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The Worm Hole Podcast Episode 06: Nancy Bilyeau (The Crown; The Chalice; The Tapestry; The Blue; Dreamland)

Charlie Place and Nancy Bilyeau (The Crown; The Chalice; The Tapestry; The Blue; Dreamland) discuss the lifestyle of Dissolution-era nuns, using a website’s ‘contact me’ form to great success, there being more relics than there were items, using your family’s name in your work, and the grand amusement parks and luxury hotels of New York’s past.

Dartford Museum’s website
Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun, the artist who painted Marie Antoinette
Nancy will be discussing Dreamland at the Astoria Bookshop (31-29 31st Street, Astoria NY) on Thursday 16th January, 19:00-20:00

Release details: recorded 5th January 2020; published 13th January 2020

Nancy’s social media: Twitter || Facebook || Website

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Show notes:

Question Index
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Question Index

00:50 You’ve been on the staff of various magazines – did you always hope to write novels?
04:23 Where do you head to, sources-wise, when you’re first thinking about a book?
17:48 How much work was it to get around the issue of Reformation?
23:13 Was there a particular reason you wanted to focus on Catherine Howard rather than Henry’s other wives?
27:20 Is Joanna based on anyone in particular?
29:56 The Athelstan crown – is it real object or inspired by anything?
33:18 The part about the nun’s having to host a Lord for a feast – was this something that happen in convents at that time?
39:18 What was the position of women artists in the 1700s?
42:02 How much of the idea about shades and discovering what other factions were doing is based on fact?
44:13 So Genevieve’s grandfather’s surname is Billiou…
49:00 (Introducing Dreamland)
55:09 What can you tell us about The Ghost of Madison Avenue?
58:56 Do you have a favourite time period to write in out of the three you’ve used so far?

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For ease of reading, ‘umms’ and similar, as well as sentence false starts, have been left out.

[intro music]

Charlie: Hello and welcome to The Worm Hole podcast. I’m Charlie Place, and joining me today is Nancy Bilyeau, author the Tudor Joanna Stafford trilogy of books – The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry – as well as the standalone novel The Blue, and the forthcoming – in 3 days – Dreamland. Welcome Nancy.

Nancy: Well thank you, I’m so glad to be speaking to you, I’m a big fan of your reviews and I’m a subscriber to your email newsletter, so this is a thrill.

Charlie: Thank you – I will watch what I say [both laugh].

Nancy: That’s okay; please be honest [both laugh].

Charlie: So you’ve been on the staff of various magazines and you contribute now regularly to others, and I know we’ve been talking about that before we started recording. And I would love to talk about that but we’re talking about books – did you always hope to write novels as well?

Nancy: It’s funny because I wanted to write novels when I was very young, when I was in middle school and high school. I had all these aspirations, I was writing poems and so forth. And then when I got into university I totally switched over to being a journalist, and all I could think of was getting a job as a journalist, a writer, an editor, and then – I still read fiction, but it wasn’t something that I thought I would do – and it’s sort of funny that there was this diverging. And then after I’d been in the magazine business a while, I had my first child. Maybe I was tired of journalism and non-fiction [laughs] and reading a lot of fiction and just sort of thinking, “well maybe I could do this,” and I joined a workshop for aspiring novelists, and just started bringing in some pages of what became The Crown. So that was the first novel I attempted but it wasn’t an overnight thing, it took me about 5 years on and off to get it so that an agent would sign me, so it was quite a lot of work [laughs]. And starting over, revising – I think that a lot of people with their first book go through that.

Charlie: So you don’t have, I suppose, the stereotypical novel in your drawer, the first novel in your drawer then [Nancy: No!], your novel was The Crown.

Nancy: Yes, but I had done some screen writing before then and those were stories and none of them made it to the big screen, which is very hard to do, to be fair to myself. It’s hard to see your screenplay make it all the way. But I did have that experience of writing, and I wrote three different stories; two of them were historical, because I’m such a history-obsessive person. And so I kind of got a lot of structure and visual writing – I worked on a lot in the screen writing – so I kind of brought all that with me. So, it wasn’t the first time I tried to tell a historical story, when I did The Crown, but it was the first novel. And in fact, The Crown is the most like a screenplay, if you know it like I do, because it’s the most filmic – because, I was still very attached to my screen writing and my descriptive tools, you know, so with each book I think I get a little bit better at keeping what’s good about screen writing that, you know, you have to move more and more into the novel world, which is very different, very interior at times, which you can’t be interior, in a screenplay.

Charlie: That’s very interesting to hear because it kind of blends into the idea of the research that – you know, I’ve always read your books and if I’m playing an association game, Nancy Bilyeau for me is followed by the word ‘research’, and [Nancy: laughs] description, and the sheer amount of research you do, is something – you know, I’ve always noticed it; it leaps off the page – but for anyone who’s listening and just thought, ‘oh gosh, this amount of research sounds quite a lot’ – you know, it never goes into info-dumping territory, it’s just fantastic.

