Guest host Julie Chavez interviews New York Times bestselling author Fiona Davis about The Spectacular, a thrilling story of love, sacrifice, and the pursuit of dreams set against the glitz and glamour of Radio City Music Hall in the 1950s. Fiona talks about the real-life Rockette who inspired this story and the extensive research required to make it come to life, from interviewing dancers to touring Radio City. After revealing some Rockette secrets, Fiona shares the location of her next book (it involves outlandish fashion and Egyptian mummies), describes what life has been like since her Parkinson’s diagnosis, and shares her best advice for aspiring writers.


Julie Chavez: Miss Fiona Davis, welcome. I’m so happy to be talking with you today.

Fiona Davis: It is so nice to chat with you again. Thank you so much.

Julie: I feel so excited. I just went back in my calendar to see when I talked to you. It was on January 14th of 2022. We talked, just barely, about the beginnings of The Spectacular. It was so fun for me. It felt like such a full-circle moment because you were one of my very first guests on “Ask a Librarian.” I have a vivid memory of calling my sister and being like, “Guess who’s going to come on the podcast? Fiona Davis!” We talked about it. I said, “I emailed her!” It was just so exciting. Being able to interview you for “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” is a gift. I’m always happy to spend time with you.

Fiona: You have such great questions. It’s my absolute delight.

Julie: Oh, good. I’m glad. I’m glad that you have a high bar for that now, so hopefully, I can disappoint. We’ll get started. Your books, too, are so easy to have questions about. You’ve been writing historical fiction for a number of years. We talked about this before. It was not only historical fiction. It’s really centered around buildings in New York City, which is just such a cool premise. When we spoke last, The Magnolia Palace was about to come out. Then now, today we’re talking about The Spectacular. I want to start with the cover. I don’t think I’ve seen a more beautiful cover recently. I love it. Were you involved in that at all? Did you have any say?

Fiona: Thank you so much. When we talked about it, I wanted it to be a little different from your typical historical fiction cover, which is usually a woman, her back turned to you. You can see the side of her head. She looks very wistful. I think those covers are great. I have some that I absolutely cherish that have designed by Dutton. This just felt different because it’s a bit of a mix. It’s historical fiction. It’s a romance. It’s a bit of a thriller. I wanted something that showed that. By just having the building, which is Radio City, in all its neon glory with that art deco soaring marquee, I felt like it summed everything up. It felt powerful and dynamic and something just a little unusual from your historical fiction genre.

Julie: I think they did a perfect job with that. You’re exactly right. I think the color palate also, like you said, with the neon but then what’s coming up from the building, it just is so eye-catching. It fits nicely with the themes of the book too, and the Rockettes and all the things. Kudos on that. Way to go, cover team at Dutton Books. Very pleased.

Fiona: The art department, headed by Christopher Lin, they rock.

Julie: Amazing. It has a stunning cover. Tell people, what is The Spectacular about? Then we’ll get into how you chose it.

Fiona: The Spectacular takes place in the 1950s. It’s about a young woman who’s a dance teacher. She decides she wants to become a Rockette. This is going against her father’s wishes. She auditions, and she gets in. It’s about her journey finding her own feet, learning how to dance with this precision-dance troupe, which is not easy, and really discovering herself. Then at the same time, there is a series of bombings going on in New York that are based on an actual bomber. She gets caught up in the hunt for this bomber for very personal reasons and is teamed up with a resident psychiatrist named Peter. Together, they’re kind of an odd couple. He’s very introverted and brilliant. She’s very dynamic and creative and outgoing. Together, they have to try and track down what’s going on and pretty much save the city of New York. I like to say it’s a mix. It’s romance. It’s thriller. It’s a little bit of everything. It also gives people a really fun backstage glimpse at the life of a Radio City Rockette.

Julie: Obviously, that’s a perfect description of it. It’s such a fun book to read. I think it’s going to have such broad appeal because of exactly what you’re saying. There are elements for everyone in it. I feel like you’ve done such a good job with creating that. I love its origin story, which is, you received a letter from a former Rockette who was married to — I was reading it today. Her husband ran the stage lighting for the stage shows. She reaches out to you. Had that ever happened before, that you’d gotten a letter like that?

