Today, while on a short break from the mega-tour for my own latest novel Ribbons of Scarlet, it is my very great pleasure to host my good friend the insanely talented, multi-published, Anne Easter Smith in a Q&A to talk about her upcoming novel: This Son of York (releasing November 10th but you can pre-order now HERE).

Anne Easter Smith

Anne Easter Smith

This Son of York concludes Anne’s best-selling Wars of the Roses series. She’s made the much maligned Richard III, who was brought into new focus following the discovery of his bones under a car park in Leicester in 2013, her protagonist and is determined to give us a very different view of Richard than Shakespeare and stereotypes have . . .

Anne, people have very strong opinions about Richard III despite the short time he was on the English throne. Writing about Richard is, in many ways, like walking out into a battlefield mid-conflict, so let me start right off by asking why a novel centering on Richard? What compelled you into this contentious territory?

I love a good battle! Especially one with horses, armored knights, and longbows. But as far as Richard is concerned, he became a cause for me once I took in the Josephine Tey theory that those adorable princes in the Tower weren’t murdered by their hunchbacked uncle Richard but may have lived into the next reign. Horrible Henry Tudor (no, not that one with all the wives but his father) had far more to lose than Richard if indeed those little boys were still alive, because he had no right to the throne. But I digress.

Tey’s book Daughter of Time got me researching everything I could about Richard and the Wars of the Roses, and after five decades I feel quite knowledgeable enough to have written my version of Richard’s story. You may be surprised to know that faux news began a lot earlier than today! Shakespeare’s sources for his play were Tudor historians who spun the historical facts about Richard so well that we still believe them today (even though much new evidence has come out in the meantime, if not exonerating Richard of those many crimes laid at his door, at least raising plausible doubt.) Being a Brit, fair play is in my DNA, and Richard has been unjustly depicted through the centuries.

What is the pernicious misconception about Richard that you’d most like to correct in the minds of readers?

That he murdered his nephews in the Tower in order to “steal” the crown. No bodies have ever been found, no evidence they were even murdered, and no witnesses or confessions to the deaths have surfaced in all this time. From everything I have studied about Richard, he was never interested in wearing the crown. It was pushed on him by Parliament when the princes were revealed to have been illegitimate (their dad, Edward IV and Richard’s brother, had been secretly “contracted” to a woman prior to marrying their mum.)

Is there such a thing as a fun-fact when it comes to Richard III—and if so can you share one?

Hmmm, I don’t have him picking his teeth with his knife (that was a no-no even for the most ill-bred), but “fun” and Richard is a bit of an oxymoron. He was a naughty boy before he married Anne Neville (at 19), because we know he had two and possibly three bastards. He was very discreet about their mother(s), but two of them were brought up in his household and mentioned in letters and household accounts.

I know This Son of York has taken considerable time, research and thought on your part, can you offer us a little window into your process of creating the book?

RIchard III's Remains

Richard III’s Remains

After Royal Mistress was published in 2013—the fifth book in my series about the Yorks during the Wars of the Roses—I thought I was done with Richard and his family, and I started to write a wonderful story about a Portuguese prince and his mistress in 14th century. (It took me several years of research and three trips to Portugal to feel comfortable writing about this prince.) And then they found Richard’s grave under a car park in Leicester in 2012 and I was so excited and intrigued by the new information the bone analysis gave us of him that I dropped poor Pedro into the Tagus River and took up Richard’s cause again. After all, I had every date and event and character I needed to write about still stuck in my brain, but with new info on Richard—like severe scoliosis and that he drank heavily in the last two years of his life—I was moved to return to Richard and write his story for a new century.

My process is mostly being as organized as possible. I have charts of timelines where I make sure no real person is in the wrong place at the wrong time, unless it’s unclear and then I can fictionalize meetings or scenes. But I don’t mess with history.

Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by the blog and begin to set the record straight on Richard, Anne!

