Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Writing about New York City crime

I write thrillers and I have a part-time job as the deputy editor of The Crime Report, a website of the Center for Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, so I guess you could say crime is already my "thing."

As the U.S. editor for the website The Vintage News, I edit a wide variety of stories, from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the wonder of flapper shoes to crimes of the past. I've edited stories on Lizzie Borden and Victorian poisoners. For today, I wrote a story set in my city, NYC, and a famous mafia hit: the shooting of "Big Paul" Castellano outside Sparks Steak House


Why ordering a hit on “Big Paul” Castellano at Sparks Steak House was John Gotti’s big mistake

New York City is famous for its steakhouses, and since opening its doors at 201 East 46th Street in 1977, Sparks has been a carnivore crowd favorite. The essential components of a steakhouse are as follows: tables covered nearly to the floor with spotless tablecloths, set in dark, wood-paneled rooms; middle-aged men serving as waiters, their flawless manners stopping short of obsequiousness and their Brooklyn, Bronx, or Queens accents proudly on display; really good booze, like a Macallan single-malt whisky or a $100 bottle of Bordeaux; and of course the food itself: large, succulent meat portions, accompanied by baked potato heaped with butter, chives, and sour cream.

Since steakhouses haven’t changed much since their Mad Men heyday, you can assume that specific entrĂ©es found on a Sparks menu today—prime sirloin, filet mignon, and sliced steak with bordelaise sauce—were also on the menu in the 1980s.

It was the prospect of a dinner plate graced by the third cut of a prime rib of beef that drew a 70-year-old man named Paul Castellano to Sparks on the evening of December 16, 1985.

“Big Paul” Castellano was highly knowledgeable about meat, and not just because his father was a Brooklyn butcher. Since his friend, cousin, and brother-in-law Carlo “the Godfather” Gambino died of a heart attack in 1976, Castellano had been the boss of the Gambino family, considered the most powerful of the five families of the New York City mafia and worth an estimated $500 million a year. Aside from the usual racketeering, extortion, loansharking and control of certain unions, the Gambino group had a stranglehold on the concrete business and the supply of poultry and meat to much of the city.



To read the rest of the story, go here.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Celebrating the Danish publication of my 3rd novel



The foreign sales of my books mean a great deal to me. I love to think of people reading my work in other countries. One of my favorite publishers is Forlaget Punktum, in Denmark.

I received a box in the mail yesterday containing the Danish version of my book. The title they chose is a translation of "The Forbidden Covenant."

Interestingly, my title for the book was "The Covenant," but my American publisher changed it because they had a book of the same title a couple of years ago.

Here's the cover:



Thursday, July 13, 2017

Who Inspired George R R Martin in "Game of Thrones?"


I'm a Game of Thrones fan, and nothing could give me more pleasure that speculating on the historical people who might have inspired George RR Martin.

As the Town & Country headline says: "The real life stories of bastard kings, faceless assassins, and incestuous royal families." Yep, the gang's all here!





To read the story that just went live on Town and Country, go here!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Happy 4th of July with a Trip to Nathan's Hotdogs on Coney Island

On the Fourth of July, I wanted to share my story on Nathan's Hotdogs, which started in 1916 with a nickel and a dream.


My story for The Vintage News:

On the Fourth of July, the corner of Stillwell and Surf avenues in Brooklyn, New York, is transformed into a media circus, with ESPN broadcasting live an event that for at least an hour puts baseball, America’s favorite summer sport, deep in the shade. Tens of thousands of people crowd close, breathing in the odor of fried food mixed with salt air, stepping over thick television cables, hearing the screams of seagulls overhead, to witness it: Nathan’s Famous International Hotdog Eating Contest.

Boosted by the popularity of competitive eating, the 4th of July contest is “Major League Eating’s Super Bowl, so to speak,” says sportswriter Mark J. Burns in a Forbes column. It’s a Super Bowl with stars, no less. Joey Chestnut, 33, the defending champion, downed 70 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes in 2016, to set an all-time record. Former construction manager Chestnut is believed to earn upwards of $200,000 a year on the competitive eating circuit.

One wonders what the man who started it all—Nathan Handwerker—would make of this feat today. In 1916, he launched what became a hot dog empire with a small stand on the same corner. A near-illiterate shoemaker’s son accustomed to 18-hour workdays, at 19 he had left Poland and a family that hovered on the brink of starvation to follow his dream. “We were seven brothers and six sisters and we didn’t have a lot to eat,” says Handwerker in the excellent 2015 documentary Famous Nathan.

