Thursday, October 28, 2010

Q&A: Neil Connelly, author of THE MIRACLE STEALER

Neil Connelly is the author of three published novels and a professor of creative writing at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. For ten years, he directed the graduate workshop in fiction at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He now lives in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two sons.

Fun fact:  He is the youngest of ten children, eight of them girls. 

What's your writing process like? Do you write in computer first or longhand? Morning, noon, night? Do you perfect every sentence as you go, or pound out a draft and then go back and polish it? Do you plan out a novel first or plunge in and see where the characters take you, or both?

When I'm writing, I write every day.  It's like working out then, just a natural part of the morning.  If it goes well, great.  If it goes poorly, you just don't save the new version.  The great benefit of this is that you've always got tomorrow.  In seventeen years, through five full manuscripts, I've never written for more than an hour and a half a day.

Typically I go back to what I worked on the previous day, or start at the chapter opening, and read through the draft fine-tuning, then get up a head of steam and produce some new rough text, maybe a half page or page a day.  If you're familiar with comic book artists' process of pencil and inking, it strikes me a lot like that.

I never plan my books out.  Doubt adds too much spice to life, so why should it be any different for my characters?  Really, that's one of the compliments I like to hear--"I didn't know how it would end."  Me
neither.  I write for the same reason I hope readers read--to follow the characters because I care.

What is your favorite part of the process (planning, drafting, revising) and why?

That's like asking what part of being a dad is my favorite, like which age I enjoyed my boys the most. Every age is special, and every part of writing has some attraction for me.  The earliest part, the chaos of raw creation, is exciting but anxious.  You don't know what you're dealing with.  But then you feel the kernel (typically an image) and it grows--you begin to see snippets of the characters in new situations, elsewhere in time, and they are mysterious and intriguing, and you start to try and connect a few dots from what you perceive as early in the narrative. And that's your opening, you hope.  On my first book I was on page 80 when I realized I was starting my opening scene.  Oops.

Drafting is fun because you have the extended thrill of finding out what happens next.  Right now I have a forty mile commute to where I teach. And after I write, I play with my kids, then hit the road, and I spend the whole time letting my mind roam through the characters' imaginary world, wondering what will happen tomorrow.  That's just cool.

Revising and editing are essential because, once you finish a thing, you know what it is.  And as strange as this sounds, you have to go back and mechanically make it all organic.  That may or may not make sense, but it's my experience.

Where did The Miracle Stealer start for you?

As a proposal that I had to write to accompany my first book, St. Michael's Scales.  That book was about a kid who felt doomed, and I wondered about his opposite, a boy who felt blessed.  There was a news story about a tornado that tossed a crib a mile and half, something insane like that, and the infant was fine.  I wondered about what he'd feel like later, and the phrase, "the burdens of blessings" came to me. That sat in my head for about five years or so, and in that time I thought about other babies who'd been miraculously saved.  I tried more than one draft focusing on the child, but I uncovered a truth I should have known--the truly blessed aren't interesting.  They have shining souls and do the right thing and don't worry and have no conflict. Fortunately I already had a built-in character who was deeply conflicted, Daniel's big sister Andi. She wanted the story and, pretty much, wrestled the manuscript away from me.

What challenges did you find writing across gender?

Plenty.  There was one draft, about a hundred pages if I recall, that was in third person.  Andi was ticked.  She wanted her own voice, and that overpowered any concerns I had about pulling  it off.

And what challenges (if any) did writing about faith present for you?

My faith is my faith.  It's a fluid thing with a solid core.  But there has to be room for doubt, for questioning and exploration.  Odd as it sounds, my relationship with religion is a lot like my relationship with narrative.  Both are ways to make sense of the world, and both are wonderful and troublesome.  Both demand a lot from you but ultimately, deliver a lot more back.

Did you discover or learn anything new in writing The Miracle Stealer? What part or aspect of the book are you most proud of?

I'm pleased with the ending. Part of the problem with the way I plot books is that systematically, I write myself into corners I then have to find ways out of that don't feel hokey.  And my editor had some very
specific concerns that made  sense to me and had to be addressed, but it was tricky business.  I'm glad that the major questions the book raises got addressed, if not answered, and that the ending seems--to
me--neither false nor gloomy nor glib.  It feels right.

The opening of a book is more important when someone buys it.  But people remember a book as good or bad based on the entire experience, and that is largely determined, I think, by the quality of the

You've published one adult novel, Buddy Cooper Finds a Way. How do you -- or do you -- find writing for a YA audience different than writing for adults?

I make no distinction, honestly.  As I wrote Miracle Stealer I simply followed the characters.  I did not edit their behavior or avoid language or play down my sentence structure, etc.  I was taught to produce a book first, then later, as an entirely separate act, figure out if anyone else might want to buy it.  That's horrible advice for someone who wants to be rich, but good advice for someone who wants to write a good story.

How has teaching writing on both the undergraduate and graduate levels influenced your own work?

Teaching is a blessing.  You're constantly forced to re-examine and re-explain the concepts that fuel your own fiction.  My graduates challenged me in wonderful ways.  And it's important not to be belligerent about your understanding of fiction, to be open to the views of others.  Your aesthetic should never set like concrete.  That suggests a kind of artistic paralysis I fear.  Teaching makes that impossible.

What is the most common problem you see in undergraduate creative writing? In graduate work?

Embryonic writers don't trust the image enough.  They don't trust it when they write it and they don't trust readers to "get it." In response, they overpower the image with explanation, which is an
injustice to reader and writer both.  Really, you read sentences like, "Jill tossed the engagement ring into the ocean, showing David she didn't want to marry him."  For Pete's sake, didn't you notice the verb "tossed?"  Trust it.

What have you been reading lately?

Lots of freshman essays.

Thanks, Neil!


  1. The Miracle Stealer sounds like a great read! I really enjoyed reading about Mr. Connelly's writing methods and inspiration behind the premise of the book.

  2. The book sounds good, but I am very impressed by the interview with Neil. He sounds very smart and grounded. From the looks of it, he takes his work seriously. His comments on endings and telling were spot on.

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