Interview with the Intelligent History-loving Journalist, Editor, and Author Nancy Bilyeau

Hi, Nancy! Welcome back to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I was thrilled to read your newest book, The Tapestry, and readers can see my review HERE and a phenomenal article by you HERE, in which you speak about what makes a historian and what you offer your readers when you write a book!

Nancy: I love your blog—and you know that! I really love the engagement you get from your followers. And also I think we are kindred spirits because we both love historical fiction AND we work in the media. That combo doesn’t come along every day.

I agree, Nancy! Thank you! 😀 It’s always my joy to have you here, and now, with the release of The Tapestry, which is the third novel in your Joanna Stafford historical mystery series! It seems like a whirlwind. How have you kept up with book babies and full-time life at the same time? What’s been most exciting about the release of this final novel in the trilogy?

01_The Tapestry

Nancy: It’s been crazy. I’m not getting more than five hours of sleep a night because I’m trying to put out the books on top of working fulltime and having two kids to raise. Two nights after The Tapestry came out, I was at a parent teacher conference for three hours. The high school has five floors, no elevator. I thought I would pass out.

Erin: I haven’t put out a book yet, but I do know that feeling! So, it’s still time for tea, coffee, or whatever is your pleasure, even though it’s warming up? I think I’m going to be having some coffee myself today, a latte, or maybe a hot Chai tea. I think we should just head out to a nearby café? We both could use a boost and I want to come to the CITY!

Nancy: I think my bloodstream is 50 percent coffee. A Dunkin Donuts large will keep me going all day. But for this conversation, let’s head to a small bohemian café and I’ll order a cappuccino.

Erin: That sounds lovely, the weather is perfect. We can even talk about the Wolf Hall episode from last night. Let’s settle in, warm our hands, and I think I’ll stay awhile. I’m ready for some down time. I’m sure you are too. However, I might not go easy on the questions!

Nancy:  I’m ready for anything. An open book!

Erin: I know your books “can” be read stand alone and enjoyed, but I also know that if you read them all there is a bit more that you get out of it as a series. So, first of all, I was thinking about the book titles in your series the other day. What is the tie that binds them all? There, of course, is a progression in your novels based on an overall ARC, so how can you the enlighten readers who haven’t read all your books with the thought behind the titles?

Nancy: First of all, my original title for The Crown was The Last Nun. I STILL like that title. LOL. My publisher changed it to The Crown. Since they did that, I felt like the next one should be a single word descriptive noun. I picked The Chalice. I thought it would help the branding to make it “C.” My idea for the third was “The Covenant.” I sold it on that title. After I finished writing it, they said it had to be changed because they’d published a thriller with that title a few years earlier.  I couldn’t come up with another “C” title that didn’t sound contrived. The Tapestry was the most accurate title, and also it sounds intriguing.

the crown

Erin: I have my own thoughts, but without giving away an spoilers, or reading experience, how do you feel  that Joanna has grown as a character from the first book, The Crown, to this third book, The Tapestry? Did you plan it this way, or did Joanna take the lead?

Nancy: She took the lead. Always. I think Joanna became more compassionate over the series and more confident too. Perhaps the same could be said of me.

this is a building open to the public today in Dartford. A part of this red-brick building is the gatehouse raised in 1539 on the rubble of the priory of nuns. After the Dominican priory was "surrendered" to the king, it was demolished and a large manor house built on the site, using some of the bricks of the nuns' home. The gatehouse was part of the property. It was a home for Henry VIII but he never stayed there. He gave the house to Anne of Cleves after he divorced her

Caption: This is a building open to the public today in Dartford. A part of this red-brick building is the gatehouse raised in 1539 on the rubble of the priory of nuns. After the Dominican priory was “surrendered” to the king, it was demolished and a large manor house built on the site, using some of the bricks of the nuns’ home. The gatehouse was part of the property. It was a home for Henry VIII but he never stayed there. He gave the house to Anne of Cleves after he divorced her. Photo courtesy of Nancy Bilyeau.

Erin: I agree with that, Nancy! I know you’ve loved reading Tudor history since you were a girl. But where did the final drive come from to write about a Dominican novice in the middle of the Reformation? Why create her as the lead?

Nancy: I wanted to write something original. And I wanted to write books that were full of conflict and drama, and what could be more dramatic than being driven out of your home with no clue on what to do with the rest of your life? That is what happened to the nuns and monks and friars.

Erin: Why do you feel that sharing a story outside of the more everyday widely-known Tudor names, and placing the first two settings away from court, was something that was right for you with your series? Do you think readers appreciated this? And furthermore, why then did you feel it was time for Joanna to go to court in The Tapestry?

Nancy: I got a lot of positive feedback about writing novels set outside of the main “action” of the court of Henry VIII. People seem interested. I have read some fantastic historical fiction that features the real-life royals of the period. But for me, at the end of the day, no matter how high level the writing gets—as with Hilary Mantel’s books—these stories are reanimating the dead. You’re taking people from an extremely well-known nonfiction template and giving it your own spin. I want to create people from my imagination. But I do add “real” people in secondary roles to make it even more fun. I sent Joanna into Whitehall into Book Three because I felt it was time for a showdown.

Erin: What are some of your favorite memories of anything Tudor you absorbed yourself in when you were younger? Did any of them leak into your novels either for fun, or by accident?

Nancy: Watching “Elizabeth R” with my parents on television. It was magical—and very influential for me. I think Joanna has a little Elizabeth Tudor in her, don’t you?

The Chalice

Erin: I completely do! You’re right! You chose Joanna to be a Stafford, and therefore, she’s also related to King Henry VIII. Of all the sub-sets of families that are ancestrally related to the Tudors, which one is your favorite and why?

Nancy: The Staffords! They are so doomed and aristocratic and they make all the wrong choices. LOL. This has all taken over my life to the extent that when I read some bit of history about an early Stafford, I react personally, with pride or annoyance. I have to remind myself, these are not MY ancestors.

Erin: Catherine Howard, King Henry VIII’s fifth queen, plays a much larger role in The Tapestry, due to the progression of the novel into that time period right before and into her being his wife. I also know that you have a much variant opinion of her than most. Can you discuss how you portray Howard in your book and why?

Nancy: There is a huge double standard about Catherine, her possible—not proven– affair with Thomas Culpepper is treated as if she was extremely promiscuous. It is part of history that in her lifetime the powers that be agreed she should die for suspected infidelity, when the men who were never faithful underwent no criticism. But do we have to take that attitude in the 21st century?

Erin: Um, yes, it seems we haven’t learned much in our world today, same double standard! Well, most of the time. Being named The Tapestry, and with the art of tapestry making being involved in your novels, I should ask, did it just fit based on the setting and characters you created in your novels? Or did you have a love of tapestries or tapestry-making? How much research did you have to do on tapestries and what was something interesting you found or can you share a beautiful tapestry you spotted?

Nancy: I was somewhat interested in tapestry making before I wrote these novels, my father was a landscape artist and I just love art. I did a lot of research into Renaissance tapestries—it was an exquisite world that allowed the very wealthy to both show off and to express something. When Henry VIII broke with Rome, he commissioned a series of tapestries of King David.

Erin: I love tapestries! At the Cleveland Museum of Art, they have a bunch of donated tapestries from France and England. Beautiful! Also, they kept the heat in amid the chill of the castles!!

 Let’s just put this out there. You like cathedrals, monasteries, etc. Old things made from rock. You like tombs. So, what famous tombs and effigies would you like to visit from this era? What were the most fun or interesting ones you’ve found? Additionally, if you’ve visited any, which ones were your favorites?

Nancy: I love tombs. I’d pay decent money to someone if they could explain WHY. I wish I could spend every weekend hunting down ruins in England. Sadly, I live in America. But I can get my fix at the Cloisters Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They have fantastic tombs and effigies.

When I went to Dartford to research, I found the remains of the priory: a 16th century gatehouse that was built immediately afterward and a long, low wall. They’ve done a bit of excavating and found objects like a green-glazed dish for food dating to the 1500s. From the era I write about, if I could put back together any of those monasteries it would be Blackfriars, the Dominican friary in London. Once it was a palace and complex of buildings housing libraries and chambers large enough to contain Parliament and rooms of great beauty. Now it’s gone. Just rubble—two gravestones, that’s it! I found those gravestones during one of my hunts for monastic remains in London.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Bilyeau

Caption: Nancy in the Cloisters Museum. Photo courtesy of Nancy Bilyeau

Erin: But they are beautiful works of art, the stone work is amazing. My mom has lots of photos from when we lived in England. She used to like to do stone rubbings. I long to go do that again!

Back to your book, you decided to make your historical fiction not only Tudor-related but a mystery rather than a romance or general historical fiction. I think you are a thriller, spy buff much like me…correct? Is that why you chose to write it, as it would be something you yourself would want to read, or was there more to it? And why not a “who-dun-it” murder mystery, but more of a personal mission-type of mystery?

Nancy: I wrote the sort of book I wanted to read! I adore historical thrillers like Katherine Neville’s The Eight, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, DanielleTrussoni’s Angelology. ALL of the novels of Kate Mosse. They are suspenseful, well-written, and rich with both dimensional characters and inventive history-based plots. I do read the “who-dun-it’s” too—and I love watching them on TV, like “Midsomer Murders.” But I just didn’t feel personally compelled to write that kind of series, in which each book revolves around a dead body being found and the killer must be uncovered. Also it is just completely unbelievable that a Dominican sister in 1538 would be running around solving crimes. It would be silly enough to turn Dartford, in Kent, into a corpse-riddled Midsomer—or Cabot Cove of “Murder She Wrote.” But how could I justify Joanna as crime solver? When she was in the priory, she was enclosed, meaning she couldn’t ever leave! No, instead, I made these into high-stakes thrillers, turning on the genuine drama of the period and the havoc wrought by Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Erin: Yes, that makes total sense!! It was a different kind of mystery, and really I did like it that way. It’s original too. And you just named a few of my TOP fave authors: Kostova and Kate Mosse. ADORE!

How did you not only write your historical fiction by the seat of your pants (I know you’re a pantser) after conducting research, but how did you manage to plot your suspense and action so well?

Nancy: I plot very loosely and then let the characters take over. I do a LOT of revision in drafts to increase suspense.

Erin: You’ve said that this trilogy is done, because…well…it’s a trilogy, I know. But I don’t feel that Joanna is really done gracing pages of stories and books. Do you have more in mind for Joanna?

Nancy: I have more ideas for Joanna! If this series gains more traction with the public, it is possible I will return.

Erin: That would be awesome.Go forth and buy buy buy people!! 😀

mysterious (1)

Caption: Nancy at one of her book launch parties at The Mysterious Bookshop in NYC. Photo courtesy of Nancy Bilyeau.

I know you like to write for the screen. Have you written, or would you consider writing, your Joanna Stafford series into a screen script? Maybe a mini-series? (BBC, Starz, are you listening???!!) A secondary question, then, how do you feel your experience writing for the screen has helped you write better books?

Nancy: I would love it! A producer optioned The Crown, but nothing came of it.

And I think my fondness for visual writing comes from scripts. I try to write taut, evocative description.

Erin: You’re a journalist and executive editor of DuJour magazine. How does your writing style every day at your job differ from your writing of fiction and historical non-fiction (your great blog I’m thinking). Being a journalist makes your research skills priceless for writing historical fiction, but how do you switch back and forth between editing styles, not mention length limits? How do they help each other or hinder?

Nancy: I’ve been writing journalism a lot longer than fiction. I find it easy to funnel my love of history into the blog posts. Sometimes I think I should cut down the time spent on them, though. I really work hard on a blog post, and then it goes on to get thousands of page views…but it doesn’t seem to lead people to my series. I fear they are content with the blogs. I know people on social media who follow my nonfiction—which is flattering—but have never read even one of the books in the series. Which is a bummer. I don’t know if it is smart to spend so much time on free content if it doesn’t support my books. If I can’t sell books, I can’t continue as a novelist. It is a baffling problem.


Caption: Nancy at the Cloister Museum doorway. Photo courtesy of Nancy Bilyeau.

Erin: Yes, I hear that a lot. I seem to think that blogs keeps an author’s name out there, increasing SEO opportunities, and makes you more of an expert. I am surprised it hasn’t resulted in sales though. I think that’s a struggle, the time. If I might suggest, I’d say not to stop, but maybe just to shorten the length or do more photo posts. Though easier said than done! And I know you LOVE to write them. But it’s hard putting a lot of work into something like that for little result.

What do you love most about living in New York City after growing up in the Midwest area? (Me being from Ohio and longing to be in Why is this such a great place for writers?

Nancy: This may surprise you, but I would love to switch places. I am really ready to leave! It is so expensive here, and so crowded. It’s actually very hard to live as a writer here, because of the enormous taxes and high cost of living. But my kids are locked into the good public schools in my neighborhood. And I do adore the museums and the history of the city. I have a collection of copies of early 20th century photos of New York.

Erin: Yes, I can understand that. It would be nice to have the best of both worlds! My son is pretty set on moving to New York, so at least in my case, I may be around soon! What is your favorite place to eat in New York? What would your favorite food be if you lived abroad? And finally, what would you eat if you lived near Joanna Stafford in that time period?

Nancy: There is a small restaurant near us called Danny Brown’s that has a Michelin star. Fantastic French food and wine. Danny’s mother is the hostess. 🙂 If I lived abroad, I would try to follow the Mediterranean diet, I believe it is the best. As for what I’d eat if I were near Joanna—the Tudors consumed a great deal of meat and some vegetables. Joanna herself would be very much into fasting. Something I’m NOT into.

Erin: Mediterranean food all the way for me!! Not a meat person, I’d not have survived the eating of that time period!

If Joanna is truly done in your writing, at least for now, what else have your thought about writing? Different time periods? Different culture? Different people? What most interests you?

Nancy: I am interested in so many time periods and cultures! I have started a new novel set in another time, but my agent has ordered me to keep my mouth zipped.

Erin: Darn!!

Both of us have ancestors, who came to New Amsterdam in the 1600s. Yours helped create Staten Island, and mine, Manhattan. Have you ever thought of writing anything in this time period based on these ties, especially since you now live in New York?

Nancy: Yes. ß-Nancy whistles innocently.

Erin: Haha, excellent!! Can’t wait to hear about it.

So, your favorite women in history and/or making history?

Nancy: I’d love to meet Queen Zenobia, who tried to conquer Rome. And of course the Tudor sisters: not just Elizabeth but Mary.

Erin: I probably have a million more questions to ask you, Nancy, but you’re time is short and I’ve already taken up so much of it. Thank you so much for sharing Joanna with us, and I wish you much continued success with your series and with whatever else comes in the future. I’m always here to support you! (Oh, and have coffee and cookies!)

Nancy: I’ve loved our talk. I’m actually a little sad to say goodbye.

Erin: It was fun! We’ll talk again soon!

01_The Tapestry

The Tapestry, Synopsis~

US Publication Date: March 24, 2015

UK Publication Date: April 24, 2015

Touchstone Publishing
Formats: eBook, Hardcover
Pages: 390

Series: Joanna Stafford, Book Three
Genre: Historical Mystery


In THE CROWN, Sister Joanna Stafford searched for a Dark Ages relic that could save her priory from Cromwell’s advancing army of destruction. In THE CHALICE, Joanna was drawn

into an international conspiracy against Henry VIII himself as she struggled to learn the truth behind a prophecy of his destruction.

Now, in THE TAPESTRY, Joanna Stafford finally chooses her own destiny.

After her Dominican priory in Dartford closed forever—collateral damage in tyrannical King Henry VIII’s quest to overthrow the Catholic Church—Joanna resolves to live a quiet and honorable life weaving tapestries, shunning dangerous quests and conspiracies. Until she is summoned to Whitehall Palace, where her tapestry weaving has drawn the King’s attention.

Joanna is uncomfortable serving the King, and fears for her life in a court bursting with hidden agendas and a casual disregard for the virtues she holds dear. Her suspicions are confirmed when an assassin attempts to kill her moments after arriving at Whitehall.

Struggling to stay ahead of her most formidable enemy yet, an unknown one, she becomes entangled in dangerous court politics. Her dear friend Catherine Howard is rumored to be the King’s mistress. Joanna is determined to protect young, beautiful, naïve Catherine from becoming the King’s next wife and, possibly, victim.

Set in a world of royal banquets and feasts, tournament jousts, ship voyages, and Tower Hill executions, this thrilling tale finds Joanna in her most dangerous situation yet, as she attempts to decide the life she wants to live: nun or wife, spy or subject, rebel or courtier. Joanna Stafford must finally choose.

Praise for The Tapestry~

“Nancy Bilyeau’s passion for history infuses her books and transports us back to the dangerous world of Tudor England. Vivid characters and gripping plots are at the heart of this wonderful trilogy, and this third book will not fail to thrill readers. Warmly recommended!” – Bestselling Author Alison Weir

“Illuminated by Bilyeau’s vivid prose, minor players of Tudor England emerge from the shadows.” —Kirkus Reviews

“In THE TAPESTRY, Nancy Bilyeau brilliantly captures both the white-hot religious passions and the brutal politics of Tudor England. It is a rare book that does both so well.” —Sam Thomas, author of The Midwife’s Tale

“In spite of murderous plots, volatile kings, and a divided heart, Joanna Stafford manages to stay true to her noble character. Fans of Ken Follett will devour Nancy Bilyeau’s novel of political treachery and courageous love, set amid the endlessly fascinating Tudor landscape.” —Erika Robuck, author of Hemingway’s Girl

“These aren’t your mother’s nuns! Nancy Bilyeau has done it again, giving us a compelling and wonderfully realized portrait of Tudor life in all its complexity and wonder. A nun, a tapestry, a page-turning tale of suspense: this is historical mystery at its finest.” —Bruce Holsinger, author of A Burnable Book and The Invention of Fire

“A supremely deft, clever and pacy entertainment. This is Nancy Bilyeau’s most thrilling—and enlightening—novel in the Joanna Stafford series yet.” —Andrew Pyper, author of The Demonologist and The Damned

“A master of atmosphere, Nancy Bilyeau imbues her novel with a sense of dread and oppression lurking behind the royal glamour; in her descriptions and characterizations… Bilyeau breathes life into history.” —Laura Andersen, author of The Boleyn King

Pre-Order/Buy The Tapestry~

Barnes & Noble

Author Nancy Bilyeau, Biography~

02_Nancy BilyeauNancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Ladies Home Journal. She is currently the executive editor of DuJour magazine.

Her screenplays have placed in several prominent industry competitions. Two scripts reached the semi-finalist round of the Nicholl Fellowships of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Her screenplay “Zenobia” placed with the American Zoetrope competition, and “Loving Marys” reached the finalist stage of Scriptapalooza.

A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan. THE CROWN, her first novel, was published in 2012; the sequel, THE CHALICE, followed in 2013. THE TAPESTRY will be released in March 2015.

Nancy lives in New York City with her husband and two children. Stay in touch with her on Twitter at @tudorscribe. For more information or to sign up for Nancy’s Newsletter please visit her official website.

View Nancy’s recent tour here:

03_The Tapestry_Blog Tour Banner_FINAL



Filed under Q and A with Authors

3 responses to “Interview with the Intelligent History-loving Journalist, Editor, and Author Nancy Bilyeau

  1. I really enjoyed this post and as co ordinator for HNS 16 in Oxford I hope you are coming over Nancy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Weekly Roundup of History, Archaeology and Writing Wisdom April 12-18 | Judith Starkston

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