Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Tapestry

 My Review

Tea at Trianon has the honor of being part of the blog tour of the newly released novel of one of my favorite contemporary historical novelists, Nancy Bilyeau. In The Tapestry, the third novel in the Joanna Stafford trilogy, we travel again through Tudor England with the devout former novice who, in spite of her desire for a quiet, contemplative life, always finds herself amid the storms of the controversies of the day. Expelled from her beloved Dominican monastery with the other nuns by Henry VIII's closure of the religious houses, Joanna has learned to embrace her new life as a tapestry maker, although she continues to be haunted by her past. Invited to Henry's court, she is charged by the king not only to weave new tapestries but to enhance the collection he already has. Upon arriving at court, she becomes aware that not only is she being stalked but that someone is trying to kill her. Meanwhile, Joanna also wrestles with her conflicted feelings for the two men who love her: Edmund Sommerville, a former Dominican friar to whom Joanna was once betrothed, and Geoffrey Scovill, the dashing constable.

With profound psychological insight, the author describes the layers of confusion experienced by a young person who has unwillingly left the cloister and been launched once again into the cares of the world. In spite of her training in a life of prayer and study, Joanna, who was only a novice when she had to leave the order, must still struggle with her impulsive and headstrong behavior. Not only must she deal with her own painful memories and heartbreak, but she must see her homeland torn apart by the whims of the bloody tyrant Henry has become and his ruthless henchman, Thomas Cromwell. Joanna fears for her friend and cousin Catherine Howard, who has caught the king's attention, knowing that the teenager is a lamb among wolves.

In her novel of suspense as well as of authentic historical drama, Ms. Bilyeau is not afraid to face the controversies of a faraway time, controversies which eventually would produce the modern world.

Interview with Nancy Bilyeau

1.) Nancy, writing such a vivid recreation of Tudor England obviously required a great deal of research. Could you tell us a little more about the highs and lows of your forays into the past?

NB: I’m a research fiend, so there weren’t any “lows,” exactly. I love to read about the 16th century. Sometimes when the novel writing is going badly, when I’m unsatisfied with what I have on the screen, I give myself a “treat” and delve into the research instead.

I have to say that in the beginning, there was some nervousness. I’ve been interested in Tudor England since I was a teenager, and I’ve built a home library of many biographies and political studies. But when I decided to set the first book inside a priory of the Dominican Order, I had my work cut out for me. That priory, which was in Dartford, in Kent, was demolished. Nearly ever monastery was. They didn’t leave diaries or memoirs. There was very little chronicling of what went on inside the monasteries besides the rules they followed. It was like studying a lost world.

The high point was my research trip to England in June of 2011. I was so excited about simply being able to travel there—I have a fulltime job, two children at home and my mother suffers from Alzheimer’s—that I slept perhaps an hour on the night flight from New York City to London. But I did not nap when I checked into the hotel at noon. I threw myself into my research immediately. At sundown, I was sitting at a little table overlooking the Tower of London. I’d been in the last group of the day to tour inside. I had my dinner, eating fish and chips, thinking about what happened inside those centuries’ old walls. I know it may sound bizarre to find such happiness at the Tower, but I did!

 2.) As someone who spent time in a monastery as a young woman, I have always been impressed with your portrayal of the novice Joanna Stafford, and her struggles when having her monastic life taken away from her.  I find your characterization of her to be ingenious and inspired. How did you create such an authentic character?

NB: Thank you so much! I had a few ideas of actions she would take, like leaving her priory without permission to stand by her cousin’s side when she is to be executed at Smithfield. I thought about what kind of person would be truly committed and devout yet would take drastic, bold action. And then I built a personality from that, adding layers and details. I did research the lives of those young women who were from the noble families of England but were not in the center of power—like the Staffords. That helped me too when it came to her values and her education and her expectations.

 3.)Your books give a refreshing view of Reformation England by showing the suffering of faithful Catholics, especially monks and nuns. What originally inspired you to write from the point of view of a devout young woman?

