Billy Coffey: Writing a Different Ending

Still captivated by the distinctive small Virginia town where he grew up, Billy Coffey returns to its proxy, Mattingly, a place he first took readers in When Mockingbirds Sing (Thomas Nelson, 2013). His latest book, The Devil Walks in Mattingly (Nelson, Mar.), explores what happens when 20 years’ worth of guilt about a young man’s untimely death overtakes three high school classmates. Can those responsible for the events that led to his death now welcome the redemption they’ve sought all these years?

For Coffey, the choice to go back to Mattingly was only natural. “It’s a small place, and I’ve always liked the idea of talking about big things in small circumstances,” he says. As a teenager, Coffey recalls a classmate named Ed, whom he describes as “the kid with a target on his back.” On the receiving end of taunts, name-calling, and physical harassment, Ed wasn’t in a position to defend himself.

Although he didn’t participate in the tormenting, Coffey was never able to shake his guilt over staying silent and not intervening. “I’ve carried that regret for over 20 years now,” he says. “The pain of all those things I didn’t do is more than the pain of all the things I’ve done. And all that time, Ed’s been there, deep down, almost whispering.”

What emerged as Coffey wrote was the story of one young man, Phillip McBride, found dead along the riverbank in the woods, and three classmates who know deep down his death was murder, not the suicide the reports all claim. Twenty years later, their lives crumbling under the weight of guilt, they begin to be haunted by visions of Phillip in their dreams. When all three are drawn together for a final confrontation, they will finally choose between life and death, truth and lies.

“We all have these burdens we carry,” Coffey says. “After a while, we’re just so weighed down with them that we’re not even moving through life.” To leave fear behind and let grace take its place, Coffey says, “I think you have to hit rock bottom. I don’t know any other way—you have to nearly lose everything. Until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing, you won’t change. In the end, to get free of the kind of guilt you have over something like that requires confession.”

Coffey knew he couldn’t rewrite his past, but he could write a different ending to a similar story. “I wanted Ed to have his victory,” says Coffey, “but not in the way most would write it, through fear or revenge. I wanted Ed to save those who had bullied him, to free them through grace.” —Deonne Lindsey

T. Davis Bunn: Listening to God

His new novel, The Turning (River North, Apr.) may bring exactly that for T. Davis Bunn: a turning to a new platform and new audiences for his Christian suspense fiction.

Bunn, a three-time Christy Award winner, will offer a series of lessons based on The Turning on Moody Radio, which is owned by the same parent company as River North. He will be the first fiction author to create such lessons for Moody Radio, which usually features the teachings of pastors, scholars, and other Christian leaders.

“It is almost indescribably high, the barrier Christian novelists find when being considered for radio or television, because they are not considered teachers,” Bunn says from Florida, where he lives when he is not teaching writing at Oxford University. But when Deborah Keiser, associate publisher for River North, met Bunn at a conference, she knew that if anyone could break the barrier, it was him. Says Bunn, “I decided if they were going to do this, I was in.” In The Turning, five people hear God asking them to do different, simple things. They obey, and see a pattern emerge that links the actions together, coalescing in a cultural movement toward moral renewal. But darker forces align against them, challenging the belief that they can really know and hear from God. The novel features many of the themes Bunn is known for—global politics and intrigue interwoven with the moral, religious, and ethical choices of individual characters. He will draw on those themes, as well as the book’s plot and situations, to create his series of radio lessons.

“The whole structure of the lesson plans will be based on the discipline of attentiveness,” of listening to God, Bunn says. “The goal will be for the reader and listener to make room for the movement of the spirit in whatever fashion this takes place, and to understand the power of spiritual gifts and the discipline of making them into something real.”

This message grows out of Bunn’s own experience. He converted to Christianity when he was 28 and gave up writing as a kind of sacrifice, but later came to feel that God wanted him to use his writing as a means to serve. Now, having sold six million books in 16 languages, he writes a book a year for Moody and another for Bethany House.

“By being still enough to listen and give God a chance to speak, I was also making room for the gift to grow,” he says. —Kimberly Winston

Murray Pura: Transporting Readers

Just as the wildly popular PBS series Downton Abbey has captured the attention of American viewers, so has Canadian author and Baptist minister Murray Pura’s the Danforths of Lancashire Park series (Harvest House) kept a rapt readership looking forward to each new volume in the trilogy—first with Ashton Park, then Beneath the Dover Sky, and now with London Dawn (Feb.).

“It is not hard for Americans and Canadians to relate to and empathize with the experiences of the British people,” says Pura. “The British way of life fascinates them,” he adds, which is clear from how North American readers have adopted British stories—A Christmas Carol, Pride and Prejudice, The Chronicles of Narnia—as their own, a part of their cultural heritage as well.

