An Interview With Nancy Bilyeau

Please help me welcome Nancy Bilyeau, author of the upcoming historical thriller THE CHALICE (Simon & Schuster, March 5, 2013). I’m delighted that Nancy could join us the day before her release!

13C Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau is a novelist and magazine editor who has worked at Rolling Stone, InStyle, Good Housekeeping and, presently, DuJour magazine. It took her five years to research and write her debut novel, “The Crown.” She now lives with her husband and two children in New York City.

13C04 The Chalice Cover

“An intriguing and suspenseful historical novel”–Booklist

1.   Where did you grow up? Will you share a favorite story from your childhood?

I was born in Chicago; we moved to Michigan when I was eight years old, to Dearborn and then Livonia, and I ended up going to the University of Michigan. We called it “Michigan squared.”

In the summer our whole family, and our aunts and uncles and cousins, would go to “Camp Dearborn,” which was the farthest thing imaginable from what most people would think of as camp today, particularly on the East Coast. First off, it was only about a half-hour drive from Dearborn, which is a suburb of Detroit. Then each family would rent a standing tent, and the tents were inches away from one another. A loudspeaker sounded very early in the morning and you had to report to the calisthenics area. We all did jumping jacks to a recording called “Chicken Fat.” I still remember the voice bellowing: “Give that chicken fat back to the chicken!” Then during the day, we went to the lake beach and out on the paddleboat. At night there were canteen dances and I remember very clearly watching my beautiful older cousin Nannette curl her hair with huge pink plastic curlers to get ready for the dance. The younger crowd, it was our mission to watch her dance with her friends—and maybe boys!—while undiscovered. We weren’t even supposed to go to the dance. It was a spy mission! Those were wonderful memories.

2.   What inspired you to start writing?

I wanted to be a writer from the time I was in the third grade. But it receded for a while; in high school I was in the school plays and wanted to be an actress. Ha. After college I worked in the magazine business, and was focused on that. It was after I had my son, now 14, that I felt this hunger to tell my own stories, to move into fiction.

3.   If you could go back in time and share one writing lesson with “new writer you” before starting your first manuscript … what would that be?

Don’t think about giving up! Have confidence that if you keep learning and workshopping your prose will get to where you want it to be.

4.   Your new novel, THE CHALICE, is a stand-alone story which continues the adventures of Joanna Stafford (the brave English novice readers met in your previous novel, THE CROWN) who finds herself embroiled in solving a mystery which could save – or destroy – both Henry VIII and Christendom itself. When did you realize that THE CROWN would have a sequel, and can readers expect more novels about Joanna?

I wanted to write a series of books on Joanna Stafford from the very beginning. I love writing this character and can envision all sorts of challenges and dramas and mysteries for her, interwoven with what was really going on in Tudor England.

5.   Do you have a favorite author, book, or genre? If so, who (or what) is it, and why?

My favorite authors are the ones I fell in love with when young. Willa Cather says that what you read and who you are from 11 to 15 has the most influence on a writer’s life. That’s when I read historical fiction: inhaled it, really. Everyone from Jean Plaidy to Mary Stewart. But my favorite was Norah Lofts—in fact, I named my daugher Nora. She’s such an insightful writer with an amazing feel for character and description and pace. And she has a cool, sophisticated, nearly debauched view on human sexuality, which you glimpse every now and then. Very discreet.

6.   Joanna Stafford, your protagonist, is a nun – in a time when Henry VIII was shutting down monasteries and abbeys after his confrontation with the Catholic church. What inspired you to write from such a unique (and historically significant) point of view?

My first choice was to write a book set in the 16th century because it is my favorite. Then it was a question of what kind of main character? I wanted to write a woman but someone different. I came upon a nun, and thought, “But I don’t know anything about nuns, particular Tudor nuns.” And then: “Well, I will find out.” I ended up learning so much, I developed tremendous sympathy for the women in the priories. And I have a friend who is a Dominican nun today, in an enclosed order. I can visit her in a special room.

7.   Do you have a favorite scene or section from THE CROWN? If so (and if you can tell us about it without revealing any spoilers!), what makes that scene stand out for you?

