My Book Club’s March selection was Billy Coffey’s intriguing debut novel When Mockingbirds Sing which is a novel perfectly suited for Book Club’s to discuss the intricacies of both plot and characters.
Billy was gracious enough to respond to our many questions which I hope you all now enjoy!
NJBC: Did you consider using a boy for Leah’s character? Can you describe the thought process involved in choosing a 9 year old girl?
Billy: The first character I had in mind for this story was The Rainbow Man, and my daughter was the genesis for all of that. She was nine years old when I began writing the book, which felt like a good age for Leah’s character. Writing children was both exciting and terrifying, because I’d never done that before. I wanted to do it as right as I could, so I crafted Leah’s character according to how I thought my own little girl would be given those same circumstances.
Are you planning another book that would include Leah when she is a teenager / adult? (I would be interested in whether her visions return, and any long-term repercussions – either mental / relational / other)
The great thing about setting all of your stories in the same small town is that, so long as a character is still alive and kicking, sooner or later you’re bound to run into him or her again. Everyone knows everyone in a place like that. Everyone is connected. So yes, I can imagine Leah popping up again in some way. She’s without a doubt the main character in When Mockingbirds Sing, yet she remains largely a mystery because nothing in the story is told through her point of view. It would be interesting to see what’s become of her, especially in light of the fact that God is never done with any of us.
As a child, I had an imaginary friend named Reason. He was with me until around 5. I have fond memories of him! Did you have an imaginary friend? If not, what gave you the idea of an imaginary friend for the story?
My imaginary friend was named Larry. I can’t remember if I named him that or if he named himself. He enjoyed turning himself into other things. During the day, he was mostly a boy my age. At night, he was an angel that stood over me to keep the monster under my bed away. Larry was with me until I started school, then we parted ways. I think I left him rather than the other way around. In the story, Allie tells Leah that we kill our imaginary friends when we stop believing in them. That seems like an awful thing, but I think it’s true.
When Mockingbirds Sing
What marks the boundary between a miracle of God and the imagination of a child?
Nine-year-old Leah’s invisible friend seems harmless enough until he aids her in upsetting the tranquility of her new town, a place where her parents desperately hoped she’d finally be able to make friends and fit in. Hidden within a picture she paints for a failed toymaker are numbers that win the toymaker millions. Suddenly, townspeople are divided between those who see Leah as a prophet and those who are afraid of the danger she represents. Caught in the middle is Leah’s agnostic father, who clashes with a powerful town pastor over Leah’s prophecies and what to do about them.
When the imaginary friend’s predictions take an ominous turn and Leah announces that a grave danger looms, doubts arise over the truthfulness of her claims. As a violent storm emerges on the day of the annual carnival, Leah’s family and the town of Mattingly must make a final choice to cling to all they know or embrace the things she believes in that cannot be seen.
What does it mean when a mocking bird comes to your house and DOESN’T sing?
I’ve never come across one that didn’t sing. Which I suppose means we’re all in some way searching for something better and more, right?
How did ‘When Mockingbirds Sing’ come to be?
The Rainbow Man was my daughter’s imaginary friend. He arrived at the foot of her bed one night when she was four years old. The two of them hit it off immediately. She’d sit in bed for hours in deep conversation with him, which didn’t bother me much until the night I realized my daughter seemed to be doing just as much listening as she was talking. When I asked what they talked about all the time, she said The Rainbow Man told her something really bad was going to happen soon, and then something really good. A few months later, my daughter was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. The Rainbow Man left soon after. The description Leah gives of him in the book is the description my daughter gave me.
What would you like your readers to take away from this story?
I think a lot of people are under the perception that following God means everything in your life will suddenly get better. The world will be brighter, the sun will feel warmer, and if hard times come it’s because you’ve somehow fallen out of His favor. In my experience, that’s not how it works at all. If anything, life can get harder with God. He’s not as interested in your comfort or your happiness near as much as He’s interested in your soul. He’s out to make you better, and that often means walking with you through some very hard circumstances. That’s what I want readers to take away—that it isn’t easy to follow where God leads, but following where He leads is all that matters.
I thought it was quite a controversial path, to have God ordain someone gambling and winning big. Indeed I have known have refused to take winnings from such activity. I wondered firstly what kind of feedback have you had about that, and how did that become a part of the story?
I’ll admit I was a bit worried about the whole thing. The lottery is big here in Virginia, and there are many here (myself included) who believe it preys upon the less fortunate.