Fiona: It was an email through my website. I’ve gotten emails where people have said, you should consider this building or this one. What about this one? I get those a lot, which I love because it means readers are really engaged and want to be part of it. This was different because it was right when I didn’t have any idea what I was going to write next. I was really panicking a little about, where do I turn? She wrote an email. She said, “I’m in my eighties. I live in South Carolina. I’m a former Rockette. If you want to know all about Radio City Music Hall, you should give me a call.” Of course, I did. Her name’s Sandy. She was lovely. You’re right, she met husband Bob — they were both nineteen. He ran the lighting board at Radio City. They’ve been together ever since. We just had this great phone call. She had all of this interesting archival material that she’d saved, so programs and photographs. Here’s the daily schedule. That was really what grounded me and made me think, okay, I can do this because I have the source. I have the background material. I know nothing about dance. I am not a dancer, but I think I’m going to give it a go.

Julie: You write it so well, though. I found myself thinking, as I was reading, I thought, was Fiona a dancer and I just don’t remember that?

Fiona: No. You know what’s so funny? Last night, I had a dream that I had to go to Europe for a dance conference. I was like, but I don’t dance. You can tell where it’s all seeping into me. Having been a journalist, I know, when I don’t know something, how to find people who do. I interviewed a number of Rockettes, some who had danced on the stage recently, some who were in their eighties who danced there in the fifties and sixties. The thing about dancers is they tend to be really eloquent. I don’t know if it’s some kind of mind-body connection. They’re able to put into words what it’s like to dance and what it’s like to be on stage in a way that really made my job so much easier. They fleshed out, here’s what happened. Here’s what you had to do. This is what you had to be careful about. That way, it makes me sound like I know what I’m talking about.

Julie: I’m happy for all of it because it works. It’s working. They did a good job. That’s a really interesting question. That makes me wonder about the brain science for dancers, if they could scan their brains, how they are lit up differently than people in other professions.

Fiona: I think that the neuroplasticity — when you have to have your body move in a certain way, it keeps your mind so active and engaged. I think that just carries on.

Julie: I think you’re exactly right. I just did a wall squat earlier while I was reading a book for thirty seconds, so it’s pretty much the same. Same.

Fiona: Exactly. I do that when I’m waiting for the elevator.

Julie: It’s perfect. You’re hoping that those will all add up to something?

Fiona: Yeah. I’m on the tenth floor. I hope it’s at eleven so I don’t have to hold it for too long, and not one.

Julie: That’s such a good idea because then you’re forced into it. You’re just stuck. I was reading something the other day about menopause. I was like, oh, I need to do more random things like this, which my children can mock me for. I don’t know why I’m trying. It just feels like an uphill battle. Hey, whatever. There’s a line early on in the book where you talked about, Marion tried to explain — Marion being the main character. She tried to explain how magical it all was, but she found herself unable to find the words. Once you started the research, did you get to tour Radio City? Did you get to do some of that? Did you find yourself with that same sort of feeling about any of it, or was it easy for you to put into words?

Fiona: I was able to get a tour. Just standing on that stage and looking out into that — there’s 6,200 seats out there. It’s enormous. Your heart’s in your throat even just standing there doing nothing. That was very helpful. It was helpful to get a sense of what it was like backstage. Surrounding the theater are seven floors of offices and rehearsal spaces. Back in the fifties when the book is set, there was a lounge for the dancers. There was a dormitory when they had to stay over if they rehearsed late into the night. There was a costume department, a shoe and hat department, a poster department. It was this city that went on behind. It really is like a maze. It’s quite something. That was very helpful just to understand spatially how it was laid out back then.

Julie: That’s perfect. I loved that scene where Bunny was giving her a tour. I could kind of see it as it was coming together. The machines that exist behind the magic, wherever that is, I find that so fascinating, how those are built and kept. Also, when you were talking about Sandy having kept all those materials, that makes me realize that I am — I’m a total purger. I am throwing everything away constantly. When you say that, I’m like, oh, man, what am I going to regret later? I don’t know.

Fiona: I know, but your children won’t resent you when they have to clean out your house.

Julie: It’s so true. I should leave them a well-appointed note that explains why they can love me more because they will not have to rent a thirty-foot dumpster to throw away all my crap. That’s a good point. I like that. Thanks. Thanks for that paradigm shift, Fiona. When you were doing the research, was there anything that surprised you?

Fiona: I was surprised at the sisterhood of these dancers. I’d ask, was there any infighting or anything like that going on behind the scenes with all these dancers who are smooshed into the dressing rooms and basically living together for three or four weeks at a time until they got a week off? They all said, no, absolutely not. It was just a period of joy and freedom, and especially for these women who — in the fifties, you could either be, really, a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary. Here they were independent, making a living, earning their own money, dancing on this iconic theater stage. They just enjoyed it so much. Also, learning that the man who founded the Rockettes, whose name was Russell Markert, was just beloved. He was a real father figure. I think his dynamic and the way he moved in the world really set it up so that these women could really join forces and become fast friends for life.

