A conversation with the author

 

What compelled you to write this book? 

The Barbizon Hotel. © Library of Congress

The Barbizon Hotel. © Library of Congress

I love the history of buildings, whether it’s wandering around a castle in England or the Tenement Museum here in New York City. The Barbizon Hotel is iconic, a building that housed so many women’s stories, and I wanted to explore the way women’s roles have changed over time, the ways that they’ve stayed the same, as well as issues of class and status.

I checked out one of the renovated condos in the Barbizon building during my own apartment hunt, and was surprised at how much the place had changed from the 1950s black-and-white photos. When I learned that several long-time residents had been “grandfathered” into the building when it went condo, I realized I had the makings of a novel.


What kind of research did you do for the book?

The research process was a blast. In addition to reading everything I could get my hands on about that era, I interviewed several women who lived in the hotel in the 50s and 60s, and incorporated their experiences in the book. I also looked at several women’s magazines from the early 1950s and scoured old issues of The New York Times to get a sense of what day-to-day life was like back then.

New York City played a big part in my research. A visit to Lior Lev Sercarz’s legendary spice shop in NYC – La Boîte – gave me the idea for developing one character’s passion for blending spices. And I took a class on bebop jazz at Swing University – part of Jazz at Lincoln Center – taught by the brilliant trombonist Vincent Gardner. Now that was heaven.

 

What are some of the real locations and people in the book, and what are made up?

Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

Real locations include the Barbizon building, the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, and Hector’s Cafeteria, which was located at Broadway and Fiftieth Street. The Flatted Fifth nightclub from the book is a fictional mix of several clubs that once existed, like the Five Spot and the Half Note, as well as Small’s, which you can find on West Tenth Street in Greenwich Village. Most of the musicians mentioned in the novel are real, except for Stick Hawkins, who’s based on Thelonious Monk. I was desperate to include a scene of Monk performing, but his cabaret card was revoked in 1951 due to a narcotics arrest, which meant he was banned from playing in any of New York City’s clubs. I used Stick Hawkins as a stand-in, as that part of the book takes place in 1952. Unfortunately, Monk didn’t get his license back until 1957 - what a loss to the jazz fans of that time.


What was it like moving from journalism to fiction writing?

As a journalist, I love crafting a story from research and interviews, and when I decided to write this book I approached it in the same way. But since it was fiction, I could use my imagination as well, and spin a story rooted in fact but not limited by it. I hope readers will get a glimpse into the way women were expected to live and behave in the early 50s, and appreciate how hard it was to break out of that. At the same time, I hope they’ll enjoy reading about how two generations of women can influence each other to stand up and be counted.