I tried preparing myself for a flurry of negative feedback from not only including the lottery in the story, but having it become the catalyst that sets everything off. I haven’t received any, though. I give it over to the notion that readers somehow understand why Barney resorted to gambling. It shows just how desperate his life had become. He knew playing was wrong, felt horrible about it, and yet also felt he had no choice left. He likens it to poison but rationalizes it by saying when you’re hungry enough, even poison tastes good. I think people understand that rationalization all too well.
I spent the whole book wondering if the Rainbow Man was of God or Satan because of the shroud of mystery around his character. Did you intend for that element of the story to be so mysterious?
I did. I wanted that question to remain in the reader’s mind until the very end. was the Rainbow Man real, or was he merely the product of a lonely child’s mind? And if he was real, who exactly was he? I’ve always thought the best stories were the ones who became a mirror a reader can hold up to his or herself. By looking at these characters and immersing yourself in their lives, you gain a better understanding of your own beliefs. I hope I accomplished that with this book.
What does a normal day look like for you?
I’m up before the sun and usually at work before it peeks over the mountains. Writing is a tough thing to be able to do full-time, so I have a day job delivering mail at a local college. I’m home by 4:30 and spend time with my wife and kids. I’ll write when they go to bed. I like the peace of a dark night. It helps the words come. I write a chapter a night when I’m working on a book, which means sometimes I’m done in an hour and sometimes it’s much later. I usually get to bed between midnight and 1:00, then it starts all over again.
There are many times throughout the story that Leah refers to her dad as someone ‘who loves too much’. It is used again to describe Allie’s father at the end of the book. Could you explain why you use this phrase and if it has been familiar to you before writing it down?
That phrase was something that just bubbled up in the course of writing the first draft, and I thought it fit well. I’m of the opinion that the vast majority of people who either lose their faith in God or never had any faith at all choose that way of life not through and abundance of malice, but an abundance of feeling. They look at all of this world’s hardships, see all the pointless suffering and all the horrible injustices, and they wonder what sort of God would allow such things. Their answer tends either what Allie’s father comes to believe—that there is some great Designer who set things in motion and then only stepped back to observe—or what Leah’s father has always believed—that there is no God at all. Neither of these men are bad. Both prove themselves loving and protective fathers. But they allow their emotions to dictate their faith, when faith in God requires a good dose of reason.
I felt very much for Allie by the end of the book. She had proven to be such a friend to Leah, through thick and thin, displaying a loyalty weighed and measured carefully in light of the unfolding circumstances. Yet in spite of all this, we find Allie trading places with Leah, as Allie loses her mum in such a traumatic way, left with a father who ‘loves too much’. Did you always intend for Allie’s character to suffer like that? If yes, what was your intention in doing that?
It wasn’t my intention to leave Allie in such a dire situation by the end of the book. Part of the magic of writing is that characters sometimes take on a life of their own, and that’s what happened with her. In many ways, it was Allie and not Leah who became the central character of the story. I’ll go so far as to say of all the characters who inhabit my novels, she’s my favorite. It’s sad to say a writer’s favorite characters are often the ones who end up hurting the most, but that was true in this case. Halfway through writing the book, I realized I wasn’t quite done with Allie yet. She still has a mother to find, after all. Her journey continues in a book I just finished writing. It’s called In the Heart of the Dark Wood, and it’ll be out this November.
Leah’s faith in the ‘Rainbow Man’ had an element that seemed so dark at times, particularly when Leah’s character was compelled to do certain things. This seems quite different to the Christian faith, as our faith is exercised by choice rather than by compulsion. Does the ‘Rainbow Man’ represent God? If yes, why did Leah feel so compelled to keep doing all that ‘He’ asked?
The Rainbow Man represents as much of God as Leah is able to comprehend. I think her compulsion to keep doing all He asked was based on a very real love she felt for Him. That love was what propelled her, helped her carry on, and it also covered up a great deal of fear and confusion she felt over having Him in her life. The Rainbow Man always seemed to be giving Leah pieces rather than the whole. He showed her only the next step, not the four steps after. And in that I find a great parallel to what Christians find in a life of faith. Leah knew that The Rainbow Man would lead her into dark and dangerous places—in fact, her own “valley of the shadow of death”—but she loved and trusted Him enough to follow.
The Reverend, Reggie Goggins, seemed so believable as a small town preacher, caring for all those within his parish, including Barney and Mabel. His character, position and faith seemed to be in direct competition with Leah. Were you always going to ‘kill off’ his character? Was there any other way you could see to ‘save’ his character? Also, did you create the Reggie’s character based on someone you know?
