Billy Coffey and his wife, Joanne, live with their two children in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. A product of his small-town locale, Billy counts as assets his rural authenticity, unwavering sense of purpose, and insatiable curiosity — all of which tend to make his front porch a comfortably crowded place. He is the author of four novels: Snow Day (2010), Paper Angels (2011), When Mockingbirds Sing (2013), and The Devil Walks in Mattingly (2014).
Q: What was the inspiration behind the storyline for The Devil Walks in Mattingly?
He was a short, awkward boy plagued with acne and a head of greased auburn hair that he kept parted to the side. I shared seven years of my life with him, from the sixth grade through our high school graduation. He wasn’t the only one I spent that time with, of course. There were others, eighty or so of us, all bound by the same small town. We hung out with one another and got in trouble with one another, hated and loved together, all of us but him.
Aside from the occasional nod in the hallway between classes, I never had dealings with him. He was a nonentity to me, a barely-there ghost I chose not to see.
Even now, some twenty years later, that boy will cross my mind. I don’t know where he’s gone or what’s become of him. I like to think he’s made something of himself. I often think he hasn’t, and I wonder how much of that is because of me.
That boy became Phillip McBride’s character in The Devil Walks in Mattingly. In many ways, Jake’s, Kate’s and Taylor’s struggle to atone for their sins somehow of what happened to Phillip mirror my own struggle to come to terms with that boy so long ago. The novel is three people’s quest for redemption, but it is also my attempt at an apology.
Q: In The Devil Walks in Mattingly, we meet three characters whose lives are crippled by secrets. We all must deal with failure and regret, but many struggle moving forward. Why do you think we allow our pasts to dictate our future?
I think a lot of it centers upon the fact that we’re largely powerless to do anything about what’s been done. We can try to make amends, try to move on, but yesterday often finds a way to leak into today. The past can be a great source of comfort, but it can also be a ghost that rattles its chains whenever things get dark. What makes it scary is that ghost is us – it’s who we once were. And no matter how far we’ve come, those rattling chains can tempt us into believing people never really change at all.
Q: What advice do you have for people who find themselves constantly reminded of their mistakes? How do we move forward?
I believe the only way forward is through forgiveness. God’s forgiveness, absolutely, which is always given and given freely. But I’m talking about forgiving yourself as well, and that is much harder. We’re taught to be merciful to others, show them grace. We understand there isn’t a soul in this world who isn’t fighting a great battle every moment of every day. Yet when it comes to ourselves, all that teaching and understanding goes out the window. We can’t grow up until we screw up. It’s as important to remember that as it is to remember that God is our judge, not ourselves (which is a good thing because He’s much more loving).
Q: Sometimes we try to justify or rationalize our bad decisions by saying what we did was for the greater good or was for the best in the long run. Do you think that is just a way of trying to cover our guilt, or do we really believe a wrong somehow makes a right?
Speaking just for myself, I’d say both. Our current culture seems to believe a wrong somehow makes a right – that it doesn’t matter what you do or how you do it, so long as the end result leaves you better off than you were. And more than anything, we certainly want to justify ourselves in the things we do, even if we know justification is a lie, if only to preserve our egos. We’re great masters of deception, but we have yet to learn that we don’t deceive others nearly as well as we do ourselves.
Q: Do you tend to write yourself and your own faith journey into your stories? If so, what are some similarities in The Devil Walks in Mattingly and your own life?
I don’t know of any authors who can’t help but include a bit of themselves into their stories. I’m no different. The characters I create are always some part of me, whether large or small. In this case, I’d say I’m no different than anyone else with regard to regrets and remorse, much of which haunt me still and perhaps always will. And in the process of learning to deal with those feelings, I became all three of Devil‘s main characters at one time or another. I was Jake, trying to push it all down and keep it hidden. I was Kate, trying to balance scales that could never be balanced at all by my own power. And I was even Taylor, trying to craft some sort of righteous reason for the mistakes I’ve made.
Q: What is the key message you hope readers walk away with? Is there a Bible verse that goes along with The Devil Walks in Mattingly?
Forgiveness comes through the grace of God, unearned and free, and that through Him our broken pieces can be made whole again. I thought often of Psalm 68:19 as I wrote this story: “Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens.”
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