Thank you so much for hosting me here, Sophie. I am so passionate about readers knowing more about Richard than Shakespeare’s “bunch-backed toad” and I think I am giving them a more balanced view of this much-maligned king. He only lived to be thirty-two, and only reigned for two years, but his whole life was devoted to being loyal to his family, his king, his wife, and if I get just one person to change their opinion of him by doing the research I did, I will be satisfied! I promise you, his is quite the dramatic story!

Finally for those who want to purchase This Son of York—and after reading Anne’s answers I am betting that is everyone—remember if is available for pre-order on Amazon! Below I’ve included a description of the novel, and some of the praise it is already garnering!

Praise for This Son of York . . .

 

Anne Easter Smith has written five well-regarded novels set in the War of the Roses, but the one she has been preparing to write, both in her imagination and after fifty years of research, is this novel about Richard III. Her mission was to bring Richard Plantagenet the man to life and let him speak directly to us in this meticulously rendered novel.

—Margaret George, International best-selling author of Elizabeth I and The Confessions of Young Nero

Deeply researched, the book bursts with action but even more importantly we are given passages of real feeling between human beings we think we may know but perhaps never completely understood until this book. It is a moving, insightful, and engrossing depiction of the controversial king.”

—Nancy Bilyeau, best-selling author of The Blue

A wonderfully realized life of tragic, doomed Richard. The author uses the latest discoveries and old texts to fully explore the complicated ‘crouchback’, and give us a fine portrait of the lover and the warrior, a noble, flawed and heroic king and man.”

—C. C. Humphreys, author of Vlad: The Last Confession

THIS SON OF YORK

Concluding her best-selling Wars of the Roses series, Anne Easter Smith has made Richard III her protagonist in her latest book This Son of York. The much maligned Richard is brought into new focus following the discovery of his bones under a car park in Leicester. This_Son_of_York_FrontCover20190906small

As the fourth son of the duke of York, Richard of Gloucester could not have hoped for much more than the life of a wealthy, but insignificant nobleman. Instead fate took him down a drama-filled, unexpected path to the throne. As York challenged Lancaster for the crown, early tragedies and betrayals, including by his faithless brother George, led the young Richard to count on none but himself. Imbued with the traits of loyalty and duty to family and country, he proved them time and again especially when he reluctantly came to wear the crown. Buoyed by the love of two women, he stayed true to one while cherishing the other, both helping him bear the burden of his scoliosis.

A warrior of renown, a loyal brother, loving husband and father, a king mindful of injustice yet beset by betrayal, and a man convinced his God has forsaken him by burdening him with crippling scoliosis, This Son of York has a compelling tale to tell. With her meticulous attention to detail—and the truth—Easter Smith’s compelling storytelling paints a very different picture of the king Shakespeare reviled as “…thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog.”

Greer Macallister, bestselling author of THE MAGICIAN’S LIE and GIRL IN DISGUISE. is doing a wonderful series of #womenshistoryreads interviews in honor of WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH. So far she has featured some of my favorite authors like Kate Quinn, Allison Pataki, Sarah McCoy and Heather Webb.

TODAY IT IS MY TURN! Check out our wide-ranging discussion touching on everything from historical graffiti, the bond between sisters (even when they are queens) and how historical women would identify with the stories of today’s #metoo movement.
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Wondering if you should bother to open my AUTHOR NEWSLETTER when it pops up in your mailbox? Or whether you should SUBSCRIBE?

Look at this Mini-View lineup! In just in the first three issues of my author 2017 newsletter readers will hear from:

NYT bestsellers: Allison Pataki and Sarah McCoy; USA Today bestseller Jennifer Robson, as well as authors Anna Belfrage; Leslie Carroll; Eliza Knight; Meghan Masterson; Stephanie Thornton; and Ellen Marie Wiseman.

And that’s just for starters. HEAR SOME OF THE TOP TALENT IN HISTORICAL FICTION talk about topics like: dangerous historical women, writing about society’s outsiders, surprising things historical women did, the men who populate history and how they would cast their book as a TV mini-series!

Subscribe TODAY!

