Zibby Owens: I'm excited to be here today with Fiona Davis, the best-selling author of The Dollhouse, The Address, The Masterpiece, and her latest book, The Chelsea Girls. A graduate of the College of William & Mary and the Columbia Journalism School, Fiona worked as an actress in the theater before becoming an editor, freelance journalist, and then a historical fiction novelist. She currently lives in New York City. Welcome to Fiona.
Fiona Davis: Thank you very much. Thrilled be here.
Zibby: Aw, yay. I was just away with two girlfriends. I had brought a big stack of books with me. I was gone for two days. I brought six books, which is... [laughter]
Zibby: One of them, the one on the top, was yours. My good girlfriend was like, “Oh, my gosh. That book hasn’t even come out yet.” She had read all your other books and was so excited that I was interviewing you, my friend Allison.
Fiona: That's fantastic. It makes my day. That's wonderful.
Zibby: I was like, “Do you want to read mine?” She's like, “No, I won't finish it. Then I can't get it on my Kindle for a while.” You have fans everywhere, as you know. Tell me about The Chelsea Girls, what this book of yours is about. What inspired you to write it?
Fiona: Each of my books are situated around a landmark New York City building. The building for this one is of course the Chelsea Hotel. It’s about female friendship and the theater in New York City and politics, which is something new that I'm layering in. It takes place in 1950 from the point of view of an actress and a playwright, both women, who are trying to mount a play on Broadway during the McCarthy era. That was a very interesting time for actors in New York City. I did a lot of research and learned all about it. The Chelsea Girls has everything that my other books are known for, which is a couple timelines. It’s set in an iconic New York City building. There's a couple major twists.
Zibby: For sure. I did not see one of those coming in particular.
Fiona: Oh, good. That's what I like to hear. That's great.
Zibby: I really didn't. I was trying to figure it out, but I did not. [laughs] Why the Chelsea Hotel? Have you been there? When was the first time you went there? How did you pick it as your next book site?
Fiona: I'd been to the Chelsea Hotel a long time ago. I remember popping into the lobby and being kind of intimidated by it. There's a lot of artwork. There's some quirky people. It’s got this wild history of being a place where artists and painters and musicians and actors and playwrights all lived. It has a reputation for being very eccentric and quirky. It was founded in the 1880s as a co-op, but went bankrupt and then became a hotel. Some of the people who've lived there, it’s an incredible list, Dylan Thomas, Janice Joplin, Leonard Cohen. There's just an incredible list of people through the ages who've lived there. In fact, it was intimidating at the thought of choosing it. The more I researched, the more I realized it was really the perfect setting for this book because it was a hotbed of political intrigue in the fifties. It made the perfect setting for people dealing with McCarthyism.
Zibby: When you were doing your research, did you talk to anybody who was affected by the blacklisting and the magazines that came out listing people's names? Do you have firsthand experience of that? Was this more research that was in newspapers and things like that?
Fiona: It’s such a good question. The whole idea for focusing on that era came from an interview I did with an actress who was ninety-nine the last time I talked to her. She passed away last year at the age of ninety-nine. Her name was Virginia Robinson. I had interviewed her because I thought maybe in one of the earlier books I might have an actress. I ended up not doing it for that book because I knew I had to save it because this was gold. We were talking about her time in the USO on tour and World War II. Her level of detail was incredible. She’d talk about how her soldier boyfriend would bring her Good & Plenty or how they craved orange juice. Then she started talking about being an actress in New York in the 1950s. She started using phrases like Red Channels and loyalty oaths. She became incensed when I didn't know what she was talking about. I realized there was this whole level of the McCarthy era that I didn't know that affected New York City actors. It was really more of a graylist than a blacklist, which is what we know of from the film industry and Trumbo. I went back to her a few times to keep on interviewing her. Again, she had such vivid memories. Her anger was just as strong today as it was back then at the injustice that was being done towards artists and entertainers. I went on to interview two other people who were directly affected then.
Zibby: To jump in for a second, I was not familiar with this either. Basically, what was going on at the time was that people in the theater and other industries were being unfairly picked out as communists for doing things like attending one single march or signing one piece of paper or something, and then blasted publicly for their affiliation with communism, and then sometimes losing their jobs and things like that. Is that a good...?