Charlie: So where do you head to, sources-wise, when you’re first thinking about a book?

Nancy: Well, The Crown it was the one that was the most daunting [laughs] because I was writing it in New York, about a country I don’t live in, and I was not raised Catholic – although I was baptised Catholic, secretly, it’s a long story, by my grandparents-

Charlie: That’s very interesting to hear, yeah [laughs].

Nancy: My parents were almost like hippies, not really extreme ones, but they were free-thinking and agnostic. And they both came from religious families and they rejected that, and they raised me in that way, and I found out when my grandmother was dying, when I was nineteen, that when she and my grandfather were babysitting in Chicago when I was six months old or younger, they were horrified of what was happening [laugh]. They were very observant Catholics – Irish Catholics – and they took me to a priest, while they were babysitting and didn’t tell my parents, and had me baptised. At first they tried a young priest, who was their parish priest and he said, ‘no, I would have to have the consent of the parents,’ so they went back [laughs] the next time they were babysitting, they went to an old priest and he said, ‘I will do it’. So, I found out when I was nineteen! So after that, I was very fascinated with Catholicism, and I would go to cathedrals and sort of stand there, like, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, which is beautiful, in New York, and I would think, ‘okay do I belong here?’ you know, so I was drawn to Catholicism without being raised in it, and I think that gave me some outsider view of it. And also, I wasn’t too intimidated because I didn’t actually know what I was taking on. So, I was trying to write about a world that had been gone for quite a long time, by then I mean completely gone, demolished, and it took me a while but I finally found – you know because my books are based on a real Dominican house of nuns in Dartford in Kent – and I did find some scholarship about the place and I found records of the names of the nuns that were there at the Dissolution by Henry VIII and in a book I finally found some letters from the Prioress [Charlie: gosh], sort of complaining about various things and then – yeah, I loved that! [Charlie: yeah!] – I found through my research, you know because what really bothered me was it was very hard for me, I get sort of stuck on various things, and I was stuck on wanting to know what was daily life, you know. I know there was a lot of prayer, but where would they sleep? I was told there were hardly any fires in these monasteries and a lot of them were semi-open, you know how could you even survive the winter, so I had all of these questions, sleeping; eating; and then I wanted to know about the spiritual matters. So, I read some books that were written by real nuns, earlier, and often not in England, like Catherine of Siena and so forth, and I started to read these mesmerising these first-person accounts – a lot of these women were, you know, they weren’t sleeping much, they were in a real state, almost a hallucinatory state, and a lot of it was ecstasy – it’s just not what you’d think! A lot of the stereotype of the nun is, especially in – I don’t know about other places – but here in New York there’s a lot of Catholic schools; it’s the nun who’s like rapping your knuckles with the ruler and is mean, and the stereotype of the historical nun is it’s someone who was forced there by parents, doesn’t want to be there. So I found out a lot, when it came to the Tudor era and earlier that that wasn’t the case, and from what I could research there was a genuine calling for many of these women, and after Henry VIII had them you know, forced to the Dissolution, and a lot of them were forced to leave, a lot of them didn’t want to re-enter society, and they sort of lived in small groups, still trying to carry out their own way of life. And then Mary I, Mary Tudor, came and tried to bring Catholicism back, they joyfully rushed back, to their former – not all of them, but a substantial number – you know, so there was really much more of a commitment and a spirituality, and I found that interesting. But the origin of The Crown was I wanted to do a mystery in the Tudor era, because I was interested in the Tudors, but I didn’t want to do a royal story, I just felt that they’d been done and I didn’t really have anything interesting or original that I could bring to this from a royal point of view? So, I thought, well who would be going through extreme experiences who would be interesting to have in the middle of something, and I thought, ‘oh, a nun’, you know. And it’s kind of funny because the more I studied it, and the more I got into it, the more I started to identify with the nuns and the friars and the monks and you know, sometimes I get all worked up, and I’m running around defending them, and it’s funny because then people think you’re some sort of, you know, rabid Catholic or something, which I’m not, but I did through this intense research feel like there was a story there that wasn’t told very much, of women who were living a life – there was more independence in those nunneries than there was outside them, often. They were teaching – in fact there wasn’t much teaching of young women to read for quite a while after that, they were the ones teaching the young girls to read – and there was music, there was study, what there wasn’t was getting married and having children. But of course we have modern research that says there’s a lot of longevity to that [laughs]. And I have two children myself, so what can I say, I obviously didn’t choose anything like a nun’s life, but I do find it very interesting. So I did that, I found a lot of books, but then because I’m a journalist I just started to bother people, and I sent emails to Tower of London ‘contact me’ you know, I didn’t have any great insider techniques here, I just bothered the ‘contact me’ people ’til they gave me a curatorial intern and I was able to pepper her with questions, and she started to send me back PDFs, with information. Because again, I was sort of stuck on, okay, people are in these cells, is it just sort of like a horror movie, constant torture or what was it really like in there? So, I just always felt like I had to have some understanding, which is different from a lot of historical fiction, especially from a royal’s point of view, and some of these books are very good, but if you read them they don’t spend any time with ordinary life, they stay in the dialogue and the pitch of very important people going back and forth, divorcing marrying, fighting, executing, you know what I mean?

