Art In Fiction

Speakeasies, Crime & Redemption in The Orchid Hour by Nancy Bilyeau

March 09, 2024 Carol Cram Episode 43
Speakeasies, Crime & Redemption in The Orchid Hour by Nancy Bilyeau
Art In Fiction
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Art In Fiction
Speakeasies, Crime & Redemption in The Orchid Hour by Nancy Bilyeau
Mar 09, 2024 Episode 43
Carol Cram

Join  me as I chat with Nancy Bilyeau, author of several arts-inspired novels on Art In Fiction, including The Orchid Hour about a speakeasy in 1923 Jazz Age New York and listed in the Theater category on Art In Fiction.

View the Video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/CvIYJYb-PfQ

Highlights include:

  • Why Nancy set her latest novel in Prohibition-era New York
  • The role played by the Italian American immigrant community in the novel
  • Researching organized crime in Jazz Age New York City
  • Real speakeasies and the fictional Orchid Hour speakeasy 
  • Liberation of women in the 1920s
  • Greenwich Village as the setting for The Orchid Hour speakeasy
  • Prohibition in Jazz Age New York City - did the cops really care?
  • Why orchids?
  • Themes in The Orchid Hour
  • Reading from The Orchid Hour
  • Discussion of The Fugitive Colours, the follow-up novel to The Blue
  • Journey of a female artist/spy in 18th century London
  • Opportunities for female painters in the 18th century
  • What Nancy has learned from writing historical fiction
  • Nancy's new novel: The Versailles Formula 

Press Play now & be sure to check out The Orchid Hour and Nancy's other novels on Art In Fiction: https://www.artinfiction.com/novels?q=nancy+bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau's Website: https://nancybilyeau.com/

Paganology, performed by The Paul Plimley Trio; composed by Gregg Simpson

Are you enjoying The Art In Fiction Podcast? Consider helping us keep the lights on so we can continue bringing you interviews with your favorite arts-inspired novelists. Just $3 buys us a coffee (and we really like coffee) at Ko-Fi. Just click this link: https://ko-fi.com/artinfiction

Also, check out the Art In Fiction website at https://www.artinfiction.com where you'll find over 2100 novels inspired by the arts in 10 categories: Architecture, Dance, Decorative Arts, Film, Literature, Music, Textile Arts, Theater, Visual Arts, and Other.

Want to learn more about Carol Cram, the host of The Art In Fiction Podcast? She's the author of several award-winning novels, including The Towers of Tuscany and Love Among the Recipes. Find out...

Show Notes Transcript

Join  me as I chat with Nancy Bilyeau, author of several arts-inspired novels on Art In Fiction, including The Orchid Hour about a speakeasy in 1923 Jazz Age New York and listed in the Theater category on Art In Fiction.

View the Video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/CvIYJYb-PfQ

Highlights include:

  • Why Nancy set her latest novel in Prohibition-era New York
  • The role played by the Italian American immigrant community in the novel
  • Researching organized crime in Jazz Age New York City
  • Real speakeasies and the fictional Orchid Hour speakeasy 
  • Liberation of women in the 1920s
  • Greenwich Village as the setting for The Orchid Hour speakeasy
  • Prohibition in Jazz Age New York City - did the cops really care?
  • Why orchids?
  • Themes in The Orchid Hour
  • Reading from The Orchid Hour
  • Discussion of The Fugitive Colours, the follow-up novel to The Blue
  • Journey of a female artist/spy in 18th century London
  • Opportunities for female painters in the 18th century
  • What Nancy has learned from writing historical fiction
  • Nancy's new novel: The Versailles Formula 

Press Play now & be sure to check out The Orchid Hour and Nancy's other novels on Art In Fiction: https://www.artinfiction.com/novels?q=nancy+bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau's Website: https://nancybilyeau.com/

Paganology, performed by The Paul Plimley Trio; composed by Gregg Simpson

Are you enjoying The Art In Fiction Podcast? Consider helping us keep the lights on so we can continue bringing you interviews with your favorite arts-inspired novelists. Just $3 buys us a coffee (and we really like coffee) at Ko-Fi. Just click this link: https://ko-fi.com/artinfiction

Also, check out the Art In Fiction website at https://www.artinfiction.com where you'll find over 2100 novels inspired by the arts in 10 categories: Architecture, Dance, Decorative Arts, Film, Literature, Music, Textile Arts, Theater, Visual Arts, and Other.