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How long have I known Mindy McInnis, Edgar Award-winning author of YA fiction? Too long for me to fess up. But let’s just say we knew each other before we were agented let alone published!

Mindy runs an awesome  blog for aspiring writers called Writer, Writer Pants on Fire, and a pod-cast of the same name which features interviews established authors taking about the nitty-gritty of the road to publication. TODAY I AM HONORED TO BE HER FIRST “ADULT” AUTHOR ON THE PODCAST (though I am not sure the label adult is entirely apt for me 100% of the time).

Interested in how I landed my agent, what my submission process was really like, why I tend to hop around from era to era when writing? Have a listen!!!

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Did you know Dear Readers that I have an awesome newsletter? My 2017 newsletter is ALL about feeding readers’ cravings for more delicious gossip—I mean HISTORY (see the Oscar Wilde quote below)! It will come out monthly, and each month will have its own theme. One FANTASTIC new feature–the Mini-view–will appear in every issue. Each Mini-view asks 3 top historical novelists a single question and brings you their answers.

The latest issue is just out! It’s all about DANGEROUS WOMEN (Catherine de Médicis anyone?). So if you are already a subscriber check your inbox. And if you aren’t  . . . never fear, it is not too late! Click here and fill out the form! The newsletter will be in your box in a jiffy.

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Want to know what I really think about Catherine de Médicis? Let me tell you folks when Erin Sweet-Al Mehairi at “Oh for the Hook of a Book” puts you in the hot-seat you spill your guts: everything from to which characters you enjoyed writing most and least to your guilty TV pleasures . . . It doesn’t hurt that Erin is excellent company and offers virtual cheesecake as an inducement 😉 Explore the creation of MÉDICIS DAUGHTER through Erin’s in-depth interview.

catherine

As part of the celebration marking the release of “A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii” blogger Erin Sweet-Al Mehairi is running a 6 part interview series asking each of the authors who contributed to the novel the same two questions.  Today is my day in the hot seat.  Stop over at Oh for the Hook of a Book and find out what I believe I brought to the table (or the volcano gods as it were) in working on this ground-breaking collaborative novel.

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My good friend and “goddess of historical fiction” Kate Quinn tagged me in this cyclical blog tour (make sure you pop over to Kate’s blog and see her answers then follow the chain back for insight into the minds and work habits of other historical fiction luminaries like Christy English and Stephanie Dray).  Four questions designed to reveal how we do what we do—write books that is.  Answering is harder than you think (as is writing books) because most of us write as we breath—because we are compelled to.  And, unless called to account by questions such as these, we don’t think a lot about it.

1) What am I working on?

I am putting the finishing touches on “Daughter of de Médicis: A Novel of Marguerite de Valois” before handing it over to my agent for his input.  I consider the book a true bildungsroman, focusing on the psychological and moral growth of the enigmatic Marguerite de Valois from the point at which she comes to live with her brother Charles IX’s royal court as a young girl to the moment when she is transformed by a tremendous historical event (the Saint Barthlomew’s Day massacre in Paris) into an independent adult.  I’ve always been fascinated by Marguerite—daughter of a King, sister of three and wife of Henri IV.  Had she lived in England Marguerite would have ruled in her turn, but Salic law in France relegated her to the sidelines.  Her relationship with her powerful mother, Catherine de Medicis, is an important aspect of the novel.  Let’s face it, the mother-daughter relationship is always fraught with peril during the teen years, but imagine if your mother was Catherine de Medicis!

