As I read THE CHALICE, my friend Nancy Bilyeau’s new novel in the Joanna Stafford series, I found that I couldn’t put it down until I was done with it. Nancy kindly agreed to answer a few questions for the readers of Versailles and More.
Just when I thought that Tudor fiction had been written to death, I came across THE CHALICE. What is novel about it, no pun intended, is the focus, not on Henry VIII, nor his ill-fated queens, nor Cromwell, nor any other major figure, but on ordinary people. You made me realize how terrifying, how deeply disorienting, it must have been for Henry’s subjects to go through the religious upheavals of his reign. And then your heroine is a devout Catholic nun, Sister Joanna, while usually the era is seen from an Anglican or Protestant standpoint. What drove you to this perspective?
I decided that since I love the Tudor period and I am also a devotee of the mystery genre, I would write a Tudor thriller. But I didn’t want to write a real-life historical personage as the main character, and if you want to write a novel in which mysteries are solved, there are obstacles. There was no police as we know it in the 16th century. You had in positions of authority sheriffs and coroners and unpaid constables–and I make use of that in my series–and there were night watchmen. But you certainly didn’t have the use of forensics or ability to investigate a murder as we understand it now. So I thought I would create a different sort of story–more of a thriller than a traditional murder mystery–and a different sort of protagonist, too, someone who is thrown into the middle of important times, and I came up with a nun. After I researched the backgrounds and perspectives of nuns and monks and friars in the Tudor age, I came to far different conclusions than most novelists do about the Reformation. The monastic orders played an important role in society. I formed a deep sympathy for the nuns, in particular. It distresses me, the anti-Catholic prejudice that began in the 1530s and has raged on ever since in England. Hilary Mantel says Catholicism is not a religion for respectable people? I disagree with her, of course, and yet you can see why she would be the perfect writer for Thomas Cromwell’s story, if that is how she feels.
While reading THE CHALICE, I got a strong sense of being thrown into Tudor times. One recognizes, of course, the major historical events and characters. But which parts of the story, which characters are fictional? Were prophecy and necromancy, which are crucial to the plot, part of the political scene? (more…)