Charlie: Yeah

Nancy: And I can see why, you know, they don’t really have time to stop everything and talk about – but I kind of yearn for those little details, to sort of weave them in. So, it’s always exciting to find them. So yeah, I bothered people, and then I did travel to Kent. And I took the train and there’s actually a museum there that’s dedicated to the historical sights of Dartford, emphasising the religious places. It’s tiny, and there’s two men working there, and again I think they thought, ‘what is this woman doing?’ I just kept sending them more emails and then I finally came in and I wanted to take them to lunch, and they said, well that’s not appropriate for you to pay, they were so ethical, I was so surprised. I said well I’m not trying to bribe you, I just want to say thank you by buying you a sandwich but they were so proper about it, it’s kind of sweet.

Charlie: If there is a website for Dartford Museum, it will be in the description for you listeners.

Nancy: They are an interesting place; they have some historical objects that have been found – they’re centuries old. Yeah, and I love that stuff, you know, they’re found in the foundations of the ruined castles and monasteries, these tiny objects, you know, I’m just a sucker for that. And they have it, and they have some very nice exhibits.

Charlie: So, you have picked a reading from The Crown. [Nancy: right] And shall we start our main conversation with that?

Nancy: Sure. Chapter Four:

[Reading excluded to respect copyright]

Charlie: In this book, we’ve obviously introduced quite a bit of it, but following on from this, Joanna is tasked by Bishop Stephen Gardiner to find out where the crown of King Athelstan – who was the Anglo-Saxon King of England from the year 894 to 939 – where this crown’s been hidden. Gardiner believes the crown is at Joanna’s priory, and the reason he gives her for finding is that he will save her father, who has been arrested and is in the Tower of London. To find out why, you’ll have to read the book. Or re-read it if you’ve done so already and can’t remember; ‘cos I confess I couldn’t, it was several years ago that I read this book, so I have re-read it as well. So, the trilogy is great – we’ve already said, you’ve got loads of research and the choice of main character is great.

Charlie: So, how much work was it to get around the issue of Reformation?

Nancy: Well, it was quite a lot, because I was on the unpopular side of it. And, I often felt a little defensive, although there are wonderful writers doing journalism and scholarship; I think I’m the only one writing fiction from that point of view. When I visited London after I’d sold The Crown to Orion, and my editor – I was working on The Chalice – took me to the theatre and she said, ‘I want to take you to the theatre, I can take you to Faust or Anne Boleyn,’ and I really wanted to see Faust – she said, I assume Anne Boleyn is what you want to see, and I said well, of course, anything will be wonderful. So we went and of course I’m sitting there and you know, there’s jokes about the monks who are molesting boys and, you know, so forth, it’s very Catholic’s are beyond reproach, kind of humour. And everybody’s laughing, but you know, I don’t know, I don’t feel comfortable, I’m not really fitting into this point of view where it’s automatically, all of the Catholics are terrible people and it’s a system that has to be swept away. And there are different points of view on this, about whether it was so irredeemable. I mean, definitely it wasn’t led by pure religious reform, it was led by Henry VIII’s frantic desire to divorce his wife – to get an annulment in fact – and marry again to have an heir, and the pope’s refusal to give him what he wanted. So, the origin’s not pure, and then the money from the Dissolution, including the destruction of Dartford all went into the treasury. That’s a subject of some controversy because supposedly Anne Boleyn – in fact there’s debates about that going on now – that she wanted some of this money to go to the poor, or various things like that, and instead it all to the treasury and in fact, one of the things that I write about in my books, which I found so ironic is Henry VIII used a lot of the money from the Dissolution to buy tapestries. He was a real collector. He was such a rapacious collector-

Charlie: Of these Catholic tapestries?

Nancy: Yes! And the tapestries are based on paintings of Raphael, of beautiful passages – you know, they look like something in the Sistine Chapel. But he also wanted tapestries that sort of built up passages from the Bible that he could relate to; he saw what was a modern day Biblical figure bringing justice. But yeah, he spent the amount that you would spend on a warship on a series of tapestries; he was one of the première collectors. Now he also loved, as everyone knows, clothing, jewellery, armour, he was extremely extravagant. He also had very good taste – his tapestry collecting was superb – and when people look at the accounting lists of what was left when he died, it’s just mind-boggling. He lived extremely well – I don’t think anybody built more than he did, either. So, a lot of the money that he got sacking all the monasteries went toward – also defence, because he felt he was going to be invaded at any time by France or Spain, the two of them together – so he had to defend the kingdom, but also to live well [laughs]. Which he did; he didn’t leave much for his son when he died. And of course he’s an interesting figure. And I’ve seen all of the movies and I’ve seen all of the TV series’ – maybe not all of them – but many of them. At this point I feel like I need a break [laughs] because there’s only so many Henry VIIIs you can see. But it is extremely interesting, it’s just, you know, people come to it and then they have all the same questions that someone has at the beginning and it’s sort of funny to have people suddenly saying, ‘well why did he really kill Anne Boleyn?’ you know? And it’s just like ‘oh no! No, I don’t wanna go through this because it’s just been written about so, so, so much’.

