Author Nancy Bilyeau is our guest author today. You can find Sister Margaret Kerry, fsp’s review of Nancy’s books here. We’re delighted to welcome Nancy as she shares the story behind her stories. –Barb
“Why are you writing about a nun?”
I lost count of how many times I was asked that question by people curious about my trilogy of historical mysteries. Tudor fiction is very common, with a queen or princess or lady-in-waiting as the protagonist. A Tudor nun as heroine? Pretty much unheard of.
When I decided to create a 16th-century Dominican novice as the main character of my debut novel The Crown, my motive was to find a new way into the era. Royals and aristocrats living in palaces dominated the genre. For my planned mystery, I wanted to open the door to a different world and a new sort of female protagonist. Ten years of research and three books later, I feel a complex tumble of emotions – intrigued, humbled, exhilarated, saddened and outraged – over what I learned about England’s lost monastic life.
However, there is more to it than seeking an original voice for a novel. I was raised by agnostic parents in Illinois and Michigan. But after I learned a family secret when I was 19, I felt increasing curiosity about the Catholic Church. In the last month of her life, my Irish Catholic grandmother, Hazel O’Neill, told my mother that while she and my grandfather, Francis Aloysius O’Neill, babysat me as an infant, they took me to a priest in Chicago, Illinois, for baptism. The first priest they approached for baptism without the parents being present said no; the second one said yes. I was baptized but for nearly 20 years did not know it.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, I moved to New York City to work in the magazine business. Occasionally I found myself on Fifth Avenue in midtown and would slow down as I approached St Patrick’s Cathedral. I’d walk up the steps, push open the heavy doors, and slide inside to look at the magnificent 330-foot-tall space. “Do I belong here?” I’d ask myself as I watched people light candles and pray.
Writing these books, researching monastic life, meeting real-life nuns such as the Dominican sister at a New Jersey priory who advised me on the story, it all brought me closer to a family past I knew little about. Now, whenever I read articles about nuns, I feel proud and protective. At some of my author events or on social media, I’m sometimes challenged on religious matters, and I like to think I stand my ground.
The “Masterpiece Theatre” series Wolf Hall pushed a lot of buttons for me. I’d done extensive research on the Reformation before even hearing about Hilary Mantel’s books. Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister to Henry VIII, was not too likable in my view. He had much to do with the imprisonments and executions of not only Sir Thomas More and Cardinal John Fisher but also the Carthusian martyrs and victims such as the elderly abbot of Glastonbury and Margaret Pole, countess of Salisbury. Cromwell was the mastermind of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which destroyed centuries’ old buildings of enormous beauty and ejected nuns, friars and monks with minimal pensions, if they were given anything at all. I was very curious about how Mantel’s books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, would convey a sympathetic Thomas Cromwell. Mantel is a talented writer. But in both her books and in the television series, I believe there are factual distortions and omissions to create a kind and compelling Cromwell. Writers have to make all sorts of choices. I made different ones.
What I hope is that through reading my series, people will see a life in Tudor times that I believe is rooted in careful research and in respect for the spiritual dedication of nuns, friars, priests and monks. No matter what books I go on to write, Sister Joanna Stafford is special. I will always hold a deep admiration for the women who took the veil in 16th century England.
About the Author
Nancy Bilyeau is a magazine editor who has worked on the staffs of Good Housekeeping and InStyle and the author of an award-winning trilogy of mysteries set in Tudor England: The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry. She lives with her husband and two children in Forest Hills, New York. For more information, please go to www.nancybilyeau.com.
Copyright 2015 Nancy Bilyeau.
Author photo courtesy of Touchstone Publishing. Used by permission.
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