If you are interested in learning more about “Daughter of de Medicis” (including more cool sneak-peek quotes like the one below), it has its own Facebook page.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Every author’s voice is different.  I have mine.  You either like it or, perhaps, you do not.  But it is different from anyone else’s.  Beyond that I cannot opine because I make a conscious effort NOT to compare my work to the work of other historical novelists.  In writing as in life I find such behavior is not particularly productive.  More than that, it can lead to some pretty negative stuff/feelings.  I write for the joy of it.  I don’t view it as a competitive sport and I fear indulging in comparisons can too often lead to that.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I write historical fiction because I love to read it.  Also because I am a bona fide history geek (have my BA in history) from a family of history geeks (my only sister is actually a Professor of History). When I was a child, I visited historical sites while other kids were at amusement parks.  I also grew up watching all those Masterpiece Theater costume dramas of classic literature, and ninety-nine percent of my favorite books were (are) set in the past.  So, historical fiction was a natural niche for me.  Since I studied French abroad, and I am a devotee of Alexandre Dumas, peré, both my first novel (“The Sister Queens”) and “Daughter of de Medicis” have French history at their centers.

4) How does your writing process work?

“School is my friend.”  I bet every parent out there who works at home can identify with that.  When my writing is going well, the hours between dropping off and picking up my son from school are devoted 100% to writing.  This can have some unfortunate side-effects—usually in the form of the plaintive cries of family members claiming they are, in fact, wearing their last pair of clean underwear.  To balance my various roles and not feel like a hamster on a wheel, I try to be fully present and in each given moment.  I try not to think “oh my god, you should be writing” when I am not.  That kind of thinking tends to just create a guilt-induced writer’s block when I finally sit down at the keyboard.  Oh and I don’t compare my daily word count to others—ever.  I am a “slow first draft” writer, but the first drafts I eventually produce tend to be close to ready to handover to my critique partners, agent or editor.  Finally my process involves weekly summits with a pair of fellow novelist whose work I adore and opinions I respect.  We work through problems and set goals—basically we keep each other on-track and honest in a profession that can, by virtue of its solitude, allow for a good deal of procrastination.

Well that’s all she wrote—or rather how she writes (with the “she” being “me).  My friend Nancy Bilyeau is up next.  On Monday, April 7th she will offer insight into her own creative process, a process that’s led to her gripping Sister Joanna Stafford series (“The Crown” and “The Chalice” with a third installment on the way).  Check back here next Monday March 31st, and I’ll link to her site so you can see what her answers are.

It is my very great pleasure today to welcome friend and fellow historical fiction writer Susan Spann to the blog. Susan’s debut historical mystery Claws of the Cat released in in July.

First a blurb to tantalize you:

May 1564: When a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, master ninja Hiro has no desire to get involved. But the beautiful entertainer accused of the crime enlists the help of Father Mateo, the Portuguese Jesuit Hiro is sworn to protect, leaving the master shinobi with just three days to find the killer in order to save the girl and the priest from execution.

The investigation plunges Hiro and Father Mateo into the dangerous waters of Kyoto’s floating world, where they learn that everyone from the elusive teahouse owner to the dead man’s dishonored brother has a motive to keep the samurai’s death a mystery. A rare murder weapon favored by ninja assassins, a female samurai warrior, and a hidden affair leave Hiro with too many suspects and far too little time. Worse, the ninja’s investigation uncovers a host of secrets that threaten not only Father Mateo and the teahouse, but the very future of Japan.

And now some questions to take you behind cover-copy (and it’s no exaggeration to say Susan reveals some thing here she has never told readers before):

1. What inspired you to choose a 16th century ninja master as your main character and detective?

In spring, 2011, while getting ready for work one morning, I actually heard a voice in my head say “Most ninjas commit murders, but Hiro Hattori solves them.” I knew immediately that this was a character—and a story—I had to write. I’ve loved Japanese culture since my college days, and loved the idea of writing a ninja detective.

2. Do you speak Japanese or have any personal connection to the country, its history and/or culture?

I speak a little Japanese (my Chinese is better) and I studied Japanese language, history, and culture for my undergraduate degree in Asian Studies from Tufts University. I’m also a fan, and lifelong student, of Japanese art and architecture.

3. I am always impressed by authors who can manage to plot out historical mysteries—it seems like laying an extra level of complexity on an already complex genre.  Why a mystery as opposed to a straight historical?

Because I love to murder my imaginary friends.