Charlie: Well you’ll be glad to know that I have a question about Henry’s wives but I decided not to make it about Anne Boleyn [Nancy laughs]. So you’re okay.

Nancy: She’s a fascinating person, no doubt [Charlie: oh definitely, yes]. And, you know, look at her daughter. But it just gets to be overload and that’s why I felt like I didn’t want to be the one thousandth writer to write about Anne Boleyn. I actually like Nora Lofts; I discovered her historical fiction, she wrote a book called The Concubine, about Anne Boleyn, which I think is very good. Very well written and very original. But you know the stereotypical viewpoint is she’s a sexy temptress or she’s cold-hearted, you know, incestuous, it just goes on [laughs]. And then, obviously interesting to thousands of people.

Charlie: So we’ve kind of brought in The Tapestry, accidentally, almost, I suppose, and as said, you cover Henry’s wives. Was there a particular reason, other than not wanting to talk about Anne Boleyn, that you wanted to focus on Catherine Howard?

Nancy: Well she just fit in with the time that I was trying to do, and also I’ve always found her quite a sad figure, because she came from a very neglected background; all of the other wives had many more advantages, and more education, and more guidance. And she was basically orphaned and then – her father was alive quite a while, but he had nothing to do with her, he had a new wife and he was a mess – so she was left basically parent-less and not very educated and it’s just sort of, to me, bizarre, that he would feel that this very young girl was an appropriate queen of England – it was such a fluke. I guess it was like the king of all mid-life crises. And I had read a little bit about her that she’s not quite the vapid, slut, that a lot of people assume, that she did make a lot of effort while she was queen to do what you’re supposed to be doing – she tried to sponsor various people, she tried to defend people, she tried to speak up for people who needed defence and she’d this very terrifying older husband. So I found her interesting, I mean all the wives are very interesting women, even Anne of Cleves is – there’s a new non-fiction book by historian Heather Darcy about how we’ve all been thinking of Anne of Cleves the wrong way, that actually there’s a lot of things to learn by reading documents in Germany about what really happened in that marriage. So I like that there’s still areas that can be mined by writers who are resourceful and can get new documents and new ways of thinking. But yeah, Catherine Howard, to be honest because I wanted the first book to follow a certain real time-line – you know, at the beginning of The Crown that’s a real person who’s burned, Margaret Bulmer, and she dies in 1537 so, you know, if you’re going to start there and end in a certain place you’ve already… I mean in 1537, Anne Boleyn is dead, so you have to sort of pick someone and go with that person. And I also have Mary Tudor in all of the books, weaving in and out, and Stephen Gardiner’s my antagonist – Wily Winchester; he’s a fun antagonist to write. So there’s various people that come in and out as well as fictional people. So I kind of combined them, although I’m not alone in doing that – C J Sansom, of course, does that, and other historical mystery writers who set their books in – like the Brother Cadfael books had the real King Stephen in there – and so forth. So it’s fun; it’s sort of irresistible really to try your hand at writing these famous figures, you know, and I had a friend who said, I like whenever the Duke of Norfolk would come in, I would get excited because he’s always so horrible, just yelling at people [laughs]; terrible people that I like and oh good, she’s got Norfolk coming in because she had the best Norfolk. So it’s kind of funny how we all have created our own versions of these real people, and then it’s just a matter of being consistent through the books. But also I tried to put some of them on an arc, like Gardiner in the end is not the totally reprehensible person, maybe. Maybe. Shouldn’t do spoilers but I tried to see the good and bad in all of these people, even in Henry VIII I tried to see some of the good in him.

Charlie: That’s something I know I kind of thought about, when I first read The Crown, the way the factual content is just so well mixed in – yeah. It is something that is wonderful about those books.

Nancy: Oh good, I’m glad that you liked that. That really makes me feel good.

Charlie: So can you tell us more about Joanna – is she based on anyone in particular?

Nancy: You know, no, she’s totally fictional. I wanted someone who felt a little bit of an outsider, and that’s why I made her mother Spanish. And I wanted an aristocrat who – perhaps that’s why I like Catherine Howard too – who wasn’t really getting a lot of the benefits of being an aristocrat. You know, she’s from the Stafford family, and I find the Staffords very interesting; they came very close – especially in the reign of Richard III – to being in the first rank, maybe even taking the throne, but they couldn’t quite get it together. And they fell back and by the time of the end of Henry VIII’s reign, they were nowhere. So, I mean, that’s what’s interesting about the Tudors, that these families could rise and boy could they fall. So I wanted to have someone from that background, I thought it would be interesting that she had some exposure, you know she’s educated and she had witnessed important people like the Duke of Buckingham up close, but I didn’t want somebody who already had everything the way they wanted, that’s not an interesting person to write about. I have a tendency to have women who are sort of struggling up in some way, out of their circumstances.