Want to learn more about Carol Cram, the host of The Art In Fiction Podcast? She's the author of several award-winning novels, including The Towers of Tuscany and Love Among the Recipes. Find out...

Carol Cram

Hello and welcome. I’m Carol Cram, host of The Art In Fiction Podcast. This episode features Nancy Bilyeau, author of several novels listed on Art In Fiction, including Dreamland, The Blue, and The Fugitive Colours in the Visual Arts category, The Tapestry in the Textile Arts category, and The Orchid Hour in the Theater category.

Born in Chicago and a graduate of the University of Michigan, Nancy Bilyeau moved to New York City to work in the magazine business as a writer and editor. After working for publications ranging from Rolling Stone to Good Housekeeping, she turned to fiction. In her latest novel, The Orchid Hour, Nancy returns to the early-20th-century New York City of her novel Dreamland to once again tell a story of suspense revolving around a compelling heroine.

Welcome to The Art In Fiction Podcast, Nancy. 

Nancy Bilyeau

So great to be here. I'm so happy that you reached out. 

Carol Cram

Yes, we met at the Historical Novel Society Conference in San Antonio last year, didn't we? 

Nancy Bilyeau

Yeah, that was one of the highlights.

Carol Cram

Yes, I think you were at one of my presentations, so that was awesome, about art in fiction. You are kind of like the poster child for art in fiction. You've written so many novels where art features in some kind of form.

So, we're going to start today talking about The Orchid Hour, which is your latest novel. You chose to set this novel in the 1920s. What was it about that era that appealed to you? 

Nancy Bilyeau

I know I went closest to our present time with that one. My debut novel was in 1537. So, I've really hurtled Into the 20th century. I picked that year, and I picked the 1920s, because I wanted to tell the story of a young Italian woman who is thrust into the middle of the crime-ridden Prohibition era, which was the launching pad for organized crime, and I wanted to take a look at some of those people, both the ones I created and real people like Arnold Rothstein and Lucky Luciano. More on him later.

But I wanted to do it through a young woman because I felt like that has rarely been done. In books and movies, they're usually gun molls or they’re protected daughters or they’re loose-living wives. And those are all fun stock characters, but I just wanted to really take a closer look at an Italian American immigrant woman who's in one of these families but is not herself a happy participant in crime.

Carol Cram

The Italian American community in that period experienced a lot of prejudice. So, tell us about that community. They were quite recent immigrants, weren't they? 

Nancy Bilyeau

Yes. Now, I am descended from on my mother's side, the O'Neill's are Irish immigrants into North America. The Italians came a full generation or two later and encountered even harsher prejudice. There was basically open immigration, so they were pouring, pouring in from mostly Southern Italy. And sometimes it was the men coming over alone to make money and send it back. Young families coming over, not as much, but there were some. And what was happening is they were living in lower Manhattan, if they were in New York, in tenements. And then hopefully getting out of the tenements and going over to what became Little Italy, but which is still pretty humble housing, and starting shops and small businesses and working their way up but there was enormous prejudice and in fact, I did a lot of reading into the Eugenics movement, which really was targeting Italians and Jews. In their just shocking scientific emphasis on the fact that certain people were not fully human in their intelligence and in their physical being. And that was the basis used to actually restrict immigration later in the twenties. But during my period, 1923, immigration is still flooding in, but there's enormous obstacles toward Italians and Jewish Americans, toward taking part in America, to say the least the American dream, but just being educated and getting good jobs. It was extremely hard. 

Carol Cram

Yes. And you really brought that out, that whole immigrant experience because she was born in Italy, wasn't she, Zia? In Sicily, and then all of the crime family stuff. How did you research that? 

Nancy Bilyeau

I know some writers end up, like, when they come up with a new book to write, they pitch those concepts to agents and editors, and somebody likes something, and they go off and do it. And I always go with what I'm super-interested in. And then I pursue that. That's the way it's always worked with me. And I've always been interested in, well, I lived in New York City for many years. And so, I was always interested in Little Italy in New York City history. And then, I'll admit, I was very much one of those Godfather 1 and 2 watchers. I've read The Godfather, Mario Puzo's book, a couple times, and I just became kind of, if you live in New York City, you're very aware of what it has done to New York City, and you become fascinated by it, or just aware of it or hating it, but about organized crime if you live in New York.

