Editor’s Note: WomanScape (WS) continues to celebrate the masterful journey of the New York Times best-selling author, Fiona Davis. Her captivating tales have attracted thousands of fans who love her creative approach to unearthing the unique histories of women connected to landmark buildings in New York City. Consistent themes unite her characters, who struggle to overcome fear and the challenges of career, family life and relationships. Visit FionaDavisBooks.com to see a list of her publications and The Collected Stories From Suffragette City.
Fiona sat down with WS’s Sipping on Stories podcast to share a few insights about her latest work The Lions of Fifth Avenue, the joys and curiosities that fuel her writing process, and the exciting news about the upcoming January 2022 release of her sixth novel, The Magnolia Palace. Available this May, listen to the podcast and enjoy writer Yara Zgheib’s interview with Fiona from the Fall of 2019.
Actress, author, storyteller. Maker of her own destiny.
New Yorkers never sleep, but morning is always a good excuse for coffee. Nestled by the window, Fiona Davis cups hers and skims the New York Times leisurely. The tree just outside her window is positively overrun with birds; it was they, not the traffic, that woke her up this morning. She looks out at the city she loves, the actress turned storyteller. A chat.
Fiona, your own story itself is novel worthy: Tell us about the young Canadian girl who took a bus to fame and New York City.
My parents are British, and we moved all over the United States while I was young. The journeys were pretty jarring for me. I got involved with the drama club because it was where I felt I fit in best. After college I decided to head to acting school in New York City. Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking!
It was a blast. I joined a wonderful theater company. We did Shakespeare, Wilder, Genet – so many classics. We hung lights, made costumes, and raised money to produce three shows a year. One even moved to Broadway and was nominated for a Tony award.
But as I hit my late twenties, I started getting itchy for something more, so I applied to Columbia Journalism School and it changed my life. I fell in love with writing, leapfrogging from editor to freelance journalist before finally finding myself in historical fiction.
How did that encounter happen?
On a hunt for a new apartment. At the Barbizon 63 Condo, a sumptuous historic landmark that used to be the Barbizon Hotel for Women. I learned that some of the old residents were still living there, grandfathered into rent-controlled apartments on the fourth floor. None would agree to an interview, but I could just imagine the stories they would have of their experiences in this building and city. So I decided to write a novel instead, about the people while recreating the real-life framework with fictional characters.
It was an absolute joy, and I haven’t looked back since. I found my love crafting characters and a story, and using this city’s landmarks as my inspiration.
Your stories do whisk us off on adventures across time and gilded, artful settings. Tell us about the heroines who go on them.
I like stories in which women carve out their own way, actively pursuing their own destiny. All of my characters are fighting to find a certain truth and discover their own voice in the process.
For instance, in The Dollhouse, both my heroines have unconventional goals: Darby, in 1952, is determined to do well in secretarial school and never marry, while Rose, in 2017, deals with loss by becoming obsessed with solving a mystery. In The Address, my heroines, a hundred years apart, are fighting for opportunity and success but are stymied by the rules of society and their own demons. And in my latest novel, The Masterpiece (to be released in August), the story is set in Grand Central Terminal: one woman fights for recognition as an artist during the Jazz Age, while decades later, a down-on-her-luck socialite takes a job in the information booth.
Do you relate to your characters? Are there snippets of you in them?
You bet. I made Rose, in The Dollhouse, a journalist, because I could have her be nosy and get into lots of trouble. Sara, in The Address, comes to New York from London to be a housekeeper, and like her, I’ve often felt that I don’t quite belong in America.
What about New York, though? You paint it so beautifully.
Well, I’ve been here for 30 years now, to the point where I go downtown and say curmudgeonly things like, “I remember when this used to be an off-Broadway theater, way back in the ‘90s!” All of my friends are here and it’s just home. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
New York reappears as the setting for your new novel: Chelsea Girls, a story of friendship between two women performers during the McCarthy era. Specifically, the action takes place in the iconic Chelsea Hotel. What drew you to it?
I love to explore an aspect of the arts in each book, really dive into what it means to the city’s history and the artist themselves. Past books have featured illustration, jazz, and architecture.
The Chelsea Hotel has such a rich history of artists of all kinds – playwrights, visual artists, musicians, poets – passing through its doors, that it seemed like a perfect fit.
I was particularly inspired by the fact that Arthur Miller lived in the Chelsea for several years (He wrote a marvelous essay on the subject, called The Chelsea Affect, which I highly recommend). For me, the hotel is quirky, inviting, and intimidating, all at the same time. I couldn’t resist.
Many classic Fiona Davis themes are present in this new book (New York, female friendship, cultural heritage), but also some new ones: America under McCarthyism, the pervasive influence of politics. How and why is this novel different?
I was lucky enough to interview several actors and acting teachers in their 90s who recounted their lives during the McCarthy era in New York, and was stunned at how little I understood the time period and the anguish they faced, of having to choose between career and friendships, success and ruin. In this book, I wanted to explore the myriad of ways that America was torn apart in the hunt for spies or anyone suspected of being a communist, and the terrible choices innocent people were faced with.
Can certain parallels and lessons be drawn from this novel, and applied to America today?
Today, there’s a lot of talk of witch hunts. I was interested in elucidating exactly what that means; why words matter. I wanted to reflect on how lives can be ruined if there isn’t transparency, and how one man rode a wave of national ignorance that, looking back, resulted in one of the most shameful periods in our nation’s history.
Tell us about a few dreams you have for the future.
Sometime in the new few years, I would like a lovely cottage outside the city with a garden, where friends could gather around a dinner table and sit for hours, drinking and talking. Also, my dog died a couple of years ago, and it might soon be time for another. But there is also so much to be said about living in the moment, and I love my life right now. I’m able to travel around the country and meet booksellers and readers, to hear their stories and how my books have helped them. Now that’s a dream come true.
And what would you tell a young woman with big dreams who just picked up your book?
First, don’t feel like you have to decide in your twenties what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. I changed careers like clockwork every decade, and only now, in my early fifties, have I found success and personal fulfillment. Second, start saving young and make sure you can always take care of yourself financially. I had a 401(k) in my twenties, when I was an actress moonlighting as a legal secretary, for goodness sake! Don’t depend on someone else to take care of you. That way, you’ll be free to make healthy, bold decisions.
Thank you, this has been wonderful. A whimsical parting note seems appropriate, perhaps: What are three quirky little things about you?
One of my ancestors was the butler to Henry VIII, I have prosopagnosia (facial blindness – it’s hard for me to recognize faces), and, if called for, I can bang out Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique on the piano.