The Devil Walks in Mattingly – Q&A with Billy Coffey

Billy headshot 2014We’re back! My book has now gone to the printer (much more on that to come), so I am able to resurrect my blog in the best way possible, by talking about a terrific new book. Billy Coffey has just published his fourth novel, The Devil Walks in Mattingly, and it is his best yet. In fact, this is the first book of his that I’ve given five stars to, on Goodreads (and that was certainly one of my most convoluted sentences).

Like the great Rick Bragg and the late, great William Gay, Billy is a southern boy who has a magical gift for storytelling. He’s also the hardest-working writer I know, and if he’s not really famous some day, I’ll eat my hat.

(Inasmuch as I don’t wear hats, this is not much of a promise. But still.)

If you need comparisons, this story is similar to Frank Peretti’s best work, only less preachy and more lyrical. It’s dark, it’s lovely, it’s unputdownable.

Once again, Billy was nice enough to stop by and talk to me about all sorts of nerdy things. It might literally be the best interview ever. Except for the fact that I somehow failed to work Benedict Cumberbatch into the questions.

Read on. Continue reading

When Mockingbirds Sing – A Chat with Billy Coffey

Billy 2013Oh, this is EXCITING.

With each novel Billly Coffey has released, his writing and story-telling skills have taken a quantum leap upwards. When Mockingbirds Sing, his brand-new book, is the kind of fiction I wish all Christian novelists were producing.

Billy is one of my favorite people: geeky-cool and polite and incredibly well-read. That’s not why I promote his work, though. I have too much respect for literature to fudge about quality. Billy just also happens to be one of my favorite writers, period, and is getting better all the time.

When Mockingbirds Sing is one of a planned series of stories set in the fictional small town of Mattingly. The book centers around Leah, a wise child with a bad stutter who creates marvelous, disturbing paintings. Her best friend and fierce defender is Allie, one of the most delightful characters I’ve ever run across. There is a storm coming to Mattingly. Nerves are on edge and relationships are in jeopardy. Just who is the Rainbow Man? Will anyone heed Leah’s message?

Continue reading

Ebert, Art, and Life after Death

The great writer Roger Ebert died yesterday, and the news made me cry. Not as soon as I read it but an hour later, when I was driving to the bookstore (hurrying, since I had only a short while before school pick-up) to buy a copy of Roger’s memoir, Life Itself, which I’d meant to read for some time.

The news of his death was sudden, coming just two days after he’d announced a “leave of presence” from his movie review column, two days after he’d written that he was “not going away.” Despite his poor health he’d sounded cheerful, as he always had since 2006, when cancer tore off part of his face and left him unable to speak or eat or drink.

Image courtesy of Photobucket

Image courtesy of Photobucket

Roger has long been one of my favorite writers. His writing, always beautiful, became more so after his physical voice was silenced. Most writers, even the great ones, have to labor over their words, but not Roger, not really. He knew he was an expert at it, and beautiful, clever sentences came easily to him. He said so, and it’s evident in his work.

In the last few years, when deciding whether or not to see a movie, I would go first to Roger’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times. Most of the time if Roger liked a movie, I would, too. But sometimes I’d read his reviews just for the pleasure of reading his writing.

Anyway, as I drove down the freeway yesterday, there were tears in my eyes. Partly for the way Roger had lived out his last painful years, bravely and gracefully, and partly because death always jars me, reminds me that although it often feels like there is a concrete wall between this reality and the next, billions of miles separating us, that barrier is, in fact, as thin as mist, as close as the clothes lying against my skin.

There is a flimsy curtain there, nothing more. And from time to time, the artists are the ones who draw it back.

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Last year I read another memoir by another physically broken man, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle during the 1990’s. He lived in the most romantic city in the world. He held a prestigious job in a glamorous industry. He was moderately wealthy, reasonably well-known.

And those pretty adjectives blew away like ash in December of 1995, when Bauby suffered a massive stroke and was left with a rare condition called locked-in syndrome – a paralysis so complete that he was not even able to speak. He could only blink one eye. His intellect remained unimpaired.