Fiona: Exactly. That perfectly sums it up. There was a publication called Red Channels. If you got named in that -- it would list your name and then all your supposed offenses -- no one would hire you. It was completely unjust. It was completely a terrible thing to do. Keep in mind, even being a communist was perfectly legal back then. It wasn’t illegal. A lot of these people were just picked out because -- for example, Lee Grant was an actress I interviewed. She was nominated for an Oscar for her first film role in 1951. Then she refused to testify against her husband before the House Un-American Activities Committee and did not work for ten years.
Zibby: Wow. I would've liked to be a fly on the wall in their household for those ten years. That’s tough.
Fiona: It was very arbitrary and really unfair.
Zibby: The context of the political intrigue made this particularly interesting. Also even without that, the female friendship relationships and the siblings and the mothers and daughters, this is a book -- it could've been today with some other political issue going on. I loved how you talked about Maxine and Hazel’s relationships, the two women, the famous actress and the playwright. In one scene, you have Hazel telling Maxine, “I didn't write back, I pulled away from our friendship, and I am so sorry. I felt dull next to your glamourous lifestyle, like I was treading water while you performed tricks from the high dive. I was jealous, I suppose.” Talk to me more about this aspect of women's friendship, theirs in particular. What made you want to dive into that relationship dynamic?
Fiona: It’s interesting when you're in the theater industry. I came to New York as an actress in my twenties. You go to auditions. I was a tall blond. I'd go to auditions. There’d be a line of twenty tall blonds all going for the same part of the same commercial. It was just insane. Luckily, I fell into a theater company called Willow Cabin. We put on three shows a year. We did everything. We hung the lights. We made the costumes. We went to thrift stores and bought things if we couldn’t make them. It was this fantastic group of people, and the exact opposite of that where everybody was pulling together. It was all to put on a show. One of our shows went to Broadway and was nominated for a Tony. They're all still my best friends today.
Zibby: No way. That's so nice.
Fiona: Oh, yeah. It’s really the opposite of that. You could see as you go out for auditions, the nature of the beast is that you're competing with people. I was interested in looking into that. These two women who both started out as actresses, but one becomes a playwright, how does that power dynamic change?
Zibby: Especially women, there is this comparison that goes on a lot between women with each other, a measuring up that's constantly taken whether it’s your body or your clothes or your life. Maybe they don't feel good about it. Some women obviously do this much more than others, which I think comes mostly from insecurity and whatever else. It’s often not addressed in the way that you did so beautifully here. Even that Hazel would have the self-awareness to know, or Maxine would have the self-awareness -- they both have enough self-awareness to take stock of their relationship and be able to apologize for it, right?
Fiona: Yes, and to go with the flow as circumstances change and realizing that a friendship is fluid. There are sometimes that one person is pulling their weight more than the other. It’s almost like a marriage, a long-term friendship. You go through cycles. You're really connected. Then things come up and you're off doing other things. Having that history of these experiences is what really bonded them.
Zibby: Do you think that men do the same thing? This is just my two cents. I don't know. From the people that I've come into contact with, men are more likely to be like, “That guy has that great job. I want that.” Whereas women won't say that at all. They’ll just be like, “I don't think she needs to come to lunch.”
Fiona: [laughs] I do think men have a different bond that I think in some ways can be even deeper than a woman’s without all the talking and the angst. Some men have bonds that guide them through all their lives. There's less of the up and down that sometimes women do. Maybe it’s our natures. I'm not sure.
Zibby: You wrote so poignantly about Hazel losing her brother Ben in the war. I was wondering -- you don't have to answer this -- if you've gone through any personal loses yourself which have made you more sensitive to that feeling of loss and grief.
Fiona: I've been so lucky in that my family is still around. I'm close with my brother. My parents are still around and very happy. For me, I probably draw on a period from about five years ago when I went through a divorce. That same year, my dog died. There was a lot of loss within a short period of time, this cascade of loss. I really had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and what I wanted out of life after taking care of other people for a long time. Now what? For me, that's what I tap into, that sense of coming home at the end of the day to an empty apartment and not even the dog being able to come and greet me.
Zibby: Aw. That's such a sad visual. That's just so sad.
Fiona: Even though it wasn’t a loss that -- everybody was still around. It was a change in family dynamics. In a way, it woke me up in a really wonderful way. For Hazel, losing her brother puts her in the spotlight. They're this family that is all about being entertainers. He was supposed to be the prince of Broadway. Now she is supposed to take up that mantel. How does she do that?
