Wednesdays with Writers: Debut author, A.J. Finn on his HOT bestselling psych thriller, WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, how he hates the ‘post-truth era,’ his favorite ear worm of 2018 (so far), lifting the stigma on mental health, plus those black & white films that inspired the book

By Leslie Lindsay 

Intricate and suspenseful and utterly unputdownable, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is on-par with smart, psychological thrillers that will stay with you long after you close the book for the final time. 

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THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is the most widely acquired novel of all time. Prior to publication, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (William Morrow, January 2 2018) had been sold 38 territories around the world, and Fox 200, the makers of LIFE OF PI and HIDDEN FIGURES preempted the film rights, with Oscar winner Scott Rudin producing and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts writing the script.

Stephen King loves it. So does Gillian Flynn and Ruth Ware.

Oh, and it’s a debut for A.J. But it doesn’t read like one. THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is smooth, rich, complex, and layered. 38 year old Anna Fox is a child psychologist by training but dealing with a severe case of agoraphobia herself.  Alcoholism plays a role, too and so does her faulty memory.

Anna Fox has been a prisoner of her own NYC brownstone for 10 months. She lives alone, separated from her daughter and husband. She spends her days watching neighbors outside her window, playing Chess on-line, watching old black and white thrillers, and participating in an on-line chat group for shut-ins. Yet something’s not right. We learn this (and what lead to Anna’s agoraphobia) about 2/3 into the story.

But there’s also what Anna *thinks* she saw happen in the home near hers. Something horrific and unimaginable. But no one believes her. She’s a drunk. She’s delusional.

The chapters are short and punchy and I found the reading experience flew. I had my own theories about what was really going on and some of it panned out, yet there were still plenty of surprises. Everyone always wants to know the ending in tales like this and if there’s a twist.

There is. That’s all I’ll say. 

So pull up a spot on the couch and join me and A.J. in conversation.

Leslie Lindsay: I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to chat with you about this stunning debut. I know that THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW draws on your lifelong long of suspense fiction, both on the page and screen; was that your ultimate inspiration for this tale, or was it something else?

A.J. Finn: Thanks for making time for me! Here’s the spark: One night in 2015, while parked on my sofa watching Rear Window, I clocked a light in my peripheral vision: my neighbor across the street, switching on a living-room lamp. In accordance with New York City custom, I watched her for a moment as she settled herself in her armchair and aimed a remote at the TV. Behind me, Thelma Ritter spoke up: “I can smell trouble right in this apartment,” she chided Jimmy Stewart as he peered into Raymond Burr’s window. “You look out. You see things you shouldn’t. James-Stewart-Rear-WindowTrouble.” When I turned back to the screen, she was glaring at me.

Interesting, I thought, how—sixty years later—I’m spying on my neighbors exactly as Stewart did his. Voyeurism dies hard.

L.L.: I heard somewhere that you wanted THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW to have a similar cinematographic feel as some of your favorite classic thrillers. In fact, reading this inspired me to re-watch GASLIGHT and REBECCA. Can you talk more about your fascination with those old movies?

A.J. Finn: As a teenager, I lived down the road from an art-house cinema, where I camped out every weekend. The managers hosted classic-movie nights, film noir retrospectives, Hitchcock marathons… and I steeped myself in all of it. I chased Harry Lime through Viennese sewers in The Third Man. I watched the conspiring women of Les diaboliques drown a man in a bathtub. I boarded Nicole Kidman’s yacht in Dead Calm. And I checked into the Bates Motel with Marion Crane—who, of course, wound up making an early exit.

I love the look, tone, and pace of older films: they’re stylish; they‘re sophisticated; they take their time establishing their characters and building suspense. And they appreciate and reinforce the value of restraint and suggestion. By contrast, many modern films rocket forward at a breathless pace; they appear to have been shot and edited without much care or craft; and they stoop to shock tactics and cheap scares.

L.L.: Anna lives in a large NYC brownstone. Oh, how I love old houses! What was your inspiration for the setting of this story? Do you think it would have worked as well if she were, say, living in a suburban split-level in Ohio?

