Cathy Marie Buchanan: Finding the Writing Life

Earlier this year, when Cathy Marie Buchanan asked if I’d read her new novel, The Painted Girls, I jumped at the chance. I loved her debut, The Day the Falls Stood Still, and this new one … Sisters, dance, art, ambition, and intrigue in late 1800s Paris – what was there not to like? I’m just delighted to see how well it is doing now that it’s out: it’s a People Magazine Pick, a Good Housekeeping Book Pick, an Indie Next pick, a USA Today New and Notable selection, a Barnes & Noble Staff Pick, and an Entertainment Weekly Must List pick – and already a national bestseller in Canada! And she’s one of that rare breed of writers: someone who didn’t want to be a writer from the time she was in diapers. Or one of us who is willing to admit she took some time to settle into the writing life. – Meg

I’m often asked if I always wanted to be a writer, and I answer is a definitive no. My teenage years were spent disgracing myself in high school English, often getting upwards of twenty percent deducted for spelling mistakes on exams.  When it came time to head off to university, one of the criteria I used for picking my courses was that no essay writing?that is spelling?was required.  I ended up at Western University and graduated with a degree in biochemistry without writing a single essay.  Afterward I went on to do an M.B.A.

I spent the bulk of my non-writing work life at IBM—ten years, in fact—at first in finance and then in technical sales.  It was while I was at IBM that spell-check started to be commonly used, and all of a sudden my world shifted.  Shocking though it was, I became the departmental wordsmith, the person who would give the proposals the final read through before they were sent off to the customers. Still, I suspected this supposed ability to write had more to do with the fact that I was mostly working with engineers, and math and computer science grads.  It wasn’t so much that I could write but that they could not. 

Given my education and early work life choices, you probably would not suspect it, but there was lots of evidence early on of my creative leanings.  In high school, I was quite serious about classical ballet, spending four or five nights a week taking class or performing, and I sewed and designed most of my clothes.  I think now that I was able to satisfy my creative yearnings through the dance and the sewing. Cathy Marie Buchanan Author Photo

While I was working at IBM, I was always enrolled in a continuing education course, always something with an artistic bent, no doubt an effort to fuel my creative side.  I took drawing and painting and art history and woodworking and interior design.  Eventually I hit on creative writing but taking that first course was more of a whim than anything else.  I had a continuing education catalogue at home and was flipping pages and thought, well, why not give creative writing a try?  Right from the first class, though, I was smitten.  Long last, I’d found what I was meant to do. – Cathy



  1. says

    What a great success story! I’m wondering how Cathy, as a first time novelist whose background was in a totally different field, managed to capture the attention and faith of an agent and then a publisher. Time and time again we hear that talented newbies have it tough, because publishers can’t risk “discovering” and marketing a new voice, and don’t want to sign an unknown with no previous publications. What was her secret?

  2. says

    I count the day my agent took me on as the day I was hauled from the murk of the woods onto the lit path.

    I got my agent through the standard query letter process. I had quite a few publishing credits with lit fiction magazines and also mentioned that the book had been critiqued by several published authors (I named them). I assume this was helpful in encouraging my agent to ask for the first few chapters.

    Once I had the agent (she is very highly regarded) and had done a further year’s worth of rewriting with her guidance, she handled finding a publisher. That part only took a few days. Moral of the story: an excellent agent is key!

  3. says

    This is definitely an inspiring post, Cathy! Thank you for sharing. I’m looking forward to the “First Books” chat next week. I just pubbed my first novel a couple of weeks ago, and am hoping it’ll find some readers!

  4. says

    I love this post! Usually I read about authors that have always wanted to be one, so this really different. But it’s great. I have Painted Girls on my ‘to-read’ list but I’m going to have to move it up to the top now 🙂