Today’s radiant Grand Central Terminal belies the nadir of its seventh decade when decay, crime, and overreaching developers threatened its existence. Thanks to the genius of landmark preservationists and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the building was rescued and restored to its original beauty during the 1980s. The iconic Manhattan train terminal – specifically the Grand Central School of Art, part of an artists’ cooperative that was founded in 1924 and occupied much of the sixth floor of the building – is the star of The Masterpiece, Fiona Davis’ third novel about New York City. A romantic thriller about art and architecture, it is set against the unlikely backdrop of two of our nation’s most dispiriting eras: the Great Depression of the 1930s and the postwar recession of the 1970s.
The story centers on two women: Virginia, a divorcee in search of a good job and self-esteem, and Clara, a gifted illustrator who fell into obscurity after World War II. A generation apart, both feel defeated by life and crushed by the loss of love. Yet each woman will emerge strong and determined to chase down a lost oil painting that possesses a dark secret. As the action shifts from the stuffy confines of the Grand Central information booth to Greenwich Village to the Carlyle Hotel, they come closer to the truth. In the end, the women and the terminal – which is saved by a nick-of-time Supreme Court decision – are reborn.
We recently chatted with author Fiona Davis, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and draws inspiration from her neighborhood every day.
Claudia Keenan: Much of The Masterpiece is set in a historic Manhattan building, Grand Central Terminal. Similarly, the plot of your previous novel, The Address, involved the historic Dakota apartment building, and The Dollhouse was set largely in the old Barbizon Hotel. Do you have a particular affinity with architecture? How did that interest develop?
Fiona Davis: Before I started writing about iconic buildings, I didn’t know a pediment from a portico – but I did have a curiosity about the generations of people who pass through a place. I’ve adored wandering around well-preserved castles in Europe and thinking about the ghosts who haunt the passageways, of what it was like for a servant girl versus a princess. With most of my books I’m curious about how time periods and class differences affect a character’s experience within the building, and construct the story from there.
CK: Having come of age in New York in the 1970s, I can attest to your detailed description of Grand Central on the skids. How did you research the era of “Ford to City: Drop Dead”?
FD: In the booming Big Apple of today teeming with tourists, it’s hard to imagine the city as dirty, dangerous, and almost bankrupt. That’s what drew me to setting a chunk of the story in that era. Luckily, there’s a lot of material out there, including a terrific documentary by National Geographic that captured what a mess Grand Central was, as well as lots of photos and news articles on the era. I also read newspapers and magazines from the ‘70s to make sure my timeline synched with what was actually going on.
CK: The plot of The Masterpiece is quite intricate. Did it evolve as you wrote it, or was it mapped clearly in your mind before you started?
FD: I map everything out pretty clearly before I start the first draft, by brainstorming scene ideas for each timeline and then arranging them in an order that will keep the plot moving along. As I write, I work off that synopsis so I can see where I’m headed. This is particularly important with the mystery element of the book, as I can’t reveal too much in one time period without affecting the other, and there are days during the plotting stage that my head feels like it’s going to explode. But once I’ve figured it out, it’s smooth sailing in terms of writing, and I’m always eager to see if I can pull off the big reveal.
CK: Among the many imaginative strokes in The Masterpiece, you set several important scenes in the information booth at Grand Central Terminal. How did you come to focus on the booth – a structure that gets lost amidst the daily hustle and bustle of the terminal yet is such a recognizable landmark?
FD: That came to me pretty early on. I wanted one character to be an Upper East Side socialite who’s fallen on hard times, ending up in the info booth in a clerk’s uniform, where her humiliation is on full display. In my research, I learned about the training and incredible knowledge of the clerks who work there, and figured they’d probably have something to teach her.
CK: Of all the things you learned about Grand Central Terminal, what most surprised you?
FD: My first surprise was the existence of the Grand Central School of Art, which was co-founded by John Singer Sargent and ran for 20 years. It was located on the top floor of the east wing and had 900 students a year – the perfect setting for a story, I figured. Also, I was intrigued by the Campbell Apartment, situated on the west side of the Terminal, which used to be the office for a businessman named John W. Campbell. He created an ornate Italian Renaissance fantasy inside, with leaded glass windows, even a grand balcony with a pipe organ. I was shocked to learn that in the 1970s it was taken over by the railroad police, who installed ugly paneling over the walls, dropped the ceiling, and converted the wine cellar into a holding cell. You’d never have guessed the glory hidden underneath. Luckily, it was restored and is now a swanky bar.
CK: What are some of your favorite works of historical fiction?
FD: I loved Jo Baker’s Longbourn, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro, Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, and anything by Pam Jenoff, Lynda Loigman, or Lauren Willig.
CK: You have a Master’s degree in journalism. Did the study of journalism influence your approach to historical fiction?
FD: You bet. I do a lot of research, and not just reading books. I track down people who are experts in whatever subject I’m working on. For The Masterpiece, I was able to interview several well-known architectural historians, who helped me understand the narrative behind the struggle to save Grand Central from destruction, as well as the building’s importance to the city as a transit hub. I was able to catch a terrific exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Museum here in New York on the Jazz Age, with an array of Art Deco jewelry, furniture, dresses, and even cocktail sets, to get a sense of the time period. I also visited the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University to view early photos and floor plans of the Terminal.
CK: What are you working on now?
FD: I am hard at work on another book, which is set at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City during the McCarthy era. While The Dollhouse included an element of bebop jazz and The Address focused on architecture, this one explores the world of theater. Should be published summer of 2019, so stay tuned.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Fiona Davis began her career in New York City as an actress, where she worked on Broadway, off-Broadway, and in regional theater. After getting a master’s degree at Columbia Journalism School, she fell in love with writing, leapfrogging from editor to freelance journalist before finally settling down as an author of historical fiction. She’s a graduate of the College of William & Mary and is based in New York City. Learn more at www.fionadavis.net.
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