Zibby: You brought in their relationship with the mother because the mother, of course, had idolized the son and has been more pushing Hazel to take his place in a way. You had a great quote. Maxine is now commenting on Hazel’s relationship with her mother. You say, “Your mother is one of those people who comes across as selfless and caring, but only so others will recognize and laud her martyrdom. She craves control.” Tell me more about that.
Fiona: I love how you picked out these lines that are so key. You're honing in exactly where you should. For me, I am a caretaker. I like to take care of everybody. As I've gotten older, I've realized that’s not my issue. I can't take care of everybody. I can't control everything. I was interested in exploring that in the book. How do you live in the moment? How do you enjoy what you have knowing that you don't know what's to going happen down the road? That's where that comes in. Also, I've been able to channel that need to control into writing books where you do control the plot. You do control all the characters. You decide if they're happy or sad, or if they live or die. It’s very empowering to write a book because you're living in this whole other world that's all yours to play with. In the book, I like making the mother -- she's not very sympathetic. Exploring the things that I'm interested in through these characters is what I try to do.
Zibby: That's so interesting to say that writing is a way of exerting control in a world that feels out of control. It seems obvious, but I haven't heard it said like that before. It’s so true. If you really want to affect change, just make it up.
Fiona: [laughs] Yes. Exactly.
Zibby: Have you ever tried writing a play? You described Hazel writing her plays. Obviously, writing a book has some of the similar things of sitting down and the typewriter in the hotel and all the rest of it. I was wondering if you had tried to write a play or if you want to write the play, the Wartime Sonata, which she writes. Do you want to now go and try to write that?
Fiona: I love that. I see a lot of plays. I have such respect for great playwrights and how they do what they do. Having watched a lot of plays, I can see how you build tension and how dialogue is so important. I don't know if I could write one because I'd miss writing about all the behind-the-scenes stuff of what the room looks like and being able to show the character’s interior through the exterior in a way which you can't do. A play is stripped down. No, that intimidates me like crazy, the thought of doing that. It was so much fun to write about a play in the book without having to write the play because it could be whatever I want. I could layer in whatever I wanted. It’s kind of a parallel situation to when you first start writing a book. It’s this great idea. It’s going to be amazing. It could go anywhere. Then as you start writing it, you have to get specific. Suddenly, it gets harder and harder. To have this bubble of Wartime Sonata, of this amazing play which I didn't have to write, that was [audio cuts out].
Zibby: What is it like when you write books? What's your process like? How long does it take for each of your books? Where do you like to write?
Fiona: I am a plotter. I come from a family of engineers. You figure it all out beforehand. That's what I do. I do a lot of research for about three months to figure out who the characters should be and really get to know the setting, which is so important and almost like another character in the book. Then I write a first draft. I revise it anywhere from nine to eleven times of going through and showing it to my agent and to my editor and really deepening it. I tend to know where I need to go. Because it’s complicated and there's two timelines and an element of mystery, I really have to know where I'm headed in order to pull that off and not waste time. I write about a book a year at the moment.
Zibby: That's impressive.
Fiona: It’s crazy.
Zibby: What's the hardest part of that for you? What moment is the hardest?
Fiona: The hardest is after you've written the first draft and it feels like, oh yeah, I've figured this out. Then you get feedback and you realize, no, you've got a long way to go. Having been a former journalist, I really love a good editor. I love getting feedback. I love having that input of realizing what if I did this? But it’s a lot of work. Every book, it’s still a lot of work.
Zibby: Do you already have your next site picked out for your next book? Have you started writing your next book already? Is it done? [laughs]
Fiona: No, but the first draft is done. It’s set at New York Public Library.
Zibby: No way!
Fiona: Yeah. In my research, I learned that when it first opened in 1911, for about twenty years, the superintendent lived in the building in a seven-room apartment in the public library with his family, with his wife and three kids. I've created a superintendent who's a fictional one. It’s from the point of view of the superintendent’s wife in 1913. She wants to go to journalism school. The Columbia Journalism School had just opened at that moment. She gets caught up in the new bohemia of Greenwich Village and the changes that were happening among women at that time that were really dynamic and out there. Then it also takes place from the point of view of this risk-averse librarian in 1993 who’s trying to put on an exhibit of rare books. Both timelines deal with book thefts and these rare books and manuscripts that are going missing. You're trying to figure out what's going on. Where are these thefts happening? How are they happening? and these two women who are really striving to make their mark.
Zibby: That sounds so good. Do you have a working title for it?
Fiona: It’s called The Lions of Fifth Avenue.
