A Facebook Message Chat with Fiona Davis, Author of THE MASTERPIECE

THE+MASTERPIECE+LRG+cover+Fiona+DavisI just finished reading my third book by NYT best-selling author Fiona DavisTHE MASTERPIECE. I loved her first two books, THE ADDRESS and THE DOLLHOUSE. All three are set in New York City, where the author lives, and all three involve historic buildings. They are all examples of really good historic fiction, and involve characters from the past and present whose lives intersect in some way. Or, with THE MASTERPIECE, rather than writing in the present, the more recent parts of the book are in the 1970s, with the historic parts set in the late 1920s and early 1930s. After reading the first hundred pages or so, I put a comment on Instagram with a picture of the book’s cover, noting how perfectly it fits the description inside the book of Clara’s appearance at the ball inside Grand Central Terminal, and even how the Terminal looked at the time.

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When I started following Fiona on Instagram, I loved that she would comment on my posts. After reading THE MASTERPIECE, I had a couple of questions for her and messaged her on Facebook. I was thrilled that she took time to respond, and I’m posting our conversation here:

SUSAN:

Hi, Fiona. I just finished THE MASTERPIECE and LOVE LOVE LOVE it! I also loved THE ADDRESS and THE DOLLHOUSE. I have a question. I Googled Clara Darden (did you know there’s a native American basket maker by that name?) but didn’t find an actual artist. Then I read your Author’s Note and Googled Helen Dryden, on whom Clara is obviously based. My question is why did you change her name? If it’s fiction, would it not have been okay to use her name? I’m asking because I fictionalized much of Elaine deKooning’s life in my novel CHERRY BOMB, and I used her real name. And I guess Levon is based on Gorky? Again, your decision not to use their real names?

FIONA:

Hi Susan! Thanks for reaching out and I’m glad you enjoyed it! I changed the names because while both characters were inspired by Gorky’s and Dryden’s, I wanted to go off in a different direction and have things happen to them (major things, like not dying in a mental home – poor Helen) that didn’t happen in real life. I think it’s fine to keep the same name if you’re generally tracking to the biography of the person, but making up conversations, thoughts, etc.

SUSAN:

I’m asking because I may write a “historical fiction” novel based on an artist or piece of art, and I wonder about using real names or not. Some of my favorite books are GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING, STRAPLESS, and A PIECE OF THE WORLD.

FIONA:

I love books like Pearl Earring, etc, where you feel like you’re right there with the artist or other real-life people. This was the first time I used the real-life person as a basis for a character – all my other books have characters who are completely made up. But I wanted to make the plot all my own, while being “inspired” by real people. I hope this makes sense!!

SUSAN:

Yes. I talked with an intellectual rights attorney before publishing CHERRY BOMB, and he advised me that it was okay to completely make up things about deKooning (like her having a daughter, which she didn’t) so long as I said it was a work of fiction, which I went into lots of detail about in my Author’s Note. But I wanted to use her name to attract art enthusiasts to the book. Not sure what I might do next time, but you’ve given me food for thought. I was just looking at your book tour… I live in Memphis…. wish you were coming here! Or to Square Books in Oxford! Or to Lemuria in Jackson, MS (my home town).

FIONA:

You were also smart to visit with a lawyer. Keep me posted on your next book and I’d love to hit Oxford – I’ve heard so many wonderful things about that town! Best, F.

Fiona’s words have definitely given me food for thought as I consider writing a novel based on—or inspired by—an artist or a work of art. I can see how my novel CHERRY BOMB is NOT historical fiction, in that I did not do what Fiona said, “generally tracking to the biography of the person,” but made up major life events that did not actually happen. So, if I want to do that in my next book, I guess it won’t be considered historical fiction either.

Now I’m wondering how much other authors “tracked with the biography” of the historical people they wrote about in books like THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain. I just got her latest book LOVE AND RUIN, which is about Hemingway’s marriage to Martha Gelhorn, and can’t wait to read it. Also books like THE WOMEN by T. C. Boyle, which was about Frank Lloyd Wright’s wives and mistresses. I did a blog post a couple of years ago about this topic, “Circling the Roman a Clef,” if you’re interested in more discussion. Also from 2016, I read and wrote about “The Confessions of X.” I obviously haven’t settled the subject in my mind, which might be one reason I haven’t moved forward with another novel yet! If I ever settle on a protagonist, I’ll let you know.

