raised their chins. They lined up to snap a picture with the young dancer they aspired to be. It was impossible not to ponder the dramatic shift in the public’s reaction to the artwork.

IFOA: The ballet offers Marie Van Goethem a chance to escape poverty. You danced as a child, too. What did the ballet do for you?

Buchanan: As a teenager, I spent four or five nights a week studying ballet in a studio where there were Degas ballet prints tacked to the walls. I felt a kinship with his dancers. Often he chose to paint them—no different than I was—stretching at the barre. I think it’s fair to say that without all the years in the ballet studio, I would not have been nearly as captivated by Private Life of a Masterpiece: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, and I very much doubt that watching it would have set me on the path to writing The Painted Girls.

IFOA: When and where do you write?

Buchanan: I write in my home office and shut myself away there the minute my boys are out the door for school in the morning. I try to write for a minimum of four hours before turning to the promotional tasks that come with being an author.

IFOA: What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Buchanan: I recently fell under the spell of Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado, a beautiful evocation of the fashion scene in 1940s Manhattan and a smart, sure-handed glimpse into the hearts and minds of two women in love with literary sensation Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: One day I will…

Buchanan: … see the original wax sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, from which the bronze repetitions that appear in galleries around the world were cast.

Buchanan will read at Authors at Harbourfront Centre on March 27.