Tomorrow, June 11, marks the appearance of Billy Coffey's third novel When Mockingbirds Sing (Thomas Nelson), which an early review at Publishers Weekly described as an "intriguing read [that] challenges mainstream religious ideas of how God might be revealed to both the devout and the doubtful."
As are many bloggers who are fans of Billy's writing, I'm pleased to do my part to help promote this fine novelist's newest work. Billy, who lives several hours south of me, in Charlottesville, in Virginia's beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, generously agreed to talk with me about about the novel and his creative process. I think you'll find the interview candid, insightful, and informative.
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Monday Muse Interview with Novelist Billy Coffey
Maureen Doallas: Where did you do most of your writing of this novel?
Billy Coffey: In short, wherever I could: lunch breaks at work, early mornings, late nights. I ended up just carrying a rolled-up notebook in my back pocket [to write in when I could] steal what spare minutes I could. A chapter-a-day is usually my goal. However and wherever I get it is something I've learned I can't control. Just so long as the words are there at the end of the day, I'm good!
MD: What is your your preferred time of day or night to write? Do you think the time of day you write affects your storytelling in any way? If so, how?
BC: If I had my druthers, I would write late at night. I like the dark and quiet. Both keep me focused. And there's something to be said for being a little weary when I'm working on my first drafts. It's easier to shut off my internal editor and just write. Conversely, I've found mornings [to be] best for editing. A night's sleep puts some distance between me and whatever I've written.
MD: What would we be surprised to learn if we were privy to your daily writing habit?
BC: How hectic it is. It's rare when I can sit down for 30 minutes and write uninterrupted. Not exactly the easiest way to get a novel finished but, in this day and age, I'm afraid it's the most common.
MD: For Mockingbirds, did you work from an outline or just hold the story in your head as you wrote?
BC: I tend to do a lot of writing before I begin an actual book. Nothing fancy—just sketching out the characters, trying to get a feel for them. I do like an outline; otherwise, the fear of rambling kicks in. But it's usually a very vague [outline], not much more than where I want to begin, where everyone needs to be at the end of the first act, and what the climax will be.
MD: What was the revision or redrafting process like for you?
BC: I went through three drafts of Mockingbirds. I'm not sure how it happened but the final draft turned out to be nearly identical to the initial draft. It was by far the easiest novel I've written. Everything just flowed.
MD: How did you select the title for this novel? What others did you consider that you might share with us?
BC: [The publisher] Thomas Nelson came up with the title. [The title's] a very important aspect of a book that I'd never really considered with my previous novels, and something [Thomas Nelson] devotes a tremendous amount of time studying. We bantered a bit, [considering] The Rainbow Man and Fly Into Me and Into the Maybe. But as soon as I heard When Mockingbirds Sing, I knew that was a winner.
MD: I appreciated how you organized your story. Even though events take place within a limited time, the novel has a more sweeping feel to it. Can you comment on your use of passage of time as a story-telling device?
BC: I wanted a definite timeframe for the story, and a narrow one. Everything builds to Carnival Day, and each section serves as a countdown to that. I think it adds more of a sense of urgency to the story, the sense that something is building, even if you don't know exactly what that something is.
MD: What influenced your decision to include a "one year later" wrap-up?
BC: I wanted to offer a tiny glimpse into the long-term effects of what the town [the fictional Mattingly, Virginia] had gone through in the course of a single week. I don't necessarily believe in happy endings but there should always be a sense of closure. I think the wrap-up does that. It gives a sense of everyone moving on as best as they can.
MD: This novel is considerably more complex than your other work, requiring understanding of a range of interconnected relationships and need to describe events from a number of different perspectives—of characters young and old and in-between, of believers and not, of those still finding their way and those who believe they've been found but waver. The town itself and even the weather are characters. What aspect of craft was most challenging to you while writing this book?
BC: I think the most challenging aspect was Leah herself. She's the story's main character but nothing is told from her point of view. Everything about her had to come from the eyes of the other characters. [Giving life to her] proved more difficult than I'd imagined but in the end, she came out just as evolved (maybe more so) than anyone else.
MD: Did you ever experience a snag in the writing? How did you resolve it?
BC: There always comes a point in my first drafts when I look up and find something that isn't working. Something big! With Mockingbirds, I had Leah as the main narrator through the first 50 pages. [That approach] worked fine until I realized that I'd given away the story's principal mystery, which is whether "The Rainbow Man" [Leah's invisible friend] is real or not. I'm quickly finding that a sense of mystery is key to any story. I didn't have a choice but to start over.
MD: How did the shift from first-person narrative in your second novel Paper Angels to third-person narrative in Mockingbirds affect your role as storyteller?
BC: It definitely broadened me. The allure of the first-person is that it's so intimate and, at first, I was afraid that changing that point of view would make the story a little colder. In fact, the opposite happened.
MD: What do you listen for in writing the voice of a character such as the child Leah, who stutters? What did you do to ensure you got Leah's voice right?