Storks and Clocks in Strasbourg

stork on cathedralOn the 6th day of our Viking River Cruise we crossed the Rhine and spent a morning in France, touring the beautiful town of Strasbourg. There are many things to love about this historic town, but my mind was on babies when we visited. Or really, just one baby. We have friends who are in the process of adopting a little girl, and while we were in Strasbourg we learned about the storks that come there and build nests every year—like this one on top of the Strasbourg Cathedral de Notre Dame. Inside the Cathedral, I prayed for this child and the family she would become part of. And I loved all the stork-related art all over town.

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So WHY do the storks come to this area of Alsace every year? The geography of Alsace—in the plain of the Rhine with abundant marshland (at least before the canalisation of the Rhine after the second world war) made it a good feeding ground for storks. The area was also within reach of their winter migration areas in North Africa. North Africa! Can you imagine that they fly that far every year?

CathedralBut back to the cathedral. The first version of the church was begun in 1015, but fire destroyed most of the original Romanesque building. By the time that cathedral was being renovated (at the end of the 12th century, this time with red stones carried from the nearby mountains of Vosges), the gothic architectural style has reached Alsace and the future cathedral was starting to develop all characteristics of gothic aesthetics.

There is much to admire inside. I love these reflections by Victor Hugo:

“The church portals are beautiful, particularly the Roman portal; there are truly superb figures on horseback, the rose-window is noble and well-cut, the entire front of the church is a clever poem. But the true triumph of this Cathedral is the spire. It is a veritable tiara of stone with its crown and its cross. It is a gigantic and delicate marvel.”

astronomical clockOne of the most fascinating features of the church is the astronomical clock. A principal work of the Renaissance, this mechanical astronomical clock is an invention put together by various artists, mathematicians and technicians. Swiss watchmakers, sculptors, painters and creators of automatons all worked together to build this amazing automate. The present mechanism dates from 1842 and is especially attractive for the work of its automatons, which, every day at 12.30 pm, all start their show. We were fortunate to be there for one of its movements. It was too tall to capture in a video, but I got a few stills.

IMG_3041The astronomical clock offers you a view of the different stages of life, which are personified by a child, a teenager, an adult and an old man, who pass before Death. Above this are the apostles who walk before Christ. Their passage is punctuated by the beatings of wings and the song of a large rooster. In front of the clock is the marvelous Pillar of Angels, which, in a very original manner, represents the Last Judgment.

cellistAfter touring the cathedral and walking around the cobblestone streets window-shopping (we didn’t really have time for real shopping) we enjoyed gelato at an outdoor café right in front of the cathedral. And an impromptu cello concert. Another magical day.

Orthodox ChurchOh, and I had read that All Saints Russian Orthodox Church was being built in Strasbourg, and we drove past it on our tour bus but it wasn’t close enough for us to walk back to see it close up later. Here’s the shot I snapped through the bus window. Stay tuned for our next day’s excursion to the medieval village of Colmar, our final destination before arriving in Basel to fly home. Thanks for joining me!

(I’ll close with a few more photos in Strasbourg.)

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river scene

 

Heidelberg, Mark Twain, and Worms

1982 at the Heidelberg Castle

1982 at the Heidelberg Castle

The first time I went to Europe, about 36 years ago, my husband and I stayed in a small village on the Neckar River, about 50 miles from Heidelberg. This was in around 1982. We were there for a symposium my husband was part of, and they had us tucked away in a remote little village. I remember playing tennis with a French girl on courts that overlooked the Neckar River. And opening our windows every morning to story-book scenes of milk being delivered outside our castle-like hotel. Our only site-seeing excursion during the symposium was to Heidelberg.

 Bill Susan castleThirty six years later we returned, on Day 5 of our Viking Rhine River Cruise. Heidelberg is Germany’s oldest university town, known as the cradle of the German Romantic movement. It’s most famous example of baroque architecture, the Heidelberg Castle is a magnificent red standstone ruin perched 330 feet above the river. It was partially destroyed by fire in the 17th century.

 

Hotel where Mark Twain stayed

Hotel where Mark Twain stayed

 

 

 

 

As our tour bus ascended to the castle, I snapped a picture of one of the hotels where Mark Twain stayed in the summer of 1878, Hotel Schrieder, now a Crowne Plaza. Of Heidelberg Twain said the city was “the last possibility of the beautiful.” In 1880 he published “A Tramp Abroad,” which includes the story of a raft journey down the river. graf w Red Ox InnThis was published several years before “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Many people in Heidelberg believe, therefore, that the Neckar was as influential as the Mississippi to Twain’s writing.