Zibby: That's great. I'm on the library council there. I started getting involved right after college. I was a Young Lion. Now I'm on the library council. I've been chairing the library lunch for the last four years or so, which I love doing. They always have these fantastic panelists with David Remnick of The New Yorker. I'm a huge fan. My first wedding was at the New York Public Library in 2005.
Fiona: Oh, my goodness. I had no idea. And you're actually called the lions?
Zibby: The Young Lions, when I was young. Then I was kicked out because I'm too old. Now they moved me onto the library council, which is another committee. I'm a huge fan of libraries and particularly the New York Public Library. I'm excited that your next is that. That's awesome.
Fiona: That's fantastic. They’ve been wonderful. They’ve given me behind-the-scenes tour. I've been able to see where the old apartment was. There's something called the Allen Room where if you have a book contract, you can go in there and work. They deliver books right to you. I have books on typhoid and all that. It’s a remarkable place. They’ve been wonderful.
Zibby: That's great. I have one more question about the theater aspect. Then I want to hear any general advice you have. I feel like there have been a series of threats to the theater community over the years, the McCarthyism. The AIDS crisis in the eighties was obviously a huge threat. What do you think now is the biggest threat to the theater world?
Fiona: That's such a good question. One of the issues is that there's so many big spectaculars going on. They're all of films and things that we already know. It’s just recycling material for the biggest bang for your buck to lure in tourists. There's not much behind them. They're kind of thin. On the other hand though, it really is almost like a golden age going on right now. It’s really hard to get space if you're trying to mount a show because there's so many options. There's so many plays and musicals going on. You have some amazing young playwrights like Lucas Hnath and Martyna Majok who are doing these incredible plays. They're young and smart. You have Manhattan Theatre Club and Playwrights Horizons. There's all this stuff percolating. It’s new voices. They have something to say. They're not coming from the old, traditional theater, which was older white guys talking about whatever. These are young, smart, diverse playwrights who are saying something new. To me, that's really exciting.
Zibby: That is exciting. To answer my own question, I feel like the biggest threat is people's lack of attention and the distractions from technology and phones. I loved the introduction to The Tonys this year. Did you watch The Tonys?
Zibby: That hilarious little song and dance number at the beginning, so funny. At least they're aware and trying to tackle that particular challenge right now.
Zibby: It’s certainly not for a lack of fabulous content in the theater world. That's for sure. What advice can you give to aspiring authors who want to be the next you?
Fiona: I would say write what you want to read, which I know a lot of people say all the time. When I started writing The Dollhouse, my first book, I knew I wanted to do it in two timelines because those are the books I love. I knew I wanted some mystery and some clues because that's what I love. If I'd known how hard that was, I would've never, never attempted it. I'm so glad I did. It was a real learning curve. I learned a lot from doing that. The other thing is it’s okay to live your life first before you become a writer. I'm in my fifties. I'm not in my twenties. I'm so glad that the success is coming now because, A, I can appreciate it. B, I feel like I have something to say. If I were in my twenties, I wouldn't have the life experience to tap into. I encourage anyone who's thinking about being a writer, don't worry if you haven't been doing it since you were eighteen. It’s okay to start late.
Zibby: I literally just interviewed Joanne Ramos who wrote The Farm, a novel that came out this summer.
Fiona: Oh, yes. I have that. It’s on my TBR list.
Zibby: It’s really good. It’s really, really good. I literally interviewed her about an hour ago. We had the same conversation at the end. I was saying that everyone I'm interviewing -- I'm not interviewing that many people in their twenties or even really early thirties. There must be something about this stage of life where great content comes from, or the wisdom, or whatever. We were literally just having the same thing. That's the advice of the day.
Fiona: Good. I'm glad I'm tapping into the theme.
Zibby: The theme of my morning this summer day. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” I feel like I need to have an event now with you --maybe you've already done this -- and Julie Satow who wrote The Plaza. Then you can have the Chelsea Hotel and The Plaza dynamic in the conversation.
Fiona: I love that. How fantastic. That book is just incredible, and the research she did. I've had so many people say to me, “Hey, have you heard of this book? You should write about the widows.”
Zibby: Interesting. Maybe we’ll get that in the works as well.
Fiona: Sounds great. Thank you. Thank you for everything you do to connect readers and authors. It means so much. It’s so much fun to watch your success. You've been exploding, which is fantastic.
Zibby: Thank you. That's so nice of you to say. Thanks for coming on. This is so fun. Have a great day.
Fiona: Thank you.