Also, I find the complexities of a mystery allow me to use the history in unusual and interesting ways. For example, I get to translate modern forensics as seen through the eyes of a 16th century ninja assassin. I need to know what killed the victim, and how, but I also need to see the crime as Hiro would have seen it. The historian in me loves the opportunity to see the world through medieval eyes. The mystery lover in me … well, that gets us back to murdering imaginary friends.

4. Besides Hiro Hattori, who is your favorite character in Claws of the Cat? Who is your least favorite? Why?

This is one of the hardest questions I’ve been asked. I love all of my characters, for different reasons. I think my favorite, other than Hiro, would have to be Father Mateo—though he wasn’t my second-favorite from the start. He earned a place in my heart as I wrote the initial draft, in much the same way he earns a place in Hiro’s.

My least favorite is Mayuri, the teahouse owner. Not because I don’t like her—I do. I call her my least favorite because I found her elusive and difficult to write. Most of my other characters revealed their “inner selves” and motivations to me early on. It took me the entire first draft to figure Mayuri out.

5. Were you able to travel for inspiration and research?  If not, what technics did you use to put yourself “virtually” into the world you would depict in Claws of the Cat?

Unfortunately, family circumstances kept me from taking the intended research trip to Japan while writing this installment of the series. (I have one planned, tentatively, for next summer.) However, during my online research I met a tour guide in Kyoto who helped me with maps and translations for certain details in Claws of the Cat, and also the sequel, Blade of the Samurai.

In addition to online research (Google Earth is great, and so are online document resources) I read and re-read many books from my library on Japanese art, architecture, history and culture.

6. Historical truth is often stranger than fiction. During your research for Claws of the Cat what was the most unusual or unexpected thing you discovered?

That Father Mateo may have really existed.

While writing the first draft of Claws, I intentionally eschewed known Jesuit missionaries working in Kyoto in 1565 and created an entirely fictitious Jesuit sidekick for Hiro. I did so because I wanted to respect the Jesuits’ work in Japan, and didn’t want to make errors or divergences in the activities of a “real” priest for the sake of plotting novels. The easy solution was just to make one up. I also gave Father Mateo a fictitious “mission” separate from the primary Jesuit mission in Kyoto, allegedly because he works with commoners and doesn’t want to offend the samurai elite who frequent the actual Jesuit mission. That’s historically reasonable, because at the time the primary Jesuit work in Kyoto was done among the samurai and a priest who worked with commoners would have needed a separate space.

After finishing the draft, I discovered a line in one of the Jesuit histories which mentions an unnamed Jesuit priest who arrived in Kyoto in 1563 (the same year my fictitious Father Mateo arrived) and “disappeared” to work on his own in Japan. This is exactly the way the Jesuits would have mentioned a priest who went to work among the common people if they wanted to keep the samurai from noticing.

It was very weird, indeed, to think that my fictitious Jesuit might have a historical analogue after all.

7.  Authors of historical novels walk a line between known historical facts and fiction. Where do you draw the line on your personal map between accuracy and imagination?

The lovely thing about using fictitious protagonists in a factual setting is that the line stays relatively clear. All of the plot is mine. All of the history really happened, though where the history intersects with the plot, I try to stick with historically reasonable plotlines. I include some real historical figures, but also to ensure that their involvement doesn’t contradict with any of the known historical facts about their lives.

For example, Claws of the Cat  centers on the murder of retired general Akechi Hideyoshi. The Akechi were a real samurai clan who lived and served the shogun during the time the book takes place. Akechi Hideyoshi is fictitious, but his cousin, Akechi Mitsuhide (whose name appears in the book) is a real person. The parts of the book that deal with Mitsuhide are historically accurate (or at least historically reasonable). Those which deal with Hideyoshi and his murder come from my imagination.

8. Can you share a secret about your book (or the writing of it)–something that readers can’t discover from the text itself?

Yep. I’ll share two.