That Nathan Handwerker should end up a beloved fixture of Coney Island is perhaps not so surprising, for this stretch of beach in southwest Brooklyn drew the most audacious of all dreamers for decades


To read the rest, please go here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Interview with Adrienne Dillard on Jane Boleyn


One of the reasons I'm so captivated by the 16th century is the complexity of the people who lived then. Among the real-life characters of the Tudor court who I find endlessly fascinating is Jane Boleyn, born Jane Parker and for much of her life called Lady Rochford. She has for years been depicted as quite a villainess, a woman who supposedly testified against her husband George Boleyn after his arrest in the treason conspiracy launched against his sister Queen Anne, and who was later executed for her part in the adultery conspiracy of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII.

But in recent years, there has been a backlash against the negative view of Jane Boleyn, one that claims there is no evidence of her being the one to testify against her husband, and to substantiate the shocking charges of incest with the queen. Has Jane been defamed by history, by historians, novelists and screenwriters?



I have the good fortune to interview Adrienne Dillard, the author of the new novel The Raven's Widow: A Novel of Jane Boleyn. I enjoyed this historical novel very much. Adrienne created nuanced portrayals of all the members of the Boleyn family, and put me inside the court of Henry VIII. I am rethinking a lot of my perceptions!

We're both lovers of Tudor history. I've found there's always a spark that leads us there. For me it was watching "The Six Wives of Henry VIII." What triggered your interest in the Tudors?

I've always been a huge fan of all eras of history, but I came to the Tudors as an adult. After my step-father died in January 2008, I tried to get my mom out of the house as much as possible. She must have been really desperate to get out one afternoon when I convinced her to go see The Other Boleyn Girl in the theatre...It's definitely not her normal cinema fare! Throughout the movie, I just kept thinking that there was something off about it, but I didn't know enough about the period to nitpick. That night I picked up Eric Ives' brilliant biography and I was off and running.


Was Jane Boleyn the most compelling member of the Boleyn family to you from the beginning?

No, not at all. I really had no connection to her. I was lucky enough to find Julia Fox's biography very early on so I wasn't indoctrinated with the "nasty Lady Rochford" perspective, but she didn't really pique my interest until after I wrote my first novel. Thanks to TOBG, I was always really drawn to Mary and her children. It wasn't until I made the difficult decision to have a surgery that ended my ability to have children that Jane really came into my consciousness. The surgery happened right around the anniversary of her execution so her story was all over my social media while I was laying around at home feeling sorry for myself. Here, I had a healthy son, but she died utterly childless in a time and place where that was practically unacceptable. How would she have felt about that? That was when I really connected with her.


How did you arrive at your conclusions about her character that led to your depiction of her in the novel?

Fox's biography played a huge role in how I saw Jane and really changed the way I looked at the historical record. She planted a seed of the idea that scribes have biases...and you can see that play out even now. Look at all the books that have come out about the recent election we just had in the US. They all offer behind the scenes "facts" about the events and the politicians involved, but each one has its own slant based upon the writer's ideologies. This is nothing new, it's been going on since the first recordings of history. With that perspective in mind, I went back to the primary documents and began reconsidering their sources. The Jane that emerged was far more complex. She wasn't a saint by any means, but she was humanly flawed. She made decisions that make you want to scream, "No! Why would you do that?!" But having gone through the tragedy of my mother's widowhood, I could identify many of her more irrational choices as symptomatic of someone dealing with terrible grief.

What is the "fact" about Jane that frustrates you the most, the thing you consider untrue but most people believe?

I think it's the "fact" that Jane hated her husband or was jealous of Anne. There really is no proof of that. In fact, I would argue that the sources show just the opposite. 


What do you think she looked like?

Oooh, that is a good question. I wish I knew! I would imagine that she was probably unremarkable in appearance or else there would have been some commentary on it. If she looked like her father, she may have had striking eyebrows and a distinctive nose; a long, slender neck and high cheekbones. I hope that maybe, one day, a portrait will be unearthed that we can say is conclusively her.


