There’s little I like better than a release day, and I am so glad Nancy Bilyeau decided to celebrate hers here. For one thing, Nancy’s debut novel is a historical mystery, and I know from your emails and comments that there are many fans of the genre. For another, I will be at Nancy’s first ever book signing at Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side Thursday night. If you live in the area, and would like to come out, it’s a chance to say hello to a Made It Moment-er! But if you can’t come, don’t despair. Just leave a comment below and you’ll be entered to win a signed copy of Nancy’s new historical thriller. Good luck to all, and congratulations, Nancy, on this exciting day!
When I opened the padded envelope sent by my editor and pulled from it my hardcover book, that was a moment. I ran my hands across the smooth cover, awestruck that this ravishing gold-and-burgundy book had MY name on it.
My journey to publishing a novel is a long one, though I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was eight years old. My third grade teacher liked a report I wrote on our field trip so much that she made a sign saying, “Have you heard of Nancy Bilyeau, the famous writer?” and hung it on the wall. I was a rabid bookworm, with a special love for historical fiction and mysteries. I even announced to a high school teacher that I wanted to write novels.
But at the University of Michigan I swerved toward journalism. I became a reporter and then managing editor of The Michigan Daily newspaper. I took classes in English Literature, but reading—and admiring—F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Elliott didn’t make me think I was on the path of becoming a novelist myself. Fiction aspirations moved into a past tense love, like horses.
Out of college I took a job at a tiny Florida newspaper, editing obits and tide charts and “Neighbor of the Week.” After I moved north, I plunged into the magazine business. All my energy went into moving up the ranks at places like Rolling Stone and Good Housekeeping. I worked long hours—and New York City was so expensive, I took freelance work on the side to help pay the rent. After I married and had two children there wasn’t a moment to breathe, much less create fiction.
But encouraged by my husband, I climbed the stairs to the apartment of a writer named Rosemarie Santini who led a fiction workshop every Monday night. I announced I loved English history and wanted to write something set in the 16th century—a mystery perhaps. My first pages were not good. But I kept at it. Later I took online classes at Gotham Writers Workshop. I decided to make my story a thriller, and loved nothing more than losing myself in research.
Time was the problem. I used vacations to work on my book; on weekends I stole a couple of hours here and there and toted my laptop to Starbucks. It wasn’t enough, though, and I began getting up at 5 a.m. and writing until I had to wake up the kids at 7 a.m. By this time I’d been working on my novel for five years. I was desperate to finish it, but didn’t have any idea if I could get an agent or sell my book. I also felt torn. My son has special needs and I worried that the last thing I should be doing was devoting energy to my own creative pursuits. What kind of mother stumbled around with her head in Tudor England?
I’d gone so far, and my dreams of being published were so fierce, I determined I just had to finish this book. I decided to set my birthday, June 16, 2010, as the deadline. I told my husband, “I won’t be able to look myself in the mirror if I don’t do this.” I was really scared that it would all be for nothing. I kept reminding myself, “Nobody asked you to write this!”
The first two agents I queried said no. But the third said yes. He loved my manuscript—historical thrillers are his thing, with Tudor England a favorite setting—and sold it in an auction to Touchstone/Simon&Schuster.
Eighteen months later, The Crown has gone on sale. Sometimes I can’t believe it, that all the doubts in my head turned out to be wrong. It definitely makes all those dark 5 a.m. writing sessions very much worth it!
Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. Most recently she served as deputy editor at InStyle 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 “Loving Marys” reached the finalist stage with Page International Screenwriting Awards and Scriptapalooza. A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan. The Crown is her first novel.
Some earlier milestones: In 1661, Nancy’s ancestor, Pierre Billiou, emigrated from France to what was then New Amsterdam when he and his family sailed on the St. Jean de Baptiste to escape persecution for their Protestant beliefs. Pierre built the first stone house on Staten Island and is considered the borough’s founder. His little white house is on the national register of historic homes and is still standing to this day.
Nancy lives in New York City with her husband and two children.