And I more and more became interested in the beginning. I'm always wanting to go back because I'm a historical novelist. What was it like when it first got started? And I found out very rapidly that without Prohibition, it wouldn't have started because making alcohol illegal but not taking away the enormous thirst for alcohol in society from people with money created a huge market for ambitious people who could come up with good business plans and fill this need and line their pockets and then start to move into political power. And from that, we got the mafia in America. 

Carol Cram

You had a lot of layers in this novel. You had the organized crime, you had the police corruption, you had the Italian immigrant experience, and then the actor, David, and the Orchid Hour. 

Nancy Bilyeau

Oh, I love looking into the actual speakeasies because people think that it's like, have you ever seen the movie Gilda with Rita Hayworth? They were huge nightclubs with huge dance floors and gorgeous. And the fact is they were usually pretty small because they were illegal. And there were very few nice clubs, but at the end of 1923, the first swank nightclub, the Cotton Club, opened. And so that's probably the reason I picked 1923.

And so I have my fictional club, the Orchid Hour, which is based on a number of real speakeasies and nightclubs opening in the summer of 1923, because that was the beginning of people saying, okay, we can just set up a bar and just pour really cheap alcohol into glasses and people will come, or we can keep them there for a while with entertainment, with a little food, with better drinks and cocktails and gin and champagne. And so, I was really interested in that Prohibition gave us so many things. And one of them is that the nightclub really took off then and women going to bars and nightclubs because before Prohibition, women did not go to saloons.

They just didn't even go to establishments where men were drinking, but this is all part of women becoming freer and feeling like they could go out and cut their hair and dance and hold their own. 

Carol Cram

Well, it was the Flapper era, because Zia, she does cut her hair, doesn't she? 

Nancy Bilyeau

She does, and that's a big crossing the Rubicon for a woman back then because there was a lot of condemnation of women cutting their hair from people who felt that showed a lack of morality and a willingness to sort of shoot out from under the patriarchy and do your own thing.

Carol Cram

We have a lot to thank our great-grandmothers for, our grandmothers. I think my grandmother was a bit of a flapper. She was quite the babe in her day.

I was reading on your blog that the location of the Orchid Hour, which is fictional, is a real location. Tell us a little bit about how you chose that location. 

Nancy Bilyeau

Yes. Well, I've always been interested in Greenwich Village history. If you saw the movie Reds with Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton, and that it was a bohemian area. I always have found that very interesting. And if you go there now, there's these cobblestone streets and they're kind of curving.

The West Village is really not like the rest of the city. It has a little bit of a magical, secluded air. And so, I thought a lot of the nightclubs were in Times Square or, with the Cotton Club, they're farther north, but there were a couple that were way down there that catered more to this new magazine called The New Yorker and writers all wanted to go to a speakeasy.

So, they were catering to the writers and the actors and the artsy people. So, there's these streets, and maybe they have them in other older cities in North America, where they're called mews. And they were once where you had stables, and then once you didn't have horses anymore, you still had this sort of structure where the stables are sort of facing these almost cobblestone alleys.

And so many times those mews were converted into artists residencies and places where the more adventurous, progressive people wanted to live and have their studios. There were some famous ones, like Gertrude Vanderbilt, and she had a studio in the same area. It was seen as a place to have your artists, your place where you could have your models come and paint them. And then you sometimes, I mean, I'm sure Gertrude didn't, but some of them lived there then as well. Yeah, she had an uptown mansion. 

I wanted to get that kind of magical Bohemian, secret garden type of feel. A lot I've been to, one which was, like, almost a beauty parlor where you would go through and have a password and then go through to the back. There was another one where you had to push past a bookshelf and get in. I mean, it’s fun. And so, for mine, it was a florist. Yes, the florist didn't give a password and then you're going into the nightclub. And even now, with nightlife, there's that sense of what's the magic word.

And I think it started then with what you couldn't write about them in the newspaper because they're illegal. So, it was all word of mouth. Like, what's the new place to go? And what's the magic word? And who will you see there? Will Mary Pickford or her brother be there and what kind of jazz will be here?

