Carolyn Meyer is the award-winning author of more than forty books for young people, including White Lilacs and Mary, Bloody Mary. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Marie van Goethem, a fourteen-year-old ballet dancer in the famed Paris Opéra, has led a life of hardship and poverty. For her, dancing is the only joy to counter the pain inflicted by hunger, her mother's drinking, and her selfish older sister. But when famed artist Edgar Degas demands Marie's presence in his studio, it appears that her life will be transformed: He will pay her to pose for a new sculpture, and he promises to make her a star.
As Marie patiently stands before Mr. Degas each week, she dreams about supporting her family without being corrupted like most young dancers. She dreams about a life as a ballerina on the stage of the Opéra. And she dreams about being with her true love.
In this deeply moving, historically based account, Carolyn Meyer examines the life of the model for Edgar Degas's most famous sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Includes an author's note.
Q: Marie, Dancing tells the story of Marie van Goethem, the model who posed for Edgar Degas's sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen—but little is known about this famous ballerina. How did you find information about her?
A: Books about Degas provided enough basic facts about Marie for me to construct a bare skeleton of her life—a little like the armature Degas created for the sculpture. But not all of the facts were in agreement, and sometimes they were vague; then I had to invent. For instance, we know when Marie's name disappeared from the records at the Paris Opéra, but her date of birth is uncertain. Did she really know Mary Cassatt? Maybe—Cassatt often visited Degas's studio, and possibly they met there. Did she love a coachman or receive attentions from a wealthy gentleman? Those are characters from my imagination.
Q: In addition to telling Marie's story, this novel also explores the life of Edgar Degas, the Paris Opéra, the art of ballet, and everyday life in Paris. You actually went to Paris to do some of your research. Can you talk about that?
A: Oh, Paris! After months of research—in books and online and in ballet studios—a couple of weeks in Paris tied it all together. To sit in the Place d'Anvers across from Mary Cassatt's apartment building and imagine the carriage rolling up; to cross the Pont Neuf and stare down at the Seine; to step into the shadowy church of Notre-Dame de Lorette—those were the moments in Paris that truly brought the story to life for me.
Q: What is it about this young girl that intrigues you?
A: The expression on the face of the sculpture captivated me: dreamy, tough, vulnerable. What was she thinking? What must it have been like to be that girl? Questions like that became the starting point, not only for Marie, Dancing, but for all of my novels.
Q: Publisher's Weekly calls Marie, Dancing "heart-wrenching and enlightening." What do you think teenagers will most enjoy about this book?
A: I hope they'll be caught up in the storms of Marie's emotional life, that they'll admire her determination, cheer for her successes, and have their hearts broken by her disappointments.
Q: The pages are peppered with French phrases. Do you speak the language?
A: Not so that any French person would probably recognize! I studied French for several years in school, but that was long ago. All that remains are some polite phrases (and some not-so-polite ones). I tried to use as much French as could be understood easily by a reader, as another way of enriching that reader's experience and understanding of the time and place.
Q: What's the most difficult aspect of your writing process?
A: Rewriting! I always think that I've done it right the first time and then find, to my utter dismay, that what I think of as "the finished book" can be vastly improved. Over the years I've gotten much better at accepting my editor's suggestions and using them to make the story better.
Q: You've written more than ten books for Harcourt, including novels in the Young Royals series: Patience, Princess Catherine (May 2004); Doomed Queen Anne (October 2002); Beware, Princess Elizabeth (May 2001); and Mary, Bloody Mary (August 1999). What do you like about writing historical fiction for teens?
A: Finding the themes that connect today's young people with those who lived a hundred, two hundred, five hundred years ago. Although the world has changed a great deal over the centuries, in some fundamental ways human beings haven't. I like exploring those enduring similarities against a historical and cultural backdrop.
Q: In the "My Life" section on your Web site, www.readcarolyn.com, you say that you've traveled a lot. Of those places, which is your favorite?
A: That's a hard one. I love the excitement and stimulation of big cities. Paris is certainly at the top of my list, but my list is very crowded at the top. Then I like to spend time in the countryside, away from the noise and grit and intensity. When that gets a little too laid back, I'm ready for the city again. I probably should have loftier criteria for my choices, but great food has a lot to do with it!