Every summer since 2016, Fiona Davis has delighted readers with her historical fiction set in Manhattan. In her fourth novel, Chelsea Girls (Dutton, July)—as in her previous three—Davis has woven a legendary New York City building into the heart of the story. We asked Davis to tell us how she chose these particular landmarks. Here’s what she told us.
The Dollhouse (2016)
The idea for The Dollhouse came when I was looking for a place to live, and my broker took me to the Barbizon 63 condo. I didn’t end up buying an apartment there, but I walked out with a great idea for a book, centered around the dozen or so women who have lived in the Barbizon for decades and were grandfathered into rent-controlled apartments on the fourth floor when it went condo in 2005. I was curious to know what it was like when the guy from the $17 million penthouse runs into one of the long-term residents in the elevator, and the story built out from there.
The Address (2017)
I had been considering a number of landmark buildings for my second book, but nothing was clicking. One day, I emerged from the subway at 72nd Street [and Central Park West] as the Dakota loomed above me, glowing in the morning sunlight like it was saying, “Pick me!” Its history was fascinating, and I loved the photos from when it was first constructed in a part of town that was known for swamps and shanties. Since I work with two time lines, I figured the 1880s Dakota would provide a stark contrast with the modern residence we know today.
The Masterpiece (2018)
I was doing an author talk for my second book when a reader offered to get me a behind-the-scenes tour of Grand Central Terminal, which then became the inspiration for book number three, The Masterpiece. The myriad of possible scene settings in the terminal made it the ideal choice, as did a surprising discovery: that in the 1920s the painter John Singer Sargent cofounded an art school on the top floor that existed for 20 years and enrolled 900 students a year. I know, if something surprises me, it will probably also surprise the reader, so from there I was all in.
The Chelsea Girls (2019)
The idea for The Chelsea Girls came from speaking with a 98-year-old actress named Virginia Robinson, who had acted in New York for decades, and recounted stories about the treatment of New York actors during the McCarthy era that made me shiver. The Chelsea Hotel seemed like the perfect locale for this story, as it harbored outspoken poets, playwrights, actors, and musicians throughout the 20th century. Even though the hotel was under renovation as I wrote the manuscript, I was able to get a look inside via a current resident.
Right now, I’m working on a book set in the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. I learned that when it first opened, in 1911, the superintendent of the library lived in a seven-room apartment inside with his wife and children. That it was a family home as well as a revered institution fascinated me, and the book will jump back and forth between 1913 and 1993. Luckily, New York City has a vast number of iconic buildings to choose from—although I often joke that in 10 years I’ll be covering the gas station on the corner of 51st and Eleventh.
Today, 11:30 a.m.–noon. Fiona Davis will sign at Table 4.