Up Close: Nancy Bilyeau
Bilyeau “Happy” to Take Ownership of Her Career
By Dawn Ius
Nancy Bilyeau had always wanted to write a historical novel set in New York City—but she’d already started carving out a niche for herself in the Tudor era. Her first novel, The Crown, became a #1 bestseller on Amazon and launched a brilliant trilogy that continued to garner fans even while Bilyeau took a bit of a novel writing hiatus.
Readers may have expected Bilyeau to return to her Joanna Stafford series at some point, but last year, with her launch of The Blue—a gripping tale that explores how far people will go to steal, or protect, something of value—Bilyeau pivoted away from the Tudors and crafted a novel that not only resonates with previous fans, but has earned her much-deserved acclaim from critics and readers alike.
With this year’s DREAMLAND, Bilyeau switches things up again, this time with a heart-stopping tale of corruption, class, and dangerous obsession, set in 1911’s Coney Island, aka America’s playground.
“I’ve made the decision to write what I’m interested in and also what I believe my readers are interested in,” Bilyeau says. “I’m taking ownership of the direction of my writing career and I think it’s working well. I’m happy about it.”
It appears to be paying off. Earlier this year, The Blue was optioned by Nichelle Tramble Spellman, creator and showrunner for the Apple series Truth Be Told, starring Octavia Spencer and Aaron Paul. And DREAMLAND—set to release January 16, 2020—has already garnered starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, a first for the author.
In this interview with The Big Thrill, Bilyeau shares the inspiration for and the research behind the novel that could very well launch her career to staggering new heights.
The bane of every author’s existence is the question “Where do your ideas come from?” but I’m genuinely curious what inspired DREAMLAND, and what drew you to this time period.
With DREAMLAND, I had a magazine assignment to write a Coney Island story. While researching, I kept going further back in time and I stumbled on the fact that around the turn of the century there were huge luxury Victorian hotels built on the ocean that were not far from Coney Island. Definitely within walking distance. While the new immigrants transforming New York—Italians, Russians, and other Europeans—flooded the attractions of Coney Island along with everyone else in the city, the elites were booking rooms at the Manhattan Beach Hotel or Oriental Hotel, eating lobster and listening to Souza. I wanted to make those worlds collide.
The year 1911 was a turning point in many ways. The wealthy families of the Gilded Age were struggling to hold on to their position while the media—the “muckrakers”—and the politicians were starting to bear down on them. John D. Rockefeller’s oil empire was broken up and J. P. Morgan was answering tough questions on whether he was running Wall Street and for whose benefit. At the same time women were starting to push for the vote and also wondering if there was more to life than catching a husband. And you had the very grim realization that the factory conditions in New York were horrendous for workers and people were dying, as what happened when 145 women died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. All of this was happening at once.
Historical fiction requires such a different level of research, and your atmospheric details in DREAMLAND were extraordinary! How immersive was the research for this book and what were some of the key findings that helped bring the setting to life?
It was pure heaven to have newspapers to read. I could dive into the New York Times and other newspapers and magazines published in 1911. I also haunted the New York Historical Society, the Coney Island Museum, and the Museum of the City of New York.
I’ll let you in on one of my other research goldmines: I read fiction written around that time—novels by Edith Wharton, Henry James, and E. M. Forster, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, though he came a bit later—to pick up on social customs and speech cadence, and finally I turned to the wonderful staff of the New York Public Library, who found some fruitful sources for me in their archives. I read up on both Coney Island just after the turn of the century, and the journalism and fiction written about it, and I also read about the wealthy who stayed in the luxury American hotels of the time, not just Coney Island, but Saratoga and Newport.
I read that your protagonist, Peggy Batternberg, was loosely based on American socialite Peggy Guggenheim. What about her fascinates you?
Before she was a major force in the modern art world, she was an unhappy young heiress. Her branch of the Guggenheim family had problems. She wrote about this herself in a book, and it’s been in biographies and a documentary. Her father was a womanizer who actually lost money even though his father was one of the richest men in America. He was the black sheep in the family—and then he went down on the Titanic. Peggy had that tragedy in her life, as well as feeling directionless. She took a nonpaying job at a bohemian bookstore; I love that! It wasn’t yet a time when most women were going to university, and they didn’t have the vote. So she was on her own, trying to find her way.
Like Genevieve in The Blue, Peggy has a rebellious nature and is fierce in a way that was not common to women in that era. Why is it important to you to write these kinds of female characters?
I suppose I’m a rebel too in my way. I’m drawn to women who struggle to overcome obstacles, whether it’s an espionage mission in a porcelain factory or finding the answer to what’s happening on Coney Island during a heat wave when women are turning up dead.
While Peggy obviously steals the show, you have an intriguing cast of characters—including a wonderful romantic interest for Peggy. Could you share a bit about Stefan and what made him the right match for Peggy?
Because Peggy Guggenheim was drawn to art and artists her whole life, I wanted with my Peggy to imagine who would have interested her back in the beginning, when she was 20 years old and bored with young bankers and playboys of her set. What would the “first” artist in her life have been like? I don’t want to give anything away, but when Peggy meets Stefan, she experiences someone being interested in her for herself, without her famous family figuring into it. I know some wealthy people, and that’s very important to them, and something they don’t experience too often, which makes them a bit suspicious of everyone.
Stefan is from such a different background than hers—they couldn’t have been more different—that he would be an intriguing man to her. His talent would have drawn her in, but also, he’s an honest and considerate person. Those are qualities she would have longed for.
You recently surprised fans with a novella—The Ghost of Madison Avenue. Please share what inspired it and whether there will be more of them!
While researching J. P. Morgan for DREAMLAND, I learned some things that stuck in my head. Morgan had only a cameo role in DREAMLAND, but the idea didn’t go away. Suddenly I had an idea for a mystery inside J. P. Morgan’s private library, which was a truly amazing place, and since his death has transformed into the Morgan Library & Museum. For my main character, in creating Helen O’Neill, I drew on my mother’s side of the family, the Irish American side, and the history of the Irish in New York City, specifically the community in the Bronx. I tell a mystery in this novella but it’s also a love story.
What are you working on next?
This is up in the air—I hope to have an announcement soon!
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