Julie: It sounds like, yes, he created the perfect conditions for them to flourish. I had never considered that it was so countercultural at that time for him to do that and provide that space for them and for them to be earning their own money. There were so many times I put this book down and I was like, man, being a woman in the fifties, not quite the business.

Fiona: No. You couldn’t open your own checking account. You couldn’t have a credit card. You were so limited in your choices. One of my favorite memories one of the Rockettes shared with me was walking down 5th Avenue in the middle of the night locked arm in arm singing at the top of their lungs.

Julie: I love that. What a gift. What a memory for them. I’m sure it’s fun to hear that. Do you enjoy the interviews more or the reading on your own? In terms of research, what do you like the most?

Fiona: I love the interviews. There’s just nothing like it. You learn so many fun things. One mentioned that one of the conductors on the last show of the day — they did four shows a day.

Julie: Which, every time I read that, was like, that is insane.

Fiona: Six hundred kicks a day. Never mind our wall sits.

Julie: Here we are. I hope it’s only one floor away. I don’t think we’re cut out to be Rockettes, Fiona. I don’t think so.

Fiona: I have such respect.

Julie: Sorry. Last show of the day…

Fiona: The last show of the day, this conductor would speed up so he could catch his train. That kind of detail that you learn makes it feel like, okay, this is going to be really specific. That, I hope, really anchors the reader in the story and makes them feel like they’re confident that they’re not only learning something interesting, but having a really good time doing it.

Julie: Absolutely. I really liked, also, the way that you explained the Rockettes’ need for precision, but that that precision had to trump their individual expression. Especially as dancers, the tension between that, that they have to have talent and expression, but not too much, I was fascinated by that, that and the fact that they don’t touch. I still can’t figure that out.

Fiona: In the kick line, it looks like they’re all hanging onto each other with their hands behind each other’s backs. In fact, there’s a good few inches of space between the palm of one’s hand and the back of the other dancer.

Julie: Which makes sense for safety. As soon as I read it, I thought, okay, I see that. What an illusion.

Fiona: Yes. That’s what it’s about. It’s all about this illusion that they’re completely the same dancer one after another. Marion, the main character, is based on an actress named Vera-Ellen, who was a big movie star, but she started as a Rockette. She just couldn’t fit in. If Russell Markert wanted her to do a kick shoulder height, hers would be eye height. She just couldn’t help herself but overdo it. She eventually quit before she was fired and went on to become this famous, famous actress. She was in White Christmas and all these wonderful movies. I just thought, that’s an interesting dynamic. That is the question that the book raises. What is the cost of really suppressing your own individuality and creativity for the good of the greater whole, whether it’s a precision-dance line or working for a major corporation? When do you make your voice heard? When do you fit in in order to make the job work?

Julie: It’s a really deep question. I think you do it, also, for Marion, the main character, not only in that piece of her life, but in other parts of her life. That really put me in a mind of thinking through, gosh, if that’s me, how am I weighing these things? The way that you did that and seeing these choices that she had to make that are not easy or straightforward was really powerful. I really enjoyed that. I was super invested. I was really dying to know what was going to happen.

Fiona: Oh, good. Good. That’s great.

Julie: It really did feel very thriller-esque. I was definitely turning the pages. I have a question for you. What’s your least favorite part of research? What’s the thing that you think, “I’d rather chew glass than do this”?

Fiona: In general, there’s this general anxiety that descends when you — I’ve picked the building. I know I want to do it. Then I get a legal pad, and I start writing on the very first page, all of the sources I need to do. It’s like following a map. I’ll watch a clip on YouTube, and that will send me to a book. Then that will send me to a person to call. Then it just grows longer and longer. I’m just riddled with anxiety thinking I’ll never understand this. There’s so much I’m missing. That’s an awful feeling. That lasts for at least a month as I’m getting my feet wet. Then after a while, it starts to sink in. Then I hit a tipping point where I either have the first line in my head or I have a really good idea of the character or a plot twist. That’s when I know it’s time to pull back from the research and start focus on the plotting. I’d say it’s just that general feeling of panic, is the worst thing in the world. Will there be something here? Once I’ve done all this work, will I have something to play with? So far, every book, I have.

Julie: Which is a wonderful thing. That is good to hear. Thank you for sharing that. We do talk about often, the magic involved in writing a book and these things that do come together. Like you’re saying, they often do, but there is always an element of, is this going to work? You don’t know. There’s such an act of faith in it. I didn’t even think about that. You’re really plugging in a lot of hours. You have to front-load a lot of that.

