I don’t know about you, but I love to escape into historical fiction. A good historical gives you a real sense of the place and the time but – being fiction – weaves a compelling story in as well. (Apologies to my historian friends, but true stories are seldom as neat or as well understood). What’s special about historical novelist Nancy Bilyeau is her ability to write so many periods – from Tudor England to early 20th Century Coney Island. I’m thrilled that she took the time to chat today.
How does a book start for you?
With an idea that causes a rush of excitement—“Could this be a novel?”—followed by a few days of both daydreaming and intense research. If after those few days I still feel the idea is novel-worthy, I write Chapter One, Page One.
Who in your latest book has surprised you most – and why?
In my novel Dreamland, the main character is a rebellious heiress named Peggy. In the story, Peggy has a younger sister, Lydia, who starts out as very spoiled and conventional, but in the last one-third on the novel, to my own surprise, Lydia as a character grows emotionally and begins to challenge those who are suppressing her and stifling her.
When and/or where is your latest book set and is there a story behind that setting?
My novel is set in the summer of 1911, primarily in Coney Island. I discovered that at the turn of the last century there were three luxury hotels favored by the wealthy, gorgeous Edwardian buildings, on the Atlantic Ocean located about a mile from the booming amusement park, attracting the factory workers and immigrants of the city. I thought it would be interesting to make those two worlds collide.
What are you working on now?
A follow up to Dreamland with the same main character, whose life is based on the young Peggy Guggenheim.
Which question didn’t I ask you that I should have?
Whether I write to music. The answer is yes, in the last one-third of the story, I do. I love to listen to Beethoven or film scores by composers like Bernard Herrmann, Trevor Jones, or Hans Zimmer.
If you tell Nancy Bilyeau that reading one of her historical novels of suspense is like strapping yourself into a time machine, you’ll make her a very happy woman. She loves crafting immersive historical stories, whether it’s the Gilded Age of New York in Dreamland and The Ghost of Madison Avenue, the 18th-century European porcelain workshops in The Blue, or Henry VIII’s tumultuous England in The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry.
In The Blue, Nancy drew on her own heritage as a Huguenot. She is a direct descendant of Pierre Billiou, a French Huguenot who immigrated to what was then New Amsterdam (later New York City) in 1661. Nancy’s ancestor, Isaac, was born on the boat crossing the Atlantic, the St. Jean de Baptiste. Pierre’s stone house still stands and is the third oldest house in New York State.
Nancy’s mind is always in past centuries but she currently lives with her husband and two children in Queens, NY. Her quest to cook the perfectly flavored pasta puttanesca is ongoing.