NB: My driving goal was originality. I felt that real-life queens and princesses, and fictional ladies-in-waiting, had been written about enough. I wanted to write a protagonist who is female and I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of someone not heard from in Tudor fiction: a nun. The tumultuous medieval period of England is I think better understood through the Brother Cadfael books of Ellis Peters than the traditional king and queen stories. And the Tudor period for the monastics was more than tumultuous—it was cataclysmic! I wanted to set a story in that time of intense conflict.

4.) I like how you show how Henry VIII could be an extremely charming man and that he was in fact a brilliant and gifted man. Why do you think he indulged in such tyrannical behavior?

NB: Yes, I think that historical novelists sometimes go wrong with Henry—they ignore his charm and intellect and all of his passionate interests. There is a reduction that takes place. In these other books he is a tyrant who kills people and marries six women. And Henry was tyrannical, and he did have wives and ministers executed. He was extremely ruthless and manipulative. But isn’t that what fascinates us now, the dichotomy of a strikingly handsome man of royal birth and a fine mind and sometimes affable nature, who did frightening things that destroyed people, demolished a whole way of life? As to the why, I think it’s hard for us to grasp today, because the Tudors seem like such glittering monarchs, that it was an insecure dynasty. Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I all faced serious rebellions and challenges to their rule. Elizabeth I defeated a serious invasion attempt. I think Henry VIII was fearful of holding onto his throne, and many of the things he did were to strengthen his grip. Also I suspect that despite his handsomeness and athletic build, he had some insecurities as a man. That would explain a lot.

5.) Thomas Cromwell, whom many regard as Henry's evil genius in the pillaging of the monasteries, has experienced some good press lately via Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. Why do you think Henry gave Cromwell such a free hand in despoiling Catholic religious houses and shrines, etc. in England?

NB: There were two reasons. Money and vindictiveness. Henry VIII was emptying his treasury. He spent a great deal of the money that his frugal father, Henry VII, left him on trying to wage war on France and on luxurious living. Cromwell opened up an enormous new source of cash: the land and buildings and valuables owned by the Catholic abbeys, priories and shrines. It was a land grab. Henry VIII would not have to beg Parliament for money or be forced to listen to his nobles if he had his own source of money. And by handing out properties to the “new men,” he bound them closer to him alone.

 The vindictiveness comes from the king’s anger over the Pope not granting him the annulment he wanted. He had to wait for years, being frustrated and sometimes outmaneuvered by the opposition: his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, her nephew, the Emperor Charles V, and those loyal to them. By the time Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn and had himself declared head of the Church of England, he was seething. He seemed like he had won a victory, but by pulling away from the great Catholic powers he isolated himself. And then he had to defeat a very serious rebellion, the Pilgrimage of Grace, that broke out in the North of England, among people who feared and hated Cromwell’s religious reforms. Henry VIII blamed the monastic orders for stirring up dissent and also he distrusted them because he thought their loyalty was to their orders and to Rome, rather than to him. He took out his vengeance. His cruelty to some, such as the Observant Franciscans, the Carthusian Martyrs and the abbot of Glastonbury, is stomach turning. You don’t see any of this in Wolf Hall.

6.) Joanna is a devout but spirited heroine and anything but dull. Thank you for challenging the stereotypes that exist about pious people, namely that they are dull, bigoted and cannot think for themselves. Joanna is bursting with life, love and determination and actually reminds me of some nuns that I have known. Where do you think people get such dreary stereotypes of devout people?

NB: I think that some people who don’t know anything about nuns and monks believe they are strange, joyless creatures. They don’t see any happiness in devotion to a spiritual life. I met a sister at a real Dominican Order in the United States who was friendly and upbeat and told jokes. A nice “normal” person. She read my second and third books for accuracy. And in my books I tried to show the spirited intellectual life of the time, particularly in The Crown. Having a meal with Bishop Stephen Gardiner would be many things, I’m sure, but it would not be dull! I received two emails from friars after The Crown was published that said they felt I had captured what it was like to live in a religious community.