Charlie: Well, no, like you said earlier, you’ve got these characters – I mean you’ve got a bit of royalty in there but there’s so much about the average person’s world. It’s a very interesting part of the history that just doesn’t get covered as much in fiction so yeah, that’s great.

Nancy: Well what I wanted to was to really think about someone who did submit to Henry VIII for fear of their life. And I won’t give away who that was, but someone who would because there were some people who didn’t, there were murders, and they died horribly – the Carthusian monks and so forth – so what would it be like, even though – and you know, you’re conscience was very important to you back then, your spiritual life is everything – for you to submit, just out of fear, just to stay alive, but then how do you live with yourself after that? So, there’s some people who are famous for not really having a lot of trouble with that [laughs] you know, like the Richard Riches of the world. In Man for all Seasons they did such a good job for that. But what would it be like for an ordinary person to have that kind of guilt?

Charlie: The Athelstan crown, it’s an important part of the book. Is it a real object or inspired by anything?

Nancy: Yes, I did find some wonderful research, I found a doctoral paper, and also like a 50 year old book, not quite a whole book maybe a scholarly dissertation. What happened was that Athelstan was a up and coming, charismatic, king, and the King of France was trying to get into his good graces, get him to marry one of his sisters and so forth, and some very important relics passed into England at this time. And Athelstan, who was quite religious as all kings were, very pious man, he did have some very important relics and there is some question of which ones he had. Now, whether you want to say that these were the actual relics at the time of the life of Jesus is another matter, but there is an actual object called the Crown of Thorns, that’s supposed to have been worn by Jesus, that is in Europe, but there are several crowns that have been talked about through history and there’s a question of some of them pass in and out of various countries, various kingdoms, some of them are stolen, sometimes desperately poor kings ransom out of a situation with a relic. The Crown is the one where I just fell whole hog, my relic fascination. I just find them interesting for various reasons, I mean they’re hidden treasure, you could just look at it from that point of view – trying to chart where they went – and then you think about what they meant to people, and then you think about how close they really were to that sort of period, and then of course relics were very important during the Dissolution because there were some that were faked. There was one at Hailes, there was an Abbey where they were faking the blood of Jesus, you know they would shake a vial, and it was used as a way to get some donations. This was obviously not good. So you look at these relics from all different points of view, both literal and also as a fun sort of treasure hunting way, and then spiritual. But I did find then though that Athelstan definitely had some relics. And also they had a very special relationship with certain monasteries. And then, you know, with the founding of Dartford, I did a lot of research in its very early stages, with Edward II, Edward III, and the Black Prince, you know, I mean there were sort of breadcrumb trails of history that I was following and building it up. So a lot of it is based on facts that I found. It did seem that it was very important to found this monastery, the Dartford nunnery, called a Priory usually; and why, why was it so important? And there were certain royal people who lived there or noble people who lived there and there were certain letters that went back and forth, it seemed kind of mysterious, so I just sort of built on that.

Charlie: Yes, you talking about relics, I’ve got things in my head that I’ve seen when I went to different countries and stuff, it’s interesting how many there are of different things.

Charlie: So to move on to – still the same book, but move on to a different subject entirely – there are a number of times in this trilogy when we see prejudice and outright discrimination towards women, and of courses nuns in particular. There’s one section, though, that takes up a lot of the Sisters’ literal time. So you have a feast given at Dartford Priory, given for a Lord, and the events and preparations are far from what usually happens at the Priory; it’s quite offensive to the nuns really, and they have to cook meat when they don’t have much meat in their diet at all and so on. Was this a sort of thing that happened in convents and monasteries at that time?

Nancy: Yes! They were sometimes pressured to be sort of places of hospitality by the local lords, you know which is a huge offensive against what they were supposed to be, especially a place like Dartford, which is enclosed – and they don’t go out into the community and teach, everybody has to come in. So I did find that there was… you know they’re almost used as fancy hotels of the time. And some of the queens died in those places – Elizabeth Woodville died in a nunnery, you know, they were used sort of as very nice situations for people who couldn’t be in the court any more but you didn’t want to pay for them to have a new castle somewhere [laughs] so you’d put them in a nunnery, even though they were anything but a nun, and just live there. So there was some pressure put on nuns and monks to offer hospitality. Now it never got to the point that I could find that it would get debauched or anything like that – maybe things like that were happening – but there was some pressure.

Charlie: Yes, I wondered if it was factual, it seemed offensive enough to be factual, I thought [both laugh].

Charlie: So, moving on to your fourth book but your second story over all, The Blue: it’s set in the 1700s, and it’s about a young English woman of French heritage, from the Huguenots, who wants to become an artist, and she meets a man higher in society who says that he’ll give her some help to get to Europe to study painting if she can find out the formula for the new shade of blue the Derby Porcelain Factory is creating. So shall we have the reading from The Blue?