First: Readers won’t learn the name of Hiro’s kitten until the final page of the book. I didn’t learn it myself until I wrote that final page. Everything else, I knew, but that name eluded me until the very end of the draft. Ironically, the moment I wrote it, I knew I’d found the right one.

Second: I knew the kitten’s name was “correct” because it has relevance to another book (and a major plot point) later in the series. For the rest of that secret, however, you have to wait until Book 5.

And, as promised, that’s something I’ve never told anyone before.

9.  As someone who came to writing as a second career herself I am always interested in how people become writers.  How did it come about for you?

In one sense, I’ve always self-identified as a writer. I remember being six years old and making up stories to entertain myself while I weeded the roses outside my parents’ house (that was one of my chores).

I didn’t really get serious about writing for publication until I attended the Maui Writers’ Conference in 2004. That was when I committed to writing every day, and to writing as many manuscripts as it took to get published.

It took five. The first four were pure historical fiction, told from a female POV. My skills were improving, but something wasn’t right. After the “ninja attack” in 2011, however, I realized that the problem wasn’t me, it was the genre: I shifted to historical mystery, and my first mystery novel landed a three-book deal.

That’s why I encourage other authors to write whatever book comes into their hearts—no matter how bizarre it seems at the time. You never know when a novel will teach you what kind of writer you really are.

10. Which is most likely to spark the idea for a Susan Spann mystery—a time period, a specific event or a character?

Initially, it was the character, Hiro, but now that I’m working with Hiro and Father Mateo in a series format it’s the setting that sparks the plot. Each Shinobi Mystery novel is set in a different part of the medieval Japanese world. Claws of the Cat was set in the “floating world” of geishas and the entertainment culture. Blade of the Samurai moves the action to the shogun’s palace, and Book 3, currently titled Flask of the Drunken Master, will take the reader into the world of brewers and moneylenders. I’m working on additional plots that involve the world of the outcastes, the roadside inns, and even the lair and training grounds of Hiro’s ninja clan.

Oobie, who was the inspiration for Hiro’s cat

11. Do you have a special writing spot—a lair perhaps where you like to do your work? Is there a picture you could share?

I do! I have a home office with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a nice big desk (with a window) and a 60-gallon marine aquarium—my seahorse

Susan's Writing Lair

reef. I write to the burble of filters and the glow of aquarium lighting. I’ve included a couple of photos: one of my desk (with my “amanuensis” Oobie, who was the inspiration for Hiro’s cat), one of the reef, and one of the office as seen from the doorway. It’s messy, but it’s home!

12. If you could read any book again for the first time, what would it be and why?

Jurassic Park. Michael Crichton’s vision of the dinosaur amusement park-gone-wrong kept me up all night. I couldn’t stop turning pages. The novel captured my imagination in a way few stories can. His settings were vivid, his characters entertaining, and the action never stopped. Plus … there’s a T-Rex.

13. Will you be staying in Japan for your next book?  If not where are you headed?

I’m back in Japan for books 2 and 3 of the Shinobi Mystery series. In fact, each of those books also brings back some of my favorite characters from Book 1. Based on the reader responses, they’re some of the readers’ favorites too. After that, we’ll see. I’d love to write even more Shinobi novels, but I’ve got some other ideas too.

Thank you, Sophie, for the interview – this has been great fun! I love reading about what goes on “behind the scenes” with other authors, and it’s fun to have the chance to take other people behind the scenes of my books too!

About Susan:  Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and author of the Shinobi Mystery series featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori. The first book, Claws of the Cat, released in July 2013 from Minotaur Books. Susan has a deep interest in Asian culture and has studied Mandarin and Japanese. Her hobbies include traditional archery, martial arts, rock climbing, horseback riding, and raising seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find Susan online at www.susanspann.com, or on Twitter @SusanSpann.

In less than a month I will be off to the 5th North American Historical Novel Society Conference in St. Petersburg Florida, where I will be sitting on two panels—“Location, Location, Location” (discussing how setting is the mortar board upon which historical novels are built and tackling topics related to recreating period locations); and “The Feisty Heroine Sold into Marriage Who Hates Bear Baiting: Clichés in HF and How to Avoid Them” (title of this one says it all).  