7.) For those who are inspired by your novels to explore Tudor England through their own research, what non-fiction books would you recommend?

NB: There are so many wonderful books! Here is a sampling:

The Stripping of the Altars and Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition, by Eamon Duffy

Henry VIII, by Jasper Ridley

Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and His Six Wives Through the Writings of His Spanish Ambassador, by Lauren Mackay

Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England
, by Thomas Penn

Henry VIII: The King and His Court and The Lady in the Tower,
by Alison Weir

Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne
, by David Starkey

The Creation of Anne Boleyn
, by Susan Bordo

Supremacy and Survival, by Stephanie Mann

North America & UK Publication Date: March 24, 2015
Touchstone Publishing
Formats: eBook, Hardcover
Pages: 390
Series: Joanna Stafford, Book Three
Genre: Historical Mystery

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In THE CROWN, Sister Joanna Stafford searched for a Dark Ages relic that could save her priory from Cromwell’s advancing army of destruction. In THE CHALICE, Joanna was drawn into an international conspiracy against Henry VIII himself as she struggled to learn the truth behind a prophecy of his destruction. 

Now, in THE TAPESTRY, Joanna Stafford finally chooses her own destiny.
After her Dominican priory in Dartford closed forever—collateral damage in tyrannical King Henry VIII’s quest to overthrow the Catholic Church—Joanna resolves to live a quiet and honorable life weaving tapestries, shunning dangerous quests and conspiracies. Until she is summoned to Whitehall Palace, where her tapestry weaving has drawn the King’s attention.

Joanna is uncomfortable serving the King, and fears for her life in a court bursting with hidden agendas and a casual disregard for the virtues she holds dear. Her suspicions are confirmed when an assassin attempts to kill her moments after arriving at Whitehall.

Struggling to stay ahead of her most formidable enemy yet, an unknown one, she becomes entangled in dangerous court politics. Her dear friend Catherine Howard is rumored to be the King’s mistress. Joanna is determined to protect young, beautiful, naïve Catherine from becoming the King’s next wife and, possibly, victim.

Set in a world of royal banquets and feasts, tournament jousts, ship voyages, and Tower Hill executions, this thrilling tale finds Joanna in her most dangerous situation yet, as she attempts to decide the life she wants to live: nun or wife, spy or subject, rebel or courtier. Joanna Stafford must finally choose.

Praise for The Tapestry

“Illuminated by Bilyeau’s vivid prose, minor players of Tudor England emerge from the shadows.” —Kirkus Reviews

“In THE TAPESTRY, Nancy Bilyeau brilliantly captures both the white-hot religious passions and the brutal politics of Tudor England. It is a rare book that does both so well.” —Sam Thomas, author of The Midwife’s Tale

“In spite of murderous plots, volatile kings, and a divided heart, Joanna Stafford manages to stay true to her noble character. Fans of Ken Follett will devour Nancy Bilyeau’s novel of political treachery and courageous love, set amid the endlessly fascinating Tudor landscape.” —Erika Robuck, author of Hemingway’s Girl

“These aren’t your mother’s nuns! Nancy Bilyeau has done it again, giving us a compelling and wonderfully realized portrait of Tudor life in all its complexity and wonder. A nun, a tapestry, a page-turning tale of suspense: this is historical mystery at its finest.” —Bruce Holsinger, author of A Burnable Book and The Invention of Fire

“A supremely deft, clever and pacy entertainment. This is Nancy Bilyeau’s most thrilling—and enlightening—novel in the Joanna Stafford series yet.” —Andrew Pyper, author of The Demonologist and The Damned

“A master of atmosphere, Nancy Bilyeau imbues her novel with a sense of dread and oppression lurking behind the royal glamour; in her descriptions and characterizations… Bilyeau breathes life into history.” —Laura Andersen, author of The Boleyn King

