Thursday, January 19, 2012

Religious transition, mystery, and adventure: An interview with historical fiction author, Nancy Bilyeau

Today, I am talking with Nancy Bilyeau. Nancy is a long-time writer and editor who has worked at a number of magazines including InStyle, Rolling Stone, and Entertainment Weekly. Her debut novel, The Crown,  has her tacking mystery under the backdrop of religious transition in Tudor England.


1) Tell us about your book.

The Crown is a historical thriller set in 1537-1538 about a half-English, half-Spanish Dominican novice named Joanna Stafford who gets caught up in a conspiracy and quest to locate a hidden object of mystical importance.

2) English history is filled with fascinating chapters and episodes. What caught your interest about the period covered in your novel?

Ever since I was 11 years old, I loved the 16th century, I suppose for the high drama of the personalities. More recently, I’ve wondered if our fascination with the Tudors goes beyond the obviousness of “Divorced/Beheaded/Died/Divorced/Beheaded/Survived.” Thanks to Holbein’s portraits and the chroniclers of the age—among them some wonderfully snarky ambassadors--the central cast of characters leap out at us. They feel close in. Much more so than the Plantagenets earlier. And as time went on, and Parliament became more important and governmental movements and issuances, the royal family was not quite as directly responsible for what happened to ordinary people every day. Henry VIII, while flailing about trying to divorce Catherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn’s flashing dark eyes, would ride out and people occasionally shouted, “Back to your wife!” Even now, we feel as if we have a front row seat to the show and people feel emboldened to shout at Henry or Mary or Elizabeth. They have some sort of stake in it all. Also, there is something intoxicating about the mix of the time—the medieval world shading into the early modern age. I love the writers of the time: not just Shakespeare but Erasmus and More and Henry Howard.

3) The overall Tudor period, particularly in recent years, has been a popular period for fiction, but a lot of this fiction has primarily focused on key royal figures and those closely associated with them. Although there are a few famous faces in your book, your protagonist is a Dominican novice, someone pretty far from the hallowed halls of power. What went into your decision to focus on this sort of protagonist?

I felt that the royals of the 16th century had been quite well covered. I’ve always been curious about the more “ordinary” people of history. I wanted to write a story that thrust a character into the heart of the most compelling conflicts of the time. Because religious conflict fascinates me, I thought a person who had taken vows to follow a monastic life would inevitably be part of the turmoil. I wanted to write a female main character, and so I came up with a novice in a Dominican order. The order existed: Dartford Priory, in Kent.

4) Though this book is set during a time of great religious transition, it is, at its heart, a suspense-filled mystery focused on a lost artifact. Did you find it difficult to balance the mystery elements and the historical elements?

No, I loved it. I found that the history of the time lent itself to mystery and suspense without much effort on my part. I’m writing a thriller set in Tudor England, rather than a historical story that happens to have a mystery in the plot.

5) What was the most surprising thing you learned in doing research for this book?

The audacity of the manipulations that allowed the government to dismantle the monasteries. It was done ostensibly for reform, yet there was no reform. The abbeys and priories were closed, the people living inside ejected. And then these beautiful buildings were often stripped down to the lead. All that remains of the Dominican “Blackfriars” monastery in London, a complex of magnificent buildings that stretched between the Thames and Ludgate Hill, is a four-foot-long piece of stone wall. I’ve seen it. No, this was a financial initiative, no question. At various junctures, resistance would be met with incredible savagery. Monks were starved, tortured, beheaded. Abbots were executed and pieces of their bodies were displayed in public. This did a lot to deter others from resisting! Yet there was a popular uprising—the Pilgrimage of Grace—in large part to the common people’s outrage. Of course nothing stopped it in the end.

6) This period is filled with countless fascinating figures. Is there anyone in particular that you found particularly compelling?

Bishop Stephen Gardiner, my antagonist, was such a complex man. He was one of the legal minds behind the divorce from Catherine of Aragon—he was brilliant, everyone agrees. Yet as the country moved more and more toward Protestantism, he tried to halt that. Such irony in his struggle.

7) Arguably, the primary appeal of historical fiction is letting a reader experience, in some small way, a past they will otherwise never know. At the same time, people still are interested in fundamental storytelling aspects such as plot and pacing. How did you balance the detail necessary to turn your novel into a time machine without overwhelming the reader?

I tried as much as possible to weave in the historical detail as part of the action. I don’t like it when writers come full stop to describe a ceiling—gosh, having said that, I hope I didn’t do it. I find writing in first person helps in this regard—everything is through the eyes of Sister Joanna Stafford. By the way, what I’ve done in writing a first-person thriller set in the 16th century is not common. There are murder mysteries written this way. But thrillers are often split it into two time tracks—modern and the past, with the two plots intertangling. I broke ranks, so to speak, because I just felt this was the way for me to tell a story.

8) HF authors are knowingly creating stories and details they know may not have existed, but they can't risk deviating too much from the known history without risking losing the very appeal of their subject matter. At the same time, some aspects of the past can be so alien to modern readers that they are difficult to communicate well in novel. Did such thoughts influence your choices concerning what historical details to emphasize or include?

I revel in details and behavior that may seem alien today! I tried as much as possible NOT to force modern perceptions and standards onto my characters. I think when someone selects a book such as this to read, that person wants to explore a different mindset. But I don’t use dialogue that is accurate to Tudor England, people would find it heavy lifting. Here is an excerpt from Mouzell for Melastomus (do you like that title?), which was written by Rachel Speght, the first printed defence of women, in the early 1600s: “Thus if men would remember the duties they are to performe in being heads, fome would not ftand a tip-toe as they doe, thinking themlfelues Lords & Rulers, and account every omiffion of performing whatfoeuer they command, whether lawfull or not, to be matter of gret difparagement, and indignity done them.” I think you’ll agree with me it’s best to find a middle ground.


Thanks, Nancy.

If you'd like to see more from Nancy, please check her out at

The Crown is now available at all major bookstores and online at all major vendors including Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


Debra Brown said...

A wonderful interview.

You have made the times more complex to me. They were, of course, but I have not had the time to think about it. Following links to read of the work of my friends has enriched my knowledge.

Your antagonist sounds like an interesting fellow to follow- though I doubt I would like him, as I am not supposed to.

Deborah Swift said...

Lovely interview. Can't wait to read it.

J.A. Beard said...

Thanks for stopping by.

Cate Masters said...

Wonderful interview about an intriguing subject. I love the twist you put on your historical.