As the youngest of 10 children, it did not take long for a young Neil Connelly to understand that if he wanted people to stay interested in what he had to say, he needed a good first line.
“Then, a good second line, and then a good third line,” Connelly said. This always got his family to lean in to hear what he was saying.
“And that became kind of an addictive feeling,” Connelly said.
This is how Connelly, now an author preparing to release his eighth book, cultivated his love for storytelling.
Connelly is an English professor at Shippensburg University. He earned his undergraduate degree at Pennsylvania State University, where he briefly studied advertising, landscape architecture and several other subjects. Connelly could not seem to settle on what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
All his life, however, language tugged at Connelly’s sleeve. He briefly worked as a copy editor in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, before he traveled to McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, for graduate school. While there, Connelly found that he loved teaching and set out to share his love of literature.
While teaching at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, North Carolina, he met his wife Beth and returned to McNeese to teach English. He eventually became the director of the Master of Fine Arts program at McNeese. In 2010, Connelly, his wife and two sons, James and Owen, uprooted and replanted in Pennsylvania. Connelly has taught English to students at SU since then.
Connelly prefers not to set his plots in stone as much as possible when planning his books to maintain an authentic feeling with his characters. He prefers his characters to interact naturally without an invisible hand guiding them toward pre-planned destinations.
“I want it to be life-like. Doubts, like in faith, are important,” Connelly said. “To know an ending of a book is to lose that doubt.”
Avid readers can explore this doubt in “Brawler,” which was released March 26 and is available on Amazon. Connelly does not like violence, but it finds its way into his book when a high school wrestler assaults a referee. This causes him to lose his dream, and he is forced to join an underground fighting ring.
The novel discusses toxic masculinity and cycles of violence as the main character finds his way through the challenges the underground ring presents — and the new life he could forge.
A priest once told Connelly that so many Christians focus on resurrection after life, but never think about resurrection during it. In the same vein, Brawler’s main character tries to find a new life in the wake of altered circumstances.
Connelly feels his best stories come from his life experiences. Writing is not just about documenting what you know — it is about exploring possibilities.
“In a strange way, imagination is experience,” Connelly said. “So, if you dwell about something, I think you spend time with it.”
Connelly explained that when he writes about something negative, he explores the polar opposite of something he might want for his own life.
“Everything I’ve written about people in bad relationships [has] made me work harder on my relationship with my wife,” Connelly said. Everything I have written about bad fathers has made me, I think, a better father, I hope.”
This demonstrates itself well in “Buddy Cooper Finds a Way,” a book Connelly wrote in the aftermath of his divorce with his first wife. It is a story about a professional wrestler who is paid to be the “heel,” which is the bad guy, and always lose. One day, Cooper, the protagonist, is told that he will win the next match.
“The inciting incident for Buddy is when the promoter says, ‘Hey we’ve changed the script for Saturday, you’re going to win.’ And it terrifies him,” Connelly said. “And that was my subconscious saying ‘You’ve been in mourning long enough.’”
Writing “Buddy Cooper” had a profound impact on Connelly. “While I was writing that book, I met Beth. And that’s no coincidence.”
Whether it is as a son, brother, father or English professor, Neil Connelly is a writer through and through.