I’m fond of my first few chapters, when Joanna has left the priory without permission to reach Smithfield, for the burning. But my favorite section in The Crown is much later on, when Joanna and Brother Edmund, who are trying to solve the mystery of the book, come to the house of the Howards in Southwark, and they are there to look at a tapestry. They’re “incognito,” they are not wearing their habits. But on that day the Earl of Surrey is holding a masque and everyone has to wear a costume: it’s a party of monastic costumes. You must be a nun, friar, monk. To find the tapestry, they have to sneak into the party, wearing a “costume” that is close to who they really are. The suspense is tight in this scene, and lots of surprises. Joanna has to use her brains to get out of a dangerous situation. But I so enjoyed playing with disguise and identity. Also that section was not outlined or planned. It exploded, fully formed, while I was writing. I am so grateful when inspiration strikes.

8.   What is the last book you read, and why did you choose to read it?

I read Ariana Franklin’s last book, “A Murderous Procession.” I read all of her books after I finished “The Chalice.” I didn’t want to be influenced by her series on the 12th century woman who “listens the the dead,” Adelia. I’d heard the books were wonderful—and they were. The last one was hard to read because I knew Diana Norman, the author’s real name, had died, and I didn’t want the series to end.

9.   How did you push yourself to get past difficult moments in writing and editing THE CHALICE? Do you have a favorite place to write or to edit your work?

I take long walks listening to music, that helps me through the stressful patches. I wrote the first book on my kitchen table or at Starbucks. The second one, I wrote it at the New York Public Library, I was admitted to a writer’s room. But my favorite writing day was taking my laptop to the Cloisters Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and writing a frightening scene in one of the re-created rooms of a medieval priory, tapping away in the dark corner as long as the battery lasted. The guard didn’t love it, but he let me finish.

10.  Do you have any upcoming signings or readings?

“Literary New England Radio Show,” blog talk radio, I’m on the same bill with Richard Russo and Raine Miller; 8 pm Monday 3/4/13. Click here for more details!

Mysterious Bookshop, Wednesday, March 6th. 7 pm. 58 Warren Street. (Reading and signing.)

And now, the speed round:

Plotter or pantser?

I’m more of a pantser than most thriller writers, who don’t sit down to write until they have detailed outlines worked out. I like to let surprises happen as I go.

Coffee, tea, or bourbon?

I depend on coffee AND tea. In large quantities. Not a big bourbon drinker—if I ever make it to the Kentucky Derby, I will drink bourbon there.

Socks or no socks?

SOCKS. No one should have to look at my feet.

Cats, dogs, or reptiles?

DOGS! I like big, sloppy, friendly canines.

For dinner: Italian, Mexican, Burgers or Thai?

ITALIAN. I make a fantastic chicken cacciatore.

Thank you, Nancy, for taking the time to join us on the day before your release! It’s fantastic to learn more about you and about THE CHALICE!

13C04 The Chalice Cover

If you’d like to learn more about Nancy and her novels, check out her website or find her on Twitter (@Tudorscribe) or Facebook. You can find THE CHALICE for sale online, in chain and independent bookstores , in ebook format – and wherever books are sold!

7 thoughts on “An Interview With Nancy Bilyeau

  • March 4, 2013 at 7:19 am

    Why, I grew up in Dearborn, too! I clearly remember Camp Dearborn where, if you were a certain age, the canteen was the place to be.

    I do think writing in a re-created priory at the Cloisters sounds like perfect inspiration! Thanks for sharing the interview!

  • March 4, 2013 at 7:26 am

    What a fun interview! Loved the image of Nancy tapping away at her computer in The Cloisters. And yes, “Chicken Fat” has been seared upon my brain. Wait–that doesn’t sound right. Anyhow, good luck to Nancy with the launch of THE CHALICE!

  • March 4, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    Great interview! Looking forward to reading THE CHALICE and interviewing Nancy myself (although, as a UMich grad, she might not be so eager to speak with a Domer 😉 )

  • March 4, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    I love The Crown! It was well-written and so fast paced! I just ordered last night the Chalice.

    I’m curious …which scene did you write in the medieval set? What great inspiration and so lucky. And LOL at the unhappy guard. What a great story!

  • March 5, 2013 at 6:08 am

    Nancy, your book looks fantastic! I love that time period. I smiled at the idea of typing in the Cloisters with a sullen guard!

  • March 10, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    Jessica: You went to Camp Dearborn? Fantastic. Lynn, thank you.
    Julianne, I would love an interview. Let’s do it.
    Elise, thank you.
    DeAnn: I wrote the Blackfriars sequence in the Cloisters. 🙂
    Erika: I did my best to ignore him.

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