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Interview with Kelly Flanagan

“The past is behind us, but it is also, always, within us.”

This is the first line and theme of Dr. Kelly Flanagan’s latest book, The Unhiding of Elijah Campbell. The idea that we can’t outrun our past, can’t let go of it, but can learn to dialogue with it and redeem it—is central to the book. It could also be thought of as one of the themes in Flanagan’s personal and professional life.

Kelly is a husband, father, personal growth and relationship coach, licensed clinical psychologist, and award-winning author. As a clinical psychologist, he learned to carefully observe the physical and psychological state of a person, and as a Christian, he values spiritual formation. When you add an expertise in interpersonal relations, a man who identifies himself before all other things as a creative, doesn’t mind being vulnerable, and aims to help others embrace their humanity a little more, you get Kelly and the way he tells stories.

“I like to think my stories don’t show you how to heal, they help you heal in the very reading of them,” he says
Kelly’s writings stem largely from his personal life, a journey that began before he was born. Like his books, healing has played a huge role.

Past and Present Faith
“My father was a drug dealer who got arrested when I was a toddler,” Flanagan shares. “He had a conversion experience in jail, while my mom was having one on the outside. After that, Christianity become the center of our family’s life. Both of my parents returned to college, and my dad went on to get a master’s degree in clinical psychology and was awarded the first Charles Colson Prison Fellowship scholarship to attend graduate school.”

Kelly’s faith and chosen profession were inspired by his father’s choices.

“I have a therapist friend who says once you realize why you really became a therapist, you have to find a better reason. The truth is, I probably became a psychologist in an unconscious response to the conflict in my childhood home and to emulate my father who I admired greatly as a child. These days, I’ve found other reasons to enjoy being a psychologist.”

Since his early belief in God, Flanagan’s understanding of who God is progressed from instilling him with fear to filling him with joy.

“The God I grew up with in the church we attended was always scary. I wrote of it this way in True Companions: ‘Every week, after Sunday school, I’d join my parents for adult church. I remember the pastor stalking the stage while waving his Bible in the air. His face would get red and foam would gather at the corners of his mouth. I remember him talking about a dark cloud hanging over our city. More storms, more fear. Sunday after Sunday, that is what I came to expect: storms and fear. Hellfire and brimstone. Believe the right thing, lest you end up in the wrong place. Believe it without doubt, lest your eternity be thrown into doubt. That sort of stuff lingers inside of you, no matter how much time has passed.’”

This perception of God and Christianity eventually led Kelly into a state of deep depression.

Loveable is, in part, the fruit of my evolving relationship with God. There came a day in 2008 when I realized the voice within me that I’d thought was God was actually the internalized voice of shame and fear from my childhood, and that I needed to start listening for a more graceful voice within me. Loveable reflects what I learned from that process, and how we can all hear the voice of grace within us.”

Past and Present Books
In 2012, Kelly started a blog to help him process and express all he was learning. He soon fell in love with writing and since that time, has traditionally published three books.

Kelly’s first two books were non-fiction, in the self-help/spiritual formation/interpersonal relations genres.

Loveable is built upon the core insight gleaned from my years of work as a clinical psychologist: you are here for a reason, yet you cannot truly awaken to it until you have first embraced your truest, worthiest self and then allowed yourself to be truly embraced by your people. Weaving heart-warming storytelling with my belief that we are all ‘the living, breathing, bearers of the eternal, transcendent, and limitless Love that spun the planets and hung the stars,’ these pages invite you to remember the name you were given before all other names: Loveable.

True Companions is an exploration of what happens in our relationships when we quit demanding unconditional love and instead commit to the more deeply satisfying and transformational love that is companionship. In this book you will learn about (1) the one experience that causes the most conflict in relationships but could become the source of the best connection, (2) the one goal that must be mutually agreed upon in relationships, if you hope to trade in your protection for connection, and (3) the one perspective that will allow you to keep your priorities straight, your relationships first, and your companionship thriving.”

Although he’d always dreamed of writing fiction and had ideas for a novel bouncing around in his head for over twenty years, after two successful nonfiction books, Kelly never thought he’d actually get around to writing one. His opportunity to do so came in 2020.

“I was in the middle of a two-nonfiction book contract with IVP [InterVarsity Press], and True Companions was just about to release, so it was time to pitch the second book. When I pitched the concept to them, they said it would work better as a novel. I resisted it at first, because it scared me, but eventually I surrendered and committed to the learning and work required to write a novel. Writing it became the greatest joy of my writing life. I tell the whole ‘story behind the story’ of how I made the leap at the virtual author events I offer to book clubs who are reading the book.”

