Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Q&A with Fiona Davis


Fiona Davis, photo by Kristen Jensen
Fiona Davis is the author of the new novel The Masterpiece, which focuses on New York's Grand Central Terminal. She also has written the novels The Address and The Dollhouse. She has worked as an actress, editor, and freelance journalist, and she lives in New York.

Q: What inspired you to center your new novel on New York’s Grand Central Terminal?

A: A reader, actually. I was giving an author talk for The Address and an audience member suggested I look into the Terminal for my next book. Later, she mentioned she could arrange for a behind-the-scenes tour. I couldn’t resist.

Yet even after the tour, I still wasn’t sure it would work as a setting. The space is massive, and there are so many possibilities, I was quite overwhelmed.

But then I read about the Grand Central School of Art, which was co-founded by John Singer Sargent in the 1920s and located on one of the top floors. I realized if I focused on that as a setting, it might work.

I love the fact that my first book, The Dollhouse, dealt with jazz, the second with architecture, and this one with art. The symmetry appealed to me.

Q: Were the artists you write about in the novel based on actual historical figures, and how did you first learn about the art school in Grand Central?

A: I first learned about the art school in one of my research books. It had pretty much been forgotten to history, though, so I ended up reading artist biographies to get a sense of place.

That research helped me shape the main characters, including Levon, who’s inspired by the renowned painter Arshile Gorky. My character resembles him, but Levon’s story line is all his own.

Clara Darden, my protagonist from the 1920s section of the book, is inspired by Helen Dryden, a famed illustrator who, like the School of Art, has mostly been lost to history. That suggestion came during an interview with an architectural historian here in New York, who recommended I look into Helen. She was the first female instructor at the Grand Central School of Art, and the character took off from there.

Q: What kind of research did you do to recreate both the 1920s and 1970s scenes in the book?

A: Luckily, there are a lot of books, documentaries, and articles on Grand Central Terminal that illustrate how it changed over time: from this gleaming transportation hub in the 1920s to a dirty, broken-down shell of itself in the 1970s.

I studied floorplans at the architectural library at Columbia University and had a lot of fun online researching Terminal hotspots like the Campbell Apartment and the Oyster Bar. It really helped to have so many images to draw upon – for example, old menus from the Oyster Bar that showed the daily specials and prices.

Q: You’ve written about three landmark buildings in New York. What would you say are some of the similarities and differences among them?

A: All three buildings went through transformations: the Barbizon Hotel for Women became a condo, the Dakota went from a rental to a co-op, and Grand Central was glorious, fell into decay, and then was revitalized in the 1990s. The city changed as well, and so for me the fun is creating characters who reflect the times they live in.

As for their differences, Grand Central is not a residence, it’s a transportation hub, so I had to approach it from a different angle than in the first two books. It was an opportunity to tackle a fresh set of issues, including the question of development and progress versus historical preservation.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing a book also set in New York City, this time at the Chelsea Hotel. Will keep the details to a minimum for now, but I have to say that the fourth book is just as much fun to work on as the first one was.


Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think we covered it. Thank you so much!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Fiona Davis.

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