BC: [Getting Leah's voice right] took a lot of work. Most of it involved studying speech patterns of stutterers and focusing on those clusters of hard consonants that often give them the most trouble. The difficult part was trying to find a balance in [Leah's] dialogue. I didn't want to overwhelm the reader with a constant barrage of repeating letters, so I focused on just giving enough to serve as a reminder that this little girl really has a thick wall between her and everyone else.
MD: Of all the characters in Mockingbirds, which is most dear to your heart, and why?
BC: Allie, without a doubt. If Leah is the main character of the story, Allie is its soul. She's the only person who truly connects Leah with the town. Her struggle of belief versus doubt is one we all struggle with.
MD: The mythology and symbolism of the mockingbird is fascinating. For example, creation myths of the Hopi and other Pueblo peoples hold that it was a mockingbird that first taught them to speak; also, that when a mockingbird runs out of songs, anyone who is not "allocated" to a particular tribe is returned to the underworld from which he emerged. Other cultures view the mockingbird as guardian of the dead and as a mediator. Did you research the mythology when you made the mockingbird a symbol in your novel?
BC: Growing up, I remember those long summer nights when we'd leave the windows open at night. There was a huge maple tree in our backyard, and every night a mockingbird would sit in those branches and sing. It was the most amazing thing to me. My mother was the one who first told me why it sang at night. I never forgot it.
The mockingbirds were one of the last things I added to the story. [Their appearance] seemed to fit so well with what everyone in town was going through.
MD: Novelist, memoirist, and short story writer James Salter said in an interview for Narrative, "Fiction doesn't mean 'made up'." Keeping When Mockingbirds Sing in mind, how would you respond to that statement?
BC: There is something mystical in the idea of story, of how for thousands of years [storytelling] was the primary means of passing down universal truths from one generation to the next. And that's the most important aspect: truth. Those novels that stand the test of time are the ones that speak to us on a fundamental level, regardless of their setting. At its best, fiction (really, all good writing) is a mirror the reader holds to him- or herself.
MD: I found myself thinking a lot about the novel's setting: small-town rural Virginia. Could Mattingly exist as an urban environment and serve your story as well? Why or why not?
BC: I don't think it could, to be honest. The town of Mattingly itself, with all its intricacies and foibles and its sense of history and isolation, is an important character in the book. Twain said, "Write what you know." I know the country. And I've found that readers are drawn to that either because they understand that lifestyle or because it offers a form of escapism. I'm good with both.
MD: I finished reading the book a week after a tornado destroyed Moore, Oklahoma. Your fictional account of a tornado serves the novel's symbolism on a number of levels. What influenced your choice of this particular weather event?
BC: During the planning stages, I had as the climax of the story a car accident. It was going to be a much more personal story that involved a single family rather than an entire town. But just as I began writing, a tornado touched down one afternoon only a few miles from our house. I remember driving past [the site] later with my family, all of us silent, taking in all those downed trees and barns, and all of those damaged homes. I can think of few [other] natural disasters that would leave someone with such a sense of fear and awe.
MD: How are you marketing your novel? What, if anything, are you doing now that differs from how you marketed your earlier books?
BC: I have a real pro in Ruthie Dean, who is handling publicity for the book through Thomas Nelson, and Kathy Richards [we bloggers know Kathy well as katdish] is helping with a lot of online stuff, too.
There will be radio and television appearances, and I'm writing for some very high-profile websites. [The marketing for Mockingbirds] is much more intense than [for] my previous two novels, and that ramps up my excitement more.
MD: Isabel Allende has said, "I don't mind telling everything [in my writing] because nothing has happened to me that is unique." What, in this novel, are you revealing about yourself?
BC: At its core, Mockingbirds is about the prejudices we all carry—religious versus secular, insider versus outsider, especially as it pertains to the notion of God revealing Himself. Who would He reach out and touch? Who would He allow to speak for Him? In all honesty, I'm not sure if I would believe in someone like Leah. That's a tough thing to say but it's true.
MD: You now have three novels in the marketplace. What's up next for you?
BC: My fourth novel will be out in March of next year. It's called The Devil Walks in Mattingly and it's about the death of a boy 20 years ago and the remorse that's been left behind. I'm currently writing number five, which will be out for Christmas, 2014. The title for that one is not set yet but I will say that Allie is the main character. Just can't let her go!
Thank you for a wonderful interview, Billy. I and your many other fans will look forward to your next two books.
When Mockingbirds Sing is available in print and as a Kindle e-book.
Billy Coffey's other novels are Paper Angels (Faithwords, 2011) and Snow Day (Faithwords, 2010). Read my interview with Billy about Paper Angels.
What I Learned Today, Billy Coffey's Blog
When Mockingbirds Sing Video on YouTube (Book Trailer)
Billy Coffey Video Chat: The Story Behind the Story
Billy Coffey 3-Part Video Interview at FaithVillage
Billy Coffey 3-Part Video Interview at FaithVillage
Sneak Peek at When Mockingbirds Sing (Chapter 1-3)