A.J. Finn: Ultimately, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is a novel about loneliness. It explores how difficult it is to connect to others—and how easy it can be to misinterpret them. That’s why I decided to set the action in one of the world’s most densely populous cities: I wanted to demonstrate how even in a place where people are living shoulder-to-shoulder alongside others, they can still feel isolated, even alienated. Also, New York is a city familiar to fans of classic movie thrillers—Rear Window and Rope, to name but two. The urban environment lends a menace and mood to the story. Or so I hope!

L.L.: Dr. Anna Fox, your protagonist has severe agoraphobia. She’s basically been a victim of her very home for the last 10 months as a shut-in. She’s also a former well-regarded child psychologist. What kind of research did you do to get those pieces of her illness and profession ‘just so?’

A.J. Finn: I drew upon my own experience with depression, which over the years—and until my diagnosis and medication were corrected three years ago—had periodically left me unable to prize myself from bed, let alone leave the house. I also consulted psychiatrists specializing in anxiety disorders, as well as agoraphobes living in Manhattan. It was important to me to communicate, accurately and effectively, Anna’s condition.

L.L.: I’m grateful you shared this tid-bit about yourself. It seems stigma is lifting. There are books—memoirs—popping up all over. We hear about mental illness more in the public (I’m really getting tired of saying ‘media’). What are your thoughts about all of this? How does it inform your writing? Or does it?

A.J. Finn: We’ve got quite a ways to go, but I agree that there’s more discussion about and around mental health today than in years past. That said, mental illness is still perceived as a failing or defect, when in fact it’s as natural—and in many cases as treatable—as any other illness. I feel it’s informed my writing insofar as I try to create psychologically nuanced characters—characters with complications and contradictions, characters who struggle. As everyone struggles, in one way or another. My experience with mental health has also endowed me with what I consider a pretty potent sense of empathy—an invaluable asset, I think, in writing fiction.  

Instant #1 New York Times Bestseller

“Astounding. Thrilling. Amazing.” –Gillian Flynn

“Unputdownable.” –Stephen King

“A dark, twisty confection.” —Ruth Ware

“Absolutely gripping.” —Louise Penny

L.L.: Besides old black & white thrillers, what’s keeping you awake at night?

A.J. Finn: I’m deeply troubled by what some call the ‘post-truth era’ in which we live. We’re at the point where it’s broadly acceptable—at least in the political sphere—to dismiss disagreeable or unflattering facts as ‘fake news’; we hear elected officials suggesting that we ‘agree to disagree’ about inarguable facts. As a writer of fiction, I can appreciate as much as anyone else that there’s a clear, bold line between reality and make-believe. Cross or obliterate that line, and chaos ensues.

L.L.: Are you working on new?

A.J. Finn: I’m working on my second book, another psychological thriller—this time set in San Francisco, probably America’s most mysterious and romantic city. In this novel, characters actually set foot outdoors, which is a blessed relief.

L.L.: A.J., it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have? Like, what you had for lunch, if you have a dog, or what ear worm is currently plaguing you? [I cannot get Bruno Mars’s “Cadillac” song to go away).

A.J. Finn: I don’t have a dog at the moment, although I grew up with six of them (not at the same time). I’ll be getting two pooches later this year: a puppy (French bulldog) and a senior rescue dog (Lab or mixed-breed). And my song of the year thus far is ‘Slower Than Usual’, by Ariel Beesley. Propulsive 80s-tinged electropop—very much my speed.

For more information, to connect with A.J. Finn via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, please see:

Order Links:

AJ Finn author photo color_photo courtesy of the authorABOUT THE AUTHOR: A. J. Finn has written for numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Times Literary Supplement (UK). A native of New York, Finn lived in England for ten years before returning to New York City. WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is his first book.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of William Morrow/Harper Collins and used with permission. Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window from.Movie poster images from Wikipedia, all retrieved 3.5.18]. 

WeekEND Reading: Stunning debut from Naima Coster about Brooklyn, Brownstones, music, motherhood, estrangement; oh, and having Christina Baker Kline as your mentor– plus more in the luminous HALSEY STREET

By Leslie Lindsay

A gorgeous narrative from debut author, Naima Coster, about gentrification, Brooklyn, complex family relationships, and ultimately, home. 

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The writing in HALSEY STREET (Little A, Hardcover) is oh-so-good. The details, the pictures Coster paints with her words are pure magic. Her knowledge of the landscape–not just of Brooklyn–but of families, complex emotions, visual art, music, and so much were astounding.

