By Sophie De Francesca
New York Times bestseller and book club favourite, Cathy Marie Buchanan is the author of three novels. Her most recent, Daughter of Black Lake, was chosen as Best Fiction for Fall by Entertainment Weekly and Parade magazine. Her previous novel, The Painted Girls, was a New York Times bestseller, a #1 national bestseller in Canada, and was named a best book of the year by NPR, Good Housekeeping and Goodreads.
Her debut novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, was a New York Times bestseller,
a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection and a Canada Reads Top 40 Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Buchanan holds a BSc (Honours Biochemistry) and an MBA from Western University, and recently became a certified yoga instructor. She lives in Toronto.
Sophie De Francesca: Could you please give us a brief description of your latest novel and an idea of what inspired you to write it?
Cathy M. Buchanan: Okay, so Daughter of Black Lake is a story of love and survival set 2000 years ago in the northern misty boglands of pagan Britain. It is in part told from the point of view of Devout, the community’s healer, and in part by her 13-year-old daughter, Hobble. At the book’s opening the community of bog dwellers at Black Lake is living much as they had for thousands of years. However, true to history, the Romans have invaded and are inching their way toward the remote village. Hobble, being prophetic, can see their arrival and sense that their simple life is about to collapse. To make matters worse, a druid (one of the high priests of the day) shows up and is intent on stirring up rebellion against the Romans.
The idea for the book came to me from a photograph I saw in the newspaper back in 2002 of an unnervingly well preserved 2000-year-old body. I would learn from the article that the chemical nature of the peat bog from which this body was dug up had preserved the flesh and skin over the millennia. I became very interested in these so-called bog bodies, in particular in one called Lindow Man, which has been studied extensively and is speculated to have lived as a druid.
I decided I would take what we know about him and use that as the bedrock in creating a story that explored pagan life in Britain—the rule of the druids, the gods that could be merciful or benevolent, also the close ties of the pagans to the natural world and the rituals that would have ordered their daily lives.
There are a couple of druids in my story but the main one, Fox, is malevolent and fanatical. He’s got blinders on and is incapable of accepting other people’s points of view or even understanding them. I have taken a bit of flack from modern-day pagans as their druid leaders are generally considered benevolent characters.
But if you look at the ancient mythology, there are stories about druids turning maidens into deer, warriors into stone and blighting crops. While it’s true the druids of yesteryear were the lawmakers, judges, keepers of knowledge and philosophers, like any profession, I doubt that all of them were benevolent.
SD: You have been recognized for the extensive research you do in preparation for writing your historic fiction novels. With limited information about the time period depicted in Daughter of Black Lake, how did you come up with the details that are not known?
CMB: Yes, it did make it challenging especially since the Britons didn’t have the written word 2000 years ago and left us no written record of how they lived. But what I did do was delve extensively into the mythology of the British Isles and also the traditions and superstitions that have come down through the ages, which allowed for at least some informed speculation about what life was like 2000 years ago.
SD: I thought about how Hobble can see glimpses of the future, but she can’t force it. It just happens. For you, once you start developing the story, do you feel that you start to get glimpses of how it may have been?
CMB: I get to know my characters through the writing process. Usually when I’m about two thirds of the way through writing the first draft of a story, the characters start to feel real. They emerge from shadowy figures to real flesh and blood people and they begin to lead me through the story. In the same way that one is able to predict how their best friend, mom or partner may react in any certain situation, it starts to be like that with these more fully formed characters. Each of my three published novels has a historical figure at its core. For Daughter of Black Lake, that’s the druid character Fox, who was based on Lindow Man. We know what kind of an end Fox met so I knew what I was writing toward, but I didn’t know how I’d get there when I start writing. I do write down a few plot points beforehand, but I diverge all over the place from those early ideas as I write the novel.
SD: Interesting, so the recent release of this novel last October was timely considering it took so many years to write. In a generation, the remote community of Black Lake goes from enjoying relative peace to a time of mounting anxiety and polarization. Could you possibly have known when you started this endeavor that there would be many parallels to the times we are now living through?
CMB: When I started writing this book Trump was still a reality TV star, not the president of the United States. Lots of readers have asked if Fox was based on Trump. I won’t claim to be prophetic, but I think when a novelist is writing a story, her preoccupations quite naturally find their way into the book. For me, when I was writing this novel, I was becoming increasingly aware of and concerned by the polarization happening in society, particularly with our neighbors to the south, so fanaticism quite naturally became a theme in the novel.
SD: An intriguing theme in all of your novels is the idea of young love that is forbidden. Some of your characters defy the moral dictates of their families and societies to follow their own passions. What is your intention by telling that story?
CMB: Well, I think at heart I am a true romantic. I suppose, follow your heart is the message there, and certainly my characters do that.
SD: In all three novels, some of your depictions of family dynamics are inspiring, particularly where certain members offer each other unwavering strength and devotion. Did you learn these values from your parents? Can you tell us a bit about your family of origin and your experience of being a mother and career woman?
CMB: I had very resourceful, loving and capable parents growing up. Without spoiling us, they made everything possible, and certainly they never let me down. With that being my experience, I expect it’s the source of the familial devotion and strength in my novels.
As far as being a career woman and mom, writing has allowed me a lot of the flexibility that I lacked in my previous corporate career. I feel that having set, rigid hours would have been really tricky to combine with motherhood, so I’m thankful that I was able to do this. It’s interesting having my boys—young men now—read my books. They have commented on what a weird experience it is for them to be kind of be inside their mother’s head and tell me it can get a little awkward at times.
SD: After receiving a degree in biochemistry as well as your MBA, you worked in the corporate world for years. What are two key reasons that compelled you to transition into writing...I guess you have already articulated one of them...
CMB: Yes, flexibility. My boys’ father and I both had demanding jobs, and there were three young children at home. We needed some flexibility, so it made sense to shift to writing from a practical point of view. But also, I am a creative person at my core, and in the corporate world, I was working in not very creative jobs. I was always enrolled in something at night school—painting, drawing, art history, interior design and woodworking—and then eventually I hit on creative writing. I think now that I was using these courses to feed my artistic side.
SD: How have you adapted to working during the pandemic? Are you able to keep to a regular schedule?
CMB: Early on in the pandemic, I was not able to write at all. I need to write from a place of equanimity, and I was obsessed with the news and rattled. I am finding the solitude of the pandemic pretty overwhelming at times. Writing is a solitary pursuit, but I’ve traditionally balanced it with an active social life, and that isn’t the case right now. That has been tricky, but I do feel that I have found my groove again and am doing some of my best writing right now.
SD: Amazing, so that brings us to the final question. What are you working on now and what can you tell us about it?
CMB: I’m writing another work of historical fiction, but this time, instead of going back 2000 years, I’ve only gone back to 1962. It is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis and takes place over seven days. The book opens on October 22nd, 1962, with President Kennedy broadcasting to the nation that the Soviets have nuclear missiles aimed at North America in Cuba. We hear from four different characters, and each of those characters is facing a big life decision. The idea that the world might be blown to smithereens at any minute is informing the way that they make their decisions.
SD: Yes, a bit before my time as well but we have all seen the footage of children having to duck under their desks in the drills they were subjected to, in case there was a nuclear attack. Could you imagine being a child with that sort of imminent...
CMB: When I participate in book clubs and events and tell readers what I’m now working on, those who experienced that era have shared some really crazy stories. One woman’s family was packed into the car and driven from New York City to the hinterlands. It must have been incredibly traumatic!
SD: Well, it sounds like a fascinating novel and I cannot wait to read that one too. Thank you so much for this interview Cathy.
CMB: Awesome, you’re welcome!