Imagine that countless statues all over New York City share the likeness of one young, beautiful woman. In The Magnolia Palace by Fiona Davis, that woman is Lillian Carter, who, after her mother’s death of the Spanish flu, ends up working at the Frick mansion, which is now home to the revered art museum of the same name. The novel moves between Lillian’s story and that of Veronica, a model who, nearly 50 years later, finds herself following a mystery via secret messages in the mansion.
In each of your novels, architectural history comes so clearly alive! Tell us a bit about your research process. Did this new book challenge or evolve your process in any way? Did it lead you anywhere especially surprising?
When it comes to research, the first thing I do is get a good look inside the building and then interview experts on the subject and the era. For The Magnolia Palace, I was able to get a wonderful behind-the-scenes tour of the Frick Collection in January 2020, from the bowling alley in the basement up to the top floor where the servants slept.
Usually I’d make several return trips as I write the first draft, but the city went into lockdown, making that impossible. So I was thrilled to discover that the Frick’s website includes a wonderful floor plan with a 360-degree view of each of the public rooms. If I needed to check out what artwork was above the fireplace in the library, for example, I could find the answer with just a couple of clicks. Thank goodness, as otherwise I would’ve been really stuck.
When you pass by or enter an incredible old building, what’s the first thing you look for?
I’m always curious as to what has changed over time. How does the building compare to the one that was originally constructed? How has the neighborhood changed over the decades? It’s those contrasts that help me decide what time periods might work best for a novel. As I walk by, I can’t help wondering about all of the people who walked its halls, all of the ghosts that remain.
Obviously a sense of place plays a huge role in your work, from libraries and hotels to mansions and museums—and of course, the whole city of New York. What details do you seek out to bring these spaces into such vivid relief?
I’m always looking for the strange details, the ones that are fun to describe because they will surprise the reader. It might be the grimace of a gargoyle over a doorway or the catwalks that span the enormous windows of Grand Central that end up drawing my attention and making it into the novel. We New Yorkers often think we know these places so well, but it’s amazing how little we “see” as we wander the streets.
How did you decide on the title The Magnolia Palace?
Titles are tough for my novels, as I’m looking for a title that’s not too on the nose but which describes the location nicely and has resonance within the plot. That’s asking a lot. Choosing titles for each book is a team effort involving my editor and my agent, and they’re often the ones who have the best ideas.
For this novel, I realized the gorgeous magnolia trees outside the Frick would be a nice touchstone, one that I could bring into the story with the search for the (fictional) Magnolia diamond. And Dutton’s art department came up with that gorgeous cover with the magnolia blossoms—it was perfect.
The art in this novel is impressively catalogued. How did you choose which pieces to highlight in the novel? What do you think they add to the story?
The scavenger hunt scenes, with clues that lead to several pieces in the Frick art collection, were really fun to write. I tended to choose works of art that have interesting backstories, ones that further illuminate what’s going on with the characters on the page. For example, the woman who sat for the George Romney painting that’s included in the scavenger hunt led a scandalous life as a mistress and a muse. When Veronica comes upon it and learns the history, it deepens how she feels about being made into an object of art as well.
I love the dimensions of these women—Lillian and Veronica, as well as Helen Frick, daughter of Henry—and wonder how you built the complexities of each of them. Where did you find inspiration for these women? And more broadly, how do you choose what types of women will occupy and make their marks on the buildings at the heart of your novels?
As I research, I’m looking for women from history who accomplished great things but have since been forgotten. The inspiration for Lillian came from the carving of a nude woman over the entrance to the Frick. The model who posed for it was Audrey Munson, who achieved great fame in the 1910s but met a tragic end. She was gorgeous and successful and then suddenly an outcast, and I knew I wanted to include her story in the narrative.
The more I read about Helen Frick, the more I adored her. She was acerbic and smart, yet she was mocked in the press for her eccentricities. As a writer, I wondered what would’ve happened if Audrey and Helen crossed paths in real life, and the plot developed from there.
Then, once I decided to set part of the book in the 1960s, I thought it would be fun to have a character who is also a model, as a way to compare and contrast how women’s roles have been valued (or not) over time, and Veronica bubbled up out of that.
What is your process for writing braided narratives? How do you know when they’re working well together?
Once I know who the main characters are, I brainstorm scenes and create each timeline separately. Braiding them together is the toughest part, as each novel contains an element of mystery, and I have to make sure I don’t give away a clue too soon in one timeline and thereby destroy the tension in the other.
It’s always a mess at first, but once I have it down on paper, I’m eager to start writing the first draft. I write one timeline first all the way through (usually the older one), then the other, and then do a read-through to see if they work together. There’s still a lot of tweaking to be done, but by then the structure is usually pretty solid.
What is your ultimate day in New York City? Which museums or special places are especially dear to you?
I’ve called the city home for 35 years now, and it’s full of wonderful places. The Frick Collection is dear to me, to be sure. I also love grabbing a pastry at Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie, or heading to the Campbell Bar at Grand Central for a cocktail. Hitting all three in one day would be a dream.
What are you reading now?
I’m excited to start Ann Patchett’s latest book of essays, These Precious Days. She’s such a champion of authors and booksellers and is masterful working in both fiction and nonfiction. She’s probably as close to an author superhero as there is.
Photo of Fiona Davis by Deborah Feingold