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“Back in high school, I was—and continue to be—a terrible speller. There was no part of me back in high school that ever thought I could be a writer…When I headed off to university, one of the criteria I used for picking my courses was that there was no essay requirement. And I graduated with a degree in biochemistry without writing a single essay.”
Discovering she was a writer later in life, Canadian Cathy Marie Buchanan is the first author in my “Writers on Resilience” series. She has published three historical novels: The Day the Falls Stood Still in 2009, The Painted Girls in 2012, and Daughter of Black Lake, on my birthday in October 2020.
Cathy grew up with three sisters and one brother in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Her parents were teachers, so her childhood was filled with wonderful two-month-long family road trips, like traveling all the way to Belize one year.
“I do think it might be connected to my love of historical fiction. I do love travel…I love that immersion in another place. When you’re writing historical fiction, you have the opportunity to immerse yourself in another time and place, so I wonder if the two are connected.”
Cathy has three sons like I do, although hers are a bit older than mine. They are proud of her accomplishments as a writer.
After her oldest son, Jack, read her first novel when he was 16, he closed the book, looked at her, and said,
“Like wow, Mom. So weird because your book is as good as other people’s.”
Before becoming an author, Cathy earned a bachelor’s in biochemistry and an MBA, and she worked for IBM in finance and technical sales for a decade. She’s always had an artistic bent, though, studying classical ballet, sewing her own clothes, and taking art classes at night. Night school was where she finally took a creative writing class after avoiding writing as long as she could.
“I put pen to paper for the first time when I was 35, and I had my first novel published when I was 45. If anyone had told my high school self I would be a writer someday, I would have laughed them down the street.”
Her interest in history also appeared later in life, and she loves the research required to write historical fiction.
“I’m definitely a writer who has to be told to stop the research and start writing.”
I can see Cathy’s creativity and marketing skills vividly in her wonderful website, which includes reading guides for each of her books, in addition to a wonderful Book Club Kit for Daughter of Black Lake that includes discussion questions, trivia, an interview with Cathy, tea suggestions, and recipes including the Violet Gin and Tonic with the beautiful Empress gin, which we discovered through our close friends and since the podcast episode, invested in our own bottle!
Cathy happily joins book groups discussing her books. If you’re interested in having Cathy join your book group meeting, fill out the form on her website.
I asked Cathy about each of her books, which are described below with words from her website (click the link in the title to go directly to Cathy's website).
Set during WWI in Niagara Falls, The Day the Fall Stood Still is an homage to Cathy’s hometown, Niagara Falls, and it was on my Best Books for 2010 list. It’s a love story between young Bess Heath, who comes from an upper-class family, and river man Tom Cole, who is based on a real-life person, William Red Hill.
1915. The dawn of the hydroelectric power era in Niagara Falls. Seventeen-year-old Bess Heath has led a sheltered existence as the youngest daughter of the director of the Niagara Power Company. After graduation day at her boarding school, she is impatient to return to her picturesque family home near the falls. But when she arrives, nothing is as she left it. Her father has lost his job at the power company, her mother is reduced to taking in sewing from the society ladies she once entertained, and Isabel, Bess’s vivacious older sister, is a shadow of her former self. She has shut herself in her bedroom, barely eating and harboring a secret.
The night of her return, Bess meets Tom Cole by chance on a trolley platform, she finds herself inexplicably drawn to him against her family’s strong objections. He is not from their world. Rough-hewn and fearless, he lives off what the river provides and has an uncanny ability to predict the whims of the falls. His daring river rescues render him a local hero and cast him as a threat to the power companies that seek to harness the falls for themselves. As the couple’s lives become more fully entwined, Bess is forced to make a painful choice between what she wants and what is best for her family and her future.
Set against the tumultuous backdrop of Niagara Falls, at a time when daredevils shot the river rapids in barrels and great industrial fortunes were made and lost as quickly as lives disappeared, The Day the Falls Stood Still is an intoxicating debut novel.
Cathy describes her growing-up years in Niagara Falls as a little wild. As a young person, she didn’t realize it’s not normal to do seasonal work. The drinking age across the border in Niagara Falls, NY, was 18, so young people enjoyed crossing the border to party in the United States.
Cathy treasures the memories of growing up among the stunning natural beauty of the falls, in addition to the Niagara Falls adventurous lore. She grew up hearing all about people like Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to survive going over the falls in a barrel (WHEN SHE WAS 62 YEARS OLD!), and William Red Hill, who inspired her own writing by rescuing more than 50 people from the river and .
All of Cathy’s novels have spirited, strong women who face great hardships, my kind of grit and resilience stories.
