On writing: What I could write and why I don’t.

For as long as I can remember, I could write. And not just write, but write well.

When I decided to write books for publication, I surprised some folks.

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“Do you really want to be known as something eone who writes about sexual abuse?” (A pastor asked me that one.)

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“Why can’t you write stories like ___(insert favorite Christian romance genre writer here)___.” (A relative asked me that.)

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I’ve fielded countless other similar questions since then. Still, my novels (with all gratefulness and glory to Him) sell well enough that I have a fourth one coming out in 2018, and a re-release of the said sexual abuse story in less than two months, September 1 to be exact.

The people who asked those questions above were right. Kind of. To be sure, my novels are meant to entertain. Each has threads of romance, intrigue, and even a little mystery in them. But those things aren’t ultimately what propels the characters, or me to write them.

I’m well aware that I don’t write what I “should” write–at least not in the eyes of others. I write the stories I argue with God about until I’m 100% certain that’s what He wants me to write. I write as a reluctant introvert and as someone who could write genre romance or Hallmark-esque stories, but I’m not called to write those. Some writers are, and that’s spectacular for them. Truly. Readers want and need and buy those books. They sell well. But whenever I’ve tried to write something more like so-and-so or less personally honest or less edgy or whatever descriptives/labels you’d like to use, I just can’t. My mind goes blank. Either that, or what comes out is a linguistically shameful blob of nonsense. (Just ask my beloved editors.)

Nevertheless, if a lifetime of Bible stories have taught me anything, it’s this: Most people won’t understand the work of someone who is listening to or following the Lord.

That doesn’t stop me from struggling with what I feel called to write. It’s downright scary to put stories out there I know are going to ruffle some feathers.

Gratefully, what I write and why made a little more sense to me when my pastor spoke this weekend about Proverbs 24:10-12. Here it is in The Message version:

“If you fall to pieces in a crisis,
there wasn’t much to you in the first place.
Rescue the perishing;
don’t hesitate to step in and help.
If you say, “Hey, that’s none of my business,”
will that get you off the hook?
Someone is watching you closely, you know—
Someone not impressed with weak excuses.”

 

See, I was perishing once. Still am, if I’m honest. Back when I wrote my first novel, How Sweet the Sound, I was perishing under the weight of having been sexually abused for over 10 years as a child and I had questions…BIG questions…for a God I grew up believing could stop such evil, and yet it had happened to me. I learned there were hundreds of thousands of others who had suffered the same way, so I couldn’t say sexual abuse wasn’t any of my business. Sexual abuse was all about my business. And when I argued with God about why it all happened, well…

How Sweet the Sound was born.

How Sweet the Sound is an unlikely novel about an unlikely family in Southern Alabama torn apart by the same fate I suffered. I wrote and wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote, until not only did I have a book about it, but I had a book of hope. And that’s the key to my stories right there.

I wrote a book of hard and a book of hope.

Whether or not it ever makes a best-seller list makes no difference, especially in light of Proverbs 24:10-12.

What makes a difference are the tens of hundreds of notes and handshakes and nods from others who’ve been sexually abused and say to me, “Me too. Thank you.”

Me too.

Thank you.

What they thank me for is not a book as much as for the hope the characters in that story found in the midst of their perishing circumstances.

Each one of my books is like that. How Sweet the Sound is about not turning my head to and finding hope in the midst of sexual abuse. Then Sings My Soul is about not turning my head to the plight of the aging and elderly. Lead Me Home is about not turning my head to the plight of small churches and small communities and overlooked people in our midst. And my fourth book (title TBD), releasing in 2018, is about not turning my head to the plight of the unborn, the plight of birth mothers, and the plight of those in the midst of the opiod epidemic that’s happening right smack in the middle of each of our back yards.

The sexually abused, the aging, small folks, and the unborn and birth mothers…all of them have two very real things in common:

1) People turn their heads to them.

2) They’re all desperate for hope in the midst of perishing situations.

Because when you’ve got nothing, hope means everything.

(((which just might be a direct quote from my upcoming 2018 novel)))

Could there be any greater reason to write–or to read, for that matter–than that?

Hope.

Hope in the midst of struggle. In the midst of terror. In the midst of grief. In the midst of abuse. In the midst of even death.

If one person picks up one of my books and finds that, well then I’ve done my job.

Recently I finished reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. (He was a writer who, in his time was often misunderstood and ridiculed and chastised. I’m smitten!) So many things moved me about that story, in particular the parallels between the hopelessness of the dust bowl era and migrants searching for survival in California, and the hopelessness of America’s current small towns and the poor and marginalized within them. These words in particular brought me to tears (and do again even as I type them):

“Where does courage come from? Where does the terrible faith come from?…The people in flight from the terror behind–strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever.” ~John Steinbeck

I’ve seen a lot of bitter cruelty first hand, whether personally, or in the eyes of friends in Ukraine where abortion is seen as simple birth control, or on the faces of an aging hospital patient who never has visitors, or at the bedside or graveside of someone riddled by the effects of an opiate addiction.

