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Wednesdays with Writers: Fiona Davis on several of my favorite topics–psychiatry, journalism, architecture & design; oh and The Dakota, NYC, and her stunning new historical novel, THE ADDRESS and how she was once a very horse-crazy girl

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Fiona Davis’s brilliant new book, THE ADDRESS, takes readers on a journey to historical NYC and into the famed Dakota Apartment building. 

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With 2016’s debut of THE DOLLHOUSE, Fiona Davis made one of the most stunning entrances as an author who knows her way around historical fiction. I was mesmerized and couldn’t wait to get my hands on THE ADDRESS. Rest assured, this is no sophomore slump; I adored it.

The Dakota. You may know it as the apartment building where ROSEMARY’S BABY was filmed, or perhaps where John Lennon died, or maybe you just think of it as a Bavarian monstrosity on the Upper West End where may playwrights, actors, writers, musicians live.

THE ADDRESS is constructed in dual-time periods, 1884 and 1985 respectively, which draws a natural suspense. The writing is evocative, historically rich, and mysterious.Beginning in London, we meet Sara Smythe, a housekeeper at the Langham and follow her on a journey across the Atlantic where she lands in the outskirts of a developing NYC. 250px-Dakota_Building

Sara is to be the new managerette of the soon-to-be opened The Dakota. She’s aghast at the primitive location–farmland and empty lots, unpaved streets. Still, she’s alone and unwilling to run home. I found Sara to be extremely likable, sympathetic, relatable, and quite strong. She’s not your typical kowtowing woman of the Victorian Era.

One hundred years later, in 1985 NYC, Bailey Camden is an interior designer charged with renovating The Dakota. But she’s not impressed with the design ideas which would trump the original design aesthetics of the historic building.

Oh but there’s more–and to say too much would be giving it all away–let’s just say there’s love and loss, success and ruin, mystery, poor decisions, passion and madness that drive the plotI absolutely loved the clear sense of place in THE ADDRESS, the vivid details and found it to be a very engaging piece of historical fiction.

Slide over on that silk settee and join me in conversation with Fiona Davis.

Leslie Lindsay: Fiona, it’s a pleasure to welcome you back to the blog couch. I was so taken with THE ADDRESS mainly because it combines several of my passions: architecture, interior design, and madness. I know THE ADDRESS was inspired, in part by your work on THE DOLLHOUSE, but what more can you tell us about the origins of this tale?

Fiona Davis: I am so glad you enjoyed it! I’ve lived on the Upper West Side for twenty-five years, and had walked by the Dakota hundreds of times, staring up at those enormous windows, wondering what it was like to live there. I realized that setting a book there would give me the perfect excuse to get inside (and was eventually able to do that, through roundabout connections to a couple of very generous tenants). As I dug deeper into its history, I knew it was the perfect choice for a dual-narrative historical fiction novel. The building had undergone many changes since it opened in 1884 on the edge of Central Park, back when the neighborhood was described by one newspaper as full of “rocks, swamps, goats, and shanties.” By the 1980s, a couple of tenants had torn down the period details from their apartments and replaced them with shag carpets and wall-to-ceiling mirrors. It was the perfect way to compare and contrast two “gilded ages,” as well as the way women’s roles and voices have changed over a century.

L.L.: So I have to know: which characters were ‘real’ and which were from your imagination? I am guessing Sara Smythe was a composite character…but what about Theodore Camden? Henry Hardenbergh? Oh, and Nellie Brown had to have been Nellie Bly?

Fiona Davis: Sara Smythe and Theodore Camden are fictional characters. I knew I wanted to have an architect in the 1880s time line, so that he and Sara Smythe could team up to get the building ready for opening day. Henry Hardenbergh was the actual architect for the Dakota (and the Plaza Hotel and a number of other fabulous buildings), so I didn’t mind having him make a cameo, but I didn’t want to try to fit his life into my story. That’s where Theo came in – he’s in charge of the interiors for the building and I could make him do my bidding without any constraints.

