|Nancy in Metropolitan Museum of Art, Louis XV rooms|
Gayle Lynds: Some authors just have that historical espionage touch, and at the top of the list is the multi-talented Nancy Bilyeau. It’s an honor to welcome her here today.
Nancy is a historical fiction author (her first, THE CROWN, was an Oprah pick); she’s written articles for such heavyweights as Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly; and recently she was editor of ITW’s own The Big Thrill.
A while ago she quizzed me about whether it made sense for her to combine her hefty talents for historical tale telling with her fascination for spying, and I said, fill my cup with cyanide — I can’t wait to drink! The result is THE BLUE, just out and already getting blue ribbons for riveting reading — it’s a top Goodreads pick and a BookBub Editor’s Pick.
Nancy knows how to bring spies & the past to fire-breathing life! Here’s the great story behind it all…. Thanks, Nancy, for Going Rogue!
|Porcelain, the most seductive of commodities|
I’ve been completely fascinated by stories of espionage for years, from devouring John le Carré to binge-watching The Americans, but I hesitated to write a thriller about spying. I’m a writer of historical suspense. Murders, yes. Conspiracy, sure. Duplicity, certainly. But I was a little scared to make the leap to attempting a novel about espionage.
Then the idea came to me….
I’m addicted to tours of historic houses, and while visiting my sister Amy in Alexandria, Virginia, several years ago, she suggested we visit Hillwood Estate and Garden in Washington D.C. The house was owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post, an heiress — she inherited General Foods!— who was for a time the richest woman in the United States. A socialite, she married four times and had three children, the most well known being actress Dina Merrill. She owned Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, as well as one of the most spectacular jewelry collections in the world, some of the pieces belonging to Marie Antoinette and Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise.
Marjorie was an avid collector with a large budget, and prominent in her standing collection shown at Hillwood is Sevres Porcelain, a French manufactory near Versailles. These pieces of porcelain were elaborate, ornate, luxurious — extreme Rococo. At a certain point on the tour, a guide said, “In the 18th century there was a lot of competition among the European workshops to produce the best porcelain. It was the Space Race of its time.”
|Sèvres pot-pourri vase in the shape of a ship, 1764|
That was the moment that my novel, The Blue, was born. I was ready to write about spies.
So I had my time period and my subject. Next I created a main character. For that, I dug into my own family background. I’m descended from Pierre Billiou, born in what was then French Flanders, near the modern-day border of France and Belgium. He left France because he was a Protestant in a Catholic country hostile to the religion: a Huguenot.
In 1661 he sailed on the St Jean de Baptiste for a city in the Americas called New Amsterdam. He built a stone house on an island, still standing, and rose to prominence as a colonist. However, when the British sailed into the port and took over, renaming the growing town New York City, Pierre was shifted down in the hierarchy. That was the last time our family was important in New York.
I decided to make my character, Genevieve Planché, an artist involved in porcelain and a Huguenot. Since the action needed to take place in Europe, I researched the Huguenot experience in France and then in England. As persecution of Protestants increased, the Huguenots fled in huge numbers in the 17th century, continuing into the 18th. They were such a large presence in London, taking over Spitalfields in the East End, that a word was coined to describe them: refugee.
Now what about the spying? To be honest, that was the toughest part of my research because there is not a great deal written about espionage between the time of Sir Francis Walsingham, the spymaster of Elizabeth I, and the intense spying that took place during the American Revolution. The TV series Turn does a great job of dramatizing it.
A bit daunted, I reached out to Gayle Lynds, co-founder of International Thriller Writers, whom I had met at ThrillerFest. Gayle, a leading writer of spy thrillers, encouraged me to keep at it. Later, when I wrote the book and found a publisher, she was one of my first readers of an advance copy. I’m extremely grateful for her support.
|Nancy herself, photo credit: Joshua Kessler|
And what did I eventually learn about spying during the mid-18th century? A world of fascinating facts and dramatic stories:
† Secrets stolen from China.
† A chemist imprisoned in Germany until he figured out how to make porcelain.
† Formulas ferreted out from hidden places in France.
† Ferocious competition in England.
† Designs and colors imitated—and fortunes lost among the craze for porcelain: “white gold.”
This was industrial espionage indeed. And in The Blue, I bring this lost world to life.
Gayle: Thank you, Nancy! Folks can order The Blue in the U.S. and the U.K, and read the first chapter here. Enjoy!
Thank you for having me on your site!
My husband and I were addicted to Turn as well!
If I were to write a historical spy novel…I think I'd want to explore a time and place very rarely written about, such as revolts in African or South American countries in the fifties and sixties, as in The Poisonwood Bible. I don't know if they even had spies, but I'm sure they must have!
Thank you for this great post, Nancy, and congratulations on the book! The Blue sounds fascinating – and I LOVE the idea of historical industrial espionage. If I were going to write a historical spy novel…ooh, tough one. I'd was recently reminded about the wonderfully atmospheric nonfiction book Midnight at the Pera Palace by Charles King, which paints a picture of Istanbul in the early part of the 20th century, and that sure seems like it would be a plum setting for historical spy fiction. Apparently, the Pera Palace hotel was crawling with so many spies, the band would strike up a special spy song whenever a known agent walked in! 😉
What terrific research and interesting family history you have here, Nancy! As for writing an historical spy novel, I have thought about writing one based on a family friend who escaped Russia during the Bolshevik revolution, spiriting out family treasures in the process and burying the rest in an orchard. Thanks for being with us – and for a great post.
Fascinating! It never really occurred to me that there'd be any corporate espionage before there were skyscrapers! I love historical novels, especially when they're on the mystery/thriller side. Looking forward to this!
I want a special spy song!!!
Sounds fascinating. I love research and loved hearing how you went about it for The Blue. I will be ordering my copy today.
Welcome! They imprisoned a chemist to force the secrets to his art? Now THAT's a story, isn't it? I had no idea that porcelain was so coveted, but I did inherit some Delft (or Delft-like) from German relatives that I love. Thanks for the post, I'll be reading The Blue!
Fab interview! I also loved The Blue such a page turner!