In-depth Interview with The Chalice Author and Admired Journalist: Nancy Bilyeau

In my last post I raved in review of Nancy Bilyeau’s second novel, The Chalice! Her Tudor-era thriller, sprinkled with riddles and clues that surround her protagonist Joanna, certainly needs to be on your TBR list for 2013. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, thrillers, or mysteries, see my review and information on the book by clicking HERE and then read our interview. We had a lovely time!

I am so very excited and honored to present this interview with Nancy and hope you’ll read it through and give your thoughts too. We talk about why she writes her book from its particular angle, about women (and journalists) as fiction writers, and her advice for aspiring authors. Not to mention, Nancy is very light-hearted and fun!

Erin:  Hi Nancy! I’m very honored to sit down and talk with you today about your writing, your behind-the-scenes life, and your books! How are your launch festivities going for The Chalice?

Nancy:  Going very well. My launch party was last week, at the Mysterious Bookshop, an independent store in New York City. I did a reading and answered questions. I love that bookshop—they gave me the Soft-Boiled Award for March. These selections “shy away from the gritty, grisly, and gory, instead focusing on character development and careful plotting.” I like being soft-boiled!

Erin:  I guess since you’re a good egg, I’m glad you don’t crack easy!! (laughing) With that said, I’m going to start asking away as I am sure there are anxious readers…..

Q:  I know you had much success with your first novel in this series, called The Crown. How did it feel to complete The Chalice? Was there pressure to compete with it, or just pure excitement?

A: I actually wrote The Chalice before The Crown was published, so there wasn’t much pressure. I sold The Crown to Touchstone/Simon & Schuster and they set it to be published in 18 months, so I wrote a second book in those 18 months. I was excited, sure, but for the most part, I wrote it in a bubble. I didn’t have any input from an editor on my second book in its conception or the writing of the first draft. I workshopped it along the way with a group of fellow writers.

Erin comments: That is amazing! I suppose once you get on a roll…..

Q:  What do you hope readers will take away with them after reading The Crown and The Chalice?

A: I hope that they will fall in love with my main character, Joanna Stafford, who is intelligent, loyal and spiritual, yet she struggles quite a bit with her life’s direction and her emotions. And I hope they will be struck by what the nuns and monks and friars went through after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England—thousands of people cast adrift.  That sense of powerlessness, of confusion and uncertainty, it resonates today. The main dramas of the 16th century have been told many times in fiction and nonfiction, but I feel I am doing something different.

Erin comments: I agree, Joanna is a wonderful soul with more intelligence than she knows!  I know I was completely taken aback thinking about those religious people. You’re right, I never really thought about what happened to them or that there was so much destruction and I like that you chose this angle. I’m not at all Catholic myself, but overall, to me it doesn’t matter about religion, it just causes me pain to think of anyone persecuted for their beliefs.

The Chalice

Q: Did you have goals in mind when writing the series, or are you an author that just allows the story to flow onto the page? Do you write with an outline or free verse?

A: I use a loose outline but I allow for surprises and characters to evolve. If I outline absolutely everything, then I feel hemmed in and self-conscious.

Erin comments: Totally agree!

Q: I’m a journalist myself, and I know you are quite an accomplished magazine journalist and editor, so how do you feel that journalistic style compares to fiction writing? Does it make it an easier to transition to authoring fiction? And if so, why? And/or what are some of the obstacles?

A: Oh, thank you, that’s nice of you to say. It is tricky to transition from magazine editing and writing to fiction. Now it helps me with the research. I go about my books in a different way than a pure novelist would, or a historian with a PhD. I read contemporary documents and modern nonfiction of the period but then I contact experts, like the assistant curator of the Dartford Borough Museum in Kent or a curatorial intern at the Tower of London, and ask lots and lots of questions.  I go at it like a reporter.

