Tag Archives: NYC

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.] 

 

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

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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: 

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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]