Bauby worked out a system of communication – an assistant would recite letters of the French alphabet (in order of most frequent to least), and he would blink his left eye when she got to the correct letter. It took them about two minutes to write a single word. In this way, he delivered his memoir.

The beginning was rough. He wrote about the difficulty of realizing his new limitations:

They had to place a special cushion behind my head: it was wobbling about like the head of one of those African women upon removal of the stack of rings that has been stretching her neck for years. “You can handle the wheelchair,” said the occupational therapist, with a smile intended to make the remark sound like good news, whereas to my ears it had the ring of a life sentence…

As three orderlies laid me back down, I thought of movie gangsters struggling to fit the slain informer’s body into the trunk of their car.

The book is astonishingly good. Brief and transcendent.

Fifteen months after the accident that took his body, and three days after publication of the book that would make him famous, Bauby died. He did not live to see his work become an international bestseller. He never read the sensational reviews from critics around the world, who called his memoir “one of the great books of the century.”

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Ah, but Bauby lives on. When I read his words I sit in his hospital room with him, seeing what he sees through his one good eye (his other one is sewn shut.) We roam the halls together, lost in thought. He is wheeled to the beach for some fresh air, and we both smell the French fries that he can no longer taste.

As Rick Bragg wrote in his prologue to All Over but the Shoutin’, “In these pages I will make the dead dance again with the living, not to get at any great truth, just a few little ones.” This is a great artist’s eternal gift and reward – they live on, through decades and centuries to come. They are never really in the past tense.

And when their stories (or music or pictures) pull back that thin curtain, make us feel that other, we get a shiver up our spines.

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I started reading Roger’s memoir last night. It is exactly as marvelous as I’d hoped. We’re walking through his life together. He’s pointing out everything he saw that was sweet or terrible or funny or droll. He’s telling me a story, and it is very, very good.

And I am grateful.

Gay Writes

America lost a national treasure on Thursday, when the brilliant writer William Gay died of heart failure at the age of 68.

I’d never heard of Gay before I picked up the 2007 edition of The Best American Short Stories, which included his story “Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?” From the first sentence (“The Jeepster couldn’t keep still.”), I was hooked.

In the story, Gay wrote in the third person but altered his writing style to reflect the texture and pulse of the story. (This is not something writers attempt very often. The best example I’ve read is Annie Proulx’s wondrous The Shipping News.) Gay’s protagonist, referred to only as “The Jeepster,” is a crazy drug addict whose ex-girlfriend has been killed, and he’s on a mission to see her body at the funeral home. The prose matches his state of mind: jittery, taut, hopped up on adrenaline and who knows what else. Continue reading

I Don’t Know How She Does It

We need to talk about Alice Munro. Oh, how we need to talk about Alice.

On most subjects, it is difficult for me to pin down my “favorite” thing: meal, drink, movie, color – there are just too many different categories, people. Who could possibly be so decisive? But when it comes to writing, I have no such difficulty. Of the thousand or so different authors I’ve read, for my money, Alice Munro is the best.

Alice is a Canadian who writes fiction, mostly short stories, and she has earned the highest respect of virtually all literary critics and most successful writers. Think of a writer you love (go ahead), and I can almost guarantee that not only are they familiar with Alice, they are at least slightly in awe of her talent. The perennial literary darling Jonathan Franzen calls her “the Great One.” In a 2004 piece in The New York Times (which was ostensibly a review of Alice’s book Runaway, but which was actually a lengthy essay on Alice’s sheer awesomeness), Franzen said this:

“She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion. For as long as I’m immersed in a Munro story, I am according to an entirely make-believe character the kind of solemn respect and quiet rooting interest that I accord myself in my better moments as a human being.”

Whenever Alice pens a new short story, it is snapped up by one of the most prestigious publications in the world. Her work is included in nearly every annual “Best of the Year” story collection. In 2009, she won the Man Booker International Prize (given for a lifetime body of work), only the third person to have done so.

Yet Alice Munro is not a household name – and to serious readers, this is a serious affront.

Here is how it is between Alice and me: I don’t know how she does it. And I couldn’t care less. (I spent about five minutes, once, trying to figure out her technique, and then I wisely gave up.)