But when it comes to writing of the fiction, I think you have to be open to inspiration and take lots of chances and “let go” to create an interesting, vibrant world for your readers and to find those emotional traits and quirks and longings that make up real people. Your imagination and instincts must lead. That is the opposite of a journalist method or mindset. That’s why when some journalists try to write a novel, the result can be admirable but a little rigid or unemotional. In my case, I had to push through many, many revisions and take tons of classes to shed my nonfiction mindset and enter the world of the imagination.

Erin comments: I can see that. Both Tim and I are journalists, but we are still different. He’s more logical and precise and into editing beyond being curious, and I am more feature-oriented and all about awareness and issues with a creative flair. Both of us are also writing novels…ha! So hopeful we’ll be able to compliment and help each other with our respective traits to make our works shine. I’ve noticed a lot of journalists are turning into fiction writers and it’s fun to see.

Q:  What are some of the best-loved articles you’ve written or edited?

A: For DuJour magazine, where I work now, I edited a true-crime feature by an investigative reporter named John Connolly that was a highlight of my career. It was a long story about a murder in Palm Springs that winds its way back to a trust fund established by “Poor Little Rich Girl” Barbara Hutton. I enjoy reading these types of fascinating true-crime stories and I think a lot of other people do too, but so few magazines run them. It’s such a shame.

A story I wrote much, much earlier in my career that I am fond of was a profile of Gabriel Byrne for Rolling Stone. We met at a nice restaurant. After I’d asked him a question, he said in that beautiful soft, Irish voice, “This whole process is so strange. You can ask me these personal questions but I can’t ask you anything at all.” I started laughing and said, “But you can ask me anything!” He laughed, too. And then didn’t ask. Ha ha ha.

Erin commented: I just laughed out loud. That is a very memorable and funny story! And can I just say I love magazines. I want people to keep reading them and with the switch to reading smaller doses of content at a time, I hope magazines will prosper within that.

Q:  Would you consider yourself a creative person? Imaginative or logical?

A: I like to think I am creative. Writing and sketching. I am not too logical. I had terrible problems with plane geometry in school. Things that seemed obvious to everyone else, I couldn’t get. But a good magazine editor has to work logically, so I pushed myself to be more linear and methodical.

Q:  I’ve read about your family tree. You must also have a love of genealogy and historical family history. Did this influence you as a historical fiction writer?

A: I think so. I am very proud of my French Huguenot ancestor, who came to America in 1661. When I was going through a hard time with my son at one point, when he was diagnosed with being on the autistic spectrum and the school was making all of our lives miserable, I lost myself in ancestry.com. At night, to try to relax, I would work on those trees online. I discovered all sorts of things, such as that my great-grandfather, a farmer in Indiana, married my great-grandmother, a young immigrant from northern Germany, when she was pregnant. I could tell from the marriage date and the date of the birth. I wondered if it was a shotgun wedding—after three more children he divorced her and immediately enlisted in World War I. had already heard that she suffered great poverty after the divorce and after the war he became a chronic alcoholic. It’s fascinating to look at these documents and dates and reconstruct the lives of people who we are connected to—this sad couple is part of who I am.  That is what historical novelists do, right? They think a lot about earlier lives.

Erin comments: I agree, I love it too and it can be very absorbing and moving as well. I have something exciting to tell you in regards to our families in New Amsterdam! Possibly, they could have met each other.  

Q: When did you first know you wanted to write fiction?  When did you first catch the writing “bug?”

A: I declared I would write novels in high school and then took no steps to do so. Ha. I was a passionate reader of fiction all my life but I made my career in magazines. When I gave birth to my son I was seized by this urge to come up with my own stories. It was a lot like being bitten by a bug! I couldn’t stop trying to write.

Q:  Who are your women role models?

A: Mrs. Erickson, my high school English teacher in Livonia, Michigan. I’ve worked for inspiring women in the magazine business, like Ellen Levine, at Good Housekeeping.  I am fascinated by the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. I’m a Hillary Clinton supporter.

Erin comments: I am also a Hillary Clinton supporter, and very proud of it.

Q: Who are your author mentors and/or favorite writers?

