Monday, March 24, 2014

Monday Muse: New Interview with Billy Coffey

. . . And there among the dead, I returned to the living.
~ Conclusion of The Devil Walks in Mattingly

The last sentence of The Devil Walks in Mattingly (Thomas Nelson, March 2014), the latest novel from the marvelous Virginia writer Billy Coffey, could not be more apt in this Lenten season that will culminate at Easter in Christ's resurrection. Reflecting, I see throughout the novel a number of signs that lead me to make that bold statement: the long and lonely wilderness experience of the character Taylor Hathcock, the deep and painful self-examination by Mattingly sheriff Jake Barnett and his wife, the do-gooder Kate; sin and witness and death, confession and penance and absolution, the "sacrifice" of Lucy Seekins, the mystery of the Hole, the themes of grace and redemption. 

Don't make the mistake, however, of thinking that this book is overtly "Christian fiction". Above all else, The Devil Walks in Mattingly — Coffey's most sophisticated, most mature novel to date — is a stunningly well-conceived, suspenseful, and fully realized story that makes use of such contemporary issues as bullying, abuse, and dysfunctional familial relationships, and incorporates both magical and darkly cinematic effects that keep one reading, as do the chapter endings, many of which serve as cliff-hangers. The theological aspects are handled subtly and deftly, serving to propel the narrative rather than preach and teach; moreover, they are appropriate to Coffey's often-complex, real-to-live characters, who are born and live and die in small southern towns where nothing is quite so simple as we in the cities might like to believe and where intervention from forces both without and within carries a load of consequences.

I have been following Coffey's career since he published his first novel in 2010, and it has been my great privilege to interview him on several occasions. The publication of this latest work gave me one more excuse for getting in touch and sending a dozen questions Coffey's way. Thank you for reading and sharing your own thoughts in the Comments section.

Interview with Billy Coffey About The Devil Walks in Mattingly

Author Billy Coffey
Photo Credit: Joanne Coffey

Maureen Doallas: Your new novel tells more than one story at a time, though all the stories are related and beautifully cohere. The voices alternate in the first and third persons. What particular challenges, if any, did this storytelling approach present? Did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear or use other techniques to keep straight the complications of the narratives?

Billy Coffey: I really thought it was a gamble to use multiple points of view. It's been done [by other writers] but it hasn't been done often. Initially, I had written the entire novel in first person — from Jake's point of view — but as Kate, Taylor, and Lucy began to grow on the page, I became really drawn to them. I wanted to know who they were, what made them tick. [Using] the multiple points of view felt like the best option for that.

As for the writing itself, I went straight through in the order in which the chapters appear. After the second draft, I went back and pulled together the chapters that focused on each of the main characters and read them straight through to make sure their arcs were solid.

MD: This book, in my opinion, represents your most mature and sophisticated writing to date. In what ways has your handling of story and especially characterization changed since your first novel Snow Day (FaithWords, 2010)?

BC: I like to say that every book I write is the best I could [write] at the time. Snow Day was no different. I was so green back then when it came to fiction. That book was actually written as memoir. The publisher asked me to turn it into a novel, so, [writing it] was basically a trial-by-fire. I've learned a great deal about the craft since, and I think that shows in each of my successive works. [Coffey's other novels are Paper Angels (FaithWords, 2011) and When Mockingbirds Sing (Thomas Nelson, 2013).] I'm growing more comfortable with the form and I'm having a great deal of fun with it.

MD: The number of thematic lines in The Devil Walks in Mattingly is astonishing: good vs. evil, truth vs. lie, choice or free will vs. fate, honesty vs. guilt, openness and trust vs. secretiveness, pride vs. humility, wrong vs. right, failure vs. mastery, fear vs. fate, forgiveness vs. bitterness, shame vs. honor, dreaming vs. reality, past vs. future, and more. Your primary characters all struggle, to one or another degree, with all of these. One possible exception is the tragic figure Lucy Seekins. Is Lucy a kind of ransom sacrifice, her loss to the Hole necessary to achieve atonement?

BC: I think, in a way, Lucy serves as a warning to everyone, at least in the sense that what happened to her would have been the inevitable result for Taylor, Jake, and Kate had things not happened the way they did. [The latter] were all lost, they were all suffering from a hopeless despair, and they were all slipping into an abyss that existed within themselves. Lucy is involved deeply with Taylor, less so with Kate; yet, much of Lucy's story lies in the wavering between those two people — of trying to find out which person possessed what was not necessarily the truth but what could help Lucy heal her despair. In the end, Lucy decided neither of them could [help her]. What Lucy Seekins represents to me is that deep human need to always search for our answers, no matter where those answers might lead. I look forward to meeting her on the page again. . . I think that'll happen.

MD: Another subject you handle in this book relates to appearances, the lengths we go to present ourselves a certain way to the world; specifically, what we do to seem "alive" when we're "dead" inside. Who among your characters do you consider to be the most authentic, and why?

BC: As strange as it might sound, I have to choose Taylor. I wouldn't think Jake was authentic at all through much of the story. He basically is living two lives and being two people, and much of the suffering he endures is due to the fact that the mask he's worn for 20 years is now fraying. As for Kate, everyone in town knows what she did to Phillip McBride on the day he disappeared. There's no hiding from that. Yet the work she does for the town's poor is itself nearly a lie; she's not doing it so much to help the underprivileged as she is to try and make amends.

There's no doubt Taylor is insane and that he's based his life since that day in high school on a lie. [This revelation is not revealed until nearly the end of the novel.] But at the same time, he fully knows who he is. He makes no pretense. He's been trapped in the wilderness for 20 years and yet he possesses a real sense of freedom that has eluded everyone else.