The saga of the Danforth family begins in WWI England, picks up in 1924 with Adolf Hitler looming over Europe, and continues through the late 1930s as the family gathers in London for a homecoming of sorts—one that is about to be shattered by the imminent Battle of Britain and the Blitz.

A self-proclaimed “Indiana Jones,” Pura has traveled extensively throughout China and the Middle East, among other places, and considers himself “part academic” and “part adventurer,” an anthropologist of sorts who studies cultures to better understand people. He wants his books to be as realistic as possible, transporting readers to another place and time. Pura earned his master of divinity degree from Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and his Th.M. degree in theology and interdisciplinary studies from Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He’s currently studying for a Ph.D. in robotics.

Pura wants his readers to feel as if they’re “right in the middle of the world of the past” so they can use all their senses to be transported to the world of his characters. “All the beauty and tragedy of a family’s story over several generations has to become a beauty and tragedy the readers own and care deeply about,” he says. London Dawn takes readers from 1916 to the Roaring ’20s, “into the tribulations and tensions of the ’30s, and finally to the explosion of world war that was the 1940s,” Pura says. “I wanted to make the Danforths live for my readers, to have them find another life alongside that family’s husbands and wives and sons and daughters. I wanted to totally transport them, so that when they placed a bookmark between two pages and looked up, the reality of their world seemed strange to them for a few minutes, and the story in the book much closer to what was true.” That kind of immersion in a story, Pura says, “is what gives a reader the greatest pleasure, enthrallment, and blessing.”

And what did Pura enjoy most about writing the final book in the series? “In London Dawn they are all grown up and soaring through England’s skies in their Spitfires and Hurricanes,” Pura says of the characters so many readers have come to know and love from the series. “I enjoyed nothing so much as describing flight: the blue and gray skies, towering white clouds, the diving and swooping and twisting and turning of aircraft in the heavens. Somehow the gift of wings is etched in my mind and soul and dreams, and that has found its way into the Danforths of Lancashire from beginning to end. I don’t believe those images will ever leave me.”—Kathleen Samuelson

Allison Pataki: Revising a Traitor’s Story

Allison Pataki, daughter of former New York State Gov. George E. Pataki and a former and writer, grew up gazing across the Hudson River at West Point Academy and hearing about the life of Benedict Arnold, the most notorious turncoat in American history. But when Pataki uncovered a forgotten romantic triangle and the role of Arnold’s much younger wife in the plot to aid the British, the seed was planted for The Traitor’s Wife (Howard Books, Feb.), her novel based on those events.

“Every school child in my hometown of Garrison, N.Y., learns about the flight of Benedict Arnold, because there’s a walking path in town that traces it,” Pataki says. “I was near that path one day when I came upon a historical marker that had [pictures] of Arnold, his co-conspirator Maj. John André, and his wife, Peggy Shippen Arnold.”

The portrait of a beautiful woman with her hair piled high caught Pataki’s attention. Then she noticed it had been drawn by André, who she knew had been romantically linked to Peggy before she married Arnold. That was enough to get Pataki researching. “I found all these rumors about their relationship and her family’s loyalty to the British,” she says, “and I thought, ‘How did I not know all this?’”

It turned out the romantic triangle wasn’t the only surprising aspect of the story, Pataki says. “I really was shocked to discover all the various layers of complexity in the story of Benedict Arnold and just how much of an American hero he really was.” She points to Arnold’s involvement in key Revolutionary War battles at Fort Ticonderoga and in Quebec, Connecticut, and Saratoga as proof of his service to his new country. The facts pointed to a man who was committed to the Revolutionary effort early on, Pataki notes. Arnold led the offensive at the battle of Saratoga against his senior officer’s orders and was shot multiple times. He paid his men out of his personal fortune when the government couldn’t.

“At one point, he’s said to have thought it very likely that he’d die for the cause, and if he had, he’d have died an American hero,” Pataki says. “But instead, most Americans think of him as synonymous with being a traitor.”

While Pataki admits that sorting out fact from fiction in historical accounts is difficult, exploring the complex story of Arnold’s life and his wife’s influence proved to be more than just a good story. “In his last moments, it’s rumored he begged God to forgive him for ever having worn another uniform,” Pataki says. “Even though he ended up in England, the British didn’t trust him any more than the American patriots did. He really was a man without a country in many ways. I realized his story was much more nuanced than I knew, and I was surprised I felt such pity for him.”—Deonne Lindsey

Tracy Groot: Redemption in Dark Places

It takes an imaginative author to find inspiration for a Civil War novel in Captain Kirk. But Tracy Groot, a two-time Christy Award winner (Flame of Resistance; Madman) says the seed for her new book, Sentinels of Andersonville (Tyndale, Jan.), was planted when she channel-surfed past the handsome mug of a young William Shatner in an old movie.