A: My writing mentors are screenwriter Max Adams and novelist Russell Rowland. My favorite writers run the gamut from Jane Austen to A.S. Byatt.

Q: Why do you choose the time period of mid-1500s England to write about? What intrigues you?

A:  I think the drama of the personalities drew me in from the beginning:  the Tudors themselves, their courtiers and ministers like Cardinal Wolsey and Robert Dudley. The magic of the Renaissance and the birth of the early modern age infuses the century, from Machiavelli to Shakespeare. And….I like the fashion.

Q: I always have found it interesting that in a time of religious laws and such persecution, especially for things supernaturally or perceived as such, that even Elizabeth I herself chose to call upon seers.  Yet, many used the excuse of astrology to murder people, many times just as a political move for their gain. What are your thoughts on this?

A: That is what obsessed me while writing The Chalice—the pull of the mystical, the prophecies and predictions, in this time. Think about it: Everyone took astrology, based on pagan beliefs, much more seriously in the 16th century, an era of devout Christianity. Now, in our more secular time, fewer people take astrology and prophecy seriously.  It doesn’t make sense, does it?

Erin comments: No, it doesn’t, but also I think people are always curious about the unknown.

Q: Why did you choose to take the religious upheaval angle with your novels?

A:  I’m not personally religious, it was more of my deciding to write a character who was a novice, very spiritual, and then that inevitably led me to focus on religion in people’s lives. There have been so many historical novels written on the suffering of the wives of Henry VIII but what I find truly chilling is what happened to those who defied the king’s religious supremacy.

Q:  What other novels of this time period or subject matter do you like or recommend?

A: The novels of C.J. Sansom, C.W. Gortner, Margaret George. Hillary Mantel, of course. I read an advance proof of a novel by Elizabeth Fremantle about Katherine Parr called “Queen’s Gambit” that I highly recommend.

Erin comments: Yes, Christopher is one of my favorites. And I also have an advanced copy of Queen’s Gambit for review, so glad you recommend it!

Q: What writers have influenced you or do you enjoy reading?

A: I am influenced by Daphne du Maurier, Bram Stoker, Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Kostova, Ellis Peters, Anne Rice, Katherine Neville. Lots of different types of writers.

Q:  What other historical time periods do you enjoy, if any? Do you hope to write about them one day?

A: I am interested in the 17th century, when my ancestor, Pierre Billiou, came to America. I love the Enlightenment, perhaps because I wrote a screenplay about Mary Wollstonecraft. But I also am interesting in going way back, to the “Dark Ages” in Europe. And I’d love to write about all these periods. I need to look into cloning!

Erin comments: All of that sounds very interesting. Ever wish you could just put your finger to the computer and download your head straight in?

Q: What is your advice for aspiring authors?

A: Keep workshopping. I am a product of writer’s workshops and I believe in them.

Q: Have you had any major challenges to overcome when writing your novels?

A: It’s a difficult time to write fiction because the business is going through so many changes. I try to shut out the negativity as best I can.

Q:  How do you feel the industry is doing so far in relation to women authors? What are the successes and how can it improve?

A: Women don’t seem to have a bigger problem than men in getting agents and book deals. In fact it might be easier. But I think women’s fiction is sometimes stigmatized and compartmentalized more than men’s fiction. Jodi Picoult talks about this more forcefully and eloquently than I could. It’s difficult for a woman to be described as writing “literary fiction.” They are writing chick lit or domestic fiction or just commercial fiction. In my case, the stigma of historical fiction is strange and frustrating. Tolstoy wrote books set in another time! At my reading at Mysterious Bookshop, this friend of a friend stood there, surrounded by the work of wonderful, creative, magical authors, men and women who write about crimes that are central to understand humanity, and said, “We don’t have any mysteries in our home. We read literature.” Sad face.

Erin comments: Very sad face. Life is surrounded by mystery.

But I have gone off on a tangent. Men who write mysteries and historical novels suffer from snobbery and stereotypes just as much as women. I think the problem people are pinpointing is that most book reviews for serious newspapers and journals are written by men. The male editors and reviewers are the tastemakers who influence which books get traction in the marketplace. Although now with GoodReads and the boom of the bloggers, there are other, important influences.

Q:  You’re a traditionally published author under the wing of one of the largest book publishers. I’m sure you must feel amazing.  Were there any struggles in your publishing processes? Any words of advice for others?

A: Oh, sure. I wrote screenplays before fiction and I was unable to get any of them optioned—that was frustrating. And then while I was writing The Crown, I had no agent and no publisher and no idea if anyone would want it. It took me five years to write it, and you know, I think someone has to be a little crazy to keep going in that way, flying blind. But I decided I had to give it my all. The first agent I sent the book to said no; the second said she was retiring (and continues to be out there agenting, three years later!). I think the key is to keep going until you find the agent who falls in love with your book, who will champion it through.

Q: Please tell us about some of your successes? What do you feel have been the biggest and what are you most proud of?

A: I’m most proud of The Crown making it onto the shortlist of the Crime Writers Association’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award last year, in England. That was a tremendous honor for an American writing a debut novel.

Erin comments: Yes, congratulations!!

Q: I know that The Chalice is already getting rave reviews. What is up next for you?

A: I’m working on the next book, The Covenant. In this one, Joanna is drawn into the court of Henry VIII himself in 1540, that was a very pivotal year.

Erin comments: I can’t wait to keep up-to-date with your progress on that!

Q:  Where can readers connect with you?

A: I’m on twitter: @tudorscribe. And I try to reply to all emails that come to my author website. That contact email is tudorscribe@gmail.com I like to hear what people are interested in, what they think about my writing and this period of time. Some authors hate reading their reviews and complain about GoodReads, but I am open to input. Occasionally people are a little nasty, but I tell myself, “Hey, this one is just having a bad day.”

Erin:  Thank you so much, Nancy, for joining me today. I could ask you a million more questions. I wish you continued success with The Chalice, as well as your other writing.

Nancy:  I really, really appreciate the interview and the interest in my work, Erin. This has been a wonderful conversation.

The ChaliceThe Chalice Info and Synopsis~

Publication Date: March 5, 2013
Touchstone Publishing
Hardcover; 512p
ISBN-10: 1476708657

In the next novel from Nancy Bilyeau after her acclaimed debut The Crown, novice Joanna Stafford plunges into an even more dangerous conspiracy as she comes up against some of the most powerful men of her era.

In 1538, England is in the midst of bloody power struggles between crown and cross that threaten to tear the country apart. Joanna Stafford has seen what lies inside the king’s torture rooms and risks imprisonment again, when she is caught up in a shadowy international plot targeting the King. As the power plays turn vicious, Joanna understands she may have to assume her role in a prophecy foretold by three different seers, each more omniscient than the last.

Joanna realizes the life of Henry VIII as well as the future of Christendom are in her hands—hands that must someday hold the chalice that lays at the center of these deadly prophecies…

Praise for The Chalice

“Rarely have the terrors of Henry VIII’s reformation been so exciting. Court intrigue, bloody executions, and haunting emotional entanglements create a heady brew of mystery and adventure that sweeps us from the devastation of the ransacked cloisters to the dangerous spy centers of London and the Low Countries, as ex-novice Joanna Stafford fights to save her way of life and fulfill an ancient prophecy, before everything she loves is destroyed.” – C.W. Gortner, author of The Queen’s Vow

Nancy Bilyeau, Biography~

Nancy BilyeauNancy Bilyeau, author of The Crown, is a writer and magazine editor who has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. Her latest position is features editor of Du Jour magazine. A native of the Midwest, she graduated from the University of Michigan. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

For more information, please visit Nancy Bilyeau’s website. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

For more on Nancy and The Chalice, go to Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/thechalicevirtualtour/
Twitter Hashtag: #TheChaliceVirtualTour

The Chalice Tour Banner FINAL

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