Like many journalists, Nancy Bilyeau dreamed of writing a novel. She even managed to eke out a few chapters, melding her two great loves of Tudor history and mystery thrillers.
But whenever she would make a little headway, the real world — her demanding job as a magazine editor, a husband and two kids — had a way of intervening. Bil-
yeau was afraid that "author" was one aspiration that would always remain a bit beyond her reach.
But in 2008 — with the housing market, the banks and her own New York media world all teetering around her — she found her inspiration and momentum.
"I was working at the Time Inc. building in midtown Manhattan, and Lehman Brothers had just gone under, and the sight of all these people walking down the street carrying boxes of their belongings is an image I will never forget," she said. "I had been working on this chapter where my protagonist felt the world shift below her feet. I dealt with fears of disintegration by writing about another dissolution — only one that happened 500 years earlier."
Then the deputy editor of InStyle magazine, Bilyeau began getting up at 5 a.m. every day to write. That was the only way she could propel herself to tell the story of "The Crown" (Touchstone) about an aristocratic young nun who must find a legendary crown to save her father and preserve her Catholic faith from Thomas Cromwell's reign of terror.
The book — praised by Oprah magazine for its "juicy blend of lust, murder, conspiracy and betrayal" — made its debut in January and has created sufficient buzz to have been optioned by a Hollywood producer. Bilyeau quit her job at InStyle to write a sequel.
The dissolution that she was chronicling when the financial world imploded was the split of the English church from Rome. While much had been written about the period from a male point of view, Bilyeau longed to tell her story through the voice of a strong female character. And so Joanna Stafford was created. The birth was anything but easy.
"They say you should write about what you know," Bilyeau said. "But I chose a time, country and faith that was not my own."
Bilyeau put her Dominican novice in a grisly world of executions, political treachery and imprisonment after Henry VIII dissolved more than 800 religious communities when he became the supreme head of the Church of England. Thousands of nuns, monks and friars were forced out of their monasteries, some turned out with small pensions or nothing at all.
"It's hard to imagine living through that kind of rupture," Bilyeau said. "I wanted to explore what it was like to live during a time of great turmoil … like now."
Transporting herself to a different century and place required arduous research. Her journalistic training and experience — which included stints at Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and Good Housekeeping — would not allow her to be casual with the facts. Bilyeau's penchant for historical accuracy required capturing the most obscure details about the daily rhythms of a 16th-century English priory, even if no one other than she would notice.
"In a perfect world, I would have stopped everything, gotten an MFA and moved to England for a year," she said. "But I couldn't do that … so I had to retrain my brain."
That meant scouring scholarly tomes in the New York Public Library and reaching out to people in the United Kingdom. She found an intern at the Tower of London who scanned sheets about things "like what aristocratic prisoners ate for breakfast."
Of course, a good mystery needs more than facts. You might think that working at magazines for two decades, Bilyeau would be supremely confident about spinning a good yarn, but moving from nonfiction to fiction was not a seamless transition.
"At first, I was very stiff, very self-conscious. ... I had to find a way to loosen up and let the creative juices flow," she said.
Ironically, it was those predawn hours that did the trick. They not only gave her two blissful hours of solitude before her children awoke, but they put her into the appropriately dark frame of mind. On weekends she would take her laptop to The Cloisters, a hidden gem of a museum built in the 1930s to resemble medieval abbeys. There, amid the tapestries and tombs, she found it easier to embrace her inner Tudor.
"I talked the guards into letting me in with my laptop, and then I'd write as long as my batteries would last … and that's where I really captured the mood of the chapters I was trying to write."
Finally, last summer, with a deadline looming, she nailed down the last details by visiting Dartford Priory, the only Dominican priory to be established in England. It was demolished by Henry VIII in 1539 so that he could build himself a manor house on the property. But the gatehouse still stands and is now a rental hall for weddings, "which has a certain sense of irony," Bilyeau observed.
Despite being a self-confessed "Tudor England nerd" since sixth grade, Bilyeau is an unlikely candidate to chronicle monastic life. Raised in Niles, Ill., by Unitarian parents, she moved with her family to Livonia, Mich., when she turned 10. Religion was not remotely on the radar screen at home or at the University of Michigan, where she was managing editor of the student newspaper in the 1980s and met her future husband, who is Jewish. Their two children are being raised in his faith.
Her mother's family were Irish Catholics. And when Bilyeau was a toddler, her maternal grandparents, worried about her immortal soul, took her to a priest, who had her clandestinely baptized. Bilyeau was 19 when her grandmother confessed her actions on her deathbed.
The long-buried secret might explain why, over the years, Bilyeau has found herself drawn to St. Patrick's, the famed cathedral on New York's Fifth Avenue, first pausing in the doorway, then listening to Mass or lighting a candle.
"Am I a Catholic or not?" she said. "Was my writing a book about a nun my way of exploring my own family history and tangled religious beliefs? It is certainly possible."
By Nancy Bilyeau
Touchstone, 409 pages, $24.99Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times