So it would be that kind of excitement. 

Carol Cram

It must have been a very interesting period, for sure. And then there was always that little frisson of danger that they could get raided at any time, right? But yes, well, the cops are kind of corrupt. 

Nancy Bilyeau

What happened was New York City very reluctantly went dry, very reluctantly. And in fact, there was a lot of denial right up to the minute it happened. This won't happen and so what happened was that there was a widespread feeling among the police that we have more important things to do. And that we have real crimes to try to stop. And also, the judges were “I can't have my courtroom overrun with embarrassed dads who had a drink at a speakeasy. I can't get to the cases.”

And so there was this sort of this attitude of, like, we're not really going to enforce this. And it would wax and wane because then there'd be some outrage--why are there all these nightclubs everywhere and then the police would be, okay, let's go. Throw a few padlocks and then it would go back to let's look the other way because who cares. But what happened is that to supply the alcohol, you had to deal with organized crime. And so, they were the investors in the clubs. They were the suppliers of the clubs, and they were the customers of the clubs. 

Carol Cram

And the booze all came from Canada. 

Nancy Bilyeau

A lot of it did. I mean, I just love that story that I couldn't resist just using it as a snippet. There was one man who started a speakeasy. And what happened was he was driving a taxi right after Prohibition started and some frantic man flagged him down and said, I will give you this money if you will drive this taxi to Montreal, if you'll give me whatever at the time, maybe it was a hundred dollars, which would have been a lot of money.

And once they got up there, this guy just bought a lot of alcohol to bring back. And so, the cab driver thought, I'm onto something. And he bought some too, and he eventually ended up having some really nice clubs. 

Carol Cram

I was intrigued by why you called the club the Orchid Hour. Why orchids? 

Nancy Bilyeau

Because they were seen as the flowers of the wealthy. In The Great Gatsby, Daisy loves orchids. Very rich girls love them. And you could not grow them from seeds yet. They hadn't conquered that quite yet. So, you were importing them, and they were very expensive. I found out that there is an orchid in, I think, Bolivia that, because the orchids cater to the insects and there were insects that were nocturnal.

And they fed this particular orchid species so the orchid would open up in the middle of the night. And that's when it would bloom to get that nocturnal insect to pollinate. And so, people did bring that particular orchid. It was very expensive. They go into the jungles, and they uproot it and bring it back to the United States.

And so, I thought that a very demanding, fanciful person who really wanted his club to be amazing would glom him onto that. I'm going to have an orchid that blooms only at night. And so that's what I had my David, my nightclub host, brain trust for the Orchid Hour. That was his concept. But as you saw in the book, it doesn't really go that way. It's not so easy. 

Carol Cram

No, not at all. It was a brilliant metaphor, though, for that period and for the novel as well. I really liked it. You could spend a lot of time thinking about that, use of the orchid as a metaphor for a lot of the themes in the novel.

So, what would you say are some of the themes in the novel? 

Nancy Bilyeau

I think one of the main themes for my main character, Zia, is finding her own agency, finding freedom. From being purely a wife, daughter, mother, but at what price? Getting to make choices, will you make the right choices?

So that is a theme, of her awakening and her embracing a new life. But with it came a lot of danger because she really storms right into a pretty dangerous situation thinking that she can control it because she is related to one of the investors of the club.

Carol Cram

Of course, she didn't know he was a mobster. 

Nancy Bilyeau

Another myth I wanted to dispel is there's, it's funny, because the novel, The Godfather has the family, the Corleones, very, even in the opening of the wedding, they're very open and very proud of who they are, that they have control.

The East Coast Mafia, they're the most prominent of the families and, in reality, even in the 70s, there was a little bit more secrecy because of police and FBI and definitely in the 20s and 30s, families were not all proud of this at all. And in fact, in my book Salvatore Lucania, whose street name is Lucky Luciano, seen as the father of organized crime, his own father disowned him and hated the fact that his son was a criminal.

And one of the reasons that in an interview, and he didn't get many, I mean, that's just until John Gotti, most of these guys stayed away from the media. But he did tell one person, the reason he never had children himself is that he didn't want to have a son who would say my father was a crook. So even he, who was a very successful crook, had mixed feelings about it.