Five years ago, Penelope Grand left her family home in Brooklyn to pursue an art career in Pittsburgh. She’s back to help with her ailing father. But she does not stay in his home (her childhood home), even though she’s invited, but feels she must strike out on her own. She rents the attic in a white family’s attic a few blocks away.

But Brooklyn is virtually unrecognizable. Her father’s prized music store is gone; hipsters have moved in and reclaimed the place with their fancy cafes and eateries, their natural foods store. The brownstones are soaring in price and in come the uppity white folks.

And her mother, whom Penelope has never been close to, is sending letters from the Dominican Republic in effort to forge a new relationship.

There’s love and lust and art and music in HALSEY STREET. There’s ailing parents and caretaking, a search for self and reinvention.

And the writing! Did I mention the easy, fluid, effortless writing that absolutely pulls you and has you nodding your head in recognition? 

HALSEY STREET one of those reads that picked me. I had no idea how the ending was going to pan out, but I can assure you, completely resonated and hit me right where I needed it most: the heart.

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Today, I am so, so honored to welcome Naima to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: I adored HALSEY STREET. I’ll be honest: it was one of those books that I wasn’t quite sure about at first because maybe, I thought, I wouldn’t relate. I don’t know much about Brooklyn brownstones and I’m not a visual artist, and no…I’m not black. But HALSEY STREET pulled me in and absolutely gob smacked me. What was your inspiration for this tale?

Naima Coster: I was inspired in the writing of Halsey Street on several levels. First, I was interested in the character of Penelope, as a woman who is summoned home but is ambivalent about her return. I wanted to tell a story about one young woman coming home to a place but also to her family and to a self she’d lost along the way. Then, I was interested in the story of the place she had returned to—how Brooklyn had been transformed while she was away. With those interests, I started writing, and the story grew to contain other characters—her father, her landlords and their daughter, a kind neighborhood bartender, and most of all, her mother, who is enigmatic, estranged and haunts the book. 

“AN EXCEPTIONAL DEBUT.”

–Christina Baker Kline bestselling author of The Orphan Train & A Piece of the World

L.L.: I think we all have these romantic notions about the place—the street—we grew up. In our minds it always seems bigger, tidier, and more innocent than it really is. Why do you think we romanticize that so much? And why is it never quite the same when we return?

Naima Coster: I think that when we talk about home what we’re really talking about who is we were when we were there. We’re not just talking about the trees; we’re talking about how it felt to walk in their shade. We’re not just talking about the fact that children rode their bikes along the sidewalk; we’re talking about how it felt to be one of those children or to watch over them. When we talk about places that have changed, we’re talking about a life, a whole set of feelings and experiences, that we can’t recover. My attachment to place is quite deep, because place is so linked to particular moments in time, different selves that I’ve had a long the way, that I can’t ever re-experience, but that are still a part of me.

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L.L.: As I read, I was just floored with your characterizations of Penelope, Ralph, Mirella. Everyone is so flawed and complex and real. Can you give us a glimpse into how you created these characters? Any tips to writers for developing such authenticity?

Naima Coster: I think of characters as having layers, and my task as a writer is to traverse those layers, going as deep as I can, learning as much as I can, even if all my insight doesn’t make it onto the page explicitly. I constantly ask myself, “Why?” whether a character is making a major decision about her life or just fiddling with something on the table. I think the key to that complexity for me is spending a lot of time with the characters even when I’m not writing. I’ll collect observations, ideas, questions, and make notes, as I’m moving through the world. Even if I’m not putting words on the page, I’m investigating, and gathering the insights that will help me return to the page with something to say, to discover. For instance, in writing Mirella, I thought constantly about motherhood, when I watched films, read, listened to people talk about their lives. As I gathered observations, I was writing her in my mind.

L.L.: On a personal note, I was estranged from my mother for many years (mostly due to her mental illness), but also because she moved to Hawaii, leaving behind domesticity and family in search of something more fulfilling. Like Mirella, she didn’t really find it. Like Penelope, I received letters asking for reconnection. How did this piece of the story develop? And do you have ties to the Dominican Republic?

