Who or What inspired you to become an author?
I’ve had wonderful teachers at different points in my life that encouraged me. First there was a third grade teacher who praised a report I wrote after a class field trip and mounted a sign on the wall: “Have You Heard of Nancy Bilyeau, the Famous Writer?” Then in high school my English teacher, Lorene Erickson, filled me with appreciation for good writing. After college I went on to work as a reporter and editor for various magazines, and although I’ve always been a total bookworm I didn’t think I was meant to write fiction. But then about seven years ago I was asked to join a novelist workshop run by an author named Rosemarie Santini. They had one person drop out and needed that fourth writer for the workshop to function properly. In the workshop I came up with my idea for my first novel, which became “The Crown.” I think the reason I wanted to switch over to fiction was a hungering to tell my own stories and create characters.
It’s a historical thriller set in Tudor England, during the reign of King Henry VIII. My main character, Joanna Stafford, is a Dominican novice at Dartford Priory. She leaves her priory without permission to go to the execution of her cousin, a condemned rebel against the king. This decision triggers her arrest and puts her in the grasp of some of the most powerful and ruthless men of the kingdom, who force her to search for an object of mystical importance in her own priory, an object that they hope can halt the Reformation and destruction of the Catholic church.
I wanted to tell the story of a strong, intelligent, resourceful woman who overcomes a great many obstacles in a time when many readers assume it would be especially difficult for an unmarried female to do that. I did extensive research of the lives of nuns in the late medieval and early modern age, and their independence and intellectual growth within the structure of the priory was impressive.
I think I am good at balancing description and action. I try to use just the right detail to evoke a different place and time. Readers say they feel submerged in 1537, I take that as the finest of compliments.
I want to tell stories that entertain and intrigue people. I’m always very grateful when readers say they were up late at night because they really wanted to know what would happen next. But I don’t want to create page turners just for the sake of that. I want to bring complicated characters to life.
6. What books have most influenced your life?
There are so many! I’d start with Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and Norah Lofts’s “The Concubine” and Antonia Fraser’s “Mary, Queen of Scots.” My other most cherished novels are “Persuasion,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Eight,” “Possession,” and “The Age of Innocence.”
What is your next book project?
I’ve finished a sequel to “The Crown” called “The Chalice.” It takes Joanna Stafford through 1538 and 1539 as she gets caught up in a frightening conspiracy while struggling to cope with life outside of the priory. Most of the main characters of “The Crown” are in it, along with a lot of new people, including historical figures such as TWO women who would marry Henry VIII.
What is your favorite quote?
Sir Thomas More: “If any good thing shall go forward, something must be adventured.”
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Read very deeply in the type of writing you enjoy most and consider workshops where you can share your work with other authors and get constructive feedback. You don’t have to do everything they say but it will help you know if you’re on the right track!
Nancy Bilyeau is a writer and magazine editor who has worked on the staffs of "InStyle," "Rolling Stone," "Entertainment Weekly" and "Good Housekeeping." She is a native of the Midwest, born in Chicago with a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan. She now lives in New York City with her husband and two children. "The Crown" took five years to research and write. It was published by Simon&Schuster's Touchstone in January 2012, by Orion Books in the U.K. in February 2012. It is also available in the Netherlands and Italy, and will appear in Germany, Brazil, Portugal and Poland by the end of the year.
Thank you Nancy for this lovely interview!