Buy The Tapestry

Barnes & Noble

About the Author

Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Ladies Home Journal. She is currently the executive editor of DuJour magazine. Her screenplays have placed in several prominent industry competitions. Two scripts reached the semi-finalist round of the Nicholl Fellowships of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Her screenplay “Zenobia” placed with the American Zoetrope competition, and “Loving Marys” reached the finalist stage of Scriptapalooza. A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan. THE CROWN, her first novel, was published in 2012; the sequel, THE CHALICE, followed in 2013. THE TAPESTRY will be released in March 2015.

Nancy lives in New York City with her husband and two children. Stay in touch with her on Twitter at @tudorscribe. For more information or to sign up for Nancy’s Newsletter please visit her official website.

The Tapestry Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, March 16
Review at Peeking Between the Pages
Review & Interview at Words and Peace
Tuesday, March 17
Review at A Bookish Affair
Review at The Eclectic Reader
Review at Let Them Read Books
Wednesday, March 18
Review at Writing the Renaissance
Review at Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Thursday, March 19
Review at A Book Geek
Review & Interview at Tea at Trianon
Interview at Writing the Renaissance
Friday, March 20
Review at Impressions in Ink
Monday, March 23
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Tuesday, March 24
Review at The Lit Bitch
Review at Broken Teepee
Wednesday, March 25
Review at Luxury Reading
Guest Post at Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Thursday, March 26
Review at She Reads Novels
Friday, March 27
Review at 100 Pages a Day – Stephanie’s Book Reviews
Monday, March 30
Review at Bibliophilia, Please
Tuesday, March 31
Review at The True Book Addict
Guest Post at Bibliophilia, Please
Wednesday, April 1
Review at Library of Clean Reads
Interview at Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Thursday, April 2
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews
Friday, April 3
Review at Layered Pages
Review & Guest Post at Always With a Book


To enter to win one of three signed hardcover copies of The Tapestry, please complete the giveaway form below.


Giveaway starts on March 16th at 12:01am EST and ends at 11:59pm EST on April 3rd.
Giveaway is open to residents in North American and the UK.
You must be 18 or older to enter.
Winners will be chosen via GLEAM on April 4th and notified via email.
Winners have 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.
Please email with any questions.
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Diamantina, aka Gentillylace said...

Excellent interview, Elena! It makes me want to dive into all three books in the Joanna Stafford trilogy right away. I congratulate Nancy Bilyeau on her work!

Stephanie A. Mann said...

Great interview! I posted my review--not on the blog tour--yesterday. I hope Nancy writes another trilogy of Joanna Stafford books, so we can see her insights into the end of Henry's reign through Edward VI's reign and Mary I's attempt to restore Catholicism in England.

Carol L. said...

A wonderful and informative interview. I'm so intrigued by Tapestry that I will have to catch up and grab the first two as well. Thank you.
Carol L
Lucky4750 (at) aol (dot) com

patricia burroughs said...

Wonderful interview. I love these books. I think they are a refreshing view of Henry VIII's reign and the impact it had.

Two things that I think many people don't understand about Henry is that he never wanted a divorce, always wanted annulment. He sincerely believed that his marriage was not blessed or else he would have male heirs. This was a widely held belief, so widely held that it brings my second point.

Such annulments were given to kings by popes throughout history. Henry's situation was unusual because it was denied. Consider Eleanor of Aquitaine as only one of those queens whose marriage was set aside and annulled when she didn't give her French king husband a male heir after 15 years, leaving her available to marry the younger man who would become Henry II, to whom she gave sons.

elena maria vidal said...

That is so true, Patricia. Henry considered himself a good Catholic and so he did not believe in divorce. The difference between his case and the case of Louis VII is that Queen Eleanor did not contest the annulment but Queen Catherine did. Some blame Catherine for doing so, but as a Catholic she had every right to challenge the annulment, and in the end, the Pope upheld her case.