Sunday, July 31, 2011

An Interview from the "On the Tudor Trail" blog

I was recently approached for an interview for this wonderful blog maintained by fellow Tudorphile Natalie Grueninger. I've reprinted it below, and you can read the full post at "On the Tudor" here. Enjoy! And thank you, Natalie, for the interview.

Q & A with Nancy Bilyeau

Welcome to On the Tudor Trail, Nancy! Could you share with us a little about yourself and your background?

I am a magazine editor and writer, living with my husband and our two children in New York City. I’ve worked for Parade, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Ladies’ Home Journal and other publications. My last staff job was deputy editor of InStyle magazine. So my entire career has been in nonfiction. But about six years ago, I started feeling a hunger to tell my own stories. The Crown is my first novel.

Why do we have such an appetite for the Tudors?

With me it’s almost a lifelong obsession. I’m a member of a facebook group called “I Was Interested in the Tudors Before They Were Cool.” Ha! I saw the television series “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” and “Elizabeth R” as a child and fell in love with the 16th century. I read everything I could. I remember when I was 12 years old, at the public library in suburban Michigan, trying to check out a book about the divorce of Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, and the librarian wouldn’t let me have it because it had the word “divorce” in the title and I was too young! Luckily that didn’t stop me from building my own library over the years. Every time I entered a bookstore, I’d swing by “European History—England” and “Biography.” If something tempted me, I’d walk up to the cash register with the book under my arm–say a biography about Anne Boleyn–and my husband would exclaim, “How can you buy another one? What more can you learn?” And I’d just put it down on the counter, saying, “There are always new interpretations.”

Why are any of us so excited about the Tudors?

The dynasty has everything: love, death, war, betrayal, greed, sacrifice, beauty. So many dramatic stories—look at Lady Jane Grey as just one example. A scholarly 16-year-old girl tries to take the throne after the death of her cousin Edward VI, propelled by a manipulative father-in-law, and reigns for nine days before being deposed by Edward’s older sister, who’d raised an army of followers. When told Queen Mary is the rightful monarch, Jane says, “Can we not go home now?” Game of Thrones couldn’t come up with anything better.

But English history is full of amazing stories. Why do the Tudors enthrall more people than the Plantaganets of the Wars of the Roses, a hundred years earlier? I think there are several reasons. The writing in Tudor times is more accessible to us, from the works of Erasmus and Sir Thomas More and John Knox to the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, Edmund Spencer and Sir Philip Sidney. The Tudors also draw us in because we can “see” them. Contrast the lifelike portraiture of Hans Holbein the Younger with the paintings done in late medieval times. Huge difference. You know, the Fricke Collection in New York City has the Holbein paintings of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. You get such a vivid impression of character looking at each. Occasionally when I am stumped over my books, I jump on a subway and go to the Fricke for fresh inspiration. They are hung in the same beautiful room--I’m not sure how they’d like that, actually.

I discuss the Tudor fascination with friends, and one of them, Bean Chan, points out that the cult of individualism rose in the early Renaissance, from Rome to London. This was a new development in history and something we recognize today “because it is so rife in our own culture, for better or for worse,” as Bean says. And the Tudors are less obscured by bureaucracies, parliamentary movements and industrial democracies than later European dynasties. They are a family, front and center.

Who is your favourite Tudor personality and why?

That is such a hard question! I am fascinated with so many of them. But if you push me against the wall, I’d have to say Elizabeth I. I admire her determination to survive before she took the throne and her dedication to her country afterward. She was funny and lively and loyal and furiously intelligent: “If I were turned out of my realm in my petticoat, I would prosper anywhere in Christendom.”

What do you think was Henry VIII’s greatest achievement?

If you mean “greatest” in the sense of most lasting impact, it would have to be breaking from the Catholic Church. But if you take away his marital misadventures and his political brutality—and that’s taking away a lot!—his personal accomplishments were still staggering. He was a fanatical builder of homes and ships; he wrote music, collected gorgeous tapestries, set trends in fashion.

There are many public misconceptions about Henry VIII and his Queens. In your opinion, what is one of the worst?

Well, all of the six wives seem to share the spotlight rather equally. In the television series, each one gets her own episode. In the rhymes, songs and some of the books, the attention given to each of the six is roughly equal. But Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was married to him for far, far longer than any of the others: twenty-three years. She was a good wife, too. And a dedicated queen. I’m as captivated by Anne Boleyn as anyone else, but when you sit down and really contemplate it, that was a breathtakingly horrible way to treat a woman you’d been married to for decades, who was pregnant with your children. Katherine of Aragon should be the founding member of the first wives club!

Your debut novel, The Crown, will be released in January 2012. Please share with us a little about your novel and the inspiration behind it.

My book is a historical thriller that takes place in 1537 and early 1538, set amid the Dissolution of the Monasteries. My main character, a Catholic novice, is fictional, but she is a member of a real family—the Staffords—and she wants to take final vows and become a nun at a place that really existed: the Dominican Priory of Dartford, in Kent. In The Crown, Joanna loves Dartford but she leaves without permission to witness the execution at Smithfield of her beloved cousin, a rebel in the Pilgrimage of Grace. That fateful decision sets loose a series of escalating events. She gets arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, and must go on a very dangerous quest in order to protect people she loves, and to try to save a way of life that is disintegrating all around her.

Tell us about the process you followed when researching your novel. Do you have any rituals that you follow when writing?

My process was pretty crazy. I wrote the book while working full-time in the magazine business and raising two young children. I wrote during vacations instead of traveling. I wrote on subways. I wrote in Starbucks on weekend mornings, hoping desperately I’d get a table and an electrical outlet as I toted my computer over. During the home stretch, I woke up at 5 a.m. and wrote until my children woke up at 7 a.m.

The debate about how factual historical fiction should be is one that often surfaces. What is your opinion?

I think it is vitally important to do your research but you must also bring these people to life. So you must use your imagination and creative powers within the context of historical realities.

Are there any authors that have proved particularly inspiring to you in your career?

The most influential one would have to be Norah Lofts. I just reread The Concubine—it’s sensational. She tells the story of Anne Boleyn in a series of richly detailed and psychologically powerful anecdotes. Each one is a gem.

Are you planning to write more novels set in Tudor England?

Yes! I am writing the second book now. It follows Joanna on to even more dangerous missions. As bad as things get for her in The Crown, they get far, far worse in the next book.

I enjoy hearing from people of the past in their own words. Letters reveal so much about the writer and the time in which they lived. Do you have a favourite historical quote?

I do. It is Sir Thomas More’s, from A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, in 1529. “If any good thing shall go forward, something must be adventured.”

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