Fiona: You’re feeding your head, is the way I feel.

Julie: Are you a delight to live with during that month of panic, would you say?

Fiona: As long as I have a glass of wine at the end of the day, I’m fine. No, it’s probably not because it’s all I want to talk about. Oh, I learned this today. Did you know this? Bouncing things off people and just sharing everything I’ve learned and trying to let it settle in my head.

Julie: It sounds like you really try to inhabit that world. You’re really fully immersing yourself there. You just have to drag friends and family members down with you. I just feel like that’s what they have to do to love us. You’re welcome.

Fiona: That’s what they’re there for.

Julie: Exactly. You’re welcome. I’m part of your life. That means you’re going to listen to me say the word book a million times. Here’s the question now. Have you received any more emails or letters for your next project? Are you already working on the next thing? You turn and burn, my friend. You get through that month long of panic, and you just get it done.

Fiona: I do. I think that’s only partly because there’s so much in my head. I have to write quickly or I’ll forget it.

Julie: That makes sense.

Fiona: It’s not because I’m a faster writer, necessarily, but that I just want to make sure I get it on the page. It takes about a year and a half in between books. Once you’ve turned in a manuscript, it takes about six months before it comes out. You have that downtime. I am. This is not from a letter I received. The next book is going to be set at The Met Museum.

Julie: Oh, my gosh, so exciting.

Fiona: I just got back from a trip to Egypt to do some mummy research and some Egyptian artifact research, which was amazing. It’ll be partly set in the Egyptian wing from the point of view of an assistant curator in 1978. It’ll jump back to Egypt in the 1930s. It’s also from the point of view of an assistant to the Met Gala in 1978. You’ve got this very glamorous, party of the year thing going on and then this Egyptian artifacts and mummies. I like the contrast. We’ll see where it goes.

Julie: Can you finagle an invitation to the Met Gala out of this? I feel like you can, right?

Fiona: It didn’t work this year, but let’s keep our fingers crossed for next year.

Julie: Let me know if you need me to vouch for you. I know ones of people, and I’m happy to connect you to them.

Fiona: As long as I can just wear my normal outfit. I don’t know if I could wear feathers or spangles. I don’t know if that will work.

Julie: Those outfits are next level, I have to say. Anytime I look at them, I’m like, I don’t understand fashion. The end.

Fiona: No. Exactly.

Julie: I wanted to ask you — one of the things that you talk about in the book is Parkinson’s because one of the characters is suffering from Parkinson’s or has been diagnosed. Obviously, that was in the 1950s. I know that you have shared publicly, also, that you have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I’m so glad that you share that. I actually have the Michael J. Fox documentary on my list because you had recommended it. I can’t wait to watch it. For you, how was writing about that? Was there anything you found for yourself in writing about it and in including it in the book?

Fiona: That’s a great question. What happened to me was in August of 2020, I found out that The Lions of Fifth Avenue, which had just been published, had hit The New York Times best-seller list. Then the very next day, I went to the doctor and was told I had Parkinson’s. It was quite the roller coaster, and all during lockdown, by the way. You weren’t quite sure if you were coming or going. I’m really lucky in that my symptoms are really minor. It’s a tremor. It’s very well-controlled by medication at the moment, which is great. I had a number of people say to me, yes, I have Parkinson’s, but I don’t want to tell anyone because they’ll think I’m old. I might get fired from my job. I just thought, this is kind of like breast cancer was thirty years ago where no one talked about it. There’s definitely power in numbers. The more people come out and say, “Hey, I have Parkinson’s, and this is what it looks like,” the more we can mobilize to deal with research and get some political power going. For me, it’s helpful, always, to work out things in a book. I think that’s why we do creative things. It just helps to process the world around us. It’s not only writing a book. It’s if you like to write poetry in your off-time or if you sing badly in the shower. Anything to express yourself in some way is helpful. I didn’t want it to be a heavy Parkinson’s book. It’s just lightly dotted in there. I wanted to include it because that was a way for me to process what I was going through and what might be ahead for me. That was really helpful. And just to help get the word out as well.

Julie: Has this been something that you have — you’re a very thoughtful person, so I’m sure, to some extent, this is happening for you, but do you feel like you find a peace about it? Then is that disrupted, and you have to rebuild it? How does that process work for you personally?

Fiona: In terms of writing about it?

Julie: In terms of writing about it and then also just in terms of dealing with that being part of your story.