And there was some shame. And so, there's actually a lot of shame among the Jewish and the Italian mafia among the extended families. I mean, when you get into the 70s and 80s and Good Fellows and The Godfather, people have this image of, and everybody is doing reality TV shows that they're all super-proud.

But they're not super-proud when they're getting life sentences. Exactly. It was pretty much dismantled in the 80s and 90s, because of wiretapping and RICO so forth. But what I wanted to show my book was that not all Italians were criminals and, I mean, it was a very sore point with them, even today, about the image and they accepted that some of the members of their families would get into this because it was a way to make money when there weren't other ways to make money besides being a laborer. And if you wanted to live in the Plaza Hotel, which is what he wanted to do, and have beautiful suits and go to great boxing matches and have the most beautiful girlfriends and travel the world, you pretty much had to be a crook.

I mean, that's just the reality in the 1920s, if you are from his background. He didn't even finish high school. He had no education. So, families knew this, they were still ashamed. 

Carol Cram

Well, I think you brought that up very well, how moral the family unit was. These people were kind of down-to-earth people that had emigrated for a better life. And they were shocked by that kind of thing. I mean, she was shocked. To find that out. 

So, Nancy, would you like to do a reading from The Orchid Hour

Nancy Bilyeau

Sure, sure. So, this is from a chapter that's about one fourth of the way in, and it is when my character, Zia, has gone to her brother’s for her birthday party. And her brother is a laborer who lives in the Bronx.

Now, Salvatore, who is her cousin, she's very fond of, was invited, but no one expects him to be there. So, he shows up. Here's how it begins. 

My cousin Salvatore stood in the corner, between the olive-green drapes and a painting of Saint Agatha, bringer of miracles. I hadn’t heard Sal come in and had no idea how long he’d been listening.

“Hey, Sal,” I said. “Didn’t know you were coming.”

“Hey, cucina,” he said, holding up his hands and rippling his fingers as is playing the piano though as far as I knew, Sal had never played the piano or any other musical instrument.

“Welcome,” said my brother Massimo, rising to greet Sal as host. Standing face to face, shaking hands, they were the exact same height. While both were black haired and brown eyed, how unalike the cousins were. It wasn’t just that Sal was younger. He was sleeker. His hair gleamed, and his white shirt peeking under his jacket glowed. He wore some crazy blue tie with swirls on it.

I knew, without even looking, that my in-laws must be upset that Sal had shown up. But it was my Uncle Antonio, Sal’s father, who spoke.

“Why did you give them our address?” he demanded. “They came to the apartment two weeks ago.”

“Please don’t start,” his wife, Rosalia, pleaded. He waved her off.

“Who, Papa?” asked Sal, perfectly calm. “Who came?”

“The police! Precinct said you gave them our address as yours, and you haven’t lived with your mother and me for years.”

At the word “police,” a ripple of unease made its way around the table. No one in this room wanted anything to do with the New York City police. They specialized in giving Italians a hard time.

Sal shrugged. “Ah, that’s nothing. The cops wanted to ask me about the activities of some man, I don’t even know him. Don’t give it another thought.”

“Don’t give it another thought?” his father roared. “They come in showing their badges and they look down on us. They scared your mother half to death.”

Rosalia could no longer contain herself and shouted, just as loud as her husband, “They don’t scare me so bad. You’re just saying that! Let Sal sit down. He just walked in the door.”

His face beet red, Antonio retorted, “I wish he’d just walk OUT the door.”

Rosalia, overcome, took out her handkerchief.

Through it all, Sal didn’t flinch. They might as well have been talking about lost laundry. But when his mother’s eyes filled with tears, he said to Massimo, “I’ll leave my gift for Audenzia and just go.”

My brother smiled uncomfortably. “Yeah, okay, Probably best, Salvatore.”

Even then, Uncle Antonio wouldn’t let it go. “That’s not his name no more. Haven’t you heard. He goes by Charles Lucania now.”

No one spoke up for Sal. I pushed back my chair and, rising, said, “I’ll walk you to your car, Sal.”

ZIA.

It was a woman’s voice, reproachful. I wasn’t sure who it was, and I didn’t stay to find out. I left with Sal, closing the door behind us on the street. There was at least an hour of daylight left.