I crafted Reggie’s character just as you said—as a typical small town preacher. Much of the “bad press” Christianity receives generally comes from those who have the huge followings and the television deals. But there is a whole world full of pastors like Reggie Goggins, good men and women who tend to their small flocks and live their lives in service to their congregations. They are the true backbone of the Christian faith, in my opinion.
I didn’t set out to kill Reggie. It just sort of happened. He lived his life wanting only to see the face of God. He was pious, devoted to the God he loved, and yet Reggie had a strong prideful streak in him that Leah exposed. It was only upon facing death that Reggie was able to think himself as small, and that was what allowed him the blessing of that one thing he’d always wanted in life. In the end, Reggie saw the face of God.
I found there were a number of further questions you seem to leave unanswered or open to interpretation. Is this intentional and why? For example, we don’t seem to find out what the ‘first big magic’ in Mattingly was, a hold called ‘Happy Hollow’. Allie and Leah’s friendship seems uncertain and we don’t have any real sense of whether it will ever be as close and loyal as it was. Also, there is no definitive ending for Allie’s mother, Mary…she could have died in the storm but no body has been discovered, or the ‘Rainbow Man’ could have swept her up etc.
Those were all intentional. I have it in my head that every story I write about the people of Mattingly can stand alone, but they each also point to a broader story that’s being told a piece at a time about the town itself. There is usually a clue or two in one book that points to the next book coming. The “first big magic” and Happy Hollow both take center stage in the novel I have coming out now, and the issue with Allie and her mother will be resolved in the book after.
That said, there’s also another reason. It seems strange to say given my books are tinged with otherworldly elements, but my chief aim is to keep as close to reality as I can. To me, reality is that we don’t always find all the answers in life, and what ones we do find always seem to lead to more questions. I fought myself to keep those lingering questions in the book, to not tie them all up with a nice bow and have everyone smiling at the end. It just didn’t seem honest.
Barney’s devotion to Mabel was described so well…was their relationship and circumstance based on people in your own life?
I know Barney and Mabel well, though they go by different names in real life. They usually share the left side of the pew my family sits in at church each Sunday. “Barney” and “Mabel” was once dynamic figures in our church, teaching Sunday School classes, singing in the choir, organizing the summer Bible School for children in the community. About seven years ago, “Mabel” did indeed have a stroke. And though her vocabulary has increased a good deal since, “I love you” was for a time all she said. It was a bit of beauty in such a sad situation, as is the way her husband has cared for her since.
How long did it take you to write this book and where did you get the idea from?
The idea originated with my daughter’s imaginary friend. It blossomed into this one question: Who would God choose to speak through? I settled on a little girl like Leah, rather than someone like Reverend Goggins. I know I’m often guilty of putting God in a box, of saying This is what He would do and This is what He would never do, even if deep down I know that’s not the way faith works. His ways are not our ways, His thoughts not our thoughts. There’s a good deal of mystery involved, and in that mystery is where I like to write.
Why did you start writing novels?
My first novel didn’t start out as a novel at all, but a memoir. I’d tried for years to find an agent and a publisher for it, all to know avail. Then everything happened all at once. I found an agent and a publisher in the span of about three months. But there was one catch—the publisher wanted to turn my memoir into a novel. At that point, I would have turned it into a cookbook if it meant being published, so I said Yes, please and thank you. As it turned out, that was the best thing that could have happened to me.
That’s how I started writing novels. And I’ve found that what keeps me writing them is what made me pick up a pen in the first place—I have questions. Writing stories is the best way I know to answer them.
You share your “come to Jesus moment” on your website. Please share a little of your faith journey since that time.
You could say my faith is a product of my region. The American South holds many of the sins of my country, but it also contains much of the grace. My town has grown up along with me, but there was a time when it was quite similar to Mattingly. There are about four times as many churches here as there are stoplights, and the cows still outnumber the people. Religion and faith here tend to reflect that sensibility. We cling to God in good times, which are often, and in bad, which are many. There have been quite a few rocky patches between God and me, but He won’t let me go and I don’t want Him to. I couldn’t write a word without Him. No one’s been shown more mercy and grace than I have.
What’s up next novel wise?
The Devil Walks in Mattingly is out now, and goes a long way in answering some of those lingering questions from When Mockingbirds Sing. It focuses on the Jake Barnett, Mattingly’s sheriff, his wife Kate, and the horrible secret that’s haunted them for twenty years.