Author Interview - Nancy Bilyeau, author of The Crown

I want to extend a warm welcome to Nancy Bilyeau, the author of The Crown!

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Q. How did you come up with the idea for The Crown?

I was invited to join a fiction writing workshop run out of the apartment of a novelist named Rosemarie Santini. They needed four people to do the workshop the right way and one person dropped out. At the time I was the articles editor of Ladies’ Home Journal with no fiction writing credits at all. I hadn’t attempted fiction since high school. I’d been an editor and writer of nonfiction at newspapers and magazines like LHJ and Rolling Stone. So I walked into the workshop having no idea what I wanted to write beyond that I wanted to set a story in 16th century England because I’d been a Tudor nut since I was about 11 years old.  At the same time I began reading historical fiction—all of Jean Plaidy and Norah Lofts, plus Mary Stewart and, when I was older, Mary Renault and Robert Graves. But I wanted to write a historical story that was a mystery because I love to read those too. After briefly flirting with a male protagonist I settled on a female protagonist--but not a royal or a lady in waiting because that had been done quite a bit. The idea of a nun was scary because I knew nothing about being a nun but it intrigued and excited me too. And because I guess I like challenges I thought: How about if I make it a thriller? A murder mystery can be set in one location and many are. But in a thriller the protagonist has got to move. And here I had created a main character who lived in an enclosed religious order, which is a place where people are – voluntarily – locked up. So I had to work the imagination pretty hard to come up with ways to spring  Sister Joanna out of Dartford Priory. Which I did, not once but three times.

Q. Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

I think that beneath the mystery and thriller plot I am trying to say something about how hard it is for a woman to take control of her life—and how necessary.

Q. How much of the book is realistic?

I tried very hard to research the daily lives of nuns and friars and monks during this time period, which was not easy because contemporary sources don’t go much beyond a few letters from priors and prioresses, some wills and bequests, and then the reports in the 1530s from Henry VIII’s commissioners sent to investigate the monasteries in order to “reform” them. But I kept at it and found some books that were very helpful. I’m proud to tell you that I’ve received emails from a Dominican nun and a Franciscan friar who each said I did capture the essential truth of life in a monastery. Other than that, I think that I have realistically written the life of a woman in an aristocratic family on the downswing—in this case, the Staffords after the execution of the third duke of Buckingham. I also tried to be accurate about the power struggles among the bishops and dukes and king’s ministers in this very turbulent timespan.

Q. If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your book?

Maybe I would go even further with the thriller plot—the mystical element. I thought I might have gone too far but people enjoyed it. I could even have taken it up another notch!

Q. What was the hardest part of writing your book?

The first three years that I worked on the book were hard going because I was new to writing fiction and I wasn’t happy with my pages. I had an idea in my head of what the story was but then when I read a draft of one of my own chapters I’d get upset because to me it was stiff and clunky. But I kept taking workshops and reading deeply in my genre; I revised and revised, and started to feel better about the writing.

Q. Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

I think I learned a tremendous amount. I learned how to tell a story and how to involve readers in another time. I tried very hard to bring that time to life and hope I succeeded.

Q. Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

When I was eight years old I wrote something in class after we came back from a field trip. I remember I described the leaves I saw on the ground. My teacher praised the report and made a sign that said, “Have you heard of Nancy Bilyeau, the Famous Writer?” I was a shy child attending my third elementary school—we’d moved several times—and that sign made me feel good.

Q. Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

I worship so many authors, but I think Daphne du Maurier, an early love, influenced me the most. She uses sensory detail so well, you feel that you are in the rooms of Manderly or walking through the woods. She gets inside her main character’s emotions very skillfully. And tension—boy, can she write a tense passage. In “Rebecca,” I always marvel at the scene near the end of the book when Max de Winter, his wife, Jack Favell and the local magistrate find the mysterious London doctor who holds the key to Rebecca’s death. The dialogue, the description, the emotion—just amazing.

Q. Tell us your latest news.

I have written a sequel to The Crown called The Chalice. It follows Sister Joanna through 1538 and 1539, and it is definitely a thriller. Most of the main characters of The Crown come back and I’ve written a lot of new characters too, and included some famous “real” people as well, such as TWO women who would marry Henry VIII.

Q. Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

I am grateful for the emails and messages from people who say they enjoyed The Crown. That means the world to me, and encourages me to keep going with Joanna Stafford. I’ve got a lot of ideas!


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