Writing Superheroes: Nancy Bilyeau

Look for a woman in a black and white Dominican habit listening to Beethoven to find this superhero. Read on and find out more…

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If you were to write the ‘origin’s episode’ of your writing what would be the most important scenes? What did your early efforts look like? Are they still around to be used as bribes and blackmail material?


In 2005, a friend asked me to join a small fiction workshop, led by a teacher in her home, on the fourth floor of a Greenwich Village walkup apartment. I walked those four flights in the heat, feeling nervous. When asked what I wanted to write, I said, “I am not sure of the plot yet, but I want to set it in 16th century England.” 


All super heroes have their mild-mannered secret identity, what is yours? I promise we won’t tell.Nancy3

I’m a sweatpants-wearing mom who likes to drink a large coffee at the counter in Dunkin Donuts after walking my daughter to school. I’ve been a class mom for both my kids, organizing teacher gifts and volunteering for field trips. I sometimes enjoy the trips more than the kids seem to. I really loved Ellis Island!


Who are your partners in crime? What are their superpowers?

My husband is my partner. He thinks my writing is the greatest but his superpower is that he insists I get my act together and be less messy. He thinks that without him, I’d be a hoarder.


Where do you get your superpowers from?

My urge to write fiction has something to do with having children. Before I gave birth to my son in 1998 I loved reading novels but I didn’t think that I would ever write one. Then I began to long to try it for myself. I actually think this is kind of crazy. I had so much more time to write before I became a mom!


Where is your secret lair and what does it look like?

I wrote my second book and part of my third in the Wertheim Study of the New York Public Library, main branch, on 42nd Street in NYC. It’s a room for authors and scholars to research and write who have book contracts, endowed by Barbara Tuchman. That sounds glamorous, doesn’t it? But you need to know that the room has two long tables with lots of plugs, and a series of assigned book shelves. And a coat rack. That’s it. There are many rules: No talking, no eating, no drinking, no music. If you don’t follow them, you get the boot!


 What kind of training do you do to keep your superpowers in world saving form? How do you insure they are used only for good?

I listen to music–a lot of Beethoven and Chopin–but I also find it extremely helpful to listen to music by film composers like Wojciech Kilar and Trevor Morris. They know how to suggest emotion in their music. I try to go to art museums as well, it inspires me. I went to the Frick Collection this week; I loved standing in the room with the Holbein paintings of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.


Granted, you probably don’t’ get to wear your superhero costume a lot, but if you did, what would it look like?

A black and white Dominican habit, of course. 🙂 The main character in my historical thriller series, Sister Joanna Stafford, is a novice at the only Dominican priory in England at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.


What is your kryptonite? What are the biggest challenges faced with in your writing?

Time. I have a 40-hour-a-week job at a magazine and two children at home. 

What was the supervillian that threatened to stop your latest project and how did you vanquish it?

I realized while writing my third novel, The Tapestry, that my plot was too ambitious–the book would be too long. So I took out the scissors (metaphorically) and cut a section from the outline before I wrote it. 


What important lessons have you learned along the way?

To find readers and then listen to them, connect with them. It is very important to remember this storytelling is just that “telling.” Someone is listening to the telling.  


What have been the best/most memorable experiences along the way?

I loved my trip to England, walking the same ground my main characters would have walked: the priory in Dartford, the Blackfriars monastery in London, Smithfield, Tower Hill.


If you did this again what would you do differently and what would you not change?

I took a year and a half off from magazines to write my second book, The Chalice. I wish I’d written more than that novel–even a sort story would have been good. As for not changing, I am proud that I chose a point of view on the Reformation that no other novelist has.


What is the best (writing or otherwise) advice you have ever gotten and why.

A screenwriter called her first draft a “vomit draft”– meaning it was so bad she wanted to vomit. I realized that it’s important to give  yourself permission to write a bad first draft, knowing you will revise it. 


Tell us about your new book and why we need to drop everything and get it now.

The third book in my trilogy, The Tapestry, is set during one of the tensest and most tragic periods of Henry VIII’s life: starting in the spring of 1540 and ending on Christmas Eve 1541. This includes the arrest and execution of Cromwell and the divorce of Anne of Cleves and the rise and fall of Catherine Howard. I have a lot of original theories on what made all of these things happen. Also in this book Joanna Stafford will finally decide what kind of life she wants: rebel or subject, spy or courtier, wife or nun.


What’s in store for you in the future? Do you have any other big projects on the horizon?

I have lots of ideas. Among them, a prequel novella set in the priory!


 You can find Nancy at:


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