Naima Coster: I’m touched to hear that the book spoke to you on such a personal level! Thank you for sharing that. I knew that if these two women would be hurting primarily because of the ways they were estranged from each other that the book would have to chronicle the transformation of that hurt—either into an experience of healing, a deeper wound, or something in-between. I think of letters, or writing, as a way for two women who can’t control their anger, who can’t find the words to say when they are in front of each other, whose emotions run away with them, as one of the only viable ways they could express themselves with sincerity and vulnerability. Being vulnerable in front of someone you love who has also hurt you is so hard! And I do have ties to the Dominican Republic, although I’ve never received mail from there! I have family that was born and lived there, and so I spent summers as a child in DR that were beautiful and formative for me.download (62)

L.L.:  Ralph…oh, I loved him. I could easily see his ‘fro, his record store, the leisure suits I imagined he wore. How would you describe his character? And what might we learn from father-daughter relationships through his and Penny’s?

Naima Coster: I see Ralph as a man who had great dreams for his life. As an orphan, he started with very little and built a formidable little kingdom in Brooklyn with his family, his brownstone, his record store. These were the things that gave him a sense of his own importance and value; without them, he flounders and becomes that little boy uncertain about being wanted, uncertain about how to live. He loves music; he’s charismatic; he’s smart and emotional and feeling, but he can get stuck in his own ambitions and desires and gloom. I think one of the lessons in his relationship to his daughter is that it’s important not to get stuck inside your own malaise if you want to remain connected to the people around you. Ralph’s entitled to his feelings of loss, but they become blinders that keep him from seeing the way his daughter, Penelope, is hurting, and the ways that she needs him. I think that’s an important lesson for a whole range of relationships—despite our good intentions, we can get caught inside our own experience and feelings.

L.L.: I read (in your acknowledgements section) that you were urged by Christina Baker Kline (love her work!) to write a novel. And that she was the one who taught you to write short stories. In your opinion, how are novels and short stories different? What makes a successful short story? It’s a form I love, but feel I fail miserably at.

Naima Coster: I think a successful short story, if it’s character-driven, drops us right into the life of the character at a moment when everything is going to change for them. There must be that sense of a radical transformation, even if it’s internal, even if it’s not linked to major action, by the end of the story, as well as a sense of why the transformation matters, which is hard to pull off in such a compressed space. A good short story often feels like a technical feat to me; the novel can be more forgiving, but there’s a never-ending risk of a reader disengaging at any point, so each page must offer discovery, of one kind or another. They’re both thrilling forms to work in, and I learned to approach each with confidence thanks to the support and wisdom of Christina Baker Kline, who has been an exceedingly generous mentor, and is a brilliant, dedicated writer. She’s the real deal. 

L.L.: I could probably ask questions all day, but what would you like readers to take away from HALSEY STREET?

Naima Coster: I hope that readers can see how deeply loss forms us, whether it’s a fractured relationship between a mother and daughter, or the closing of a beloved family business, or no longer feeling at home in your neighborhood. I hope glimpsing that loss can help the reader feel compassion for characters (and people) behaving badly. I hope the reader, too, can find some hope that reconciliation, recovery are possible, however hard and slow they may be.  

L.L: What’s something you long for, even a little, from your childhood? From your childhood home?

Naima Coster: My childhood home was filled with plants. I have no green thumb, and I’ve killed every plant I’ve ever had, including a succulent. I miss the green and how the plants brightened the space. I long for the time I spent with family when I was young. I have a large extended family and whenever we got together, it was loud and tender and vibrant—it was so special the way we gathered, and I felt like a part of such a rich, expansive community because I was.

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L.L.: Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Like, what you’re reading, what you ate for dinner last night, what you’re teaching, what your working on?

Naima Coster: These days I’m rereading Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, which I am teaching in a fiction writing workshop to examine voice and point of view. It’s a jarringly wild, exciting, daring book. For dinner last night, I had a lovely red pepper-cauliflower-and potato soup with a warm corn tortilla and a green salad! And I’ve got two fiction projects in the works—one that is a kind of quest story, the other that is a mosaic of interconnected pieces told from different points of view. Both are novels, both are place-based, and both follow women who are trying to carve out lives for themselves without being defined by the past. In that way, these novels build on the work I started with Halsey Street. I’m excited to keep going!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of HALSEY STREET, please see:

Order links:

Naima Author 2017.JPG ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Naima Coster is the author of Halsey Street, a story of family, loss, and renewal, set in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York TimesArts & Letters, Lit Hub, CatapultThe RumpusAster(ix), A Practical Wedding, Guernica, and has been anthologized in The Best of Kweli and This is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Naima is the recipient of numerous awards, most recently the 2017Cosmonauts Avenue Nonfiction Prize, judged by Roxane Gay. Naima studied creative writing at Yale, Fordham University, and Columbia University, where she earned her MFA. She has taught writing to students in prison, youth programs, and universities. She currently teaches at Wake Forest University and is a Senior Fiction Editor at Kweli. Naima tweets as @zafatista and writes the newsletter, Bloom How Must.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of ShreveWilliams and used with permission. Author photo credit: Jonathan Jimenez Perez. Image of letters from , tree-lined street image from book pages/heart retrieved from, succulents from Pinterest, no source noted; all on 2.2.18]

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

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.] 

 

Writers on Wednesday: What do Grace Kelly, Elaine Stritch, & Eudora Welty have in common? Fiona Davis tells us– and so much more–in her interview on her debut historical fiction, THE DOLLHOUSE

By Leslie Lindsay 

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A stunningly lush debut from journalist Fiona Davis, THE DOLLHOUSE (Dutton/Penguin Random House, August 23 2016) is at once a foray into the glamorous and upstanding sorority* of young women far away from home living in NYC for the first time, often alone and in school. But it’s also a mystery of what really happened to one of the [fictional] characters. For me, THE DOLLHOUSE was the perfect blend of historical fiction, society and class, and mystery.

“The Barbizon…filled to the rafters with pretty little dolls, just like you.”

Long before Barbizon 63 was a sleek condo building, it was the famed Barbizon Hotel for Women,* an exclusive residence for New York City’s young, single women. From 1927 to 1981, the buildings 23 stories and 700 rooms were a lush beehive swarming with thousands of aspiring models, actresses, secretaries, editors, writers—among them Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Liza Minelli, Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, Ali MacGraw, Candice Bergen, and Betsey Johnson—who lived side-by-side and adhered to strict rules while attempting to claw their way to fairy-tale success in New York City.

THE DOLLHOUSE is a story of jazz clubs, heroin rings, and women finding their place in a society in which they were groomed for traditional careers.

Davis does a fabulous job blending two time periods (1952 and 2016) as well as two distinct characters, Darby McLaughlin (1952, and enrolled in The Katie Gibbs Secretarial School) and Rose Lewin (2016, network journalist) in this well-researched and imaginative narrative arc. I absolutely adored the historical details of fashion, social mores, right down to the mosaics plastered to the stairwell, to the narrow single bed pushed up against the wall; it truly was Davis’s use of detail that brought the story to life.

So lace up your girdle, and grab your Nestea instant coffee, and join me as I chat with Fiona Davis.

Leslie Lindsay: Fiona, thank you so very much for taking the time to chat with us about your debut, THE DOLLHOUSE. I understand the seed for this story was planted when you were apartment-hunting in NYC. You were shown into Barbizon 63 at the bustling corner of Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street. But it did not become your a40a1c853b1f8e5c408ac6f28c982232.jpghome, but the home where your imagination dwelled. Can you talk about your inspiration for THE DOLLHOUSE?

Fiona Davis: I love the way you phrased that! When I went to see an apartment in what used to be the Barbizon Hotel for Women, my broker told me that a dozen or so older residents were still living there when the building went condo in 2005, and were moved into rent-controlled apartments on the same floor. It got me thinking: what kinds of dramatic changes had those women seen, in the building and in the city? For example, in 1966 you could stay at the Barbizon Hotel for $6.75 a week; today, there’s a penthouse apartment for sale for $17 million! I started to wonder what it was like when the old and new tenants bumped into each other in the elevator, and the idea took off from there.

L.L.: I understand the Barbizon Hotel for Women was home to many women who left a mark on the social landscape of America—Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath (if only for a month), among others. Which of these famous woman do you most identify? Did any of them become inspiration for either of your characters—Rose the journalist in 2016, or Darby the secretary in 1952? Or are they purely fictional?

Fiona Davis: The number of famous ex-guests is really off the charts. I would have loved to have lived there and met Grace Kelly, chatted about books with Eudora Welty and hit the town with Elaine Stritch. But both Rose and Darby are fictional characters. I wanted to avoid including famous people in THE DOLLHOUSE, as that would’ve sent the story shooting off in a completely different direction, and perhaps steal the spotlight from my own cast of characters. elaine_stritch_2_allan_warren

L.L.: I’m so curious about your research. As a journalist yourself, I know this is an area you must excel. So many of the details were pulsing with vibrancy in the book, and that’s not always an easy feat, especially when you didn’t live it yourself. Can you share a glimpse into your research?