Those of you who were kicking around this then-new blog 2 years ago know what my conference attendance means. . .lots of juicy post-event blogging on trends in the genre and topics of historical fiction interest.  But why should you wait until after?  How about a conference teaser—an interview reunion with HNS panelist, Nancy Bilyeau.

Nancy is the author of a pair of marvelous historical thrillers following the adventures of novice nun, Joanna Stafford, as she seeks to survive and thrive in Henry VIII’s England while the monasteries are dissolved around her.  Nancy’s first book, The Crown, released in 2012 to immediate critical acclaim.  “O” (The Oprah Magazine) called it, “A juicy blend of lust, murder, conspiracy, and betrayal.”    Nancy’s second book, The Chalice, released this past spring to the eager embrace of existing fans and new ones alike.

Nancy last visited me immediately after the release of her debut novel.  I present for your pleasure an update to that interview.

1)     Since we last sat down together in our virtual chairs your second novel, The Chalice, came out.  Can you tell us a little bit about the new book?

In the second book, it’s 1538, and my main character, Joanna Stafford, is caught in the crosswinds of time. She is a Dominican novice without a nunnery—Henry VIII has broken with Rome, and all the monasteries have been seized. Joanna must decide what path to follow now, and while she seeks a quiet life of tapestry weaving and raising her orphaned relative, Arthur, the kingdom is far from stable. There is a conspiracy against the king, one revolving around prophecy, and Joanna is targeted by those who want Henry VIII off the throne. She learns that the prophecy is about her – and an act she must take in the future, one that could be very dark and dangerous. So the conflict of the book is: If you loved something very much and you had a chance to save it but to do so you must commit an act that is perhaps unforgivable, would you do it? 

2)     inspired you to choose a fictional Dominican nun as the heroine of your series?

I first chose to set a book in the 16th century—simply because it is my favorite century from history. I love mysteries and thrillers, and wanted to attempt to write one with a female protagonist. It took me a long time to figure out who would be the person. I didn’t want a royal or lady in waiting, yet someone living in a Tudor village, I feared it would be too hard to inject that woman into conflict that rises to the level of a thriller. A nun struggling for her future in the middle of the Dissolution of the Monasteries—when the Catholic Church was being violently dismantled—could be quite compelling. Finally, I picked a Dominican because there was only one such order in England, and that made it special.

3)     I found it refreshing that Joanna stayed “in character”—true to the religious sentiments one would expect a 16th century nun to have.  How difficult was it for you to achieve that?  Do you think it was a risky choice given you are writing for a modern—and generally rather skeptical—audience?

One of my pet peeves is characters in historical novels who have modern sensibilities. It’s the easy way out. There is some strange part of my personality that compels me toward the most difficult choices. Sometimes I wish it were otherwise! But as soon as I decided on a nun, I was determined to make her authentic to the spiritual values of the period. I didn’t want to write a book with a reluctant nun who is forced into it by her father or retreats to a priory after rejection by a man. Again, that’s the easy way out. I did worry that readers would be turned off by a spiritual woman but I’ve not seen that reaction. Readers of historical fiction are eager for authentic behavior, I’m more convinced of that than ever. Commit anachronisms at your peril!

The way I tried to achieve it was reading what women in religious orders actually wrote: Catherine of Siena, Hildegarde of Bingen, Teresa of Avila. That helped get me in the proper mood. Also a writing teacher recommended I research the lives of the early female Catholic saints, the ones who were torn to pieces in the Roman Coliseum or who became martyrs in the Dark Ages and medieval period. The thinking of these women is about as far from a 21st century mindset as you can get.  Just fascinating. 

4)     Besides Joanna, who is your favorite character in the series?  Who is your least favorite?  Why?