MD: Once again you draw distinctions between country and city, between Mattingly, Virginia, and Away, which serves as more than small-town opposite. Why is place so important a character in this novel?

BC: I suppose it's a southern thing in general and a small-town thing in particular. We are linked intrinsically to the land where we are born. My little town has grown bigger over the years due to people moving [here] from the city. A lot of us call it "The Second Yankee Invasion". [For those who have forgotten their Civil War history, Virginia was part of the Confederacy. As a Virginia native, I can attest there are indeed small towns in Virginia where the Civil War continues to be "fought", so to speak.] By and large, however, most of the people here have kin stretching back generations, even hundreds of years. We are bound to this valley and these mountains. It's home to me, and it always will be. The people of [fictional] Mattingly feel much the same. They know what they've built as far as community and they're equally proud of it, and determined not to let it change.

MD: When life-long residents Jake and Kate Barnett talk of having to leave Mattingly — in fact, the town calls for a vote to oust Jake as sheriff — it occurred to me that you might be recalling the story of the casting out of Adam and Eve, which is more overtly raised in the novel when Zach (the Barnett's son) thinks about the pleasure the Biblical couple must have felt while eating the apple. Is it fair to say that your novels are contemporary retellings of stories from the Bible?

BC:  I don't consider myself a Christian novelist so much as a novelist who is a Christian. Given that, there will always be theological elements to my stories, however hidden they might sometimes be. The great thing about the stories of the Bible (particularly the ones covered in Genesis) is that they speak to us all, regardless of faith. They're intrinsic. They strike a deep chord inside us that nothing else can quite reach. I don't set out to retell Biblical stories so much as I try to explore what it means to be human. Thankfully, I believe those two are the same.

MD: Taylor Hathcock seems to exists in a place of profound isolation and loneliness. He is, like some others in the novel, a misfit but one endowed with aspects the others do not share. Considering how Taylor meets his end, do you consider him among the redeemed?

BC: I certainly do! While the story contains some question as to Taylor's end, there is no doubt in my mind: Phillip came for them all but, I think, for Taylor Hathcock especially.

MD: Many reviewers have cited the supernatural and sinister touches in the novel — the characters Taylor Hathcock and Phillip McBride, the Hole, Happy Hollow, the old bear that communicates silently, the butterflies that light the way through the forest. What makes these darker elements essential — and I think they are — to your storytelling?

BC: I never set out to write stories containing supernatural touches, especially not sinister ones. Things just kind of drift there. Again, I give that over as a product of where I live. Faith here isn't angel wings and an endless chorus of "Jesus Loves Me". It's a hard thing, earthy. I grew up with a mother who was raised Amish and a father who came straight out of the hills. It was always interesting to me how compatible both of [their] ways of looking at the world were, and both have influenced me a great deal. To them — and to me — there is always much more happening around us than we would believe. There is a great deal of what the people of Mattingly would call "magic". There is a great deal of darkness, too. Life is a tough thing, and this world is a hard place. Things are never easy. I think it's important that [artists who are Christian] not only accept this but portray it as well through a lens of hope and redemption. Sadly, that doesn't happen a lot.

MD: Is the Holler (Happy Hollow) a place you know personally?

BC: Outside my front door are 30,000 acres of wilderness known to everyone around here as "The Coal Road". It's a beautiful place, largely ignored, except during hunting season. And, of course, it's full of stories. People have seen everything from ghosts to Bigfoot in those woods. You can take that as you will but I'll say, in all honesty, that there are places there I won't go walking through.

MD: You wrote for The Good Men Project an essay, "A Father's Long Shadow", about your relationship with your father. In the novel, several of your characters share the similar "shadows" of their fathers. How, if at all, did your relationship with and understanding of your own father color or inform your depiction of the paternal relationships in the novel?

BC: My relationship with my father played a great deal in the writing of Jake's relationship with [his father] Justus. My father is the best man I've ever known. He's a hard man, in many ways the product of another time. He's always been the one person I measure myself against, sometimes to my own detriment because, deep down, I know I'll always come up short.

MD: One of your reviewers wrote, "Every last character in this book holds a mirror back at the reader." While writing this story, what of yourself did you see reflected in the mirror?

BC: I certainly have my share of regrets and remorse. I think we all do, and that's one of those common human traits that I like to explore. Taylor, Jake, and Kate all suffer because of what happened to Phillip but they each have tried to overcome that suffering in three different ways. Personally, I've tried all three.

MD: If you had to cite only one thing that you wish readers to take away from The Devil Walks in Mattingly, what would it be?

BC: That the burdens we all carry from our yesterdays into our todays can be laid down but only by grace and forgiveness.

* * * * *

I thank Billy Coffey once again for taking time to be interviewed. As I told him, I could have asked many more questions but needed to keep the interview manageable to run it as a single post. My dream would be to have a radio program and sit with him in person one day to talk about the stories he spins and the truths he discovers and shares.

Since its publication earlier this month, The Devil Walks in Mattingly has received much deserved praise. For a roundup with links, see "Devil makes the rounds: Release week". Also see the many posts on FaceBook for the Devil Walks in Mattingly Launch Team (a special word of thanks to Kathy Richards aka Katdish Dishman-Richards for coordinating the considerable publicity coverage).

Billy Coffey Website

Billy Coffey on FaceBook and Twitter

The Devil Walks in Mattingly Page at Thomas Nelson (You'll find a preview of the novel there.)

My other interviews with Billy Coffey:

Monday Muse Interviews Novelist Billy Coffey (When Mockingbirds Sing), June 10, 2013

Monday Muse Interviews Billy Coffey (Paper Angels), November 7, 2011

1 comment:

katdish said...

Thanks, Maureen. You do the best interviews!