Thursday, March 19, 2015

Interview with Nancy Bilyeau, Author of THE TAPESTRY

THE CROWN (2011) and THE CHALICE (2013) introduced readers to Joanna Stafford, a young novice forced out of her convent during the Dissolution and into dangerous plots threatening the reign of King Henry VIII. In the third book of the series, THE TAPESTRY, on sale March 24, Joanna must finally choose her fate: nun or wife, spy or subject, rebel or courtier. Author Nancy Bilyeau discusses her research into this fascinating era.

In THE TAPESTRY, Joanna becomes Henry VIII’s Mistress of Tapestries, charged with purchasing, inventorying and caring for the king’s extensive tapestry collection. How did you research the Renaissance tapestry industry? Have you had the opportunity to view some of Henry’s tapestries in person?

There are several fantastic nonfiction books about Renaissance tapestries. The expert in this field is Thomas P. Campbell, now the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He wrote Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence and Henry VIII and The Art of Majesty: Tapestries in the Tudor Court. I don’t know if many people realize what an incredible industry it was and how luxurious and intricate many of the tapestries could be, woven with gold and silver threads. Production of a set of six five-by-eight-yard tapestries would have required thirty weavers to work nonstop for over a year.

Many of Henry VIII’s tapestries are lost, but you can see some beautiful ones that have been preserved at Hampton Court. Since I live in New York City, I can’t run over to Hampton Court any time I like (unfortunately) but I can jump on a subway to the Cloisters Museum. The museum’s prize possession is seven individual hangings known as “the Unicorn Tapestries,” dated in the late 15th century. No one is sure who wove them or what they mean, but it’s wonderful fun to speculate.

Joanna is commissioned to weave the face of a certain character into a tapestry for the king. I was intrigued to read that such personalization was done after the entire tapestry had been woven. Can you explain how this was done? Was such personalization a common occurrence for commissioned tapestries?

It wasn’t common. Most tapestries were based, from beginning to end, on a detailed colored pattern known as the cartoon. That’s where the word originated from. They traced the pattern from the cartoon onto the loom. But in some cases the tapestries show recognizable faces of people who lived—patrons of the workshop or royals that they wanted to please. A tapestry was sold at Sotheby’s recently that depicted the meeting of Henry VIII and King Francis I in 1520, the Field of Cloth of Gold. You can see a real resemblance to Francis in the tapestry—yes, it’s his nose! We know that finer threads were often used in the weaves of the faces of people in these tapestries and that they were done at the end. Occasionally, there was some cheating, and someone would try to paint a face instead of weave it. In Brussels, the center of the tapestry industry, if someone was caught painting, the penalty was severe.

How did you strive to distinguish your characterization of Henry VIII from standard conceptions?

I’ve been reading about Henry VIII for many years, and what I tried to do was banish from my thoughts the depictions of the king from historical novels and movies and miniseries, and focus on the historical record. From that, I concluded he was intelligent, manipulative, talented, acquisitive, impatient, ruthless, self-indulgent, arrogant and yet charming with a dry wit. I based his appearance on descriptions in the contemporary documents. He looked nothing like Jonathan Rhys Meyers, that’s for sure!

Throughout your three novels, Joanna’s heart has been tugged between two men, Geoffrey Scovill and Edmund Sommerville. Avoiding spoilers, did you know from the beginning which of the two she would choose in the end? Could she have been happy with either man—or neither of them?

I knew from the beginning of writing THE TAPESTRY who Joanna would choose at the end. It wasn’t easy to make this decision, since I am very fond of both my “guys.” But in deciding, I thought long and hard about what Joanna’s feelings were and what Geoffrey’s and Edmund’s true feelings were too. I think both of the men have appealing and admirable qualities—along with some flaws. But in my heart, I think that Joanna also could have had a fulfilled life as a sister of the Dominican Order. I did not write her as a woman who wanted to be a nun by default—that she could not cope with being married. She had the piety, devotion, compassion and cerebral nature that would have made for an excellent nun.

Photo credit: Library of Congress Digital Collections
Did the fourth book on occult philosophy by the German theologian and alchemist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, for which Joanna and Edmund search in order to put an end to a curse, actually exist? Are copies extant? How did you become interested in Agrippa?

If you spend any time at all reading about beliefs in mysticism and magic in the 16th century, Agrippa will pop up pretty quickly. He is the rock star of the Renaissance-era occult. LOL. The fourth book of Agrippa is controversial. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa was a scholar, a theologian and an astrologer—these three things often went together!—and in the early 1530s he published De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres, which is “Three Books of Occult Philosophy.” Then there is the infamous “fourth book,” which is better described as a grimoire, a book of magic spells. It puts into practice the philosophies and ideas of the first three volumes with invocations of good and evil spirits. Researchers today use the word “spurious” when Agrippa is listed as the author of the fourth book. It first surfaced in 1559, years after Agrippa’s death, but that alone does not rule out his authorship. As you can imagine, publishing books of occult instruction was not easy during this time, with the Inquisition in full force. It could have been held back.

The fourth book is still in circulation today. I first came upon it when browsing through a bookstore in downtown Toronto. The color of its cover is a strange dark red. Looking at it gave me a chill, to be honest with you. I later ordered one for my research—from Amazon.