Fiona: It’s interesting. There are days where I worry about the future. Then there are days that I’m walking down the streets of New York and thinking, I am strong. I am healthy. I better enjoy this moment. Keep that in your head. In a way, it’s a gift because you do appreciate where you are right now because it’s pretty good. Luckily, there’s so much research and so much change going on. Even in the past month, there’s been some major breakthroughs. Over a million people in the US have it. It’s the fastest-growing neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s. I think that people are starting to kick and scream and get it noticed and get some work done about it.

Julie: When you included that fact in the author’s note, I was surprised by that. I had that that was the case. Taking a hard left-hand swerve here just right off the street —

Fiona: — Do it.

Julie: What’s your current advice? I say current because I would imagine that over a career like yours, which has extended for so many years and is so well-deserved in that way — I love watching and seeing the breadth of what you’ve done and where you’re involved. What’s your current best advice for people who want to write a book?

Fiona: I would say don’t ever think it’s too late. I didn’t start writing until I was in my late forties.

Julie: I don’t think I knew that. Interesting. It throws me off. I think you are in your late forties, Fiona.

Fiona: No. In fact, when I was younger, I never imagined writing a book. I couldn’t imagine doing it. It was only by doing many different things, being an actress and then a journalist, and then just thinking, why not try and write a book? What’s there to lose? Feeling like, okay, now I have something to talk about because I’ve lived life. I’ve gone through ups and downs. Now I feel like I have something to say. I would say don’t feel like you have to publish your first book by the time you’re thirty, or it’s all over. You’ve got plenty of time to go out and live your life. Then for me, I started taking workshops and learning everything I could and reading books by Anne Lamott and Stephen King on how to write and just letting it seep into me slowly without any pressure to write the next big thing. I just wrote a book that I wanted to read.

Julie: What a gift. You’re so right. It’s not too late. Looping all the way back around to The Spectacular, it’s not 1950. You can get a credit card if you want. There’s just so much great news here, friends. I can leave my house without a male relative. It’s great. I’m so glad for the person that you are and the author that you are too. What’s your greatest hope for this book specifically? Let’s center it on that. What’s your hope for The Spectacular?

Fiona: I hope it reaches readers who might not pick up historical fiction or readers who might poo-poo romance. I hope it attracts readers who see the cover and think, “I want to know more about this time period or this building,” and get sucked into this story and then on the way, learn something interesting either about themselves or about the world around them.

Julie: I love it. Just one quick aside, too, to that, the criminal profiling piece, we didn’t even talk about that, but the idea that it came into being at one point was — maybe I’m dumb. I don’t know. I was like, oh, my gosh. That didn’t occur to me that that wasn’t accepted protocol or science at a certain point.

Fiona: Right. When I’m looking at a book, I’m looking for the surprises in terms of research. Learning that this guy — he set thirty-two bombs over the course of sixteen years and seriously injured fifteen people in New York City putting them in iconic New York City locations, including Radio City twice. Then on top of that, learning that it was solved by using criminal profiling for the very first time — the reaction to the police early on about, “You don’t know that. How can you know that?” and then the fact that it turned out to be exactly right, that was, for me, a really fun hook to include.

Julie: Absolutely. I’m sure when you hit that one, you were like, and . Let’s do this. That’s amazing. I just want to finish up by saying I’ve been thinking about my interview with you for months now and so excited to talk to you about this book. I also have to tell you how grateful I am for you. When I look back to our interview on January 14th, you graciously accepted my cold-call invite. Hey, can I interview you? You were so lovely. I was sweating like a farm animal in the midst of summer because I was so nervous. You were just so kind and gracious. I have said that about you so many times since then. You are a gracious person in the literary world. Without you and the other guests who said yes early on, I wouldn’t be able to have unlocked this part of me that I’ve enjoyed so much. It’s a gift. I’m so grateful. Just personally, thank you for being part of my world in that way. It’s a gift.

Fiona: Thank you. You made my day. Right back at you. You are a natural at this. You have a gift yourself. Thank you for letting us be able to talk about our books. I think you pull out the real personality in the interviewee. That’s not easy. We appreciate that.

Julie: Thank you. Who knew I liked to talk so much? Oh, wait, my mom did. She talks about that all the time. I have two talkers. Sometimes I say, “They don’t ever shut up.” She’s like, “Wow, Julie. I wonder what that’s like. To have a child who talks constantly, can’t relate. Oh, wait. Yes, I can.” Thank you. I’m wishing all the success. Can’t wait for your next book. I love that when your book comes out, I already have another one to look forward to.

Fiona: Yes, I just have to write it. Oh, that.

Julie: If you can just get that done as soon as you can, that’d be great. Thanks so much, Fiona.

Fiona: Thank you. I really appreciate it.



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