There is within every human heart an empty reservoir that is ours
alone to fill with either the beauty or the ugliness of life. . . .
~ Andy Sommerville, Narrator, Paper Angels
Writer Billy Coffey is widely known around the Web for his wonderful blog What I Learned Today. That's where I met him, after first stopping at the katdish to which he also contributes regularly, and it's where I go whenever I need to sit a spell in one of Billy's virtual front-porch rocking chairs. The self-described "small-town" Virginian knows more than a thing or two about living life in a place where, as he says, "wisdom dances." He knows how to expose the undersides of life while also impelling us to pay attention to the lessons life can reveal.
The author of the critically acclaimed Snow Day (Faith Words/Hachette Book Group, October 2010), Billy is celebrating the publication of his second novel Paper Angels (Faith Words/Hachette Book Group) this Wednesday, November 9. The story of a physically and soul-wounded man, Andy Sommerville, who discovers what it means to fully trust in God's love bears all the hallmarks of Billy Coffey at his best: gifted and insightful storytelling, fine pacing, seamless transition, memorable characterization, distinct and authentic voice, deep observation, humor. He skillfully uses his narrative devices — including a flashback approach, an angel known only as "The Old Man", and a wooden keepsake box holding 12 objects (ranging from a golf tee to a fingernail to a pewter key chain) that are central to the protagonist's self-discoveries — to keep us reading to the novel's uplifting conclusion.
After reading Paper Angels, I invited Billy, via e-mail, to submit to a few questions about himself and his new novel. I'm delighted he found time to oblige.
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Monday Muse Interview with Billy Coffey, Author of Paper Angels
Monday Muse Interview with Billy Coffey, Author of Paper Angels
Maureen Doallas: Billy, thank you for this interview. Share with us something about the process of writing Paper Angels. What, for example, might most surprise us about how you came to tell this particular story in your particular way? Was the story long in gestating? Did it have to go through many versions before you hit upon the narrative devices you use?
Billy Coffey: The idea for Paper Angels came innocently enough—my daughter made an angel during a Sunday school class several years ago. She made sure I understood that it wasn't a real angel, it was a paper one, but it was still an angel just the same. I liked the notion that some angels don't appear winged or haloed, but they're messengers just the same. That notion stayed in my head for about seven years. The first drafts were memoir. But then the idea of The Old Man came along, and I knew then it would have to be a novelization.
MD: Your book is written in first person and largely told in flashbacks. What, if any, concerns or issues did use of first-person narrative pose for you?
BC: I never considered a point of view other than first person for this book. It's so intimate, and I thought that was the only way Andy's story could be told. That in itself posed few problems. The reliance on flashbacks, however, brought a few concerns. I wanted to make sure both Andy's past with The Old Man and his present with Elizabeth [Andy's second and no less significant angel] were given equal consideration, knowing those two story lines would converge at the book's climax.
MD: You handle skillfully a range of characters, endowing them with traits (differing races, age, and gender; professional v. unskilled; educated and not; northern v. southern; city v. country) that allows you to draw contrasts and make points central to your story. Each character comes across distinctly, as authentic and well-observed. What helped you most in getting your characters' voices right? Are your characters composites of people you know? Did you need to do any research to ensure authentic details?
BC: I was sort of a lost soul after high school and ended up working at the Amoco [gas station] here in town. I worked there eight hours a day, six days a week, for 10 years. I've always considered that time as my college education. I was privy to the personalities and inner workings of every sort of character you just described, and even now I can see their faces and hear their dialects. Ironic, isn't it? I wouldn't be a writer if I had never pumped gas.
MD: I came to see Paper Angels as a kind of contemporary Passion play, associating your 12 "paper angels" and their stories with the 12 Apostles, the irony of being abandoned by an angel, and the sacrifice of the character Eric, who is described as "a boy so pure and so good" and "his [violent] death [defining] how much he could never give and how much the world had lost" as almost Christ-like. Would that be an off-base reading of this story?
BC: No, not at all! The distinction between the innocence with which Eric saw the world and Andy's near cynicism defined their faith—despite Andy's ability to see and speak to his angel, Eric was the one who possessed a very real faith. I did envision Eric as a kind of Christ figure, proof that there is still beauty and good in the world. And I see his death as sacrificial in that it eventually leads to Andy's emotional freedom.