Can I at least describe what Alice does? I can try, but the problem there is, unless you are actually Alice herself, you don’t possess the literary talent to do her work justice. Quoting her directly is a better method of illustrating what she does.

Well, since you asked.

From the 1997 compilation of her best work, Selected Stories:

“The doctor, the heart specialist, said that her heart was a little wonky and her pulse inclined to be jumpy. She thought that made her heart sound like a comedian and her pulse like a puppy on a lead. She had not come fifty-seven miles to be treated with such playfulness but she let it pass, because she was already distracted by something she had been reading in the doctor’s waiting room.”

And from another story:

“Stella wonders where this new voice of Catherine’s comes from, this pert and rather foolish and flirtatious voice. Drink wouldn’t do it. Whatever Catherine has taken has made her sharper, not blunter. Several layers of wispy apology, tentative flattery, fearfulness, or hopefulness have simply blown away in this brisk chemical breeze.”

And here is the final paragraph of one of my favorite stories, “Material”:

“Gabriel came into the kitchen before he went to bed, and saw me sitting with a pile of test papers and my marking pencils. He might have meant to talk to me, to ask me to have coffee, or a drink, with him, but he respected my unhappiness as he always does; he respected the pretense that I was not unhappy but preoccupied, burdened with these test papers; he left me alone to get over it.”

It is often noted that Alice’s short stories contain more depth than most full-length novels. Not only does she waste no paragraphs or sentences, she seems to waste no words. But her prose is not terse, like Hemingway’s; it is rich and full, it breathes and floats and is full of warmth.

It’s also as sharp as a dagger.

There are no zombies in Alice’s work, no explosions or natural disasters, no fantastic plots, very few murders. This is not how she keeps a reader turning the pages. Alice generally writes about simple people: housewives and grandparents and bewildered young women and children, in the most normal of settings: in cars, on farms, in retirement homes or back porches or shabby living rooms – but in the middle of this perfect ordinariness, she (as one reviewer put it) “flays” her characters, exposes their inner lives in ways that are shocking in the sense of recognition they stir in the reader.

Even if you have never been in these situations yourself, you think, “Yes! Yes. That is exactly how it is.” Even if you have never met anyone like these characters, you believe that Alice has pegged them perfectly.

Within a sentence or two, Alice gives you exactly enough information to completely understand how each character operates and what motivates them. This is in no way an easy skill. There are very few novelists who can do this, and none do it as well as Alice Munro.

Virtually all of her stories are sprinkled with the kind of sentences that most talented writers are happy to craft a few times in their entire careers. Like:

“Because if she let go of her grief even for a minute it would only hit her harder when she bumped into it again.”

Or when a character narrates this:

“This was the first time I understood how God could become a real opponent, not just some kind of nuisance or large decoration.”

Who the freak writes like this?!

The author Pat Conroy, in explaining his love of reading (and great writing), says this:

“I cheer when a writer stops me in my tracks, forces me to go back and read a sentence again and again, and I find myself thunderstruck, grateful the way readers always are when a writer takes the time to put them on the floor.”

Which nicely illustrates the difference between mediocre writers – or even good writers – and great ones. If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between “literature” and every other kind of fiction, I believe that would be it. Average writers may have the ability to capture me with a story, but they do not write stunning sentences that put me on the metaphorical floor with their beauty.

Alice Munro does this, to a greater degree than any other writer I’ve read. In fact, if I was going to be stranded on a deserted island, and could only have one work of fiction with me, I’d choose her Selected Stories.

Yeah, she’s that good.

Look, Alice doesn’t have to be your favorite writer. You don’t have to love her work as much as I do. Her stories don’t have to be your “cup of tea.”

But, my dear fellow writers: if, while reading Alice’s best work (and Selected Stories or Runaway are excellent places to start – or shoot, check out her story “Dimension,” here), you do not at least recognize the level of skill she possesses, if you do not see the genius of what she’s doing – well then, in my opinion, you have some more work to do.

That’s all.

Have you experienced the writings of Alice The Great? And which authors put you “on the floor” with their writing?