I love that you broaden the confines of your Tudor setting to include Charles V’s empire and the Germanic states. What particular research challenges did this pose? How did knowing your book was destined for an American audience that might not be familiar with continental events of the era affect how you presented your material?

There were significant research challenges. Apart from the life of Martin Luther, there are not that many nonfiction books written in English that cover the history of Germany in the late medieval period. I had to dig and dig just to find a few! To me this is incredible, because what happened in the German states in the 16th century had a profound effect on the modern age, and not only by introducing religious reform. The Peasants War was very significant—Karl Marx and Frederick Engels certainly thought so and wrote about it three centuries later. Also, the tensions between the Holy Roman Emperors and the states and the deepening crises that spread across Germany led to the Thirty Years War, one of the most destructive conflicts in Western history. And it’s not just dry statistics and facts that are compelling here—daily life in Germany was so interesting in this time!

I didn’t worry about Americans’ lack of familiarity with what was going on in continental Europe. That is part of my personal “mission,” which is to open up the Tudor novel. My main character is fictional, and I set her in a real world of famous Tudor figures like Henry VIII and in actual settings, like the Palace of Whitehall and the town of Dartford. So it’s not a “marquee” historical novel that revolves solely around the royals. I invent “normal” people—I can’t call them “ordinary” because in my heart there is nothing ordinary about Sister Joanna Stafford, Geoffrey Scovill and Edmund Sommerville. I don’t take the standard point of view on the Reformation, which is that the Catholic Church was corrupt and faltering and would have died out even if Henry VIII hadn’t broken from Rome. The reason for it is not that I am a religious propagandist, but because after deciding to write the story of a Catholic novice I did years of research into late medieval spirituality and monastic life and Tudor politics. I came to my own conclusions about the English Reformation, and about the motives of Henry VIII in demolishing the abbeys. What’s exciting is that I am not alone—several authors and historians are questioning the conventional wisdom. It’s a time of true revisionism.

And then, yes, I take the action of the second and third novels out of England for a period. I haven’t had any negative feedback from readers—they are, as far as I can tell, happy to travel to new places. I mean, part of this is I am not just a historical novelist, I am a thriller writer. These are historical thrillers, and thrillers need to move. A great many historical novels contain chapters of people talking in rooms, which is fine, but in my work, I send my characters hurtling in many directions, whether it’s Joanna and Brother Edmund riding to Malmesbury Abbey in THE CROWN, Joanna in disguise making her way to Antwerp and beyond in THE CHALICE, or Joanna struggling to survive a very difficult journey through the German states in THE TAPESTRY.

Do you have a favorite scene from THE TAPESTRY? Which scene had you tearing at your hair?

I have several favorites. I loved writing the passage of Joanna arriving at Whitehall and the mounting suspense, beginning with her awe mixed with uneasiness when looking at the ornate Holbein’s Gate at the palace entrance. Her supper that evening with the Howards was fun to write, as was Joanna’s eventful meal with the king and queen. I was excited to write the Germany section. One of my readers said that part of the book read like a powerful and Impressionistic dream.

Hair tearing, there was plenty. I had a very hard time writing the pivotal Westminster Hall encounter with several main characters, including Henry VIII. It’s always challenging to write something where there are a lot of key characters to account for. I went through many drafts in a particular Joanna and Geoffrey scene, because there were so many emotional shifts.

What aspect of writing a trilogy proved most difficult? Knowing now what you didn’t know when you began, would you write a multi-book series again?

This may sound strange, but I found writing a series a natural thing to do. I came up with my ideas for the books at the beginning. If you have a strong main character, it makes it much easier, I think. But that’s the creative side. The business of writing a series is hard. In today’s publishing world, there is a lot of “wait and see” on the books. They don’t want to commit to a succeeding novel until it’s clear whether the first one did well, for example. But if an author did that, waited for the sales reports to come out before beginning the next one, the books would be spaced several years apart. Readers want the books in a series to come quickly, at least one book a year. You can’t do that with “wait and see.” Also, it’s hard to secure reviews for the books in a series after the first one, yet we need reviews to appear so people know the next book is out in the world. Despite all of this, I would absolutely write another series.

Can you give us a hint about what you are working on now? 

My agent has ordered me to keep my lips sealed! But I will tell you it is a historical novel, though not set in the 16th century.

Nancy 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.
For a list of Nancy's other stops on this blog tour, please visit the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour website.
To enter to win one of three signed hardcover copies of THE TAPESTRY, please complete the giveaway form at


Giveaway starts on March 16th at 12:01am EST and ends at 11:59pm EST on April 3rd.
Giveaway is open to residents in North American and the UK.
You must be 18 or older to enter.
Winners will be chosen via GLEAM on April 4th and notified via email.
Winners have 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.
Please email Amy @ with any questions.


Carol L. said...

What a fascinating interview. The research that was done must have been immense. I have always admired the fact that not only is an Author building a story but the time also involved in research should be appreciated. I will have to catch up so I can start from the very beginning. Thank you for the post.
Carol L
Lucky4750 (at) aol (dot) com

BurtonBookReview said...

I have the other two books in the series, but refuse to start them till I get my hands on the new one.
I have been waiting for so very long!!

Julianne Douglas said...

You'll love them, and now you won't have to wait to find out what happens!