Nancy: Sure! This is the absolute beginning of The Blue.

[Reading excluded to respect copyright]

Charlie: Genevieve is a great character, I loved that chapter to bits.

Nancy: Oh good.

Charlie: The invitation, you know, the situation with the invitation needs no further explanation, it’s exactly as you think of the time period. But what was the position of women artists in those days?

Nancy: Well what I found was that there were some women who were decorative artists, and by that I mean like Anna Maria Garthwaite who I know at Victoria and Albert [museum] they have a lot of exhibits that have to do with her. She was working with the silk weavers on these beautiful silk dresses, making sure they had flowers on them or fruit or were decorated. And then there were also some women, not many, who painted porcelain, and that becomes important in this book. And then there were the wealthier women, or middle-class women, would paint as a hobby, but you did not have any women fine artists yet, in England, that I could find – it’s possible that there were some I missed that maybe were painting quietly in their homes-

Charlie: Oh possibly, yeah, we would never know about them.

Nancy: Yeah, but not exhibiting – I mean the biggest barrier besides just plain old sexism was… you know you had to go through a lot of training, you had to go through learning how to be a history painter and by that I mean the big, Biblical, classical scenes, you had to learn how to paint the figures and for that you had to have models, and the models were usually nude and there was this feeling that you absolutely could not have women artists in the presence of a nude model [laughs], I know, that was a big barrier, and I think it was also just the feeling that you didn’t have women, yet, playing a role in high culture, it just hadn’t quite happened yet, in the 1750s, you didn’t have any Jane Austens or anything running around, or Mary Wollstonecrafts. So she really wants to be a real artist and there is just huge burdens in the way. And it was the same in France, the first woman artist – her name escapes me right now but she painted Marie Antoinette quite a bit and she was the daughter of an artist, and then married another artist; it would take a village – you’d have to have a lot of family members and friends with connections behind you to help you get this training because – I mean it’s impossible to compare to now – but you can express yourself artistically without a huge amount of training now, in many ways, and you can teach yourself, but back then you had to have an apprenticeship, there was a lot of technique, so even if you had a lot of raw talent, you had to go through the passing on of learning these skills, of how to be an artist. So that’s what she’s faced with – it’s just not going to happen for her.

Charlie: No – it would come quite a number of years later when unfortunately she would no longer be with us. So, there is quite a lot about the porcelain industry – how much of the idea about shades and discovering what other factions were doing is based on fact?

Nancy: The rivalries between porcelain houses and the spying is all based on fact. And then the colours I found some wonderful stories about colour like the man in Germany who discovered Prussian blue, kept the formula to himself and absolutely wouldn’t share it with anybody, and finally someone stole it. And so there was at Sèvres Porcelain – which was the finest and most prestigious of them, at this time, in France, that Madame de Pompadour got off the ground – some of the best scientists of France were put to work coming up with shades, like there’s Pompadour Pink, which she insisted on having for herself, so people were kind of conscripted, great scientific minds, because science and art were sort of pretty close at this time, I don’t know if they’ve ever been closer, and I don’t want to give away the origin of the formula in the book but that was very much based on reality; it was just that I moved the timeline a little bit to my advantage [laughs]. That’s all I’ll say there. But there are some wonderful wonderful non-fiction books out there about colour, and blue’s by far the most fascinating of them all. There was a time where there wasn’t hardly any blue paint because it’s the one colour you can’t get from nature as a pigment. They were getting it out of Afghanistan caves in medieval times – grinding it up and making it into beautiful blues for some of the main religious painters; the virgin Mary would have a beautiful blue dress or something, but you just didn’t see much blue because it was so hard to create.

Charlie: Umm. So Genevieve’s grandfather’s surname is Billiou – there’s a story there, isn’t there?

Nancy: Yes. Well, originally when I wrote this book I wanted to use my father’s family and we are descended from a Billiou family that came over in the 1650s. He started in France then he went to the Netherlands, then he sailed with his wife and several children to what was then New Amsterdam – which is now where I’m sitting in New York City – with the English not yet running it, it was a Dutch port when he arrived and the French and the Dutch were pretty much running things way back then. But there were all sorts of people here, there were Jews in the 1650s,1660s, in New York; there were some Catholics; then there were unfortunately slaves; there were a lot of different people in this port town. And so anyway Pierre built a stone house, it’s still standing although I have nothing to do with it, myself, but I am the only Bilyeau living in the New York area, so once in a while, when they do historical society events around the house trying to raise money for the roof or something they’ll trot me out [laughs] like, ‘hello!’

Charlie: That’s lovely.

