|photo credit: Heather Pollock|
1. Welcome Cathy, and thank you for taking the time to do this interview for the Literary Sewing Circle! Can you tell us a bit about how you came to write The Painted Girls? What was the genesis of the story?
Years ago, I happened on a television documentary called The Private Life of a Masterpiece: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. I would learn Marie van Goethem, an impoverished student at the Paris Opéra Ballet School, had modelled for the famous Edgar Degas sculpture. I would also 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 ticket holders. The revelations flew in the face of my modern-day notions of ballet as a high-minded pursuit of privileged girls. I was fascinated and knew Marie’s story was one I wanted to tell.
2. The relationship of the sisters in The Painted Girls is so richly drawn. How did you approach the work of combining real people from history and your fictional story when creating these characters?
As one of four sisters, I have often found myself contemplating the mysteries of sisterhood, both the rivalries and the profound love. I think it was inevitable my story would hold up a magnifying lens to sisterhood, that deliberate or not, a writer’s preoccupations quite naturally find their way onto the page. In writing The Painted Girls, I stuck to the few known facts of the sisters’ lives—mostly demographic data recorded in the ballet school registrar and the limited details noted in the day’s press. That left plenty of room for imagination and, of course, my experience as a sister and an observer of sisters shaped the interactions between Marie and her sisters.
3. The details of the physical side of ballet are so believable in this story. Do you have personal experience, or do you just do a fantastic job of research?
I studied classical ballet quite seriously throughout high school, taught during the early years of university, and danced with a small regional company for a number of years. Yes, ballet is near and dear to my heart.
4. I know that you are also a sewist and have made some pretty fabulous outfits. Can you tell us a little more about your sewing life - how long have you sewn, and what are some of your favourite creations?
I learned to sew in high school Home Economics class, though I come from a line of sewists so there was always someone at home to advise (or critique). As a teenager, I sewed most of my clothes and designed plenty of them. I suppose my most accomplished projects are the wedding gowns I made for myself and my three sisters. For my own, I decided to copy a heavily beaded wedding gown from 1920s photograph.
Years later, when I tackled my first novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, the old adage “write what you know” came into play, and I chose to make the book’s narrator, Bess, a dressmaker. In that novel, same as I had, Bess spends long hours beading a 1920s era gown and certainly readers will find much of my experience on the page. Lately, beyond the two gowns I made for the Toronto Public Library’s Book Lovers’ Ball, my projects seem to consist of mending and home décor.
5. There are many threads woven in to this story for readers to explore. What do you hope readers will take away?
One the comments I often hear from readers is that The Painted Girls has shaped the way they view Edgar Degas’s artwork. I like the idea of my readers scrutinizing Little Dancer with new appreciation for the artist and model, and the social forces that informed the sculpture.
6. What are you working on now?
I’m in the final throes of editing another work of historical fiction, this time set in Iron Age Britain on the eve of Roman conquest. The as-yet-untitled novel tells the story of Smith, Devout and their daughter Hobble, who has the gift of prophesy and walks with a limp. With old customs dictating human sacrifice in times of great stress, anxiety mounts as the Romans draw closer to the family's remote settlement.
Thank you for sharing some of your writing and sewing journeys with us, Cathy! We hope you'll enjoy seeing the projects we make inspired by your writing.
You can find more about Cathy here: