Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Interview with Nancy Bilyeau, author of THE CHALICE

Today I welcome Nancy Bilyeau, author of THE CHALICE, a Tudor suspense novel published last March by Touchstone. THE CHALICE recounts the continuing adventures of ex-novice Joanna Stafford, heroine of Bilyeau's debut novel, THE CROWN (2012). I reviewed THE CHALICE yesterday.

Nancy was kind enough to answer questions I sent her about THE CHALICE and the history behind the novel.

1. Can you describe the genesis of the novel? Did a specific object or historical event serve as a catalyst? How difficult was it to mold the plot to the framework of historical events?

THE CHALICE is a sequel to THE CROWN, my debut novel. The main character is Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice pledged to Dartford priory just when Henry VIII crushed the monasteries: the late 1530s. At the end of THE CROWN, the priory is "surrendered" to the king in 1538. What I wanted to do in the second book is explore what would happen to a person after losing their way of life, how would they handle it emotionally. What kind of despair and anger would these displaced people feel, and what would they do about it? The specific events that the book molds around are the arrests in the Courtenay Conspiracy, the king's betrothal to Anne of Cleves, the Act of Six Articles and, in Flanders, the Revolt of Ghent. I enjoy incorporating real events into my novels. The only problem they cause is elongating the timeline at some points. A thriller should move quickly but when you're working with things that really happened you have to allow the proper amount of time.

2. What was it about the years 1538-1540 that grabbed your attention and sparked your imagination?

That's a tense, strange time in the reign of Henry VIII. Most people look at it as an in-between time: after the death of his third wife and leading up to marriage to his fourth, Anne of Cleves. Part of the action of THE CHALICE wraps around the arrival of Anne. And without giving too much away, this marriage is key to the plot. That marriage--and its failure--is well known. Less well known is that England was braced for war, for invasion by a combined army of Charles V and Francis I, egged on by the Pope who had excommunicated Henry VIII. This is what runs through the entire plot: the fear, the paranoia, of Henry. Joanna doesn't directly interact with the king in this book, but his actions ripple out toward her in many ways. She sees people she cares for die because of the king's fears.

3. Joanna Stafford is a woman with strong loyalties to her Catholic faith, her noble family, and her country, England--loyalties which often conflicted with each other and complicated her course of action. As you wrote, did any of Joanna's choice surprise you? Do you think any of them surprised her?

Joanna had to make many choices in the book that have to do with faith and love and loyalty and courage. Hard choices. I was often moved by what Joanna had to do in THE CHALICE, because it required sacrifices. In this novel she is tested and yes, she would be surprised herself at how she survives those tests.

4. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, was as important a player on the European stage as his peers Henry VIII and Francis I, yet he has been largely neglected in historical fiction. Why do you think this is the case? What are your impressions of the man?

That is a good question! He was an enormously important person--he was in power during the birth of Protestantism, the exploration of the Americas, cataclysmic wars with France and the rising Muslim power. Yet in much historical fiction he's ignored. I wonder if it's because he's not a romantic figure compared to Henry VIII and Francis I, both handsome men with multiple wives and mistresses. Charles was a homely man who I think seemed morose to others. I actually have some sympathy for him because of the absolutely enormous, crushing burden of his empire and the sense I get that he hated it and that is why he "retired" at a certain point and had a few years of quiet, private life with his family. His family was fiercely loyal to him, in a way that you don't see in the English or French royal families. His sister Mary of Hungary, after her husband was killed in battle, basically worked for her brother for the rest of her life--she took on the extremely difficult job of Regent of the Netherlands. She represented his interests and never remarried, retiring from the regency when Charles V resigned his position of emperor. When she died, she left her brother all her possessions. Hard to imagine Mary or Margaret Tudor doing any of that for Henry.

5. What prompted you to include fantasy elements in THE CHALICE?

The mid-16th century was filled with mystical beliefs in prophecy and astrology and necromancy, and I researched those very deeply. I was surprised by how the beliefs co-existed with Christianity. Devout Catholics also had their astrological charts done--by their physicians! I think it wasn't until Protestants had advanced their beliefs, and gained strength, that some of the skepticism set in and there were efforts to stamp out "pagan" beliefs. For instance, the Puritans tried to do away with Halloween...but it was too popular!

6. What was your favorite scene to write? The most difficult?

I think my favorite scenes were when Sister Joanna and Brother Edmund find themselves in an empty Blackfriars monastery all night, and I have to admit that an execution on Tower Hill was something I've always wanted to write. The most difficult were in the first third, when Joanna was in London and getting more and more suspicious and worried because all is not what it seems. The revelations had to be made so slowly and carefully, but not too subtly either. It's a challenging balance.

7. The fates of several characters are left unresolved at the end--will there be a third book in the series?

It looks that way! There will be an announcement soon. 

8. Are there other eras or settings you would like to write about?

Oh yes, I am interested in the 18th century and drawn to it almost as much as I am to the Tudor era. I wrote a screenplay about Mary Wollstonecraft, who lived and wrote in the late 18th century. I have other ideas for this time period, too.

9. How does your training in magazine journalism help or hinder you in writing fiction?

It helps me with research but with the actual writing of the prose, it doesn't help or hinder. They are completely different skill sets, editing articles for a magazine and writing a novel. Far different uses of creativity. Except for the determination to use good spelling and grammar, perhaps. I always try to do that! Too many rigorous bosses shouting in my ear to ever let that go.

Thank you for a marvelous interview, Nancy, to go with your wonderful novels!

You can learn more about Nancy and her work at her website.

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