MM Bennetts interviews Nancy Bilyeau on the nail-biting day before the winner of the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger is announced

M.M. Bennetts

Nancy Bilyeau‘s first novel, The Crown, a Tudor mystery steeped in the morally twisted world of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, has drawn rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic since its publication in January 2012.

But that was only the start.  For this week sees Nancy biting her metaphoric nails as she waits to hear whether The Crown has won the prestigious literary award, Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, for which it was shortlisted – to be announced in London on the evening of the 5th July.

That doesn’t mean she’s been idle though.

Last week, it was announced that Touchstone, her US publisher, had acquired the rights to a second novel and sequel, called The Chalice – to be published simultaneously in the US and UK in the spring of 2013.  Which is very exciting news indeed.

And hard on the heels of that announcement – to loud cheering from all of us – she took some time to answer some questions about writing, the new novel and the future of Sister Joanna, her Tudor ex-nun heroine.

MMB: The new book, The Chalice, is due out next year.  Can you tell us a bit about it?

NB: The story moves forward to late 1538, when the kingdom is in the midst of bloody power struggles between crown and cross.  What I discovered in my reading is that in this time Henry VIII was dangerously isolated and the two major power players of Europe – Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and King Francis of France – were united against him.  Invasion and war were very real possibilities, and King Henry took serious steps to defend the kingdom.

In my novel, Sister Joanna Stafford is caught up in a shadowy international plot targeting Henry VIII himself.  As the power plays turn vicious, she realizes her role is more critical than she ever could have imagined.  She has to make a choice between those she cares for most and assuming her role in a prophecy foretold by three different seers, each one of them more frightening than the last.

MMB: What were some of the challenges of writing this second book? 

NB: Although The Chalice is a second book in what I hope to be a series, it’s not a traditional mystery series.  The second book is more of an international thriller.  It has the same mix of mysticism and historical fiction, set in the turmoil-filled Dissolution of the Monasteries.  The tone is the same.  But it is a different kind of story than The Crown.  I made things rather hard for myself, actually.  Not sure why!

MMB: You established a very engaging, plucky kind of heroine in Sister Joanna in The Crown – can you talk a bit about how she’s developing in the second book? 

NB: She has to think for herself more because she no longer has the leaders of the priory to guide her.  Everyone has been cast out of the priory and the sisters and friars are trying to make new lives for themselves.

Sister Joanna is intelligent, of course, but she doesn’t have it easy, with a small pension to survive on and a small boy to raise, her orphaned relative, Arthur.  She makes some key decisions that she thinks make sense for her and Arthur – but they turn out to have deeply frightening consequences.

MMB: Do you feel you’ve said enough about Sister Joanna?  Is her story at an end now, or is there more to come, more situations you want to explore? 

NB: Oh, no.  I have ideas for stories that revolve around Sister Joanna for years to come, through every Tudor reign!

MMB: How has the research for the second book differed from that of the first?

NB: In The Chalice, Dartford Priory is no more – between the first book and the second it was demolished and then Henry VIII ordered a beautiful manor house be built from the rubble.  This is based on historical fact, by the way.  That means my research didn’t have to focus as much on life within a priory of the Dominican Order.

There are large stretches when she is in Dartford, and I relied on my resources on the town’s history.  Also one of the curators at Dartford museum gave me wonderful guidance.  But Sister Joanna leaves Dartford in the second book, going to London and also outside of England altogether, to the Low Countries and beyond.  I can’t say any more, but I did my research, and I hope people like her adventures.

MMB: Has everything worked out as planned and plotted in this second book, or were there surprises, even for you – characters saying, “No, I wouldn’t do that, I’d do this…”?

NB: I’m not a detailed outliner – I set basic plot goals and then a lot happens along the way.  So I’m always being surprised.  Sister Joanna surprises me the most.  She can be pretty tough—and then in other situations, when you might expect her to be most angry or forceful, she taps into her spiritual side and her compassion for others.

MMB: What are some of the challenges, do you think, of writing a sequence of books about the same character?  And the advantages? 

NB: When I started working on it, I didn’t know how much of the plot of the first book should be discussed in the early chapters of the second.  Or how much I needed to explain the characters who carry forward.  I took a look at successful series to get some ideas for that.  And now that I’m finished the editors weigh in on whether I’m giving away too much.  But I think it is an advantage, to carry on with Sister Joanna and the other main characters I created in the first book. They are fully formed in my brain so it’s easy for me to come up with their behavior and dialogue in situations.

‘The Last Nun’, as the Crown is titled in Germany, is featured as the ‘Historikus’ (book of the month) on Histo-couch.

MMB: And when will The Chalice be launched, is there a party planned, or are you just anticipating an early night and a huge sigh of relief?

NB: No party planned yet.  For the first one, I spent my actual publication day in New York City at the hair salon, so I would look presentable for my first-ever author reading at a Barnes & Noble reading.  Priorities!  But I am up for a party for The Chalice. Ideally I’d like to arrive on horseback at the Tower of London.

MMB: Do you find it more or less challenging to write actual historical figures from the Tudor age than purely fictional inventions?  

NB: I think it’s more challenging to create characters from the ground up.  When you have people from history there are so many known things to work with, from personal appearance to chronicled activities and words.  Both are satisfying to me.

MMB: Your baddies struck me as really bad in The Crown.  They were a triumph of corruption in high places.  Have you got a new set of villains for us in The Chalice or is Stephen Gardiner set to make our skin crawl all over again?   

NB: Bishop Stephen Gardiner plays a key role in The Chalice but there are some  brand-new baddies, including one who may very well be a highly educated and charming psychopath.

M.M. Bennetts is a historian specialising in early 19th century European history and the Napoleonic wars.  She is the author of two novels set in the period, May 1812 and Of Honest Fame, and is currently at work on a third.  Her blog and website is dedicated to writing and history with an emphasis on the history and people behind the novels.

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