Kelly’s first novel, The Unhiding of Elijah Campbell, follows Elijah Campbell who is on the verge of losing his writing career, his faith, and his marriage when a recurring childhood nightmare drives him back to his hometown, Bradford’s Ferry. There, his encounters with loved ones both past and present shed light on the reason his wife left him—and the meaning of his nightmare. However, beyond the light he begins to glimpse something even more terrifying—a decision he must make, to continue hiding the secrets of his past, or to unhide the only thing that can save his marriage: himself.

Themes in The Unhiding of Elijah Campbell: As reflected in the title, the book is about how we are all driven into “hiding” by our shame, and how we can embrace our humanity and its worthiness in a process of unhiding ourselves with authenticity and vulnerability.

“There are also central themes of forgiveness and grace, faith and freedom,” he shares. “These themes are woven throughout imagined conversations Elijah has with lost loved ones, as he learns that hard experiences aren’t to be avoided but to be embraced, as a bridge to a more graceful and beautiful life.”

Kelly hopes that as people read The Unhiding of Elijah Campbell they will experience the thrill of a good story well-told and that they’ll feel the process of Elijah’s unhiding happening in them. He also hopes they’ll feel more aware of the subtle ways we all hide from authenticity, develop more compassion for the reasons they do it, and become more equipped to engage in the kind of vulnerability and authenticity that leads to satisfying belonging.

Past and Present Life Experiences
It's true that authors will often call upon personal experiences to help them write their books. But they’re also able write about fictional events with such clarity that people may think they’ve experienced them when they haven’t. Both scenarios have been true with Dr. Flanagan’s novel.

“I have a friend who is like a mother-figure to me,” he shared. “She started reading the novel, put it down, and called me up, saying, ‘Kelly, is your marriage okay? Do you need money?’ The story felt so real to her she assumed I was relating events that had happened or were still happening to me. I assured her the actual events of the story are mostly imagined, and she was able to enjoy the rest of the novel!”

Though the story’s plot is fictional, its setting is based on Kelly’s hometown of Dixon, Ill.

“In fact,” Kelly says, “I’ll be hosting a retreat near here later this year, and we’ll do a quick tour of the places in town that inspired places in the book. Readers say they love Bradford’s Ferry and want to return to it in future stories, and I think that’s a reflection of how much I love this town of mine.”

As much as he now loves Dixon, that wasn’t always the case. Like others who grew up in small rural communities, Flanagan didn’t always appreciate it when he was younger.

“I got out of it as fast as I could, because I figured the satisfaction we’re all looking for couldn’t be found in a cornfield.”

In 2015, after working through his depression and coming to a healthier understanding of God and himself, Kelly and his wife, Kelly, quit their good, Chicago-area jobs and moved their family back to his hometown.

“At the time, I would have told you I was moving for the slower pace. Over the last eight years, though, I’ve discovered it’s that, and so much more. It’s the community. The chance meetings as you do life together. The sense of a common heritage, a shared history. The finding of beauty in the small, quiet, ordinary spaces of life. The lack of striving. The quiet. The woods in which I love to walk.”

In addition to pulling upon past experiences, writing The Unhiding of Elijah Campbell gave Kelly new ones to ponder. His intrapersonal journey developed even as he wrestled with crafting the thoughts and actions of his characters.

“I realized that if I was struggling to give up control over the fictional characters in my story—allowing them to become who they wanted to be and do what they wanted to do—how much more must I be resisting giving up control over the actual people in my life. This has initiated a time of deepening awareness about the ways I try to control the people and outcomes in my life and has opened me up to embracing my people and my life more deeply, exactly as they are.”

Past and Present Writing Experiences
Before he began his blog in 2012, Kelly’s experiences with writing were mostly related to his schooling and career, including a creative writing course in college. However, when writing became a passion and opportunities for it expanded, Kelly set his mind to improving his skills. He attended conferences for creatives and learned everything he could from the tutelage of his agent and feedback from wise editors, including his wife who is always his first reader.
As many writers are instructed to do, Kelly also spends a lot of time reading and practicing his craft.

“[Reading] teaches me about how I do and do not want to write, and of course, practice, practice, practice. I wrote over four-hundred blog posts and two non-fiction books before I felt ready to take a crack at my first novel.”

Although at first, he focused strictly on nonfiction, those eleven years of blog posts and his first two non-fiction books contained a lot of storytelling.

“When I look back, I realize I was learning the craft of storytelling even while publishing non-fiction.”

As he wrote, he discovered more similarities.

“I think a blank page is terrifying, regardless of whether you are planning to put fiction or non-fiction on it, and a full page is also exhilarating either way. Both require commitment and hard work and a willingness to revise, over and over again.”

Kelly wrote about the key difference he noticed in a blog post last year.

“When you publish non-fiction, you are an authority figure writing about a small corner of the world in which you’ve developed some expertise. Your job is to make a concept completely comprehensible—to create order out of chaos, if you will. And that feels like being in control.

