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.
As 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.