I was introduced to Billy Coffey’s work, as I am to most of the writers that are new to me these days, through the Internet. But quickly, I discovered that he and I share more than just a vocation – he, too, calls this Blue Ridge home – and that sense of place speaks strong in his fiction. When I began reading his work, I knew that I would love admire his work for its quiet solidity and lyric phrase. Today, an interview with the wonderful Billy Coffey.
1. Tell me about your latest project.
My latest novel is The Devil Walks in Mattingly, which is about the murder of an eighteen-year-old boy twenty years ago, the effects it has on the three people who hold themselves responsible for his death, and what happens when that dead boy comes back for them all.
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
I was raised on the old Dick and Jane books and read them over and over. It was a surreal thing to me, learning to read. I felt like I’d just found treasure, and that all the wisdom I’d ever need to know could be found in the sentence, “See Dick run.” I collected books as I grew up like other boys my age collected baseball cards. I couldn’t get enough. Naturally, that led me to writing stories. I have no memory of what they were about, and my mother likely tossed them all in the trash at a certain point. Which is probably best.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
I try to write something every day, whether it’s work on a novel or a blog post or just notes for some faraway book. I get grumpy if I don’t. When I’m working on a novel, it’s a chapter a day. No more, no less, and no excuses. As much as I would like to have a set time to start and finish, that’s impossible with a full-time job. I’ll usually just shove a notebook into my back pocket and write when and where I can. If I haven’t gotten a chapter by the time I get home, I’ll finish it when everyone gets to bed. Probably not the best way to get a book done, but you have to do what you can.
4. Who are you reading now?
I’m reading Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Wonderful writing, and a uniquely gripping story.
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
In no particular order: The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories, and The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway. All of them go beyond story and touch something deeper in me. I’ve always thought that a good book can show us how we’re all different, but a great book always shows us how we’re all the same. All of those are great books.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
It’s the toughest thing to do. The problem with building a platform is that it requires so much time to grow and maintain followers and fans that it’s easy to rob yourself of what’s most important — the work. The writing. I’ve come to enjoy social media very much and have met some wonderful friends through both that and blogging, but I covet my time. The work always comes first. Facebook posts and tweets always come last.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
Up at 5:00, at work by 7:00, home by 4:30. Then it’s chores and helping the kids with homework and anything else that needs to be done. Everyone’s in bed by 10:00 or so. That’s when I finish writing. I’ll read a little after. Then it’s bed, and the whole wonderful thing begins anew.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
Comfortable chair, big drafting table, stack of paper, a good fountain pen, a lamp, and a cup of coffee.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
Way back before I became a fiction writer, I got wind that the local newspaper was looking for a weekly columnist. Keeping the whole platform thing in mind, I sent five samples of my best work to the Op/Ed. page editor. He wrote back a week later to decline, and the reason he gave was as straightforward as they come—“You’re just not a good writer.” I wish I could say I shrugged that remark off and kept plugging away. I didn’t. I quit. I went six months without writing a thing, and it left me a horrible person. For me, not writing was worse than criticism. I decided then that good or not, I was a writer.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
The best advice I ever received was from a teacher who said the only way to write is to do it naked. (No, not that kind of naked.) She told me that all the flowery prose and gripping suspense and exciting conflict in the world won’t hold a reader, but making a connection will. The only way to do that is to bare yourself on the page warts and all, without fear. I keep that advice in mind every time I pick up a pen.
Billy Coffey’s novels combine small-town life with the supernatural in order to explore issues of faith and frailty. He lives with his wife and two children in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. You can learn more about Billy on his website as well as follow him on Twitter – @billycoffey.