“I just wanted to get a closer look at this,” I said, tugging his tie. “What is this—swirls? You’ve come to this?”

“It’s a new style, which you would know if style meant anything to you,” he said laughing. 

On the sidewalk, glancing back at Massimo’s house, I said, “And here I thought your father was calming down in his old age.”

“Nah, even if he’s on his deathbed, he’s still gonna be yelling at me.” I felt a stab of guilt that my birthday party was the cause of Sal colliding with his father.

I said, “, another thing is, everybody was drinking a lot of wine when you showed up. And maybe they’re not so used to it.”

“Yeah, that Amarone is a top vintage.”

“What we were drinking?” I stopped on the sidewalk. “Oh. The wine came from you.”

“Yeah, Massimo got in touch.”

This wasn’t the best news. “Sal, listen, you’re not a bootlegger, right? I heard a bad story from Mr. Silvia at the store. In South Jersey, some bootleggers held up his truck full of mozzarella thinking it was whiskey coming up from Atlantic City. It got…pretty rough.”

“Me? Shake down a cheese truck? I don’t think so. No, Zia. I just made a call about the Amarone. I know some people.”

“Really?” I pulled on my cousin’s arm to make him stop walking. “Tell me what’s going on. You’re telling me the truth that you’re a gambler and nothing more? No rough stuff?”

“No rough stuff.” My twenty-six-year-old cousin looked me straight in the eye. Beneath the flashy clothes and the Brilliantine hair cream and the smooth moves, I saw the eight-year-old boy I crossed the Atlantic Ocean with. That boy had never lied to me, just as I had never lied to him.

“In fact, I got a business deal to celebrate, Zia. We could have raised a glass of Amarone to celebrate in Massimo’s house. I got a nightclub opening up soon. It’s gonna be special. It’s gonna be famous. You’ll be hearing the name soon. The Orchid Hour.”

Carol Cram

That's fantastic. Thank you. 

Nancy Bilyeau

So that's the first time she hears those words. Orchid Hour. 

Carol Cram

Yes. And then it's going to play such a great role. Thank you. You must have had a lot of fun writing that novel, actually. 

Nancy Bilyeau

I did. I really enjoyed it. And I had to work hard on my dialogue because I didn't want it to be obviously cliché, dems and dos, but I can't have them talking like Shakespearean actors either.

So, I sort of workshopped it with friends and really did a lot of research. Actually, when you look at some of the interviews that are transcripts with criminals at the time, you can't use it. You can barely understand what they're saying, the grammar and everything.

And if I used it, then it would look like I'm making fun of them. It's hard to figure out how to convey authenticity without stopping the reader thinking you're making them sound like morons and there was also a lot of slang back then that we don't use.

And I don't like to put a lot of slang in because even though it could be fun and it definitely gives an authentic historical cred, it's distracting. I want people to go with the characters in the story and just keep hurtling along instead of going to the Wikipedia. 

Carol Cram

No, you definitely don't want to do that or do it phonetically or stuff like that. I actually listened to your book on an audio book. And they did really great accents. They sounded very New York, very sort of gangster-like. 

Nancy Bilyeau

We had a number of people who actually took it too far and they sounded like, as I said, somebody from the show Jersey Shore, and then on the other side, somebody who sounded like Gwyneth Paltrow. We wanted somebody in between. 

Carol Cram

Well, it worked because it was just enough to get that flavor. It felt very New York, but it didn't go overboard. It was good. I really enjoyed the audio book. Not all audio books are created equal, right? So, I also want to talk about The Fugitive Colours, which is set in a very different era. So, tell us a little bit about this novel.

Nancy Bilyeau

Well, it's a follow-up to The Blue, which was my second most successful book. It was a more of a personal book as far as my family and that on my father's side, the Bilyeau name is a French name. Protestants who settled in North America, and they came to what was then New Amsterdam, and now New York City, in 1665. Pierre Bilyeau.

I had my book set in Europe, so I researched East London. Spitalfields is the site of a major Huguenot community and a lot of silk weavers, a lot of I wouldn't say fine artists, not that many, but a few, but silversmiths, people who have a lot of talent and use their talent in their trade, but not exactly fine artists.