Nancy: Yeah, like hello!, but it’s owned by the state and it’s on the national register. But it’s very small, it’s white brick and it’s basically two rooms, one of them very long with a huge fireplace at the end and I think about somebody who raised four or five children, basically in one room! So, I think about that – that would be hard. When I first wrote the book, I wanted to get a little bit of my family name in there and it was too late for Pierre, but I wanted to use that name so I wrote the first part in New York, but what happened was an agent saw it and said, you know, this book, it has to be a thriller, you’ve got a two month ocean voyage between America, the pacing is just not gonna work, and so you can’t use America it has to just be in Europe if it’s going to be a thriller, you’re gonna kill your timing with the ocean voyage, there’s no air jet – she was right. So I then looked into Spitalfields which is an amazing place and the silk weaver heritage that’s still being honoured and researched and there’s festivals and in fact the Huguenot museum sells my book along with a couple of other novels that have Hugenot characters, which I think is awesome.

Charlie: So, moving on to Dreamland, shall we have a reading, which is from the prologue?

Nancy: Okay.

[Reading excluded to respect copyright]

Charlie: So, Dreamland – this is your latest novel. It’s set in Coney Island, New York, in 1911, and it’s about a reluctant heiress, Peggy, who has to stop working in a bookshop in order to join her family on a sudden holiday, which they’re going on to keep her sister’s fiancé’s family interested in the alliance. Now, I don’t want to say too much, so I’m going to leave it to you, Nancy, if you’d like to introduce any more of it.

Nancy: Let’s see. Well I did use as my inspiration for the main character of Peggy a real heiress, Peggy Guggenheim – she’s loosely inspired by Peggy Guggenheim – but I found the Guggenheim family and I found some of the other families of that time – the very early 20th century – I found the Morgans, J P Morgan, and the Rockefellers – I found these families really interesting, just the amounts of money they were able to make, but it was not without some conflict, tension, and consequences. So I know everyone’s fascinated with the Astors and the Vanderbilts and that’s interesting too, that the wives became obsessed with building the largest mansions that could possibly be created and putting them of Fifth Avenue, and some of them are still visible today. But I found the real life families that were in New York then really interesting and one thing that’s in this book that I found that really amused me was that when people wanted to be writers or artists back then, they had left New York almost immediately, and then they went to Europe, you know, Henry James and so forth; there was this feeling like this was a backwater in 1911. The skyscrapers were the leading expression of the city, which is size and modern technology and just sort of a growing culture’s urge to show off. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art they had almost no paintings by living artists, it was all old masters. There was just this sense of insecurity about what New York was even though it was poised to become like this major, major, city it was not quite one, not quite yet, and I found that a very interesting tense time. And what I did was I picked Coney Island because I stumbled on the fact that when Coney Island was becoming Coney Island – America’s playground, world-famous, fantastical place and exhibits and carnivals and animals, and a hotel shaped like an elephant and so forth, all these wild things – there was also, less than a mile away, there was still these very grand, Edwardian-era hotels, where the rich people would come and stay. And they’d have their lobster and their champagne and they would be protected by Pinkerton guards, from the mob down the down. And that’s the whole basis of the book, I wanted to make these two worlds collide, the growing, surging, immigrant-fuelled, vital, New York, people coming out there to have a great time and flirt and jump in the waves and go nuts, and then there were still these people wearing corsets [laughs], over here, and having lobster and being very proper and very angry. Really interesting, you know, about immigration, about the working class, and women shouldn’t have the vote, and there was this feeling then if women went to university they’d be less feminine and this was all still happening in 1910, right up to World War One, so I just thought these two worlds, really! But they were coexisting in Coney Island to a degree that was extreme. I mean in New York you have all kinds of people right next to each other at all times, but I wanted to set a novel in there, and I also wanted to set a novel in my home town, you know, The Blue I wasn’t able to bring anything in, but I wanted to do that and see what it was like, but I always go back in time so it wasn’t like it’d be a modern novel, I don’t feel the need to do that, but I love to go back in time.

Charlie: So at some point, then, you’re gonna have to write the ship novel in between these two books [laughs].

Nancy: I know! I know! But you’re right, it has to happen [laughs].

Charlie: So yeah, you say about the clothes, I actually struggled sometimes, where it was so summery, and I think – personal opinion – it’s your best book so far. The sights and sounds of this book, you know, they’re just constantly there with you and it’s really easy to get engrossed because it’s just so immersive but you saying about the clothes and that, I did find it difficult when Peggy would be nearer the sea, to not picture her in shorts and t-shirt, and I’m thinking, no! Of course she’s in corsets, you know [laughs].

Nancy: No, and it was so hot! There was a real heatwave that I looked into, it wasn’t lucky for the people who were in it but it was so terrible that some people just literally died, and I’m not talking about the unfortunate older people or the sick people who always die in a heatwave, but people just couldn’t stand it, and people who could swim would just throw themselves in the rivers, people would shoot themselves, I mean they couldn’t stand it. And think about it – no air conditioning – and in New York and in the north-east, when it gets really hot and when it’s muggy like that, it’s difficult. And so the rich people had fans, and that’s how Peggy and her set survived this heatwave. And that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to get the really rich and the working class on the same stretch of land in a heatwave [laughs] and see what happens!

