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Billy Coffey Tackles Themes of Guilt and Regret in Latest Novel

The Devil Walks in Mattingly
Thomas Nelson

What can’t be laid to rest is bound to rise again. Everyone has a past and has made mistakes, but what happens when those secrets grow and control our lives? “We can all be hampered by our pasts, but that in no way negates the power of choice that’s available to us all. We can choose to become more. We can choose to live better.” Billy Coffey knows life isn’t easy, and like the characters in his latest release, The Devil Walks in Mattingly (Thomas Nelson / March 11, 2014 / ISBN: 978-1401688226 / $15.99), he hopes to guide people who are shrouded in the darkness of regret to the hope and light of redemption.

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. Spend that many years with people, you get to know them. We hung out with one another and got in trouble with one another, hated and loved together, all of us but him.

He was the loner, the outcast — the shy boy who was never bright and whose mother was rumored to be a witch. It was easy to pick on him, this boy who never spoke up in class and could not look you in the eye. He was the perfect target: a ready-made punching bag for every bully and a gullible scapegoat for the rest of us.

Aside from the occasional nod in the hallway between classes, I never had dealings with him. I never picked on him, never blamed him for anything. He was a nonentity to me, a barely-there ghost I chose not to see. I knew even then that made me an accomplice in some way, just as guilty as the football players who once wedgied him to tears in the gym locker room or the girls who taunted him for his ugliness. They did much to bring him down; I did nothing to lift him up, and so we all harmed him.

Even now, some twenty years later, that boy will cross my mind. I have not seen him in my small town since our graduation. 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: One of the character says, “Secrets fester on your insides, but you live on the outside.” What are the consequences of holding on to secrets?

Those secrets grow. You hold them in and there they sit, tucked away in some dark corner of yourself, and soon they sprout and bloom and spread. But you still hold them in because you think it’s noble — you’re suffering so others won’t. That’s what’s happened to Jake’s character in the last 20 years. On the outside, he’s just as calm and strong and confident as he’s ever been. But on the inside, he’s little more than a boy. I think that’s the biggest consequence of holding on to secrets. They end up hollowing you out, robbing you of you.

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: One of the commonalities between the main characters is having abusive or absent fathers. What encouragement do you want to offer your readers who come from similar backgrounds?

I witness secondhand the plague of fatherless children every day, especially when it comes to young boys. My wife is an elementary school teacher, and the vast majority of the troubles facing her students can be traced to the disarray of their home life. I wholeheartedly believe in the presence of a strong male role model, just as I believe life without one can leave young children unmoored in the world. But I have known many boys who grew up with abusive or absent fathers and are now wonderful fathers themselves. To a man, they’ll always tell me the same thing — some kids have the benefit of being taught what to do, but they learned to love and live well by experiencing what not to do. We can all be hampered by our pasts, but that in no way negates the power of choice that’s available to us all. We can choose to become more. We can choose to live better. And we can choose to devote our lives to ensuring that the sins of our fathers (and mothers, for that matter) will not be visited on our own children.

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: One of your characters quips, “God laughs at what we say we’ll never do.” What “never” have you said at one time or the other that God may have gotten a good laugh out of?

I discovered I wanted to be a published writer in high school and devoted the next 20 years of my life to that single goal. In all that time, I swore I’d never, ever be a novelist. I was a personal essayist at heart and maybe still am. I could not fathom fiction — conjuring characters and crafting entire worlds from the imagination. Even though I still spend much of my time not fathoming fiction, I’m pretty sure God hasn’t stopped laughing over that one.

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.”

Q: Your books seem to get progressively darker and more intense — what made you delve into weightier issues?

I’d say it’s been a process. I had to decide early on if I was going to consider myself a Christian fiction writer or a fiction writer who happens to be a Christian. I’ve opted for the latter. Redemption is a big theme in all of my novels, but to find that is to start out in a bad place and fight and struggle and lose and win your way out. As strange as it may sound coming from someone who’s written a novel about haunted forests and holes in the world, my aim as a writer is to remain as true to reality as possible. To me, reality is that none of us were made for this world. Reality is that we will experience pain and loss and confusion. That we will always carry questions we will never be able to answer. And that perfect endings exist only in fairy tales. Life is a hard thing. To me, pretending otherwise is a disservice to anyone willing to spend both their time and their money reading about what I have to say. There are novelists out there who build careers on helping you escape that hard life, and I think that’s wonderful. But I don’t want you to escape the world around you. I want you to face those hard questions. I want you to embrace hard life and live it better.

Q: What are you working on next?

I’ve just finished my fifth novel, titled In the Heart of the Dark Wood. It picks up a little more than a year after the events of When Mockingbirds Sing and focuses on Allie Granderson’s character from Mockingbirds and Zach Barnett’s character from Devil. They have quite the adventure together. It’ll be out in November of this year.

For more information about Billy Coffey and his books, visit his online home at www.billycoffey.com, become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.