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High Kicks and History: An Interview with Fiona Davis about “The Spectacular”

High Kicks and History: An Interview with Fiona Davis about “The Spectacular”

In 2016, Fiona Davis made a big splash on the historical fiction scene with her debut novel, The Dollhouse. Set at a landmark building that played an essential role in the history of New York City—in this case, the Barbizon Hotel for Women, a temporary home for women from Grace Kelly to Joan Didion—The Dollhouse unfolded in two timelines, intriguing readers with both twisty plot and unforgettable characters. Since then, Davis’s novels have kept readers coming back for that magical combination of place, plot and people. Now Davis turns her attention to Radio City Music Hall—and the “mad bomber” who terrorized residents and eluded police for sixteen years in the 1940s and 1950s. We sat down with Davis to learn more about her latest novel, The Spectacular, and the history behind it.

Greer Macallister

As with most of your (wonderful) novels, The Spectacular takes place in two timelines. In this case, the bulk of the story takes place in the 1950s, when a dance teacher named Marion finds herself auditioning to become a member of the elite Rockettes. The Rockettes have a long history at Radio City Music Hall—how did you decide what years to cover with Marion’s story?

Fiona Davis

I got the idea to set the book at Radio City Music Hall from a reader in her eighties who reached out and offered to share her experiences as a Rockette with me. Her stories were terrific, and I chose the late 1950s because that was when she danced. At a time when women were supposed to be living either with their families or husband and working as nurse, secretary, or teacher, here were 46 women living independently, making their own money, and dancing on the iconic Radio City Music Hall stage. I couldn’t resist.

Greer Macallister

The Spectacular blends fact and fiction, setting mostly fictional characters within a framework of real-life places and events. I suspect that some of the most surprising details of the story are those drawn from life. For example, Marion’s schedule as a Rockette is absolutely grueling—multiple shows a day and no days off for three weeks at a time. Was this something that turned up in your research, or did you tweak the real-life facts to increase the drama?

Fiona Davis

I was shocked at how tough the schedule was—that absolutely came from real life. In the 1950s, when my book is set, the Rockettes would dance four shows a day (that’s six hundred kicks total), for either three or four weeks straight, and then get a week off. On days when they were learning a new show, they’d fit in the rehearsals first thing in the morning, between shows, or late at night, which is why Radio City had a dormitory backstage, so they could sleep over when necessary.

Greer Macallister

Each of your novels centers on a New York City landmark, like Grand Central Station (The Masterpiece), the Barbizon Hotel for Women (The Dollhouse) and the New York Public Library (The Lions of Fifth Avenue). How much of your research is done on-site at these historic locations? Does being based in New York make it easier to contact and interview experts on New York history?

Fiona Davis

I try to do as much on-site research as I can, and living in New York City definitely makes that easier. I’m lucky to know several experts on New York history who I can meet up for lunch and pepper with questions. Or I can grab a ticket to the Christmas Show at Radio City at the last minute, or join in on a back stage tour. For The Lions of Fifth Avenue, I was able to get a desk in the New York Public Library’s Allen Room, which is reserved for writers with a book contract, which meant I was writing a book about the library while in the library. It was brilliant!

Greer Macallister

Finding the right title for a book can often be a challenge. Was there a journey to land on The Spectacular, or did that title come early in the process? Somewhere in between?

Fiona Davis

I’m awful at titles—usually my editor and agent come up with the title after I’ve tossed out a million absolutely lame ideas. It’s tough with my books, as the title needs to refer to both the building in some way, as well as the plot. My editor came up with The Spectacular, which I think is perfect because it refers to the amazing Christmas show the Rockettes perform in every year, as well as the heroine, Marion, whose natural talent as a dancer makes her stand out above all the rest. Which, in a precision dance troupe, can make life difficult.

Greer Macallister

See Also

Do you largely read within the historical fiction genre or do you cast a wider net as a reader? What have you read lately that you love?

Fiona Davis

I love reading historical fiction, for sure, but also mystery, and I can’t resist a good thriller now and then. I recently devoured Wendy Walker’s What Remains, as it has a killer twist. And I can’t say enough good things about The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb. Original, smart, and filled with tension.

FICTION

The Spectacular

by Fiona Davis

Dutton

June 13, 2023

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