MD: I also find it interesting that two characters central to moving your story forward — The Old Man and Elizabeth — are, for lack of a better descriptor, male and female angels, respectively. For me, they function as the two different sides of the body-spirit, both of which we have to be aware of to become whole. Was this sense of balance (in the protagonist Andy Sommerville) or need for it conscious on your part?
BC: It's no accident that Andy needs both The Old Man and Elizabeth to truly understand the beauty and purpose of his life. Both have an inherent wisdom, yet both dispense that wisdom in differing ways. The Old Man is more of a Type A personality—always prodding Andy forward, always placing him in situations ripe for lessons. Elizabeth is more a Type B—calm and thoughtful. I believe every person needs both types' traits in order to live a full life. We need the zeal to discover new things and the stillness to truly appreciate what we discover.
MD: You have a distinctive voice — your writing is spare and largely unadorned, wise without being preachy — that echoes in your other writing, such as your blog. What do you think gives your voice its particular fluency and storytelling power? How do you determine whether you are meeting your own standards of what makes a story good?
BC: There used to be a hardware store on Main Street here in town, just down from the railroad tracks. The owner of the store kept an old wooden chair beside the wood-stove for a man we simply called "Cracker". Cracker would show up every day around noon and hold court, spinning tales out of everything from local history to town gossip. To this day, I've never known a better storyteller. He didn't use fancy words or preach; he just talked. That's how I try to write. I always figure I'm doing okay with a story if I think Cracker would like it.
MD: You write, it seems to me, from a deep and intuitive place and are seemingly unafraid to confront your characters with questions of faith and belief, truth-seeking, trust in the face of the unanswerable, spiritual longing, God's purpose for us, acceptance and understanding of the self. To what do you credit the wisdom that comes across in this novel?
BC: My father's family are mountain-folk; my mothers are Amish/Mennonite. I am the result of that unlikely pairing. Whatever wisdom comes across in Paper Angels is due to a whole lot of listening on my part, a whole lot of talking on theirs, and a whole lot of mistakes I've tried to learn from.
MD: Is Billy Coffey an Andy Sommerville? Does Paper Angels reflect your own life philosophy?
BC: I like to think of Andy as my best self. There are glimmers of that person from time to time, though, unfortunately, he doesn't seem to stay around for very long. But what Andy finds and the truths he embraces are ones I firmly believe in.
MD: If your readers were asked to describe in a dozen or fewer words their impressions of your novel, what do you think would be their take-away; or, phrased another way, what would you most like to hear them say about the book?
BC: That it encouraged them to find the angels in their own lives.
MD: What authors or books most inspire you and why?
BC: My favorite books are the ones that don't just tell a story; they convey some eternal, unalterable truth. Great fiction doesn't highlight our differences; it underscores our similarities—our humanness. To me, that's where the old Russian writers shine. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn have probably influenced me more than Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Twain.
MD: What did you learn while writing Paper Angels that you did not know or could not draw on while writing your first novel Snow Day?
BC: I think the main thing was that I grew more at ease with writing fiction. Everything I'd written beforehand was strictly memoir. Even now on my blog, my posts generally are anecdotal essays that could be considered a chronicle of my life. The nuts-and-bolts of fiction aren't easy to learn, and maybe [are] never learned at all, but you can get comfortable with them.
MD: What would we be most likely to find in Billy Coffey's own wooden keepsake box?
BC: I'll let you in on a secret. I do have a keepsake box. It's a tool chest instead of a wooden box and an angel didn't tell me what to put in it, but everything that's in my box is in Andy's.
Billy, thank you for such marvelous answers to my questions! I wish you great success with Paper Angels and look forward to joining the publication party on Wednesday. (Readers, please see details in Giveaway below.)
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Read an Except from Paper Angels (OpenBook Widget)
Billy Coffey on FaceBook and Twitter
FaithWords on FaceBook and Twitter
Hachette Book Group on FaceBook
I'm delighted to share in the celebration of the publication of Paper Angels. Join in for a chance to win a copy of Billy's novel by leaving a comment on this post no later than 5:00 p.m. ET, Tuesday, November 8. One winner will be selected at random; an announcement will follow on Wednesday morning. Please be sure to include an e-mail address or a link to your blog so that I may notify the winner and obtain a mailing address to submit to the book's publisher, which will mail the novel directly to the recipient.
This giveaway is limited to readers in the United States and Canada.
On November 9, please feel free to join in a Twitter party, via @BillyCoffey and @FaithWords, to celebrate the publication of Paper Angels. The hashtag #paperangels will be used in all the tweets.