Brother Edmund is my second favorite—I like to think that he is a pretty original character and for some reason I have tremendous sympathy for him. He’s a mix of strengths and weaknesses. I tried my best to make all the characters nuanced. I don’t like two-dimensional people hurtling through thrillers. Or characters with worn-out identifying descriptions: a natural beauty, a strong-jawed man. Ugh.

My least favorite character? Hmmmm. That’s an interesting question. Did I create a character I personally would dislike? Apart from George Boleyn—and I can’t give away why I wouldn’t want to have encountered him at a tender age, or else that would be a spoiler—it would have to be the young prioress in The Crown. She was inspired by a boss I once had—a very difficult one. In fact, I drew on my personal work history, my years in the magazine business, when depicting life in the priory. I thought about it a lot, and decided that though the stereotype of a nunnery was of graceful, serene ladies floating down the halls in harmony, I imagined that there would be the rivalries and tensions found in any group of people essentially working together, and in this case living together too. I was very happy to receive an email from a Dominican nun and two emails from friars that said I captured correctly the essential feeling of life in an enclosed religious community.

5)     Truth is often stranger than fiction.  In our last talk I asked you about interesting discoveries made while researching The Crown.  When you set out to write its sequel, The Chalice, what was the most unusual or unexpected thing you discovered in that process?

I was stunned by how much belief there was in astrology, alchemy and prophecy, from the highest levels of society to the lowest. The mid-16th century was a very mystical time.

6)     Writing a series presents special challenges to an author.  What, in your opinion, is the most difficult aspect of writing sequential novels?  The most rewarding?

The most rewarding aspect is that I love my characters and I want to write them in new situations, whether it’s political crisis or romantic entanglement. I just enjoy spending my time with these people! As for the hardest, well, I am trying to write these books for someone who has never read the ones that come before and also for the fans of the series. It’s hard to serve both kinds of readers.

7)     I know you are hard at work on the final book in this series.  What will it be called and can you share a bit about it?

I’m excited to share with you that Simon & Schuster has bought the third book. It is called The Covenant. Joanna Stafford finally returns to the court of Henry VIII—and nearly pays for that decision with her life. Someone is trying to kill her and she doesn’t know who. If you’ve read the first two books, you know that there are enough people to form a line. LOL. Also, Joanna will travel outside of England, as she did in The Chalice, but farther this time. And she will make a definitive decision on how she plans to spend the rest of her life, and with whom.

8)     In The Crown  Joanna brushes elbows with a number of famous historical characters like Catherine Howard and Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester.  In The Chalice you treated us to a face-to-face encounter between Joanna and Thomas Cromwell.  Who might we meet in book three?

In The Covenant, many things are going to come to a head that I have been writing about in The Crown and The Chalice. Joanna is a weaver of tapestries and Henry VIII is the most avid collector of tapestries in Europe (that’s true!), and so she will be pulled into the court and the inner circle of the king. Catherine Howard will play a larger role in the third book, which shouldn’t surprise those knowledgeable of history, but readers will see a new side to her and also get to know a much different Thomas Culpepper than has been depicted before. Joanna will stand up to Bishop Gardiner and the duke of Norfolk in this book!  And there will be some surprises too. Just as in The Chalice I brought in a character contemporary to this time not usually associated with the Tudors, I have a plan for two other fascinating folks.

9)     Like myself, you will be a panelist at the upcoming Historical Novel Society Conference, what is the topic of your panel and what can attendees look forward to learning if they attend?

The name of the panel is “Making It in the Mainstream and What Comes After.” I am honored to be on the same panel as Patricia Bracewell, Deborah Swift, Jenny Barden and Gillian Bagwell. We’re going to talk about what brought us this far and how we plan to keep going.

 

About Nancy:  Nancy Bilyeau is a writer and magazine editor who has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, and Ladies’ Home Journal. She is currently the executive editor of DuJour magazine. She was born in Chicago and grew up in Michigan, earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan. Now she lives in New York City with her husband and two children. Her first novel, The Crown, was nominated for an Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award 2012 by the Crime Writers’ Association, given to Best Historical Crime Novel.