So, I came up with a Huguenot family. I wanted to tell this story, wanted to do a spy story female artist, spy. And she's the main character of The Blue and then The Blue did well, and people wanted to know what's next? So I wrote The Fugitive Colours, which is, and people who know art know, although I didn't know this until I researched it, that Joshua Reynolds, who was a very important artist in mid-18th century England, had some trouble with his pigments, and some of his works, even now, they did really bad fading and crackling. And so, they called his colors the fugitive colors because they didn't stand up. He was trying so hard for original shades and to really capture human skin and background, was really going for a lustrous look and his portraits. He did all four. But sometimes he would cut some corners.

I mean, you just didn't have the knowledge that people have now about how to have right pigment for your oils, so the fugitive colors is just one of the themes in the book, along with, like I said, spying and life in London, and a marriage that's under some strain.

So, I was just working with a lot of those different things to tell another suspenseful story. I got to plunge into Covent Garden where almost every woman is a prostitute. And you have Samuel Johnson and all of the really exciting writers and thinkers. There were some women artists just starting.

The big obstacle with women artists was that it was absolutely not allowed for women to do nudes, so they couldn't get anatomy. They couldn't have formal training. They were often the wives or daughters of male artists. You had to have so much training, you had to know the history of painting and enormous amounts of anatomy and enormous amounts of scenery training and there wasn't the personal expression you have now.

Carol Cram

And a great many of them ended up, which you brought up in the book, doing still lifes. I've just lately discovered all of these female painters who specialized in still lifes, particularly the Flemish ones, like Rachel Ruysch. Oh, I loved her. I was just in Europe a few months ago, and every time we went to a museum, oh, there's a woman, there's a woman, and there's way more than there used to be. They're finally being discovered, dragging them out of attics and realizing, yes, there were quite a few.

But you pointed out in the book, too, that the reason they did still lifes was because they weren't allowed to do anything else. 

Nancy Bilyeau

In The Blue, my character idolizes Hogarth and would love nothing better than to be almost like a social satirist and capture New York with her art. And that was just not possible yet. Although it would be eventually, she was ahead of her time. 

Carol Cram

Yes, yes, she was very much. So, I like that part in there because actually I've been thinking about writing a novel about a woman still life painter based on all of the amazing paintings I saw, particularly in Amsterdam, on my last trip.

I bought this huge book. It's all female painters of still lifes. It's in Dutch, but the pictures are regular. I just love the detail that these women would get in the still lifes of that period. So, I was quite inspired when I was reading your book, I'm like, ooh, maybe I should do that.

Nancy Bilyeau

Definitely. Go for it. 

Carol Cram

So, one of my goals in The Art In Fiction Podcast is to inspire other authors. What's one thing you've learned from writing historical fiction that you didn't know before you started?

Nancy Bilyeau

 Well, I didn't know before I started that I could actually draw on—and people shouldn't be hesitant to do this—draw on things that they're very interested in, little bits of history, and weave them into your own book.

And I really do think that if there's a theme in me, that's it. We're like, and I don't want to be corny and say, follow your bliss, but follow your own interests and try to weave them in because just your enthusiasm and your excitement will go a long way in sort of concocting an immersive world that people will want to spend time in.

Online, I probably spend way too much time doing this, I'll just see people talking about the trends all the time - is World War II still big? Should I do this? And you just can't do that because it's so competitive, it's so difficult and believe me, it goes slow. You'll sell a book and it'll have to be edited and won't be out for another year or two. So, you might as well do something that you're really drawn to. But at the same time, it's very important to think about pace. It's very important to think about a character that people will—they don't have to like them a lot—but they have to care about what happens next.

That's key. So yeah, but those things can all be worked on in workshops and beta readers. I have the problem where sometimes when I'm writing something that's very clear to me, I think I've really done it. And then I have one woman who's, like, a really wonderful friend who's a beta reader and sometimes I'll find out from her because she's very honest. Like, well, I didn't get that. 

So, there's this little distance between what I think I've done and what someone coming in is getting, and I need to move those closer. That's super-important for someone to think about because it's really easy to, especially if you revise it over and over again and you're way inside it.

Carol Cram

Yes. It's your own little world that you created. And what do you mean, other people don't get it? Yeah, that's the importance of beta readers as well. So historical fiction, of course, relies on an incredible amount of research. What's some advice to authors about research methods? 

