Nancy Bilyeau talks Tudors…

I know, I know, it’s a long-standing, well-known fact that I loathe, hate and despise the Tudors.  (And all the et ceteras that includes–I won’t bore you with my grumbletonian litany…)  

Still, the truth is Nancy Bilyeau is rather smashing.  And what’s more, she writes about this period of history from an angle which few of us have honestly ever considered before, I think.  And in her book, The Crown, out now here in the UK, she does something quite unique–she puts a human face, a real face, on all those unpalatable facts of these most turbulent Tudor times. 

So here she is, talking a bit of Tudor for you.  (Hearty cheers all round!):   

‘At my very first bookstore reading came the question from a reader: “Did you know many nuns before you wrote this book?”

‘I answered her at once, with the truth: “No, none.”

‘I’ve written a historical thriller about a young Dominican novice in the reign of King Henry VIII. The entire story of The Crown is told in the first person, through the perspective of Sister Joanna Stafford.  She is someone who very much wants to be a novice and serve God as a sister in an enclosed priory.

‘And yet before I wrote this book, I had no familiarity with monastic orders.  I am not a practicing Catholic; my parents were agnostic and occasionally attended the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

‘So what drew me to Sister Joanna and the Dissolution of the Monasteries? 

‘When I set out to write my first novel, I wasn’t sure what kind of story I wanted to tell except for one thing:  It must be set in the 16th century.

‘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.”

 ‘So I had my time period, but what sort of book would it be?

‘I’ve always adored mysteries and thrillers.  I decided to fuse my two passions, and write a historical thriller set in the 1500s. 

‘I wanted to tell a woman’s story.  It seemed the shelves were bursting with books written about medieval and Renaissance queens and princesses.  I thought a nun would be interesting, and what could yield richer drama than a nun in the midst of the Dissolution of the Monasteries?

‘I spent the next five years researching and writing.  I didn’t work on my book every day—I have two children and held fulltime editing positions at various magazines, most recently, InStyle.  To finish my manuscript, I began to get up at 5 a.m. and write my book until it was time to wake up the children at 7 a.m.  We did not travel anywhere for most vacations.  I took those precious days and spent them on research.

‘The more I learned about a nun’s life in Tudor England, the more it fascinated me.

‘It is not easy in our secular age to enter the mind and heart of a 16th century nun—or to appreciate the vital importance of faith in the lives of everyone. 

As Eamon Duffy says in his great book, The Stripping of the Altars, “Late medieval Catholicism exerted an enormously strong, diverse, and vigorous hold over the imagination and loyalty of people up to the very moment of Reformation.” After immersing myself in this very different world for so long, I feel a great deal of admiration and sympathy for the nuns and monks and friars who struggled to cope with the Dissolution.  And I very much hope that this is what readers will come away with after finishing The Crown.’

[They’ll also, says Bennetts, have had the pleasure of a ripping great read…Go on, what are you waiting for?  Go check the thing out.  Make those slackers at Waterstone’s and Hatchards do some work for once…]

The Crown is also available from The Book Depository now.  On sale!


9 comments on “Nancy Bilyeau talks Tudors…

  1. Debra Brown says:

    An interesting discussion of the writing of the book. Thanks.

  2. m.m.fahren says:

    Excellent. On my list. Thank you, Bennetts. Very good one.

  3. lgilbert52 says:

    Thank you, MM and Nancy! Most interesting! On my list!

  4. Grace Elliot says:

    I LOVE the Tudors – and this sounds a wonderful book.
    I’m wondering what Nancys opinion is of the TV series The Tudors….(I’m a fan, but for the televisual feast rather than historical accuracy!)
    Grace x

  5. Hi Grace: Well I appreciate the fact that the series gets people excited about the 16th century and curious for more. That is what happened to me many years ago with “The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth.” I am a screenwriter so I understand the need for combining characters (two sisters become one) or omitting others (Cranmer and Norfolk are MIA midway through when historically they were very much present). I think some of the acting was great: Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn; James Frain as Cromwell; Sam Neill as Wolsey; Joely Richardson as Catherine Parr. But my quibble is the series took the easy way out to keep a handsome, thin young man as Henry VIII after 1536. The Catherine Howard marriage debacle makes no sense if the king looks just as good as Culpepper. LOL. I know that putting Jonathan Rhys Meyers in a fat suit is a ridiculous choice. Somehow they managed to age Keith Michell in a realistic manner. But I do think that the episodes dealing with the Pilgrimage of Grace and Robert Aske, and contrasting those ideals with the fervent Reformer faith of Thomas Cromwell…that was sensitively handled. Creator Michael Hirst to his immense credit dove right into the Dissolution and the Rebellion. People who scream that the series is all about sex romps didn’t pay attention.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The response to The Tudors was rather, ah, different over here…

      • The response to The Tudors was very mixed in America. Some people loved it. I’m in an online discussion group of the 16th century and most of them hated the inaccuracies and didn’t like the show. Several thought it was just too much of a soap opera.

        It’s difficult to enjoy historical series or movies if you are familiar with the period. I saw “Gettysburgh” with my husband and father-in-law, a real Civil War buff. It was a long film produced by Ted Turner of CNN fame. My father-in-law was twitching in his seat. At one point he muttered, “The shoes! The shoes!” (It seems that the reason the battle began where it did was a company of soldiers stopped to purchase shoes or something.) My own father, who had 20 books on the American Civil War, flat-out refused to see “Gettysburgh” because “General Robert E Lee was a very tall white-haired man and Martin Sheen is too short!”

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Ha ha ha. The response over here ranged between rage, hilarity and jeering. They got off on the wrong foot from the outset with Jonathan Rhys Meyers–because Henry was known to be a golden young man, with red-gold hair. And everybody over here knows what he looks like. So that casting was never going to work. Then, there were many comments about the perfect Pantene hair on the women, the cavorting about naked in ice-cold castles (not Pygmalion likely unless you want chillblains on your bum). And it went from there. I don’t know anyone who watched it except to laugh and sneer–sort of in the way one watches Alexander with Colin Farrell. I gained the impression that it was viewed as the American fantasy version of Henry VIII or Footballers’ Wives circa 1540

        And there was the predictable rage from the history world–everyone from the National Trust to Oxford and Cambridge dons condemned it roundly for its inaccuracies–the clothes were a slutty version of Tudor fashion, the headwear risible, and obviously all of it was shot on a heated soundstage because no one was covered in gooseflesh at any time in the proceedings.

        So, in short, it got slated from every angle. (I haven’t even got to Rhys Meyers chewing up the scenery in his biker leathers…)

  6. Loving this post – Great to hear so much passion and her writing schedule makes me…inspired and a tad guilty – I shall try to follow in her footsteps!

    I’m quite interested in writing in a different period now and it’s interesting to hear about the 16th century and a great idea to write a book from such a different point of view.

    P x

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