“If you’re a regular in our circle, you’ve likely noticed that the way we gather has changed a bit. At a time when most of us are in our own little bubbles at home, I decided to expand this community a bit more to get to know, explore and support other communities. But an integral part of The Modern Bee are the voices of our circle, the heart of our community. That being said, I am thrilled to bring back some voices, starting with that of author Fiona Davis. Having had the opportunity to talk with Fiona was a real treat because I have long been a big fan of her historical fiction novels, each with a legendary New York City landmark playing an integral role in the plot line. So, without further adieu…” – Michaela
The past is always with us! You write gripping historical fiction, with the “main character” always being a landmark, NYC location–like Grand Central Terminal in The Masterpiece or the Barbizon in The Dollhouse, and the protagonists having stories that intertwine through different periods of time. What draws you to certain landmarks and shows you a story you wish to tell?
I’m intrigued by buildings that have a layer of history to them, and that have changed over time. Through the novels, I’m able to also uncover how the people’s lives within the buildings have changed over the decades. And that applies to the city, as well. For example, the hotel in The Dollhouse went from being a women’s hotel to a luxury condo, and I wrote that story because I wanted to explore what it must be like when the guy who bought the $17 million penthouse meets the old-time residents in the elevator – the ones who pay $250 a month for a studio with a kitchenette. That same dynamic was playing out in the city at large, and here was this perfect microcosm. It was too good to pass up.
You’ve covered so many different eras and communities — from the “pioneering” of the Upper West Side with the construction of The Dakota in the 1880s in The Address to the hysteria of the McCarthy era and its effect on the artistic set at the Chelsea Hotel in the 1950s in The Chelsea Girls. If you could experience New York City in one of these eras, what would it be and why?
Great question. I would love to be in New York in the 1920s because the fashions were so much fun. But I think mostly I’d also want to see what the Upper West Side of the 1880s was like, back when the Dakota was being built and that area of town consisted of swamps and shanties. To watch this magnificent apartment house rise up from what was basically a wasteland would have been an absolute treat.
You are clearly a fan of old New York, which can be argued in many ways, had a heck of a lot more character than the sanitized, glass towered metropolis of today. There are historic preservation initiatives and councils, but what can be done on a more grassroots level to make sure that the past is honored in a liveable way?
The Municipal Art Society has been around a long time, and was the organization that helped to save Grand Central from being destroyed in the 1970s. They galvanized jaded New Yorkers at a time when the city was almost bankrupt, starting with a grass roots effort that attracted high-profile citizens like Jackie Onassis to march and protest, and ultimately they won the fight. But preservation is a tricky concept, and the decisions of what to save and what to take down have to be carefully thought out. I think most New Yorkers believe that the city that existed when they first moved there is the city that should be protected, but that’s not necessarily the case. New York has always transformed over time, from farmland to townhouses to big apartment buildings; the skyline has never been fixed.
It’s a beautiful day, it’s your favorite season and you have an entire day without any fixed plans in New York City. How would you spend it?
I’d head to the Frick Collection and wander around, imagining what it was like as a residence in the Gilded Age. Then I’d stop by the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and look through issues of women’s magazines from the 1950s in the Reading Room, as the tourists pop in and out. Finally, I’d take a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge as the sun sets over Manhattan.
Dorothy Parker wrote in My Home Town: “London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it…” What “is” New York to you?
That’s a terrific quote. I think that’s a uniquely American sentiment. Because New York doesn’t have centuries of history anchoring it down, it’s possible to imagine that anything can happen. The city has always attracted young artists and writers hoping to make it big, and because we’re all tightly packed together, the chance that you can run into someone who might change your life, or perhaps send it shooting off on a different track than you imagined, is probably pretty good.
And we always wrap up here with some light hearted questions. What is your take on:
The most iconic New York City film? Hannah and her Sisters. Favorite lesser known museum or landmark in New York City? The Frick Collection. The best spot in New York City for people watching? Grand Central Terminal. A hot dog from Nathan’s Famous or from Gray’s Papaya? Gray’s Papaya. And the most controversial question…the legendary black and white cookie: delicious or disgusting? Carbs covered in sugar? Delicious in any form!
Fiona’s latest novel, The Lions of Fifth Avenue is set in the iconic New York Public Library; it’ll be released on July 21, but you can pre-order a copy now (I did!) In the meantime, you can also keep up with Fiona over here.