“I am a huge Trek fan and thought, ‘What is Captain Kirk doing in this Victorian-era courtroom drama?’” she says. “He had somebody on the stand and they were talking about this prison where thousands of Union soldiers died.”

The made-for-TV movie The Andersonville Trial was based on historical events, when Confederate guards turned away four wagons full of food collected by their neighbors to feed starving Union prisoners. “There was one woman in particular who was told it was treason if she tried to feed these men,” Groot says. “I was horrified. That event just lodged in the back of my brain.”

The story forms the foundation of Sentinels of Andersonville, a melding of American history with the parable of the Good Samaritan that allows Groot to examine what Christian compassion means and costs. “I wanted to look at what happens when you are standing on the edge of this horrifying event and it becomes a personal challenge,” she says. “You have to ask yourself, if I were there would I have the guts to step out and risk treason to do what my conscience dictated?”

It is a theme Groot is returning to. In Flame of Resistance (Tyndale, 2012) a Frenchwoman helps an American undermine the Nazis, and in Madman (Moody, 2006) Groot fleshes out the person who cared for the Geresene lunatic of the Gospels. Her books frequently touch on atrocities as she looks there for faith, hope, and redemption.

“God was inside the stockade” at Andersonville, where 13,000 men perished from starvation, she says. “He was there in the form of Fr. Peter Whalen, who visited the prison daily and refused to eat more than they were given. He was there in the form of Dr. John Bates, who would allow sweet potatoes to drop through his trousers so prisoners could find them. I see God in that.”

Next up from Groot is a tale set against the British evacuation at Dunkirk, expected from Tyndale in 2015. Meanwhile, the author keeps looking in the darkest places for light. “I’m kind of a hope and redemption junkie,” she says.—Kimberly Winston

Ted Dekker: Dare to Forgive

Bestselling author Ted Dekker was born to missionary parents and grew up among cannibals in Indonesia in the 1960s. As a child he hoped he’d one day become a superhero like Daredevil, complete with super powers and the ability to fight evil. “Growing up in the jungles of Indonesia had its advantages—I would spend many days traversing tree tops. Instead of becoming Daredevil, I became a novelist, which is essentially the same, if only in mind.” Dekker’s latest feat? Adding Water Walker (Worthy, March) to his young adult series the Outlaw Chronicles.

The first book in the series, Eyes Wide Open, was originally self-published in 2012 and later released in paperback by Worthy (Jan. 2013). Passionate reader response to the books online surprised Dekker. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

In Water Walker, a teenager has been abducted by her birth mother at 13 and must find a way to forgive her in order to become a Water Walker—someone who walks in faith. It’s a story of “radical forgiveness, which gives the one who chooses such a path nearly superhuman power,” says Dekker. “I think Water Walker might be one of the most satisfying books I’ve written, certainly one of the truest.” He says he finds satisfaction in its rarely discussed themes. “This isn’t just esoteric crap for a good jawing in the office. I say truest because the book explores one of those truths [forgiveness] that all sages teach, but so few are willing to hear, including me. Walking the path of a Water Walker is transformative in every respect.”

Transformation is what Dekker hopes his novels achieve. He has published more than 30 novels, but it was only in 2010 that he decided to pursue writing for the young adult audience with the Lost Books trilogy. “I’m still a child in many respects, growing younger each year,” Dekker says. “I didn’t so much write YA for my kids as for that child in me that continues to discover great mystery and wonder as I mature.” As the father of three daughters, Dekker had a lot of inspiration for creating the voice of Christy, the protagonist in Water Walker. “Having raised three teenage girls, at times I think I might be one myself, so it comes naturally.”

The Outlaw Chronicles trilogy was inspired by what doesn’t come naturally—facing his own failures and asking the question, “what if?” Dekker drew inspiration from “the failure to find lasting satisfaction in what the world has deemed as success,” he says. “We’ve been deceived—it isn’t striving and grasping that rewards us with peace and power, it’s letting go. And it seems that we take that journey—of unlearning what we were taught about [finding] success in money, relationships, career, and matters of faith—only when the old way fails us.”

Like his beloved superhero Daredevil, Dekker dares readers to let go. He hopes the message they take away from Water Walker is one of forgiveness. “It’s stunning to realize that so much gain comes not from vindication or revenge or even protecting one’s interests, but in letting go of all you think keeps you safe,” he says. “This is the ‘juju’ of Water Walker, and it’s potent medicine indeed. True forgiveness is not absolving the person who wronged you—it’s releasing any wrong done to you in the first place. You have that power.”—Paige Crutcher