Twists and Turns in the Writing Life of Billy Coffey ~ An Author Interview

by Kelly Klepfer

Tell us a bit about your current project.

The title of my newest novel is The Devil Walks in Mattingly. It’s about the death of a boy named Phillip McBride, whose body was found twenty years ago along a riverbank in a small Virginia town. His death was ruled a suicide, but three people have spent the last two decades burdened with the truth that Phillip was in fact murdered, and they are each responsible. The story traces the effects of the remorse and guilt these three people have suffered under, and what happens when that dead boy comes back for them all.

We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.  

As strange as it is to say, I became a writer through laziness and depression. I was a jock in high school. Second baseman on the varsity baseball team. Playing baseball was all I ever wanted to do. It consumed me, and when something consumes you to the point that it’s all you do and think, you’re bound to get pretty good at it. By my senior year, I was being scouted. The plan was to graduate, play baseball for the next twenty years, and retire by forty. That last sentence sounds pretty ridiculous (I was chuckling halfway through writing it), but it was true. I had a shot. A shot was all I needed.

My creative writing teacher pulled me aside one day and said that baseball or not, there was no way she was going to let me coast through my senior year. She arranged for me to write a weekly column for the local newspaper. Whatever subject I wanted, however I wanted to write about it, just so long as it wasn’t over 500 words. Busy work, for the most part, and that’s exactly how I treated it.

I tore my rotator cuff three months later. The scouts stopped coming. The doctors said I’d never play baseball again. I contemplated suicide. I was seventeen years old, and my life was over. And the worst part was that I couldn’t truly grieve over the whole thing because I had to sit down and write another stupid column for my stupid creative writing teacher. But I sat down that night and truly wrote for the first time. Honestly, deeply, wrote. About how sometimes dreams fade and sometimes they’re snatched away, and how we’re all supposed to try and pick up the pieces and move on. A week later, I received an anonymous letter from someone who wanted to thank me for what I’d said, because those words had saved her from her own suicide attempt. That’s when I decided maybe I could do more good with a pen and paper than with a glove and bat.

I’ve been writing ever since. It took twenty years to get my first book deal (some highs, LOTS of lows), and I’m getting ready to release my fourth novel with a fifth on the way.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

I don’t think there’s a writer alive who doesn’t secretly believe him-or-herself a talentless hack who will sooner rather than later be exposed as a complete charlatan. It’s part of the calling, I suppose. How I’ve learned to handle that angst is twofold. The first is to work and write every day. Keep getting those thousand words, keep churning out those pages. Keep yourself so busy creating something that you don’t have time for angst. The second is to come to grips with the fact that you will work and write every day and still not get it right. You will never produce a book that is perfect, you can only get as close as you can and then try once more. That’s part of the calling as well.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

My fiction generally steers toward Southern gothic. I write about the poor and downtrodden and morally bereft. I write about ordinary people struggling to live their lives and find a good dose of grace. All of which is to say that to me, there is no better place to spend an afternoon as a writer doing research than the nearest Walmart.

With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?  

I would use that dreaded word “patience.” You must be patient. The wheels of the publishing industry turn slowly, and if you stand abreast of them and scream “FASTER!” they only seem to slow more. With the advent of the Kindle single, there is no better time in history to be a writer than right now. There is also no worse time, because that manuscript you sweat and bleed into will become a book, and that book will become just one more drop in a swelling ocean. So be patient. And while you’re waiting, work. And while you’re working, visit the nearest Walmart.

What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
That mean, nasty creative writing teacher who refused to let me slack off during my senior year of high school. It’s still a mystery to me how she saw a talent to write under all those ripped jeans and Guns N’ Roses T-shirts, but she did. I told her early on that real men don’t sit around writing about what they feel and think. The next day, she’d placed a copy of The Old Man and the Sea on my desk. I still have that copy.

Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.

Whether our dream is to write books or find a nice job in a cubicle, we all want to matter. We all want to feel like we’re needed in some way. We all want to believe that we will be remembered for something long after we’re gone from this world. I’m no different. I’d love a string of bestsellers and a nice cabin in the mountains from my writing career, but what I’d love to accomplish is to know that what I write is used by some as a mirror by which they can look upon their deeper selves.

What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course)?

The second draft. The first draft of anything is such an awful thing, because what you’re doing is staring at a blank page and wondering how in the world you’re ever going to fill it up with words. The last draft is equally intimidating, because by then you know you’re almost done, and what will follow after is judgment from editors and readers alike. But that second draft? That’s all yours. That’s where you can tear apart things and build back better ones. That’s where you can make your sentences shine. That’s where the magic happens.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?

I write with pen and paper until I have no choice but to commit things to keyboard and screen. It’s always cheap yellow legal pads from Staples, because you don’t mind making a mess of things on cheap yellow legal pads from Staples. But the pen has to be good—very good. I’ve used a Waterman fountain pen since high school. Aside from that, I get a chapter a day, no more or less. Sometimes that means I’m done after 500 words. Other times that means it’s 2500 words and I’m working long into the night. Either way, I hate the thought of leaving things undone. One chapter means it’s done.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

I wish I could be one of those people who plans out every little plot twist and detail. A part of me thinks writing would be so much easier if that were the case, but it’s never been that way for me. I have outlines upon outlines of my previous novels, weeks of work, all of which went unused because I wanted my characters to do one thing and they all ended up wanting to do something else. So I just focus on that now—the characters. I get to know them, try to understand them, and I keep a rough sense of what happens at the beginning, middle, and end of the story. After that, I hand the reins over to the characters. They tend to know what to do better than I do, anyway.

Billy Coffey dreamed of being a published author ever since high school but vowed he would never be a novelist. Four novels later, God had a different plan in mind. Coffey’s novels tackle faith’s big questions against the backdrop of the rural South, where history is long and things are seldom as they seem. He aims to remain as true to reality as possible — the reality that we experience pain, loss and confusion. Coffey doesn’t want his readers to escape reality, but embrace life and live it better. He also uses his blog, “What I Learned Today,” to reflect on life’s lessons offered in small moments, people and everyday life.

Coffey’s fifth novel, Heart of the Dark Wood, is scheduled to release November 2014.
He lives with his wife and two children in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
For more information about Billy Coffey and his books, visit his online home at, become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

Read a review of the devil walks in mattingly here.