“We often end up writing what we know…my mum is an incredibly strong woman. She’s 89 years old, and she’s a force to be reckoned with. She could figure out how to make anything happen for her kids and gave us every opportunity, but certainly taught us a lot of life lessons along the way.”
Her novels are also full of strong sister relationships, no doubt influenced by growing up with three sisters.
“These preoccupations do find their way onto the page, intentionally or not.”
I asked Cathy about the title of her novel.
“The day the falls stood still is a real day. It was in the mid-1800s…an ice dam formed…so the water stopped flowing…The people of Niagara Falls woke up, and there was no water going over their falls. There was no thunder, and there was no mist…Nobody understood what was happening, and then eventually the ice dam broke…and the water came back like a tidal wave.”
The Day the Falls Stood Still was met with great acclaim, including the New York Times Bestseller List, a Barnes & Noble Recommends Selection, Barnes & Noble Best Book, Indienext Pick, and CBC Canada Reads Top 40 Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade.
The Painted Girls is about sisters Marie and Antoinette Van Goethem, who modeled for the artist and sculptor Edgar Degas. The book intertwines their story with three real-life murders of the day.
A heartrending, gripping novel set in belle époque Paris and inspired by the real-life model for Degas’s Little Dancer Aged 14 and by the era's most famous criminal trials.
Following their father’s sudden death, the Van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where she will be trained to enter the famous Ballet and meet Edgar Degas. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds employment—and the love of a dangerous young man—as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s Naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir. Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.”
Cathy noted that poor ballet girls would have traveled in the same underbelly of Paris as the murderers.
“Unlike what we would think today…where we assume that ballet had always been a high-minded pursuit of privileged young girls, back in 1880s Paris, it was the downtrodden, the poor young girls who were sent to the Paris Opera Ballet School to find a better life.”
Cathy greatly enjoyed her research trip to Paris, as she was given permission to see a class of 14-year-old girls studying ballet at the Paris Opera Ballet School. She also got to visit Marie Van Goethem’s lodging, thanks to the fact that Degas had written her address on a sketch 140 years ago.
The Painted Girls was a #1 Canadian National Bestseller, New York Times Bestseller, NPR Best Book, Goodhousekeeping Best Book, Goodreads Choice Awards Finalist, People Magazine Pick, Entertainment Weekly “Must List” Selection, Indienext Pick, Chatelaine Book Club Pick, and Ontario Public Library Evergreen Award Winner.
Daughter of Black Lake appeared at the top of my Best Books for 2020. Cathy was inspired in 2002, when she opened the newspaper to see a photograph of an unnervingly well-preserved 2,000-year-old human body.
In 2002, I opened the newspaper to see a photograph of an unnervingly well-preserved 2000-year-old human body. I could not lift my gaze from the gentle face—the finely creased skin, the matted hair, the beard stubble that appeared as freshly grown as that of any man. The rope noose that brought death was still looped around the neck. The accompanying article explained that the chemical nature of the peat bog, from which the body was unearthed, had enabled the flesh and skin to survive across millennia, providing clues to the world in which the man lived and died.
I read about others, most particularly Lindow Man, a 2,000-year-old bog body that was discovered in 1984 near Wilmslow, Cheshire in a peat bog formed by the once much larger Black Lake. Scientific study determined that before the body was deposited in the ancient lake, the head was bashed, the neck garroted, and the throat slit. The findings were in keeping with a sort of ritualistic overkilling that archaeologists had seen elsewhere and that they surmised was undertaken as an offering to earn the favour of multiple gods. Though human sacrifice of the age typically involved individuals considered of lesser value, further study of Lindow Man suggested that he was highborn, perhaps even a druid who went willingly to his death.
Using Lindow Man as bedrock, Cathy explored a story of 2,000 years ago in pagan Britain. She wondered how people would respond if they lived in fear of the way the gods might react in certain situations.
“I got really curious about a society that practiced human sacrifice. But more than that, I was really curious about the beauty and simplicity of a society that lived and breathed human rituals, and it was really bound to the land in the most extraordinary ways.”
It’s the season of Fallow, in the first century A.D. In a northern misty bog surrounded by woodlands and wheat fields, a settlement lies far beyond the reach of the Romans invading hundreds of miles to the southeast. Here, life is simple–or so it seems to the tightly knit community. Sow. Reap. Honor Mother Earth, who will provide at harvest time. A girl named Devout comes of age, sweetly flirting with the young man she’s tilled alongside all her life, and envisions a future of love and abundance. Seventeen years later, though, the settlement is a changed place. Famine has brought struggle, and outsiders, with their foreign ways and military might, have arrived at the doorstep.
