This is an exciting time for Tudor fans! Nancy Bilyeau has released The Tapestry, the final book in the Joanna Stafford Series, historical thrillers set in the heart of the Tudor court. The trilogy made its debut in 2012 when The Crown earned rave reviews – and thanks in part to a warm recommendation by Oprah quickly went to No. 1 on Amazon.com. The Chalice followed in 2013, also soared on the charts, and now the third installment is making another big splash.
I just found this series now (I know, I know, where was I?) and now I know I need to go back and read the first two. I have to know more about the fictional character Nancy Bilyeau has crafted – because all of her choices allowed her to culminate in this book. I am thankful that Nancy let me interview her to quench some of my curiosity – and perhaps pique yours!
First, a bit of context from the book description (yes there’s an excerpt; it will follow the interview):
April 1540. Henry VIII’s Palace of Whitehall is the last place on earth Joanna Stafford wants to be. But a summons from the king cannot be refused! After her priory was destroyed, Joanna, a young Dominican novice, vowed to live a quiet life, weaving tapestries and shunning dangerous conspiracies. That all changes when the king takes an interest in her tapestry talent.
With a ruthless monarch tiring of his fourth wife and amoral noblemen driven by hidden agendas, Joanna becomes entangled in Tudor court politics. Her close friend, Catherine Howard, is rumored to be the king’s mistress, and Joanna is determined to protect her from becoming the king’s next wife—and victim. All the while, Joanna tries to stay ahead of a plot against her own life, directed by men in the shadows with power and access. Who can she trust – the constable who once saved her life or the friar she can’t forget? Wife or nun, subject or spy, rebel or courtier, Joanna must finally choose her fate.
And now, on to the interview…
Janet Wertman: Let me start by saying congratulations – but then move quickly to the question that is consuming me: how did you come to Joanna Stafford as a character (she is perfect!)? Was it a flash of insight or a slow logic build?
Nancy Bilyeau: Both! I was very logical and methodical—well, as methodical as I can be—in coming up with Joanna. It wasn’t a matter of wanting to write novels with a Dominican novice as the protagonist. I wanted to try to write fiction but my overarching goal was to produce a historical mystery. The Tudor period was a time I’d been reading about since I was 11 years old. The question was: Who is the main character? I didn’t want to write a royal or lady in waiting as my MC, not for a thriller. What kind of woman would have some mobility in that time, some education, a strong perspective? I was stumped. One day it was like a lightbulb switching on: a nun! I decided I wanted to put her in a “real” family and after some mulling it over, I chose the Staffords, a doomed aristocratic family. Then I had to pick her Catholic “order.” I was leaning toward Benedictine when I stumbled on the fact that there was a single order of Dominican sisters in England. That appealed to me. I discovered some intriguing facts about that priory when researching, such as Edward III being obsessed with creating it and a real princess lived and died there, Bridget of York. I came up with all of this in 2005, and was able to use it throughout the series.
JW: An equally compelling question: how did you come to such a gripping plot? There was suspense oozing from every page…is that true of the first two books as well?
NB: I’m a mystery and thriller fanatic, so thank you. I devour suspense-driven books (I just finished an excellent mystery, The Invisible Guardian, by Spanish author Dolores Redondo) as well as television series (I highly recommend River, starring Stellan Skarsgard, on Netflix). I’ve always got a book going and I consider myself a Netflix hostage. I don’t quite understand people who cut off other artists’ work while they’re writing, and even when they’re not writing. I go to fiction conferences or group chapter meetings and meet authors who don’t know what movies or TV shows are out there and the only books they can talk about are their own. It’s kind of weird! I study suspense fiction, both as a fan and as a student of it. I work hard in my revisions to foreshadow things to come and to keep conflict high. I love writing twists, few things make me happier. And I try to make sure there is real emotion at stake. That is important.
JW: What was the hardest part of writing this book? Was this as much of a factor in the first two?
NB: The part of the book in which she leaves England. I feel that fiction set in the 16th century is too Tudor-centric. There are other amazing people and places to write about. In The Chalice, as part of the plot, Joanna Stafford leaves England for Antwerp, Ghent and Calais. I loved crafting that. So for The Tapestry, I thought it would be a lot of fun to set her loose in Germany as part of the thriller plot. When it came time to write those chapters I had the basic plot outline but I needed to learn a lot more on Germany in 1540. Guess what? There are almost no English language books on the subject. Yes there are biographies on Luther, but that’s about it. I found books like a description of the Peasants War by Friedrich Engels, edited by Karl Marx. I didn’t see that one coming! But I really needed to learn about daily life in the country and major cities and about the rulers of that time, what the religious division was doing on all levels. It was a huge challenge. I eventually tracked down a few books in English, one written in the early 20th century. And a German friend helped me out via emails. There were some incredibly interesting people in Germany in the 16th century. It’s frustrating. Meanwhile, there are 100 books about Anne Boleyn.
JW: Tell me more about your research process! I know you are meticulous about this – I hear you actually persuaded a curatorial intern at the Tower of London to send you details of prisoners’ confinements. I would love to hear more.
NB: I have been a reporter and editor so I like to dig. It’s about persistence more than special training. With the Tower of London, I sent an email to the CONTACT US link on the Tower of London website, just like anyone else. No insider techniques or magic Rolodex. After a lot of waiting and nudging, I was paired up with a fantastic intern. I found out what prisoners ate and where they slept. I also found a wonderful man with Historical Royal Palaces, and a local historian who helped me with Malmesbury Abbey in The Crown. I’m forever in debt to the staffers at the Dartford museum. I find many people willing to help a writer. I just had to do some follow-up sometimes.
JW: What is next?! Do you have any ideas about what your next novel and/or series will be about? Are you ready to share?
NB: It’s top secret, I’m afraid. Agent’s orders. It’s not in the Joanna Stafford series but I can tell you it’s suspenseful and set in a past century. 🙂
And now, as promised, the excerpt. It’s from the first page, so there are no spoilers:
London, May 1537
When a burning is announced, the taverns off Smithfield Square order extra barrels of ale, but when the person to be executed is a woman and one of noble birth, the ale comes by the cartload. I rode in one of those carts on Friday of Whitsun week, the twenty-eighth year of the reign of King Henry the Eighth, to offer prayers for the soul of the condemned traitor, Lady Margaret Bulmer.
I heard the cry go out as I made my way west on Cheapside Street, clutching the London map I’d sketched from a book in secret two nights before. I was moving faster now that I’d reached a wide and cobbled street, but my legs throbbed. I’d spent the morning trudging through mud.
“Smithfield–are ye bound for Smithfield?” It was a cheerful voice, as if the destination were a St. George’s Day fair. Just ahead, in front of a tannery, I saw who had shouted: a burly man flicking the backs of four horses hitched to a large cart. A half dozen heads peeked above the rails.
“Hold!” I shouted as loudly as I could. “I wish to go to Smithfield.”
The Tapestry is available in multiple media – paperback, hard cover, ebook and audiobook – so however you love to enjoy books, you’re in luck!