By Emilie Murphy
Portrait Photography by ChiChi Ubiña
Imagine living in the New York Public Library, millions of books keeping you company, cavernous rooms with fifty-foot ceilings, rare manuscripts by literary legends surrounding you in silent significance. For a bookworm, this might sound like a dream. And at one point in time, it was a reality. In Fiona Davis’s latest novel, The Lions of Fifth Avenue, readers are taken into the uncharted areas of the New York Public Library, where once upon a time, the library’s superintendent lived in a special apartment at the core of this New York City landmark.
Davis’s four previous books also center around a Manhattan landmark, the buildings’ histories unfolding alongside the storyline. In The Dollhouse, Davis explores the once-infamous Barbizon Hotel for Women. She unlocks the secrets of Grand Central terminal in The Masterpiece and looks at the lives of the artists who flocked to the Chelsea Hotel in The Chelsea Girls. In The Address, Davis brings readers inside the walls of New York’s most famous residence, the Dakota. As a long-time New Yorker herself (who now splits time between New York’s Upper West Side and Bedford), Davis knows how many lives and stories are contained within a single city block.
Davis enjoys the research process that each book invites. With her background in journalism, her interest in the facts is no surprise. After working as an actress on and off Broadway, Davis left the stage to attend Columbia Journalism School. In fact, her first novel, The Dollhouse, initially developed as an idea for an article, eventually morphing into a fictional story. She makes an effort to understand not only the history of the building, but also the era in which her stories are set. “I typically read lots of biographies of women who lived in whatever decade I’m writing about,” says Davis, “and I also find expert sources on whatever subject I’m writing about and conduct interviews.” For The Lions of Fifth Avenue, Davis interviewed Jean Ashton, who ran Columbia’s Butler Library at a time when a mysterious book theft occurred. Davis worked details from the theft into the plot of The Lions of Fifth Avenue, using Ashton’s insights for guidance.
Much of the novel takes place in and around the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, a division that contains tens of thousands of archival materials and manuscripts from over 400 authors. The collection is varied, ranging from printed books that date to the fifteenth century to materials from Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Jack Kerouac. The plot is split into two timelines that intersect in unexpected ways, with the library’s curator from 1993 investigating a series of book thefts that happened eighty years earlier.
Davis’s stories often look at the ways in which the buildings have changed, and in turn, how the city itself has changed over the decades. Now, the apartment that once housed the library’s superintendents has been converted into office space and extra storage. There is no longer a family living inside the maze of this imposing building, but there were still unexpected surprises found within the stone walls of the library. “With each book, I’ve done some initial research and then been taken by surprise by some fact,” explains Davis. In writing about the library, Davis wanted to not only explore the secrets of the place, but also reinforce the magic of books and the importance of libraries. “I hope readers will come away with a renewed respect for what librarians do and for the historical value of rare books and manuscripts,” says Davis.
Read more about The Lions of Fifth Avenue at www.FionaDavis.net and join the author for a series of virtual events throughout August and September. More details can be found here. Fairfield County LOOK is also planning a live, socially-distanced event in Greenwich on August 26th with authors Amy Poeppel, Fiona Davis and Susie Orman Schnall. Please email us here, if you are interested in receiving an invitation, as space will be limited.