Hailed as one of the genre’s rising stars, author Nancy Bilyeau transports us to 1538 in THE CHALICE where England’s bloody power struggle between crown and cross threatens to tear the country apart. Her heroine, novice Joanna Stafford, becomes caught up in a shadowy international plot targeting Henry VIII himself. So we had to ask . . .
Who were your literary influences when you were learning to be a writer?
When I was in high school in Michigan and thinking of becoming a writer, I read a lot of different sorts of fiction: Daphne du Maurier, Stephen King, John Le Carre, E.L. Doctorow. I had a wonderful teacher who read RAGTIME aloud to us. In university I studied Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy, and T.S. Eliot. In the intervening years, I worked as a magazine editor and did not think about writing novels. Recently, when I did decide to give it a go, I’d say I was influenced by A.S. Byatt, Mary Renault, Katherine Neville, Ellis Peters, and Ken Follett.
Were the enthusiastic reviews for THE CROWN the motivator for THE CHALICE, or did you already have a burning need to write it regardless?
I wrote THE CHALICE before THE CROWN was published, before a single review appeared. I sold THE CROWN to Simon & Schuster in 2010 and they put it on the schedule to be published in 18 months. So I took time off from magazine work and wrote a second book. I love writing books with Joanna Stafford as the protagonist, I wanted to keep going. I wish I had seen one or two of those good reviews while I was writing, might have been helpful. On some days I felt like, “What are you doing?” I didn’t find out THE CROWN made it on the shortlist for the Crime Writers’ Association’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger until after I’d turned in THE CHALICE. I wrote it in a bubble.
Do you think the fact that you can trace your ancestry back to the 1600s and find religious persecution in your own family history account for your interest in this subject matter?
Yes, I guess it’s part of what draws me to writing thrillers that revolve around the Reformation, and specifically the Dissolution of the Monasteries. My mother was raised Catholic, and my father was raised as an evangelical Protestant. They left their respective faiths and I was brought up in an agnostic home. But the clash of faith was always there in the background. I went to an Assembly of God revival meeting with my cousins when I was young, and the preacher shouted at us that if we married Catholics, we would die. I’ll never forget that.
Recently I’ve researched the life of my forefather, Pierre Billiou, a French Huguenot who came to America in 1661 because of increasing persecutions. It was a hard life. His wife gave birth to a son on the boat coming over—a two-month-long journey. I am descended from that son, named Isaac. The family built a stone house in New Amsterdam (later New York City), the first one on Staten Island. It’s so small! I’ve been inside it –the house belongs to the state of New York now and you need permission to go inside, it’s so fragile—and I can’t believe a family of six lived in this one long room.
What are the qualities of Joanna Stafford that made you want to give her voice in a second novel.
She’s bright, resourceful, honest, unpretentious, loyal, sometimes bad-tempered, a little naïve, with an incredibly bad sense of direction.
Did you find writing in first person helps you experience Joanna’s story as your own?
I don’t know if the story is my own, but I wasn’t able to get a handle on the character or write the book with any effectiveness until I switched to first person. I started it in third-person and one day I thought, “Let me try this in first.” That’s when it took off.
As a modern female writer do you think the limitless power of a cruel, selfish and unrestrained King, who disposed of wives and rivals so freely, is difficult to portray without a modern woman’s disdain creeping in?
It’s true my books don’t have a positive view of Henry VIII. I don’t write him as a romantic figure. And my main character does have deep disdain for him, based on the king’s executions and mistreatment of friends and family. But this is not anachronistic. Even in his own time, Henry VIII’s treatment of women was viewed with horror–in some ways, they were harder on him in the 16th century then than we are now, what with Jonathan Rhys Meyers running around. When approached to become Henry VIII’s wife, Christina of Milan said, “If I had a second head, it would be at His Majesty’s disposal.” And Mary of Hungary wrote in a letter, expressing sympathy for Queen Jane Seymour after the fate of the second wife, Anne Boleyn: “It is to be hoped, if one can hope for anything from such a man, that if this one bores him he will find a better way of getting rid of her.” There are other such examples.
Do you find that historical fiction, with its frame work and ultimate conclusion foretold, a difficult genre in which to tell a story of mystery and intrigue?
I would feel that way if my characters were all from history and the main storyline followed history closely, but I veer off in both books to weave mystery/thriller plots that have little to do with Henry VIII’s court or his wives, which is what most historical novelists write about in my Tudor age. In my second book, there is a question of an assassination plot and readers do know the person in question did not die at this time. Yet that doesn’t have to be an impediment to suspense. We all know Charles de Gaulle survives yet the suspense is excruciating in THE DAY OF THE JACKAL.
Does researching with historians, non-fiction authors and history buffs, help you maintain excitement for your project in difficult periods? Have their insights or particular interests ever made you add an element to your story that greatly enhanced it?
I love research, so yes, it helps keep my interest going, although I don’t need much help in that, because I’m obsessed with the 16th century. I’m nuts! Sometimes when the writing is not going well I will give myself a “treat” of a research day. I have gathered my own dream team of experts I turned to in fact checking the book: a curator at the Dartford Museum, a real Dominican nun, an expert on tapestry making, a historian of the 16th century, and a curatorial intern at the Tower of London. The Tower intern was able to send me a PDF of a scanned-in diet sheet of a prisoner in the 1550s. I discovered that because prisoners of noble families made deals with the yeoman warders, they might eat very well. Five-course dinners, all of the courses meat.
Do you worry about history buffs challenging themselves to find small inconsistencies or ‘literary license’ and calling you out on it?
Well, it happens once in a while, despite my best efforts. I have chosen a period of time people are deeply interested in, so I have to expect it. One amazon reviewer of THE CROWN in the UK chastised me because my antagonist., Bishop Gardiner, “would never have said ‘gotten.'” Well, Bishop Gardiner did not blackmail a young novice to search her priory for a relic of mystical power! Yet that the reviewer had no problem with. It’s funny what they seize on.
If THE CROWN is indeed made into a movie, how much influence will you want to have in its making? And conversely, how much influence do you think it could have in the shaping of your future stories and characters in your series?
I have written three screenplays, two of which have made it to the finalist stages with screenwriting competitions, so I would love to write the script myself. But I am so close to the material — how could anyone be closer? — I would understand it if more objective views were required to make the story work. I do wonder, if someone portrayed Joanna Stafford a certain way, would it influence how I wrote her? I’ve heard that’s what happened with John Le Carre and George Smiley. After Alec Guinness portrayed him in two miniseries, TINKER TAILOR and SMILEY’S PEOPLE, Le Carre lost the character in his mind to Alec Guinness.
Nancy Bilyeau is a magazine editor who has worked for ROLLING STONE and INSTYLE and is currently the executive editor of DUJOUR. Her 2012 debut novel, THE CROWN, reached the shortlist for the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award of the Crime Writers Association in the UK. Historian Alison Weir said of THE CROWN, “A stunning debut. One of the best historical novels I have ever read.”
To learn more about Nancy, please visit her website.