Billy Coffee’s latest book tells the story of a young
girl who becomes the subject of a lot of tension in a small town. Billy
answered four questions about When
Mockingbirds Sing (Thomas Nelson).
Q: Can you tell us about your main character, Leah?
I think Leah is a stand-in for all of us at some point in our lives. At nine, she still has the sort of unbroken innocence that allows her to believe anything is possible. But Leah’s also an outsider. To the town of Mattingly, because her family has just moved from the city (forever branding them as “from Away”). But also to her own parents, who are struggling to salvage their marriage from a severe breach of trust. So this is a little girl who is basically confronting the world on her own. Her stutter makes it nearly impossible to forge any deep relationships with kids her own age, and the shyness borne from that has formed a wall around her heart. All of which makes the invisible friend Leah finds somewhat understandable.
Q: How is this novel different from your previous works?
My first two novels were basically stories written around ideas—namely the worth of a man without a job, and the common fear we all have of what value we assign to the lives we live. They were novels about extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances. This novel is a story written around people: a shy, frightened little child, her ten-year-old friend who becomes the conscience of the novel, and an imaginary friend who may not be so imaginary at all—ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. For me, that made the story resonate much more and allowed me to include not only drama, but mystery and suspense as well.
Q: Where did you get the inspiration for this story?
Leah’s imaginary friend is called The Rainbow Man. The Coffey household had our own version of him for three months or so, when my daughter was four. I’d tucked her into bed one night and gone back later to make sure all was well, and she was sitting up talking to an empty spot at the foot of her bed. The Rainbow Man, she said. It was cute for a while. Everyone, I think, has had an imaginary friend at some point. But then one night I stood outside my daughter’s room and listened as she talked, and what I heard wasn’t play, it was conversation. She spoke. She listened. She giggled.
It bothered me so much that I asked her the next day what The Rainbow Man talked about. She wouldn’t tell me at first, though she did give a description that I used almost word for word in When Mockingbirds Sing. I prodded a little more, and she finally confessed that The Rainbow Man told her something really bad was going to happen, then something really good. Three months later, my daughter was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. She spent a few nights in the hospital. Horrible, horrible time. To be honest, I never put much stock in imaginary friends. But I remember sitting in that hospital room and watching my daughter sleep, seeing the tube running into her little hand and hearing the beeps from those machines, thinking all the time Well, this is the something bad.
When we got back home, The Rainbow Man was gone.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from this novel?
I’ll be candid and say I’m guilty of putting God in a nice little box I can carry around with me. What kind of people does God use? Who are the ones He would choose to speak through? I think answering those questions with honesty tell us a lot about who we are. And that’s every writer’s goal—to write something that becomes a kind of mirror the reader holds up to him or herself.