Taking readers to old New York

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Author Fiona Davis focuses her new historical novel on the Dakota


  • Book jacket for "The Address."

  • Fiona Davis. Photo: Kristen Jensen

When author Fiona Davis was younger, her parents would often take her and her brother on manor house and palace tours during family trips to England. These medieval detours, which Davis now suspects were taken in an effort to keep her and her brother from fighting during long car trips, always thrilled her — she couldn't help but imagine what life was like for the people who lived there centuries ago.

That childhood pastime has now turned into a career for Davis. The former journalist's latest historical novel, “The Address,” takes place in the Dakota, the Upper West Side building made famous after John Lennon's murder. Publication date is August 1.

The plot skips between time periods, pulling readers from the Dakota's opening in 1884 to a more modern Dakota as it was five years after Lennon's death, and back again. The story follows Sara Smythe, a hotel housemaid turned Dakota building manger, and Bailey Camden, an interior designer back from a stint in rehab. Their lives, though a century apart, connect nonetheless.

Although the Dakota is best known for being the site of Lennon's murder, Davis said she didn't want The Address to be about that event, although knew she had to pay respect to Lennon's story.

“[His death was] not what I wanted to write about and so by choosing the two time periods — 1884, when it first opened, and then 1985, the same year that Strawberry Fields was dedicated — was a way to acknowledge it without lingering.”

Rather than start with an idea for the plot, Davis first picks her location. Once she begins her deep dive into the building's history, she said the plot often comes to her. This happened with her first novel, “The Dollhouse,” which took place at the Barbizon Hotel for Women, and it happened with “The Address” as well.

“I was getting a lot of suggestions and I was kind of overwhelmed; nothing was clicking,” she said. But then one day, she was struck with inspiration in her own neighborhood. “I was coming up the subway at 72nd and Central Park West, and there was the Dakota. The light was hitting it so it was almost like it was glowing.” Davis began researching the Dakota; the more she learned about it and the background of its construction, the more excited she became to write her novel.

“The Address” is filled with vivid imagery and meticulous descriptions of the building, down to the eccentricities of the molding. To ensure that she accurately described her setting, Davis conducted research for nearly four months, reading books about the Gilded Age and interviewing historians.

“During that time, I was often a little panicky because you're taking in so much information and you have no idea how you're going to use it,” Davis said. “But I found that if I just take in as much as I can, certain plot ideas just come to me and the ones that stay with me are the ones that I pursue.”

While some would balk at months of research for a work of fiction, Davis said this is one of her favorite parts of the process.

“It was fun to learn about the construction of [the Dakota] and learn that the Upper West Side at that time was — well, one newspaper described it as 'rocks, swamps, goats and shanties,'” Davis explained. “Then they built this massive luxury apartment house in the middle of nowhere, and that's incredible, especially when you live in New York now — you can't imagine walking down Central Park West and having nothing there. It's so strange.”

In her research, Davis often found herself searching Google for old pictures of the Dakota, sometimes using Old NYC, a website created by software developer Dan Vanderkam that allows users to page through images of New York City throughout history.

But of course, nothing can help a writer describe a site better than seeing it in person, which Davis was able to do twice during her research. With the help of a friend who is a real estate agent, she was able to nab an appointment to tour actress Lauren Bacall's apartment after it went on the market.

“I put on my most expensive dress and grabbed a nice pocketbook and showed up to tour it,” Davis said, laughing. “It was beautiful because most of the period detail was still intact.”

Eventually, Davis became friends with a man who lived in the Dakota. She said that through his generosity, she was able to fully tour the building, which became a useful part of her research.

“That helped a lot,” she said. “Being inside is unusual because, for example, the hallway is really narrow, but the ceilings are really high, so there's this really odd perspective when you walk through it. It's such an interesting building.”

Davis' time as a journalist left her no stranger to research. After receiving a journalism degree from Columbia University, she worked in the field for fifteen years before transitioning to fiction; she's since found that her background in journalism has helped her fiction career immensely.

“I find that as an author, I reap huge benefits [from being a journalist] because there's so many experts out there who have these historical gems that are perfect for historical fiction,” she said. “I focus just like I would an article in journalism — I do the research, I write an outline, I figure out who the characters are and then I write it.”

Davis has already started working on her next novel — another work of historical fiction, which will take place in Grand Central Terminal.

But as the release date for “The Address” draws near, Davis is preparing to switch gears for her new book. She already has a number of book readings scheduled in the tristate area, and, fittingly, one is scheduled for August 2 at the Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side — only a mile from the Dakota.

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