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Interview with Kathleen Neely

Kathleen Neely, or Kathy as her friends call her, has held onto a passion for writing through a lifetime of teaching and raising a family. Now with an empty nest and an endless stream of inspiration, she is sharing her gift of story-telling with the world.

Beauty for Ashes is the second book from a collection of stand-alone novels being published this year. It follows her debut novel, The Street Singer. Look out for her award-winning novel The Least of These (May 31, 2019). In addition to being a talented author, Kathy readily gives back to the writing community through her blog related to writing, publishing and Christian living.

Congratulations Kathy on what is turning out to be a terrific start to your writing career. Do you set goals to accomplish this quality and quantity of writing? If so, which accomplished goal has brought you the greatest joy so far?
I don’t have to force myself to keep a writing schedule. In fact, sometimes I have to make myself step away from writing. So, I don’t really need goals to motivate me to write. The
goal that brought me the greatest joy was holding my book in my hand. My critique partners and a few family members had read the story, but it felt surreal knowing that strangers across our nation would now read it.

Do you consider yourself a plotter or a pantster?
I’d love to coin a phrase for someone right in the middle of those two terms. I develop a skeletal plot. I know the big picture and where it will end, remaining flexible for details that will get it there. For example, when I typed my first chapter, I didn’t know that Angie would play the violin. A few chapters in, her personality lent itself beautifully to that discipline. I added it, and that became a major thread in the story.

When writing Beauty for Ashes, did plot, theme or characters drive the initial creative process?
Definitely theme. I read Water from My Heart, an amazing novel by Charles Martin. When I finished, I knew I wanted to write a story that was thematically similar, one that dealt with the far-reaching consequences of sin, living with the guilt, and seeking redemption. Beauty for Ashes has a different plot, characters, and storyline, but it was built on the same theme.

Where did you find your inspiration for your main characters, Nathan and Angie?
I have a sweet friend of Puerto Rican descent. I loved both her example and the diversity that it offered my story. That gave birth to Angie, but once again, as she developed, many things emerged giving her uniqueness.

I didn’t have a personal model for Nathan, but the story that wove its way into my head needed an author as the protagonist. Readers may find a little of me in his character. We are both teachers and writers.

How did your teaching background help you to create Del’s character?
I taught elementary, and Del is in high school, so I didn’t personally experience the difficulties that Nathan encountered. However, I do know how dyslexia impacts learning, how that difficulty can manifest itself into behavioral issues. Del’s gift is basketball. Nathan was wise enough to capitalize on that, using it as a motivator.

Music is an important aspect to this story. How did you choose the instrument and the music that Angie played?
Angie is soft and gentle. Violin felt like the perfect match. I could close my eyes and see her with the instrument perched on her shoulder, her fingers vibrating on the neck while the bow gracefully danced across the strings. I did my internet research, listened to many classical pieces, and drafted the violin sections of the story. Then I sent them to my friend, first chair violinist Christopher Wu. He read them and replied, “We need to talk.” The internet’s great, but it’s no substitute for a professional.

How do your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your writing life?
True faith affects every part of life. There’s no area of separation. I love Christian fiction that weaves the message through the story. Sometimes I read Christian fiction where it feels like a forced agenda. I don’t want to do that. Good literature needs to be authentic, reflecting today’s culture without condoning the ungodly aspects that we see. Beauty for Ashes offers the most direct message of my three novels. That’s because it fits the story. The Herald Center is an urban after-school outreach ministry.

I haven’t written for the general market, but believe that Christians can do that without compromising their faith.

If you could have coffee with an author, dead or alive, whose work you admire, who would that be? What would you ask him or her?
I’d love to have a chat with C.S. Lewis. He possesses a creative genius that I can’t quite fathom—in both his fiction and non-fiction. It’s well-documented why he wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, and we all know of the Aslan allegory. I’d like to sit with him and dissect the hidden metaphors.

What books are on your nightstand right now?
I’m currently reading Jerusalem Rising by Barbara Britton, and have Where the River Runs, by Patti Callahan Henry waiting. I also have The Little Engine that Could, but that’s for my FaceTime with my grandsons.

What is your favorite quote?
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” John Steinbeck

That’s a literary quote, but here’s another that I used in the classroom. It has a message for all of us.

“100% of the shots you don’t take, don’t go in.” Wayne Gretzky

As a Canadian and fellow educator, that may become one of my new favorites.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out on their own writing or publication journey?

Writers are a great group of people, bound together by the love of the pen. Connect with other writers. Learn from them. Know that they’re eager to help you. Read trade books and attend conferences. You’re never too skilled to learn.

That’s a great summary. What message do you hope readers take away from Beauty for Ashes?
Hidden secrets don’t stay hidden forever. Actions have consequences. We tend to think of the cost of consequences to ourselves, but look beyond self. You’ll see how far-reaching our actions can be. Nathan learned that the hard way.


As a teen, Tara Ross first discovered how hope-filled prose can change the entire trajectory of a person's life. Case in point: her life. She now has the joy of sharing this truth with youth every day - as a Speech-Language Pathologist, youth ministry worker and YA author.

Her soon to be released debut novel and blog, were created to ignite sparks of faith for Generation Z. You can follow Tara on instagram (tara.k.ross) or twitter (tara_k_ross) for more book reviews, tattoo worthy quotes and updates on her publishing journey.

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