For Devout’s young daughter, life is more troubled than her mother ever anticipated. But this girl has an extraordinary gift. As worlds collide and peril threatens, it will be up to her to save them all.
Hobble is a prophetic seer, which puts her under threat when the druid comes to their village. Readers have described the book as a perfect anecdote to our uncertain times.
Cathy does a wonderful job of making this ancient story accessible to the modern reader. She’s taken a bit of flack for her Druid character, who is a malicious narcissist strongly resistant to change. Although Druids were astronomers, keepers of knowledge, and judges, they were not entirely benevolent. Legends describe Druids turning maidens into deer or turning warriors into stone. Druids were inciting rebellion against the Roman army, but they never stood a chance.
Cathy spent several years researching Daughter of Black Lake. Although she hired a British archeologist who specialized in the Iron Age, archeologists disagree on what actually happened then. We have no written historical record from the Britons, but we do have the Roman written record.
“We don’t know what was going on 2,000 years ago, and I can read to my heart’s content, but a clear picture isn’t going to emerge, so I need to rely on informed speculation and imagination to create a plausible world for Daughter of Black Lake.”
I had a soft spot in my heart for the story of Hobble, who was at risk of being sacrificed because of her disability. With my cleft lip, cleft palate, and club foot at birth, I know I would have been the runt of the village. I asked Cathy about disabilities and resilience.
“We know that many of these bog bodies have different indications of some form of disability. People with disabilities have to have a ton of grit and be tough to survive.”
I noted that Cathy’s books have strong women characters, even during times of strong patriarchy. She pointed out that during the Iron Age, Boudica was a woman chieftain and warrior, and the people worshipped Mother Earth, a female goddess.
“I wonder if it wasn’t as patriarchal as we think it was…women run the show in many ways, certainly when there’s a crisis at hand.”
During the Iron Age, people relied on magic rather than science to explain the world. Cathy found this greatly appealing.
“When you decide to write a novel, you know you’re going to be in a particular kind of headspace for at least a few years. And you want it to be someplace where you think you’re going to enjoy yourself…I really liked the idea of being in a society that embraced magic. I love the idea of readers reading the book and maybe the book opening a window onto seeing a bit of the magic that exists in their daily lives.”
Now in our very unpredictable world, Cathy wonders if we relied on ritual, it could bring some ease to our lives.
“…I think a lot of what they were accomplishing through ritual was really bringing a bit of order to their unpredictable, unreliable, inexplicable world.”
In Daughter of Black Lake, Cathy’s characters are named based on their characteristics. She points out that lots of our modern-day names are founded in old traditions. Devout is called Devout because of her devotion to Mother Earth, and Hobble is called Hobble because she limps.
You can find your own Daughter of Black Lake name by using this tool here, combining your number one personality trait with a job or skill. Cathy’s is “Tenacious Writer.” I haven’t landed on my final name yet, but the first one that comes to me is “Enthusiastic Communicator.”
Daughter of Black Lake, only three months old, has already been named as Entertainment Weekly's "Best Books to Read This Fall," Parade's "Fall's Best New Historical Fiction," and Toronto Star’s "Armchair Adventure" selection.
All of Cathy’s novels take place at times of huge cultural change. I asked her what opportunities she sees for us in the messages of her fiction.
“We need to embrace change. Change is coming. And resisting change is not always helpful. Keep an open mind, and look for the opportunity, rather than the downside of change.”
I was excited to learn that Cathy’s next novel set in 1962, over five days during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Told from four different points of view, each of the characters is facing a big decision, and the fact that the world might be blown to smithereens affects their decision making.
Cathy’s current fiction recommendations include A Good Neighborhood by Terese Ann Fowler, set in a neighborhood where racial tensions rise up, and The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi, about a henna artist who discovers she has a sister.
I asked Cathy for a story of grit and resilience, and she shared her own difficulties in finishing Daughter of Black Lake. The book was in the editorial process for 2-1/2 years. At one point, her publishers told her she might want to move on. But Tenacious Writer showed her grit. I asked her if she ever thought about throwing in the towel. Even on the call when they were suggesting that she might want to walk away from the book, she knew she couldn’t give up.
“No. I can fix this book. I’m going to go back to the book they bought and I’m going to get this right.”
Grit, resilience, and tenacity indeed! It was a pure pleasure to interview my first writer who I admire greatly and whose books I devour.
The second “Writer on Resilience” is one of my all-time favorite authors, Sujata Massey. I discovered Sujata years ago when she was writing the Rei Shimura detective series, about a Japanese-American English teacher/antiques dealer who solves mysteries. In recent years she’s moved into historical fiction set in India, and most recently, historical mysteries that are based on a real-life character, India’s first woman lawyer.
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