Nellie Bly, a journalist for the New York World during the 1880s, actually went by the name Nellie Brown when she went undercover to expose the injustices at Blackwell’s Island Asylum. She’s the real deal in the book.

L.L.: In my former career, I was a child/adolescent psych R.N. To say I am fascinated in psychiatry—especially historical psychiatry—is a bit of an understatement. I couldn’t get over the harsh conditions you depicted on Blackwell Island in the book. In fact, I’ve been searching for Nellie Bly’s TEN DAYS IN A MADHOUSE for years! (I want it in hardback; it’s a challenging find).  Can you tell us a little about how that piece of the story came to be? What research did you do?

Fiona Davis: I had heard about Nellie Bly when I was studying for a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia, and I naturally gravitated to her first-hand account of life in an 1880’s women’s insane asylum during my initial research. After reading TEN DAYS IN A MADHOUSE, I took the tram over to what’s now called Roosevelt Island to visit the remaining structure, the Octagon, which today serves as the lobby to a condo. In my book, I hope the harrowing backdrop of the asylum makes an interesting counterpoint to luxuriousness of the Dakota.

L.L.: As with THE ADDRESS and THE DOLLHOUSE, where there any iconic sites you ‘visited’ in your research (or in the book) that will appear in a forthcoming book?

Fiona Davis: In addition to checking out the Octagon on Roosevelt Island, I modeled the library for the ball scene after the one at the Morgan Library & Museum, and used the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street as inspiration for Daisy’s family’s
apartment. Strawberry Fields, just across the street from the Dakota, is an important location in the book as well. The next book will be set at Grand Central Terminal – one of New York City’s most famous iconic buildings – and I’m having a blast working on it.

NATIONAL BESTSELLER
“A delicious tale of love, lies and madness.”
— People

L.L.: What do you find most rewarding about writing historical fiction? What are 2960-Central_Park-Strawberry_Fieldssome of the challenges?

Fiona Davis: I love the research phase, when anything is possible and the ideas are bubbling away. The challenge comes when you have to narrow down the plot and characters and come up with a story that accurately represents the time periods but also keeps the reader guessing. Another reward is hearing from readers. I’ve been doing a lot of author talks in bookstores and libraries and the response has been incredibly warm and enthusiastic.

L.L.: Childhood plays a prominent role in THE ADDRESS. What item(s) from your own childhood do you still, even occasionally, pine for? (an article of clothing, toy, book, something else?)

Fiona Davis: Back when I was around eight years old, I took a book out of my local library about a girl who’s horse crazy, and finally gets to ride a horse for an entire summer before realizing that taking care of it is a lot of hard work. It was my favorite book – I was horse crazy but deeply moved by the character’s insights and transformation – and I must’ve checked out the book dozens of times to re-read. But I can’t for the life of me remember the name. If anyone has read that book and remembers the title, please reach out to me! It was something like “Ride ‘Em, Sally.” But not that. I know, ridiculous, right?

L.L.: Fiona, it’s been a pleasure.  What might have I forgotten to ask about?

Fiona Davis: Not a thing – I loved these questions – thank you so much!

For more information, to connect with Fiona Davis via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE ADDRESS, please see:

FionaDavis_Credit KristenJensen.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Fiona Davis was born in Canada and raised in New Jersey, Utah, and Texas. She began her career in New York City as an actress, where she worked on Broadway, off Broadway, and in regional theater. After ten years, she changed careers and began working as an editor and writer. Her historical fiction debut, The Dollhouse, was published in 2016. She’s a graduate of the College of William & Mary and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and is based in New York City. You can find her at www.FionaDavis.net.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these on-line hangouts:

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[Author and cover image courtesy of Dutton and used with permission. Image of The Dakota retrieved from Wikipedia, historical images of Nellie Bly (a.k.a. Elizabeth Cochran Seaman) and Henry Hardenberg from Wikipedia, as is octagon images of Roosevelt/Blackwell’s Island and Strawberry Fields memorial. Fall book wreath from L. Lindsay’s archives.]