Some may say my faith is terrible, and in many ways I’m sure is. I doubt. I wrestle. I sin. And I sin again. I have often prayed the prayer, “Oh Lord, help me overcome my unbelief.”

But in and because of all of that, my faith is refired forever.

The perishing are my business.

Therefore my writing will never be off the hook.

Someone’s watching, after all.

Someone’s watching.

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Stay tuned for details about my novel, How Sweet the Sound, releasing September 1 with a brand new cover and a chapter from my brand new 2018 novel.

Also, Lead Me Home is on sale for e-readers across all your favorite platforms. Click here for options: http://ebookdeals.net/

 

Billy Coffey interview and In the Heart of the Dark Wood giveaway!

It’s the week of Thanksgiving, a time when most folks are counting their blessings, and I count my friendship with Billy Coffey as a big one. He’s one of the first real writers I met when I began my own novel writing journey, and in addition to being an incredibly gifted writer, he is an honest gentleman, and as real as they come.

So today it’s my sincere pleasure to share this interview with you, as well as some insight into his FIFTH novel, which one lucky person who leaves a comment will win (and I hope the rest of you will buy)!

Without further ado, here’s more about Billy:

billyRaised in small-town Virginia, Billy Coffey is the author of five novels, including Snow Day (2010) Paper Angels (2011), When Mockingbirds Sing (2013) and The Devil Walks in Mattingly (2014).  He he’s a husband and father, and in his own words, he believes the best life is one lived in the country enjoying the pleasures it provides—summer nights beneath the stars, rocking chairs on the front porch, deer grazing in the fields … and that no matter how iffy life can get sometimes, there are some things that are eternal and unchanging. Above all else, he believes that in everything there is story waiting to be told.

About In the Heart of the Dark Wood

A motherless girl hungry for hope . . . and the dream that could be leading her astray.

Almost two years have passed since twelve year-old Allie Granderson’s beloved mother Mary disappeared into the wild tornado winds. Her body has never been found. God may have spilled out his vengeance on all of Mattingly that day—but it was Allie’s momma who got swept away.

Allie clings to memories of her mother, just as she clings to the broken compass she left behind, the makeshift Nativity scene assembled in Allie’s front yard, and to her best friend, Zach. But even with Zach at her side, the compass tied to her wrist, and the Nativity characters just a glimpse out the window, Allie cannot help but feel lost in all the growing up that must get done.

hotdwWhen the Holy Mother disappears from the yard one morning, Allie’s bewilderment is checked only by the sudden movement of her mother’s compass. Yet the compass isn’t pointing north but east . . . into the inky forest on the outskirts of Mattingly.

Following the needle, Allie and Zach leave the city pavement behind and push into the line of trees edging on the Virginia hill country. For Allie, the journey is more than a ghost hunt: she is rejoining the mother she lost—and finding herself with each step deeper into the heart of the darkest woods she’s ever seen.

Brimming with lyrical prose and unexpected discoveries, In the Heart of the Dark Wood illustrates the steep transition we all must undergo—the moment we shed our child-like selves and step into the strange territory of adulthood.

Sounds amazing! Tell us more, please!

Q: HOTDW is one of the most unique books I’ve read in a long time, reminding me at once of Lewis’ Narnia and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Did either of those works inspire this story?

BILLY: I grew up living in both Narnia and Rivendell, at least in my mind. I’ll still go through The Lord of the Rings every few years, and it’s always like I’m reading those books for the first time. There’s just a magic to it all. Not just the stories and the characters, but the language itself. Tolkien was a genius.

Q: I write my first drafts in longhand, which some folks think is pretty weird. Do you have any strange or unique writing habits?

BILLY: I’ve written all my books with an old Waterman fountain pen and stack of blank Rhodia paper. I don’t think I could function without either one.

Q: What book do you wish you could have written?

BILLY: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin. I read it for the first time a while back, then turned right around and read it again. It’s still on my nightstand. It might just be the best novel I’ve ever read.

Q: Just as your books inspire authors, what authors have inspired you?

BILLY:  I grew up with Lewis and Tolkien. They inspired me, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say they inspired me to write. Hemmingway did that. My high school English teacher gave me a copy of The Old Man and the Sea one day. I read it in a night and have been hooked on writing since. Flannery O’Connor is my favorite author. Stephen King is a close second.

Q: What is your least favorite part of the publishing / writing process?

BILLY: I’d have to say the marketing. It’s travel and interviews on the radio and (twice) television. I wouldn’t say I hate it because I don’t (at least, when it’s over with I don’t), but I’m an extreme introvert. I like solitude, and I like quiet. For a few months out of the year, I don’t get to enjoy much of that. That said, I’m thankful for every bit of marketing I can do, even if I’m still trying to figure out why anyone would want to interview me.

Q: Is there one subject you would never write about as an author? What is it?

BILLY: It’s hard for me to write about family scars. My own are fair game. But the ones I love? I just can’t do that, even with fiction.