 Later we walked past this graffiti piece, which featured the Red Ox Inn, where Twain spent much of his leisure time. The guide didn’t point the graffiti out, but I’m always on the watch for street art and was thrilled to see the Red Ox Inn included.

 

The castle moat and grounds were fascinating, but the views of the Old City and river and buildings across the river from the castle were my favorite part of the tour.

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moat

 

Our boat actually docked at Speyer for our Heidelberg tour, on the west bank of the Rhine. There was a beautiful park there, and lots of local art.

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Protestant Church at Speyer

Protestant Church at Speyer

 

We took an informal walk into town without the group and into the “Memorial Church of the Protestation” a historic Luthern and Reformed church built between 1893 and 1904, to commemorate the Diet of Speyer.

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The term “protestant” originated in Speyer in 1529 at the Diet of Speyer, when 14 free cities of Germany and six Lutheran princes protested the Edict of Worms that had banned the writings of Martin Luther and labeled him a heretic and enemy of the state. I grew up Presbyterian and was a huge fan of Martin Luther, but I never thought about why it was called the Edict of Worms until we cruised alongside Worms headed into Speyer. So much history all around us on this amazing trip.

 

Stay tuned for my next post where we head across the Rhine and dip our toes into France for one day….

Cologne, Cathedrals, and Beer

My SinMy mother’s favorite cologne was My Sin by Lanvin. When she was born in 1928, My Sin had only been available for four years. As far as I can remember, this was her only fragrance. I was thinking about it yesterday, as I commemorated the second anniversary of her death. I always loved the way she smelled. When I was young I wore Youth Dew by Estee Lauder. It came out in 1953, when I was only two years old. I remember wearing it in high school and college, but in my young married years (starting in 1970) I somehow lost interested in fragrances. My husband, who wore British Sterling and English Leather like everyone else in the 1960s and 70s, also lost his taste for colognes early. I’m not sure why we both did this. But recently I’ve wondered if I might want to try something again. The commercials are enticing—like Gabrielle, by Chanel. “Before creating the House of Chanel, Coco was Gabrielle. A rebel at heart…passionate and free.” When I was younger I considered myself a rebel. Sometimes I still do. So, I was sorry we didn’t have much free time on our walking tour of Cologne, to sample the local fragrances.

IMG_2703Yes, Day 3 of our Viking River Cruise included a walking tour of the city of Cologne, Germany, in the morning and “bar hopping” to three brew houses in the evening—quite a contrast in cultures in this beautiful city. From across the Rhine, where our boat was docked, we could see the twin spires of Kölner Dom, the Catholic Cathedral Church of Saint Peter, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was begun in 1248 and was finally “completed” in 1880, but as our tour guide pointed out, it’s always under construction, renovation, or repair.

IMG_2730The architecture all around the Old City was a mix of Gothic and Roman. Storybook images surrounded us at every turn.

 

And of course I always love the street art—like these two sidewalk pieces.

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In the evening we walked along the cobblestone streets and stopped at three Kolsch brew houses. Kolsch is a light, crisp beer, brewed only in Cologne. Brauhaus servers, known as kobe, bring the Kolsche from the barrel to the table in small 7-ounce glasses, so that the beer stays cold while you’re drinking it. I’ve never been a beer drinker (even when I was a drinker) so this part of the outing was lost on me, but I enjoyed the traditional dinner at Brauhaus zur Malzmuhle, one of the most popular brauhaus restaurants in Cologne since 1858. Our young guide and his charming fiancé made the evening even more fun, as did the views of the cathedral from across the river.

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Back on the boat at the end of the day music and trivia games were going on in the lounge. One night my husband and I won the music trivia game, and every night there was music, dancing, and games of some sort. Going through the locks was also an adventure, and one night we even went up on the upstairs deck to experience the adventure up close. Even on our state room balcony, we could reach out and touch the (slimy) walls of the locks as our boat ascended to the next level in the river.

VIew from the top deck of our boat, as I was reading and relaxing after the morning tour of Cologne, with a view of the Cathedral just across the river.

VIew from the top deck of our boat, as I was reading and relaxing after the morning tour of Cologne, with a view of the Cathedral just across the river.

We always slept well, looking forward to opening the curtains to see where we had landed during the night and what adventures awaited us the next day.

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