Jen: What inspired you to create The Dollhouse, a fictional world based on the Barbizon Hotel in New York City during the 1950s and present day?
Fiona: I was looking for an apartment a couple of years ago here in New York City, and my broker took me to the Barbizon 63 condo, which used to house the Barbizon Hotel. The renovated building has a sleek, marble foyer and big beautiful apartments. And, when I went online afterward to find out what it was like back in the day, I was shocked to see the difference: seven hundred tiny rooms, and a lobby with a grand balcony and lots of potted ferns. And so the idea of comparing the two eras sprang to mind. After I learned a dozen or so of the long-time residents had been grandfathered into rent-controlled apartments on the fourth floor when it went condo, I knew I had my way into the story.
Jen: What is the significance behind the title The Dollhouse?
Fiona: The Barbizon was known as “The Dollhouse,” as a reference to all the pretty girls who lived there. In addition to the Mademoiselle guest editors, the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School students, and hundreds of aspiring actresses, there were two floors filled with models from the Ford Agency. It had quite the cachet. And the title also stands as a symbol of how women tended to be viewed at that time – as playthings lacking opinions, goals, and desires of their own.
Jen: How were you able to incorporate historical events within the framework of the storyline?
Fiona: I did tons of research into the 1950s by reading women’s magazines and newspapers and watching old movies. The most eye-opening find was how little women were allowed to do. They couldn’t order their own meal while out dining with a man, for example, and the Barbizon residents weren’t allowed to cross the lobby wearing pants. The focus was very much on being proper, getting married, and having children. So that was the main point I wanted to emphasize, the ways in which the two time periods of the novel are different and also similar.
Jen: Let’s talk about the two main characters, Darby McLaughlin and Rose Lewin. How are these two women alike? And, how does Rose’s obsession with the past affect their relationship?
Fiona: Great question. Rose and young Darby are quite similar in that they’re questioning their choices in life, and wondering what else is out there. Rose and the older version of Darby are both boneheaded, stubborn, and reluctant to let their true selves emerge. Rose’s obsession sends Darby running for the hills, which only fuels Rose’s desire to find out what really happened up on the roof of the hotel all those years ago.
Jen: As a journalist, you are familiar with the necessity of checking your facts before publishing a story. What was the experience like to move to a fictional narrative with no limits?
Fiona: Moving from journalism to fiction was both freeing and terrifying. Freeing because I could make characters say whatever I liked, but terrifying because I wanted to make sure I was true to the time period. The 1950s were a fascinating era to me, and I wanted to make sure the details were correct. So there was a lot of research into the clothes, the music, the general tone of the time. In many ways, I was still held accountable to the facts, which was reassuring and familiar.
Jen: Are you currently at work on your next project? If so, what may you share with our readers?
Fiona: I am hard at work on another novel of historical fiction, but set in different eras from The Dollhouse. It also has a twist of mystery and a tragedy at its heart, and so far it’s been a delight to work on. But it’s been really nice revisiting Darby and Rose’s story in interviews as the publication date for The Dollhouse nears – they feel like old friends now. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do so!
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