"A novel, on the other hand, will gradually wrest all control from your humbled human hands. Sure, at first you have some say in the story and some power over the plot, but then you conceive of a few characters, and they start wreaking havoc on your vision. As they evolve, the plot evolves with them, so the characters evolve even more, and on and on, until you can barely recognize the story that is supposed to be coming from you but feels much more like it’s coming through you.”

Today, more than ten years after writing took hold of him, Kelly’s love for it is as strong as ever.

“Writing brings me joy,” he says. “I get in the flow and time passes without notice. Most importantly, though, it is a spiritual experience for me to discover ideas, truths, characters, and stories within me that I didn’t know were in there. It gives you the sense that the words are coming through you rather than from you, as if you are participating in something rather than writing something. It is the greatest thrill to experience something beautiful coming into the world through your fingertips.”

As any writer with a family knows, it can be a challenge to balance writing time with our other responsibilities. Kelly shared a little about how he and his family have learned to manage this task.

“I love writing so much, it always requires effort to keep my longing for more writing time in balance with everything else going on in my life. For now, I have a few hours set aside several mornings a week to write, and I try to protect that time. However, the biggest challenge to the rest of my life is my tendency to continue writing and creating, even when I’m outside of those times.

“One of the most common phrases uttered by my wife at our dinner table is, ‘I know your dad looks like he’s here, but he’s not,’ usually in response to one of the kids asking me a question while I’ve gotten lost in my head about the next scene I’m going to write. My family currently has full permission to call me out when I’m daydreaming instead of being present to them. It has been eye-opening!”

In addition to writing, Kelly also does a lot of public speaking, hosts weekend retreats, and coaches a handful of clients who reach out to him for help via those events.

“I often joke that the coaching pays for my writing addiction. Our oldest graduated high school last year and relocated to Chicago to chase his dream of being a stand-up comedian, and it has attuned me to how quickly the remaining years at home with my 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter are going to pass. So, I just came out of retirement (for the third time) to coach my daughter’s YMCA soccer team.”

When he isn’t speaking, coaching, and spending time with his family, Flanagan loves going for walks, sitting still along the river that runs through his town, and gathering for a monthly book club with friends.

“If I’m present to these activities, they always enrich my writing, because being human is central to what I write about.”

Past and Present Publishing Journey
Everyone’s publishing journey is different, and some are quite extraordinary. Regardless of what the path looks like, it’s evident God has been directing it and opening doors when it’s time for them to open.
Kelly’s first publishing opportunity began with a viral blog post and some helpful personal connections.

“I was very fortunate to have a blog post—a letter to my daughter about where her true beauty lies—go viral at a time when the TODAY Show was looking for a male voice for one of their series. My daughter and I wound up on the show, and I was fortunate again that Philip Yancey—a successful Christian author—was vacationing with my boss at the time, watched the show, and recommended me to his agent. I credit her with teaching me how to write a book and getting Loveable in front of publishers like Zondervan, who decided they wanted it.”

Greatest Author Career Moments:
“It’s tempting to get drawn into all the questions of books sales, media appearances, and so on, but at the end of the day, I sit down at the computer to write because it thrills me, and I find joy in it. So, any day I get to write is a great day. Currently, I’m working on the revisions to my second novel, which is also set in Bradford’s Ferry, and is tentatively titled The Keeper of Crimes. This morning, I was rewriting a scene and found out something that happened to one of the main characters that I’d had no idea about during the first draft. It just jumped out onto the page. Great moment!”

Funny Author Moment:
“After my first quarter royalty reports for Loveable were released, I was really disappointed by the numbers, but I was on a call with my agent who was super optimistic about them.

I said, ‘Don’t you think I should have sold more books?’

And she replied instantly, ‘Sure, if you wanted to load your truck full of books and tour the country for a year, you could probably sell more books. But for an introverted psychologist who loves his family and lives in the woods, I think this is pretty good, Flanagan.’

I laughed out loud. Grace does that. It takes you by surprise. And sometimes you just have to laugh.”

Heart-warming Author Moment:
“About four years after Loveable was published. A reader emailed me and said, ‘I read Loveable when it first came out, and I’ve been listening for the voice of grace within me every day since. Today, I finally heard it, and I know I’ll never be the same again.’

The warmth of that one still hasn’t worn off.”
Jenny Fulton is a wife, mother, author, blogger, and freelance writer. An enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, she grew up hearing stories from my dad about the supernatural workings on the Navajo Reservation. As a child, she collected angels and loved anything related to fairy tales. Her days are now mostly spent raising my three young daughters and writing as much as time and opportunity allows. Follow her at her blog, Heart Soul Mind.

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