Fiona Davis: Thank you so much. I love the research stage and would have happily stayed in it forever. Because I live in New York, I took advantage of everything the city has to offer, including going through back issues of women’s magazines from the 1950s at Barnard College library to get a sense of the era, and signing up for a twelve-hour class in bebop jazz at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I also interviewed women who’d stayed at the Barbizon in the 50s and 60s and got lots of color and detail from them.

L.L.: Many of the women in the Barbizon Hotel for Women are pursing very traditional careers—models, actresses, secretaries, editors and writers (it was NYC, after all), but when one thinks of ‘traditional’ and ‘women’ in terms of career, nurse and teacher also come to mind, as do mother and wife. Yet, I don’t think any of the women in the Barbizon were studying to become nurses or teachers. Can you speak to that, please?

Fiona Davis:  It’s all about location. Back in the 50s (and this is still true today), it would have been fairly easy enough to go to nursing school or get an education degree close to your home town. But careers like editing and modeling had to happen where books and magazines were being written and published. Or, say you wanted to be an actress, the Broadway stage would be the big draw. So I think that’s why the Barbizon attracted women pursuing those particular careers. At the same time, being single girl in New York City was considered pretty radical, which is why safe havens like the Barbizon sprung up. 

L.L.: Aside from college sororities, do places like the Barbizon Hotel for Women still exist today?

Fiona Davis: There’s something like ten women’s hotels left, including the Webster Apartments on West 34th Street, which was built back in 1923, and the Brandon Residence on the Upper West Side. According to a recent article in New York Magazine, they serve around 127946592e923614ed195dbbb5a78a88.jpg1,000 women, which is pretty amazing.

L.L.: THE DOLLHOUSE sort of straddles genres: upmarket women’s fiction meets mystery, meets historical fiction. Would you agree with that assessment, and was that your intention all along, or did it develop organically?

Fiona Davis: I would totally agree with you – THE DOLLHOUSE crosses a number of genres. Growing up I’d always been a big fan of mysteries, and I still adore books that reveal a secret at the end, with lots of juicy plot twists along the way. I also enjoy the way historical fiction transports the reader back in time. For pleasure reading, I gravitate to a mix of mystery, women fiction and historical fiction, so I guess it was inevitable that THE DOLLHOUSE would end up being a mash-up of all three.

L.L.: Do you have any particular writing rituals or routines? Do you outline?

Fiona Davis: I do outline, very carefully, as I know eventually I’ll have to weave two story lines together and ensure that the clues and red herrings show up in the right place. As for routines, I prefer to write new scenes in the morning. After lunch, my energy sags and it’s a whole lot harder to hit a daily word count. Editing and revising I can do any time, as I find that the most fun, like figuring out a puzzle made of words.

L.L.: What keeps you up at night? What’s ‘speaking’ to you these days? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Fiona Davis: I’m loving the new episodes of Black Mirror on Netflix, which is about technology and its effect on society. Each episode its own world, like Twilight Zone, so you can watch them in any order, and they’re all pretty mind blowing.

L.L.: What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Fiona Davis:What are you working on these days? I’m editing my next book, which takes place at another iconic New York City building the year it was built as well as 100 years later. Can’t wait to get it out into the world! Stay tuned…

L.L.: Fiona, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you and best wishes on this, and future books.

Fiona Davis: Thank you!

For more information, or to purchase THE DOLLHOUSE, please see: 

fiona_davis credit Kristen Jensen (1).jpg

ABOUT 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 10 years, she changed careers, working as an editor and writer and specializing in health, fitness, nutrition, dance and theater.

She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is based in in New York City. She loves nothing better than hitting farmer’s markets on weekends in search of the perfect tomato, and traveling to foreign cities steeped in history, like London and Cartagena. The Dollhouse is her first novel.

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[Special thanks to R. Odell at Dutton. Cover and author image courtesy of publicist. Interior views of Barbizon Hotel from , image of Webster Apartments from Pinterest, Edith Stritch image retrieved from Wikipedia, all retrieved on 11.12.16]