A conversation with the author

 

 The Barbizon Hotel. © Library of Congress

How did you get the idea for this book?

 

The idea for the setting came directly from one of my readers. At an author talk for my second book, an audience member suggested I use Grand Central Terminal as my next location, and mentioned that she could get me an insider’s tour of the landmark. As a self-proclaimed New York City history geek, I couldn’t resist, and a couple of weeks later I showed up at the Station Master’s Office and was handed a hardhat. The two of us tagged along with a group of architectural students on a breathtaking journey, from the catwalks that run across the enormous arched windows, to the underground tracks far below the Waldorf Hotel.

 
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Did anything surprise you as you researched the building?

Several books on the history of the terminal mentioned that an art school, of all things, existed in the upper eaves of the east wing for twenty years. The illustrious Grand Central School of Art, founded by the celebrated painter John Singer Sargent and two other men in 1924, enrolled 900 students a year. An article in The New York Times archives described students dashing across the concourse in formal dress to attend the school’s annual masquerade ball. To me, this was a gift – what a perfect setting!

 
 Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

How did you blend fact and fiction?

Two characters in The Masterpiece are inspired by artists who were on the faculty of the Grand Central School of Art. Arshile Gorky was an abstract expressionist painter who led a large and ultimately tragic life, while illustrator Helen Dryden was considered the highest paid woman artist in the early 1930s before mysteriously disappearing. The duo provided a jumping off point to explore the role of women artists at that time, and capture an art world and a city in flux, caught between the heady Jazz Age and the depths of the Depression.

A second timeline in the book takes place in 1974, when the very existence of Grand Central Terminal was threatened. Developers went to court to reverse its landmark status so they could plop an enormous skyscraper on top. Support for preserving the building was tenuous, as the city was almost bankrupt, the terminal a faded glory. The fight to save the building, led by the inimitable Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who makes a brief appearance or two in the novel), informs the story of Virginia Clay, a former socialite fallen on hard times who’s forced to take a job in the information booth.

 
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What do you hope readers get out of the book?

The Masterpiece provides an inside look at popular locations in the terminal, including the Oyster Bar restaurant, the Whispering Gallery, and the Campbell Apartment. The novel touches upon issues dear to me: how women’s voices and agency have changed over time, the importance of the arts in our lives, and the hidden stories within New York’s historic skyline.