Mary Neal must be a contender for the title of Most Reluctant Bestselling Author. It took the orthopedica surgeon more than a decade to set down on paper the afterlife encounters she had when trapped underwater during a 1999 river kayaking trip in Chile—despite the conviction she had been sent back from heaven to share that experience.
Failing to draw any interest in her manuscript from established houses, she decided to self-publish the account late last year. Within a few weeks the book had created a stir on Amazon, and Neal signed a deal with Random House imprint WaterBrook Press. Almost half a million copies of To Heaven and Back have shipped since its May release, and Neal has been featured widely on national media, including the Today show, Katie, Fox & Friends, and CNN Sunday Morning.
Though “a private person,” 54-year-old Neal has embraced the bestseller attention because “I feel like it's God’s story and as such it has touched people and inspired people to deepen their spiritual walk, or at least think about their spiritual life. ”
She recounts being submerged for more than 15 minutes—long enough to discount her doctor’s cynicism that the idea of meeting Jesus, talking with angels, and being shown heaven was just the neurological or chemical reactions of a dying brain.
The WaterBrook edition of her book features an added Q&A section in which Neal—who longed to stay in heaven where she felt she was joyfully “home,” rather than go back to her body—responds to common questions from those who read the self-published version.
Proceeds from sales are going to several charities, including the Willie Neal Environmental Awareness Fund. It was founded in memory of Neal's 19-year-old son, the oldest of four children, who died hours after she completed her first draft. She later added to the story, telling how one of the reasons she accepts she had to return to earth was to be here when her family needed her.
Two factors played into Neal's slow fulfillment of the mandate she believes she was given to share her story. Having been so reluctant to return to her physical life, she found it difficult to dwell on the delight she had felt in heaven. And she feared that while her children were still young it might be hard for them to understand how she could love them but long to be elsewhere.
Neal is currently juggling media interest in her story with her demanding day job as a partner in an orthopedic practice in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Though she's not looking for a new career, she is open to writing more, perhaps on dealing with loss, and speaking. “I have no desire to exploit this,” says Neal. “I'm not in this for any reason other than to inspire people in their journey of faith. I live every day trying to listen for God's leading.”