How did you come to the conclusion you did about her procreative situation? (Trying not to do spoilers)

To put it simply: the values of the time. Even if Jane had the most miserable marriage on record (doubtful), there is no way that they were not trying for children. As Anne got closer to the throne, the Boleyn's wealth and influence was growing. George was the sole heir to an Earl. It was imperative that he procreate. The fact that they cohabitated for at least a decade without issue led me to believe that either one, or both, struggled with infertility.

Lady Rochford in "The Six Wives of Henry VIII"


Actresses usually play her as a villain. How do you feel about that?

Well, annoyed for sure, but also BORED with it. It's such a lazy way out and so cookie-cutter. It's far more difficult to play someone who operates in a grey area, capable of both good and folly.


There were other maids who helped Catherine Howard with her secret meetings with Culpeper. And no maid of honor or lady in waiting was arrested in the case of Anne Boleyn. Why was Jane singled out?

I think her involvement really infuriated the king. Here, he and Cromwell (who was very connected to Jane's father) had "saved" her from the Boleyns, helped her get her jointure, gave her a place at court, and this was how she repaid him. What impertinence! She had to be punished. Better yet, one last reminder of his Howard wives out of the picture. In Henry's eyes, she had to go. 


How did you come up with the structure of two timelines for the novel? I liked that!

Thank you! My goal in writing this story was to show the affects of grief. In many cases, the person you were before a tragedy is vastly different than the person you are after the tragedy. I wanted to show Pre-1536 Jane and Post-1536 Jane side-by-side so you could see the differences clearly...and maybe, perhaps, come away with an explanation for her involvement with Katherine Howard. We are who we are because of our life experiences; in this structure, you could immediately see those connections.


I also liked your depiction of day to day court life for Jane and her husband . How did you research that?
Henry's household records are a treasure trove! His inventories for food and masques, gambling and travel all painted a pretty detailed picture of what the court was doing from day-to-day. Another excellent resource is the Lisle Letters. They are jam-packed with information and gossip about the goings-on at court. Plus you get a very intimate look at all the requirements for maids during the sections that deal with Anne Bassett's court career.

To learn more about Adrienne's novel go here.



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Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of Tudor mysteries: The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, sold in North America, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Russia, and several other countries,

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The New York Times, Richard Price, and Me

I was fortunate indeed to interview Kevin Flynn, an editor and investigative reporter for The New York Times who was part of the team that won the Pulitzer for its coverage of 9/11. Flynn edited the anthology The Book of Crime:

I began the interview for website The Crime Report curious about what role investigative journalism and crime reporting can play in today's changing media landscape and he gave a thoughtful reply. I'm sharing here the beginning of my story:


 

The Crime Report: Looking at the breadth of these crime stories, the tremendous variety, it’s hard not to think about the state of the media today. How do you see crime coverage at the big urban dailies evolving in a time of staff cutbacks and digital disruption?
Kevin Flynn: I don’t know that I’ve read enough into the coverage of folks outside New York to be much of a national expert, but I don’t think there is any question that here in New York City there has been a move toward lesser coverage of smaller crimes by the dailies. To some extent, that has been offset by the work of websites like DNAInfo, which has done a good job of covering local crime. And to some extent, the proliferation of social media tools like Twitter has made everyone a local crime reporter.In situations like a bombing or a bomb scare, dozens of largely reliable people now have the ability to report their first-person perspectives on what happened. It’s a tool we have to be careful in relying on, but for the most part people provide accurate accounts of what they think they see, and the volume and redundancy of what they report usually gives me confidence in them. That said, the average person is not in position to tweet about crippling shortfalls in a police budget or gaps in a disciplinary procedure for officers. I think it’s important that, as we manage staff reductions at newspapers, we make sure that essential reporting on police departments as institutions never falls through the cracks.

To read the rest of the interview, go here

Novelist and screenwriter Richard Prince contributed a foreword to the book, and he agreed to my request for an excerpt. It was a true privilege editing the words of Price! To read what he has to say about the different types of crime reporting, go here.



Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Enduring Myth of Anastasia

I'm proud to share a story I wrote for Town & Country on Grand Duchess Anastasia. Why, a century later, do we still want to believe the Bolshevik slaughter of the Romanov royal family in 1918? I dug into the history, reading a great many books and looking up newspaper stories. I visited a Russian cathedral on the Upper East side of Manhattan, talking to a "White Russian," and interviewed the lyricist who wrote songs for the musical on Anastasia that opened yesterday.

Read the entire story here.