Nancy Bilyeau

 I try to use as many books, novels, sometimes written at the time that my book takes place. So, for instance, Tom Jones takes place during the time of The Fugitive Colours and to sort of get the rhythm, I'll read that and to get me inspired to capture that.

As far as research goes, I find that I have to research a lot in the beginning. And some people say, oh, I researched, I read a couple books and then I set up my plot and then I fill it in as I go. The problem I have with that is that since I write very atmospheric immersive fiction, I don't know literally how to get someone from point A to point B unless I've researched how they would do it, and in that research, I may find things that will then trigger plot. So, for me, research is super important to do in the beginning to know how people will get around, how they react, how they will live. And that sparks plot, big reveals twists and so forth, so I think that sometimes, and I don't blame them, people are in a hurry to get going. And so, what we end up with is a lot of dialogue that could take place almost in any time, but they'll put in some costumes stuff. Whereas, I like to have my people in motion actually doing things and you really can't do that until you've done the research to find out what people would do.

I can't tell you how many times I've had to go back to say, okay, what's the difference between a hackney carriage and a coach and this and that in the 18th century, but it makes a difference. 

Carol Cram

That's excellent advice that, yeah, I can actually take that to heart myself. How long do you do the research phase approximately?

Nancy Bilyeau

I should go longer. I know one of your previous guests, Finola Austin, who wrote Bronte's Mistress, I think she researched for at least a year solid before she started writing and I don't do that. I will try to research intensely for at least two months before I get started. I wish I could go longer, but often I kind of have to get going, but also what happens is I'm eager to get going, and I'm one of those people who redoes their 1st chapter about 1000 times even though they say to write the first draft nonstop. Don't stop. I can't do it. 

Carol Cram

I can't do that either. I wish I could. 

Nancy Bilyeau

I've tried. I really have given it a shot. 

Carol Cram

I know, I think I should just go, okay, for two months I'm not going to do any writing. I'm not even think about the story. I'm just going to research the period. I don't do that, but I should because I think it would be better, just from what you were saying as well. 

Nancy Bilyeau

Yeah, because the scenes start to, for me it's almost like a movie going on in my head and the people start to talk and they start to move. And I almost don't want to lose that excitement, the inspiration. So, I'll just start going, and then I'll do spot research as I go. 

Carol Cram

What are you working now, Nancy? 

Nancy Bilyeau

Right now, I'm working on the next book in the Genevieve Planché series. The title is The Versailles Formula. So, it is sort of plunging back into spying, plunging back into the rivalry between France and England, and Genevieve is taking on a dangerous task to try and get information for the British this time about some things that are going on in France.

And as you know, Sevres porcelain was made in Versailles, so that's where I will leave it. 

Carol Cram

So, is the series going to be ended with three novels or do you think you're going to write more? 

Nancy Bilyeau

I don't know. I thought I was ending with one. And then my publisher said, how about a second one? Then they said people like a series. How about a third? I don't see this turning into a Louise Penny thing, where I'm going to have 10, 15. I don't see that coming. But it is fun to go back with the same main characters and also having some familiarity, so I don't have to do all of the research from scratch. I've done standalones and series and I love standalones, but they are a lot of work when you're going to a new time and place. 

Carol Cram

Oh, that's actually really wonderful that you're doing a series with that. 

Nancy Bilyeau

Female artist-spy series. 

Carol Cram

Genevieve is very appealing. I really like her. She's a good character is Genevieve. If you're going to have a series, the main thing is you’ve got to have good main character that people are going to care about. No easy matter. 

Well, thanks so much, Nancy. It's been so much fun chatting with you. 

Nancy Bilyeau

Oh, this has been great. I really enjoyed talking to you about my work. This is a real treat. 

Carol Cram

Good. Well, thank you.

I’ve been speaking with Nancy Bilyeau author of several novels listed on Art In Fiction, including The Orchid Hour listed in the Theater category at www.artinfiction.com.

Be sure to check the show notes for a link to Nancy’s website at www.nancybilyeau.com. You’ll also find a link to a 20% discount on a subscription to Pro Writing Aid, a fantastic editing tool for writers. 

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