Monday, January 23, 2012

My First Time: Nancy Bilyeau

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Nancy Bilyeau, author of the just-released novel The Crown which is set in Tudor England and is an intriguing stew of murder, sex, and religious fanatics.  Woman's Day called it "a must-read...Part The Da Vinci Code, part The Other Boleyn Girl, it will keep you guessing until the very end!"  Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping.  Most recently, she served as deputy editor at InStyle magazine.  She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.  More information about her life and The Crown can be found at her website.

My First Writing Teachers

I went to public school in suburban Detroit.  Big buildings, with classrooms filled to bursting.  In elementary school there were always at least 30 of us per class.  By the time I got to Winston Churchill High in Livonia, we were sometimes three to a locker.  My graduating class topped 900 kids.

I liked learning but I was shy and uncertain of myself: the sort of student who finishes her test first but sits frozen at the desk without turning it in for fear of looking like a show-off.  Each year, I couldn’t wait for summer to end and to get back to school, but I was careful never to tell anyone that.

Overcrowded schools.  Quiet student.  It would seem unlikely that I’d attract much notice.  And no, I wasn’t a star.  But I did make connections with two teachers.  Each of them encouraged me to write and made me feel I had some talent for it.

The first one was my third-grade teacher.  We had recently moved from Chicago to Dearborn, Michigan, and now to Livonia.  My father, Wally Bilyeau, was an artist and Michigan was his home state and he wanted to return.  Daniel Webster was my third elementary school.  I’d made no friends, and I was so far behind in math I had to attend the remedial arithmetic group after school.

We went on a class field trip and, once back in the school, wrote a report.  I don’t remember what we saw except that on the way back there were leaves on the ground.  I described what they looked like.  After we turned in our reports, the teacher announced to the whole class that I wrote something special.  She made a small sign--“Have You Heard of Nancy Bilyeau, the Famous Writer?”--and taped it to the wall.

I felt embarrassed looking at that sign.  But I was fiercely proud, too.

Eight years later, I was one of hundreds of teenagers careening down the halls of Churchill High School.  I’d made friends by then.  Like many an insecure girl, I’d plunged into theatre.  My friends were all in the Drama Club and I kept scrapbooks at home of actors and actresses.

But I was still a bookworm.  I inhaled novels—I used to fall asleep reading every night.  My family got used to the sound of a book hitting the floor with a thump when I turned over in bed.

I took a creative writing class, and the teacher was Mrs. Erickson, slim and blonde.  She was so intelligent--the kind of teacher who commands the classroom without ever raising her voice.  In fact, it was her voice that I remember best.  She would sit on the edge of her desk and read aloud from novels that she wanted us to get excited about.  The one that made the deepest impression on me was E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.   She didn’t have a trace of self-consciousness as she read passages from the historical novel—and I went right into the year 1902 and the lives of Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman and Mameh and Tateh.

Mrs. Erickson never told me, “You will write novels some day!”  That wasn’t her style.  She was more subtle.  She taught writing; she exposed us to good writing; she encouraged us to write.  In her class, I created characters and crafted dialogue.  I even tried poetry.

I’ve stayed in touch with high school friends, and this month, the month I published my first novel—a historical thriller--we shared memories of Mrs. Erickson.  One of my friends, Karen Lizon Webb, found out she’d moved to Florida and helped me figure out how to contact our former teacher.  I sent her an email not knowing what kind of response I’d get.  I doubted she would remember me.

A single day later I got a response: “Yes, Nancy, I do remember you...lovely redhead...and I think of you often because I bought a watercolor from your father (you told me he painted in the basement) and it's been with me for over 40 years and now hangs in our bedroom in Florida.  Congratulations on the publication of your book.  I'm a working artist with representation in The Dancing Crane Gallery in Bradenton, FL.  Thank you so much for your note and keep in touch, please.”

How incredible it was to hear from Mrs. Erickson—I can’t quite bring myself to use her first name—and to know that while she had such a profound effect on me, I made an impression on her, too.  She remembered a conversation from decades ago about my father’s studio in the basement of our tract suburban home.  And now she is a successful artist herself.

I believe this is the perfect moment to read Ragtime again.


  1. What a difference a teacher can make. And how good of you to let her know. This inspires me to try to find my own creative writing teachers who encouraged me all those years ago. I've thought of them often. Thanks for sharing this, and congratulations on your success!

  2. Nancy, How wonderful for you! Congratulations on your novel, and I wish you continued success on future writing. The book sounds like a winner, and I'm looking forward to reading it.