One of my favorite writers is celebrating the release of his second novel today – so naturally, I had to get in on the fun.
If you’re unfamiliar with Billy Coffey, let’s fix that right now. Billy is a thirty-something writer from Virginia who keeps a blog called What I Learned Today. Ever since I discovered it last year, it’s been the one blog I would choose to take with me if I was going to be stranded on a desert island. (You know, if said island had electricity and wi-fi.) The posts consistently inspire me, soothe me, and remind me of things I didn’t know I’d forgotten.
And also, Billy’s one of the finest writers I’ve ever read. I don’t mean “in the Christian world.” I mean, anywhere.
These are the only two Christian novels I’ve chosen to read in the last seven years.
Paper Angels tells the story of Andy, a man struggling to come to terms with a vicious attack that has left him severely injured. Since a longtime companion has abandoned him, Andy is left to sort through a life’s worth of memories with the help of a compassionate stranger, a woman who visits his hospital room.
Paper Angels has already been chosen as a “Top Pick” by Christian Retailing; has received 4.5 stars from Romantic Times; and was reviewed here by Publishers Weekly.
Look, I like Billy personally, but that’s not why I support him so much – I could never fudge the truth about writing, just because I like someone. Billy is simply a superb craftsman, and his work is getting better all the time. In fact, here’s my prediction: if he continues on his current trajectory, and if fate does what it should do with talent, then Billy will someday find himself on the pages of the New York Times Book Review. Or on the national bestseller lists. Or maybe even on the short list for one of the big prizes.
Yeah, I believe in his potential that much.
Click here to read more about Paper Angels. And keep reading below for an exclusive interview with Billy, where we talk about reading, writing and NASA (naturally) – and where Billy writes a (very) short original story. Just for you.
Which came first: the character of Andy Sommerville, or the idea for the story?
The idea for the story. I’ve wanted to write a novel about angels ever since reading Peter Kreeft’s Angels and Demons. Near my daughter’s third Christmas, she brought home a paper angel she’d made in Sunday school and explained how it wasn’t a real angel, but kinda an angel. The story slowly pieced itself together in my head for the next seven years. Andy’s character came afterward. I like to think he’s my better self.
Paper Angels seemed to be outlined – do you do much free-writing?
I’d say 90 percent of my books are free-written rather than outlined. I wish I was one of those writers who can sit down and plan every chapter and detail every scene beforehand. I simply can’t. I try to divide my books into three acts. I have a vague idea of where I want to be at the end of each act, but that’s about it. The rest is faith, prayer, and a whole lot of revision.
Probably the hardest thing for me, as a reader, is to come to the end of a book and have to say goodbye to characters I’ve grown really attached to (this happened with Andy.) Do you experience this as a writer?
I absolutely hated to say farewell to Andy. He’d been through so much by the end of the book, but at the same time you have the sense that there’s so much more ahead. I don’t think it’s goodbye, though. Mattingly is a small town, and Andy will still be around. I have a feeling we haven’t heard the last of him.
Paper Angels contains a classic Hero’s Journey that could have been set in any century. If you had time to do the research, would you like to write a period novel?
I’ve always been enamored with the Colonial period. I live in Virginia. Monticello, Montpelier, and Mount Vernon are all pretty close, as are Jamestown and Williamsburg. When the farmers plow their fields near my home every spring, you can find everything from spearpoints to tomahawk heads to musket balls. There’s a great kinship to the past. So yes, Andy could well have owned a livery stable rather than a gas station.
If you could live in another country for a year (with your family) and write, which country would you choose, and why?
There’s a tiny island in the Caribbean called Saba. One road, lots of rainforest, and the clearest water you’ll ever see in your life. All on an island so friendly and so safe that the hotels don’t bother to put locks on the doors.
You have two small children and a full-time job. When on earth do you have time to read, work on your next novel, write two solid posts a week, and keep up with social media and news?
It’s definitely not easy, but it helps to prioritize things. Family and job have to come first, then whatever novel I’m working on. Blog posts are next, which means social media and the news are relegated to a few short moments of most days. I wish I could do more, but I’m no longer too proud to say I can’t.
Give us the titles of the last three books you read that blew you away.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand; Demon: A Memoir by Tosca Lee; and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (though getting through that one nearly killed me).
Do the stories that appear in The Best American Short Stories series make you want to run into the street, wave the books around and shout, “This is what writing should be!”? And do you have a favorite story from the last few editions?
Um, yes, all the time. Love that series. But though I have more than a few favorites from the last few editions, I have to say the best short story I’ve read in a long while was one Stephen King wrote for Esquire a few years ago titled Morality. Holy. Freaking. Cow.
The Court would like to apologize for the leading nature of that last question. Where would you rather be employed: The New York Times, or NASA? Explain.
Are you kidding me? NASA. Partly because The Times would never hire a redneck like me, but mostly because I could totally be a space cowboy.
I’ve recently become interested in flash fiction. Can you give us a 6-word story, a la the famous maybe-Hemingway one?
loop. Help, trapped in a time
Tell us about your next book.
It’s called Into the Maybe. It’s about a little girl named Leah Norcross, who wants nothing more for her ninth birthday than to be spared the horror of a party. What she receives instead is half of her new town in her backyard, an easel made by a failed toymaker named Barney Moore, and two new friends. One is Allie Granderson, a little girl one year Leah’s elder who is brave and gregarious, everything Leah is not. The other is The Rainbow Man, whom Leah describes as “three biggers than my small, with eyes like swimming pools and a smile like the sun and a face that looks like us all.”
At first only Allie is convinced Leah’s imaginary friend isn’t so imaginary at all. That changes when the thank-you painting The Rainbow Man helps Leah paint contains hidden numbers that allow Mr. Barney to win the lottery. The town divides itself between those who see Leah as a prophet and those who see her as a danger.
When The Rainbow Man’s paintings take an ominous turn and Leah announces a grave danger is approaching, her family and town must make a final choice to believe in all they know or in what Leah calls the Maybe. Tragedy and fear force Leah’s friends away as the town carnival approaches, along with a storm from which some lives will be lost, others will be found, and only one little girl and her imaginary friend can deliver them.
Billy is holding a drawing for signed copies of Paper Angels, over at his blog. And there’s a release party on Twitter today…follow the hashtag #PaperAngels.