Charlie: So, there is a mystery in this book, we will leave it there, there is a definite mystery, it’s very thrilling, so we will leave it there, Dreamland. Now there is another book that you’ve just published, so while we wait for these very long three days to pass, your newest novella, The Ghost of Madison Avenue; what can you tell us about that?

Nancy: Well, I wanted to do something with the J P Morgan private library. It’s an amazing place, it’s still there, it was turned into a museum. He was the most powerful banker by a long shot, in the US, and he did things like finance US steel, oversee rail roads, he was like this person who was more important than the president. And he had this private library – as he became older he got tired of all of this responsibility and he really just wanted to collect things – now he didn’t necessarily want to collect a lot of paintings, he had a lot of rare books, illuminated manuscripts and other things, and he had this architect build this beautiful sort of temple to himself, to put all his collection in. And so I wanted to write a mini mystery, it’s just a novella, and a ghost story and it’s also a love story. So, for that I turned back to my mother’s side of the family, you can see I’m mining my family left right and centre, but my mother’s name is Mary Elizabeth O’Neill, and she is descended from someone who came over in the middle of the potato famine, from Ireland. And the Irish immigration to New York is profound; and around the turn of the century twenty five percent of the people who lived in New York were Irish; it’s much less now, and people have intermarried so much that I don’t even know now what it means to be Irish American; I literally don’t know like how much of your background has to be from Ireland to be Irish American, but during that time there was sort of this upward mobility – this is 1912 – where it’s not like that Martin Scorsese movie, any more, Gangs of New York, where they’re fighting in the streets and everybody’s picking on them but they’ve now become… they’re the police, they’re the teachers, they’re moving up. They’re still not WASPs, they’re not the mayor, but they are upwardly mobile. So I picked a woman for the main character who lives in the Bronx with her family and then used a lot of Irish American research there, and also some family stuff, I was called on this by one of my cousins, it’s true, that I talk about how tasteless the roast was, problem is I sat through some really tasteless meals as a child, you know [laughs], where just put a piece of meat in the oven and then take it out, you know, no taste.

Charlie: Don’t show your mum this podcast when it goes out, will you [laughs].

Nancy: No, no she’ll handle it. So anyway I just put it out there as something to sort of transition into early New York as a setting for fiction to sort of kick off Dreamland, which I’m really excited about. But also it has some elements of The Crown in there, I have a Dominican monastery, yay! Real life one, it’s still there in the Bronx; I felt like I just missed my nuns, you know, I just wanted to bring in a nun. So it’s kind of a way where I’m going forward but I’m still – I really loved writing that trilogy and so I haven’t gotten it completely outr of my system. And I haven’t given up on the thought of doing something like the trilogy someday again, you know.

Charlie: Awesome, yeah.

Nancy: It would be fun to go back down that road.

Charlie: So after having used these three periods of history and putting The Ghost of Madison Avenue together with Dreamland for a moment, do you have a favourite?

Nancy: Well, you know even though I loved The Blue, writing it, the eighteenth century was not my favourite, it’s hard, the Enlightenment is hard to write about because it’s a lot of concept and theory, you know what I mean?

Charlie: Yeah.

Nancy: And trying to bring it into a sensory, pragmatic thing was difficult. And also I don’t find – I mean I hope I don’t offend anyone – but I don’t find the early Georgian kings very fun. That’s why I was running over to grab Madame de Pompadour. But, so, even though I loved that book it’s not my favourite time period, and I don’t know if I would – you know I might write another eighteenth century book but I’d probably do it in the US. I do like the early twentieth century but I guess I like the Tudors and the early twentieth century kind of equally. I mean they’re just so different. And like I said I haven’t exhausted my interest in the sixteenth century, but I’m having fun because the thing is a lot of people like the Tudors and a lot of people have read a lot about it and I’m TudorScribe on Twitter and people are sharing little titbits about the sixteenth century all day long. And academics or just novelists and fans and it’s just a conversation that doesn’t stop, and that’s really amazing. But I feel like in the early twentieth century, in New York, the US, and in England, that a lot of really interesting stuff’s happening; I just saw the movie 1917 which I thought was really good, and I just think that this time period also can really take off in fiction, in a way that it quite hasn’t. So I just think that it’s an exciting time to be writing it.

Charlie: So unfortunately we have run out of time. Nancy it has been wonderful having you here and discussing your work, and I’m thrilled you’ve been here to talk about your Tudor books, it has been wonderful. If you want to start a podcast on Tudor history that would be fantastic. The Joanna Stafford trilogy as well as The Blue are out now, as is The Ghost of Madison Avenue, it’s on Amazon. Dreamland is available to pre-order; you’ll receive it very very shortly. Links to all books are in the podcast description. Nancy, thank you.

Nancy: Thank you, I’m really glad you asked me to do this.

Charlie: Join me on Monday 27th January when I will be talking to Elizabeth – E C – Fremantle, author of The Poison Bed.

[production credits]

Photograph used with permission from the publisher. Credit: Joshua Kessler.


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