Q: Is there a certain type of scene that’s harder for you to write than others? Love? Action? Racy?

BILLY: Racy, by far. Which I guess is why I write so few of them. You have to wield a delicate hand when you’re doing that sort of thing, especially for the Christian market.

Q: Have you ever gotten into a bar fight?

BILLY: My last fight came when I was around nine years old. It wasn’t in a bar.

Q: Allie and Zach often find themselves in situations they aren’t sure they can get themselves out of. When was the last time you found yourself in a situation that was hard to get out of and what did you do?

BILLY: Before my kids were born, I was up in the mountains one December day and got completely turned around. I’d blazed my trail well enough (or thought I had, anyway) but couldn’t find a single mark leading back. So there I was, stuck in some dark holler about eight miles on the backside of nowhere, and the sun was already going down. And you know what? I was scared to death. Truly. I had a knife and could get along okay if things got down to it, but you don’t want to play Grizzly Adams in those situations, you just want to make it back to your truck. I ended up doing exactly what Allie and Zach do—I followed the water.

Q: You sure don’t shy away from death and the afterlife in our writing. What do you want your tombstone to say?

BILLY: Something upbeat and completely redneck, like Whoah, that was awesome!

Q: What literary character is most like you?

BILLY: I’m a little bit of Raylan Givens, a dash of Boyd Crowder, and a lump of Samwise Gamgee.

Q: If you were an animal in a zoo, what would you be?

BILLY: I had an old Apache Indian tell me once that my spirit guide was a wolf. I still have no idea what he meant, but I really like wolves.

Q: Do you have any scars? What are they from?

BILLY: I am riddled with scars, mostly from boyhood (dog scratches and hard falls) and baseball (I’ve broken eight out of ten fingers).

Q: What’s the one question you never get asked in interviews that you really wish someone would ask? (And what’s the answer?)

BILLY: What are you scared of? The answer is mostly everything, but clowns especially.

Q: What are you working on now? Will we see more of Mattingly?

BILLY: My next book will be out this summer. It’s the first one that takes place outside Mattingly, in one of the little hamlets that dot the mountains. It’s called The Curse of Crow Hollow. After that, though, it’s back to Mattingly.

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Billy, thank you SO very much for taking the time to visit with us here today! Thank you for helping us see things different and with hope through the words and unique stories you pen.

And a grateful, bountiful Thanksgiving to all!

*****

Leave a comment for your chance to win Billy’s newest novel, In the Heart of the Dark Wood! You don’t want to miss this, or any of Billy’s work.

second servings.

sweet tea

Shame sticks

to folks like sweat on a glass of iced tea on a hot summer day,

the condensation of cool, sweet hope as it

slams

up against thick and humid heat of pain.

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No one asks for shame

and the folks who dish it out don’t know any better. Better to assume they don’t, because the alternative would be that they shove the blame of their pain onto someone else on purpose, the recipient simply collateral damage of a load,

indeed a pall,

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no one was meant to bear.

Do you feel shame,

your shoulders aching from the weight of it, your frame bent and caddywampus from the way it makes you lumber through the days?

A sack of salt blistering your tender palms?

Because as much as we want to give up the shame we carry, most of us want to own it. If we’re honest, flat out honest, the shame feels good, and we appreciate the applause of those who notice the hunch of our tired backs, who inadvertently encourage us to hang on to the heavy instead of releasing it like the only One in history

His-

-story

who was able to say–and mean it

forgive them, Father. They know not what they do.

Here, Abba, take the shame. Because the double portion isn’t only for the shamed, but also for the one who’s dished it out, the one who piled the double portion of sorrow on the plates of others and for whom grace

oh, elusive grace

grace says the shame-throwers deserve a double portion, too. The ones who roll the dice at our feet and fight over the shredded aftermath of our soul killings, they’re captives, too, after all. They just don’t know they are.

Which is worse

Than letting go.

FrontPorchRockingChair-main_Full

Drop it, then.

A double portion waits for you and waits to overflow, runneth over, pour into the brokenness of the shame-throwers’ empty hearts.

Feels like lassoing stars, this business of dropping our beloved shame bags and sharing double portions but somehow the Gospel can handle this sort of greed and apparently joy and freedom are two of the few feasts where even in our gluttony we’re never filled.

We can’t receive even a single portion when we’re clinging to the thing we can’t give up.

But when we do, we

you

even me

even they

will be

radiant.

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Instead of your shame
    you will receive a double portion,
and instead of disgrace
    you will rejoice in your inheritance. (Isaiah 61:7-8)

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Those who look to him are radiant;
    their faces are never covered with shame.
 This poor man called, and the Lord heard him… (Psalm 34:5-6)

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The Harlan family struggles with emerging from generations of shame in the novel How Sweet the Sound. For a limited time, you can order the e-book version of the novel for only $2.99 (or even less at some retailers). Click here to choose from your favorite e-book retailer today.

And see why folks like Rachel McMillan at BreakPoint are saying How Sweet the Sound is not your grandmother’s Christian fiction (click here to read her gracious article).