The Sweetest Debut: Fiona Davis on Her Fashion Icons and Writing Historical Fiction


Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

Novelist Fiona Davis explores two New York women’s stories separated by decades in The Dollhouse, dubbed an “impeccably structured debut” by Publishers Weekly. She spoke to us about her fashion icons, her writing process, and researching a historical novel.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

A heartbroken New York City journalist who lives in what used to be the Barbizon Hotel for Women starts digging into a tragedy that occurred there in the 1950s involving her downstairs neighbor.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

About a year and a half: It took about three months to research, nine months to do a first draft and then another six to wrestle into shape. Because there’s a mystery element and it alternates time periods (2016 and 1952), there were days my head spun as I figured out when to drop the clues and red herrings without giving too much away. I usually would go and eat a block of cheese when that happened, and that seemed to help.

Name a book you’ve read more than two times.

Every so often, I re-read books I adored as a child. Recently, I dug into The Secret Garden. Mary Lennox’s transformation from a sickly, spoiled brat to a caring, young girl still resonates.

Is there a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project.

While I was in the research phase, I went to The Met to see the 1950s fashion designer Charles James exhibit. The dresses were exquisite, and I keep a postcard of his “Clover Leaf Ball Gown” on my bulletin board for inspiration.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing.

Just finished watching Fleabag, the dark British comedy on Amazon by actress/playwright Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Brilliant.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

I went with my parents to see Sully. Enjoyed it — Clint Eastwood is always a great storyteller.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

Nope. But I do keep my study window open and listen to the sounds of New York City. There’s a small school across the street and it’s nice to hear the yelps of the kids during recess.

Who is your fashion icon?

Can I pick two? Michelle Obama and Grace Kelly, icons from two different eras, exude both style and grace.

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

I’d chose a cozy, 200-year-old cottage in England with a beautiful garden out back, within walking distance to the local pub.

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

When I was four or five, I would zip around the neighborhood on my bike, breaking up fights and restoring order, so probably a mediator, even though I didn’t know the word back then.

Buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Silent library – my fave is the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

Do you prefer to write at a desk, in bed or on the couch?

Desk. I have this ergonomic set-up but even now am slouching with my legs crossed.

Are you a morning writing or late-night writing person?

I’m up pretty early, and after downing two cups of coffee I’ll sit down and begin writing. By two o’clock in the afternoon I’m useless and will focus on the business side of being an author, versus the creative side.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

I get through the first draft, knowing that it might be a mess, and then go back and start editing. I love using the software Scrivener, as you can view your research notes and the manuscript on one screen.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I’ve worked for the past 15 years as a journalist, writing about health, women’s issues and the arts, but the past year or so has been solely devoted to historical fiction. It’s a relief not having to worry about tight deadlines or juggle multiple projects. Writing a book is like entering an alternate universe, and I’m happy to live there for months at a time!