Author Cathy Marie Buchanan

Author Cathy Marie Buchanan, who has a new novel based in 19th century Paris called The Painted Girls, poses in a dance studio in Toronto Wednesday, January 9, 2013. (Darren Calabrese, National Post / January 8, 2013)

A: Well, I have to say that my parents didn't encourage it. That's not to blame them, because where I grew up, there wasn't much of a tradition of people making a living as artists of any kind. It's true that at one point I had a scholarship to go and study at a higher level, and they told me that I couldn't accept it because I needed to work and earn money for college. If I'd really put my foot down, I probably could have had my way, but I didn't. I guess I didn't want it enough.

Q: Maybe writing the book was, for you, a way of vicariously having an experience that you missed in real life.

A: Yes, I think so, and the sense of kinship was always very strong. At one point I went to Paris to do research for the book. I went to the building where Marie lived, I went to the building where Degas had his studio. I also was able to attend a class for 14-year-olds at the Paris Opera, which was a great privilege because so few people get that opportunity, and was struck by the fact what they were doing — the positions, the corrections, the general atmosphere of the place — was so similar to what I experienced as a young dancer. So we really did have a lot in common.

Q: Why historical fiction, by the way? Why not write about contemporary life — especially when, in some quarters, historical fiction is viewed as a second-tier genre?

A: I'm aware of that prejudice, but it doesn't bother me. I love doing research, for one thing. I love bringing a sense of reality to a faraway time and place; my third novel, which I'm working on now, is set during the Iron Age. And I think we can learn a lot about the present from the past. The plight of the young girls of the Paris Opera in 1880 is not so different, in some ways, from the young girls in pop music and other fields in 2013 who are being objectified and "painted" as sexpots.

Q: Of course, in many cases, many of those young women are participating in their own objectification. Britney Spears, for example, is surely in control of her own image these days.

A: True, but she's also a product of the culture. It's hard not to imagine that many of her handlers didn't always have her best interests at heart.

Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.

"The Painted Girls"

By Cathy Marie Buchanan, Riverhead Books, 349 pages, $27.95


Cathy Marie Buchanan will appear at an 11:30 a.m. luncheon event at Lake Forest Book Store on Feb. 14.