As the world of fiction and fantasy anticipates the publication of Billy Coffey’s fifth novel, the Virginia native talks about small-town life, witches and the difference between a good – and a great — book.
Would you know evil if you looked it in the eyes? Would you truly? – Part I
Crow Hollow is forced to examine this question when Scarlett Bickford, the mayor’s only daughter, and her friends born to the town’s elite find themselves alone in the forbidden woods for a birthday bonfire. Here, they fight for their lives against the supposed town witch and Stu Graves’ bereaved widow, Alvaretta. When they return, nothing is quite the same.
A curse befalls Scarlett, Cordelia Vest, daughter of the constable, and Naomi Ramsay, daughter of the venerable preacher. Hays Foster, the grocer’s son, appears to have escaped the battle unscathed, but, as it becomes apparent the deeper one delves into the town’s intricate story, no one is immune to Alvaretta’s hex. The fight turns quickly from town against haggard witch to neighbor against neighbor, revealing elements of humanity rarely seen unless under extreme conditions of anger and panic. A dissection of fear’s impact on humanity more so than just a spooky story, The Curse of Crow Hollow begs its readers to look inward and ask themselves “Is evil really supernatural, or is it human?”
Brittany Wallace interviewed Billy Coffey earlier this summer about his fifth novel, due out today, where he learned to tell stories and his thoughts on dealing with good and evil in the world.
BW: The third person omniscient point of view of the narrator is so unique. When reading the book, I felt completely immersed in the events being described. Why did you choose this narration style?
BC: I’ve always liked the idea of a third person omniscient narrator, but it seemed so old-fashioned. I wanted to try it this time, though, to try to capture the voice of the town and really dig into the dialect and music behind the way that we talk here in the South. I like the idea of the reader identifying with the narrator, too, and forming that bond, because it helps to strengthen that last twist at the end when we find out who the narrator really is.
Come on and sit awhile, would you? Keep a tired old man company … Won’t nobody bother you so long as you’re with me. Sides, aint many around these days. Guess that makes me town greeter, don’t it? All right, then: Welcome to Crow Holler. – Part I
BW: Along these same lines, your narrator comments frequently on the elements of the human condition. Are these statements a reflection of the whole of Crow Hollow’s people or just the narrator?
BC: I would say that’s probably mostly me. I work at a college, so I’m around the younger generation all the time. I’ve always wondered how people think, what makes them tick, so I’ve always been a student of that, and it’s worked its way into all my novels. I always thought that authors can either write good books about how we’re all different or they can try to write great books about how we’re all the same. And I really think, deep down, that we are all the same, no matter who we are. A human being is a human being.
BW: In preparation for The Curse of Crow Hollow, did you do any preliminary research on witchcraft or its relation to religion?
BC: My mom’s side of the family was Amish, and my dad’s family was straight out of the [Hollow], as country as they come. Both sides were very religious and really tied to the land here. My dad’s side would always tell stories of witches and demons and ghosts, and my mom’s side would tell stories of angels. So growing up, I got the sense that God or the Devil, one of them is after you usually all the time. That’s just kind of been woven into my books.
As far as the witch goes, I had a friend years ago who was a big hunter. Everybody in the town said that there was an old woman in the mountains who was a witch. He never paid any attention to it, and he went out hunting in the woods one day. He ended up coming over a ridge and down on the other side of it was this old cabin. There was somebody living there; smoke was coming out of the chimney. She didn’t have crows hanging from the trees [like Alvaretta did], but she had animal skins hanging from the porch. It scared him to death, and he took off out of there.
And on all those trees, on every branch low enough to reach, hung a dead crow. Hundreds of them, all strung up in nooses of thin rope to rot and twist in the breeze.” – Part III, Chapter 3
BW: The Curse of Crow Hollow has themes that are, in some respects, similar to two of your other books (The Devil Walks in Mattingly and the apparent suicide of Philip McBride vs. the supposed accidental death of Stu Graves; and When Mockingbirds Sing with Leah’s magic vs. Alvaretta Graves’s magic). How do these things resonate with you?
BC: You know, [the stories that my parents told me] really stuck to me. Storytelling is an art here, and it’s all oral. I remember there was a hardware store in town when I was growing up. Every evening, all the farmers and retirees would go in there and sit in steel chairs around a wood stove, and they would just tell stories. It was like a competition, and I would sneak in every day after school and just listen. That was where I learned to tell a story. I didn’t go to college, so I have a high school education and that’s it, but I think in that regard, an English [degree] would have done more harm than good for me, because I learned to tell stories from these old guys.
BW: Do you have experience as a soldier, or did you speak with former soldiers, to help form John David as a character?
BC: I never had the honor of serving in the military, but there are a lot of former soldiers [in Virginia]. A lot of military personnel come from the South, many of whom served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a lot of them have come back cold in a way. I think the things that they’ve seen and the things that they’ve had to do … I don’t know how that couldn’t affect you. I think when they come back, a lot of that follows them, and it’s a challenge to some to try to find the good in the world because they’ve seen so much bad … I think, of all the characters, John David proves himself the most human. I think he’s really the hero of the story because he’s trying to keep a level head, trying not to jump to conclusions. He’s just trying to keep the peace because he knows what happens when it’s lost and knows what’s at stake.
John David has left three years ago for war… only to return hard and distant.” – Part II, Chapter 3
BW: Is Crow Hollow 100 percent fictitious, or is it a patchwork of several places that you’ve experienced?
BC: I think it’s a patchwork more than anything else, of just the little towns that dot this area and the town that I grew up in and still live in. Now my town is growing up. There are more people moving in and factories and warehouses are going up where fields used to be. There are people outside of town who call it progress, but I think a lot of us in town are seeing it kind of as a death of how things used to be. It’s still a quiet little place, it’s still a peaceful place. We all still leave our doors unlocked at night, but it’s almost like our innocence has been stripped away. And once that’s gone, you can’t get it back again.
BW: What do you want your readers to take away from this novel?
BC: I think that at the end of the story and in the aftermath, nobody is ever going to be the same. At the beginning of the story, you see a little town that is dying. It’s economically depressed … I think it’s indicative of a lot of what’s going on in our country with the economy and everything else. None of us can agree on a way to fix it. I think that in a lot of areas now, our ideologies, whatever they are, whatever side they’re on, are overcoming our humanity and that’s sad. It’s almost like you can’t mourn for somebody unless they’re just like you, and I think that’s awful. I’d like readers to finish this story with the understanding that there is both darkness and evil in the world, but by and large, those things arise from ourselves rather than some bogeyman. We all live with that choice of light or dark. We can choose love and hope, or we can choose to allow fear to let loose the monster that’s buried in each of us.
BW: Now that The Curse of Crow Hollow is set to be released in August, what will you be doing this summer?
BC: I had to turn in the next book, and I’ll probably be starting the one after that shortly. I like to keep writing; I don’t like to take a lot of time between books. I’m going on my first tour through North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky, so I’m looking forward to that. And life just keeps on. It’s funny: This is my fifth book and a lot has changed in my life, or hasn’t, too, and I think that’s good. I like to keep writing in its place. Family first and then writing and then whatever else. I think as long as I do that, I’ll be OK.
Chat with Billy Coffey via Twitter about The Curse of Crow Hollow August 7 from 1-2 p.m. CST (that’s 11 a.m.-noon PST & 2-3 p.m. EST). Log into our chat room here to participate or just follow the hashtag on Twitter.