In this episode, Belinda Pollard, Alison Young and Donita Bundy interview Bill Brockmeier, who reveals how his adventure in historical fiction has detoured into writng an opera libretto! Bill also speaks about the non-profit Hearts Need Art, which uses creativity to help hospital patients combat anxiety, depression and loneliness.
Scroll down for audio, video, and a full transcript, or find the podcast on Apple Podcasts here: https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/gracewriters-podcast/id1519376330
In conversation in this episode:
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, accredited editor, and Gracewriters founder
- Alison Joy, author of sweet romance
- Donita Bundy, author of young adult urban fantasy
- Bill Brockmeier, author of historical fiction and opera libretto
Topics covered in this episode:
- How a love of opera came upon Bill unexpectedly, and the process he followed to learn how to write a new form.
- The value of seeing Gracewriting as an adventure, whatever our age or situation.
- How creativity is a blessing from God.
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Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters podcast – Christian writers changing popular culture. Connect with us at Gracewriters.com.
Today on the podcast, Bill Brockmeier and Hearts Need Art. I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and writing coach with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. Find links to my books and blogs at belindapollard.com.
Alison Joy: Hi, I’m Alison Joy. I’m a romance writer and I live in Brisbane, in Queensland and you can find me on alisonjoywriter.com.
Donita Bundy: Good morning everybody, I’m Donita Bundy. I’m a writer, a blogger and a creative writing teacher. If you want to find out more about me, you can go to donitabundy.com. Good morning Bill.
Bill Brockmeier: Hello, from South Texas.
Donita Bundy: Based in San Antonio, Bill Brockmeier is a writer, research engineer and a team member of the non-profit organisation, Hearts Need Art. Today we’ve invited Bill to join us to share more of his story. As writers and storytellers we understand the importance of setting, so, Bill, as we welcome you to the podcast, we were wondering if you’d be willing to answer the rapid fire five? The who, what, when, where and why of your story.
Bill Brockmeier: Sure.
Donita Bundy: So, Bill, who is your target audience?
Bill Brockmeier: Definitely adult. Originally started writing pretty much specifically for non-Christians, however, it really encompasses Christians as well. So, pretty much everybody who’s an adult.
Donita Bundy: Thanks. Excellent. What is your main genre?
Bill Brockmeier: When I started writing seriously, fiction wise, about four years ago, mainly novels. I’m starting on my third novel now, but I’ve also written quite a bit of poetry, a large collection of short stories and more recently I’ve started writing opera librettos.
Donita Bundy: Very cool. Looking forward to hearing more about that later. When is your optimum time for writing: morning, noon, night, or are you more of a hunter gatherer for time?
Bill Brockmeier: I don’t really have any set time during the day. I have a pretty flexible schedule but as far as when the real creative stuff happens, that’s often in the wee hours of the morning. So, I will wake up at two or three o’clock and there will be a scene playing through my head.
Donita Bundy: Wow. Where is your favourite place to write?
Bill Brockmeier: That’s kind of like the time as well. I’m flexible. I can write at the desk in my office or sit at the kitchen table, or when I wrote my first novel often I found myself writing in an airport terminal.
Donita Bundy: And the last one, why did you get into Gracewriting?
Bill Brockmeier: I’ve written a lot of things over the years but never seriously wrote fiction until recently, and the reason that I started writing was really out of sheer survival. To get stories out of my head that, on this end of things, I really believe that God was pushing me into writing. Even though I had no interest, really, in writing fiction and didn’t think I could write fiction.
Alison Joy: The people who are listening to the podcast, we have monthly catchups of Gracewriters and I remember one of the meetings we had and Belinda was asking everybody, “Hey, what have you guys been up to?” and then Bill pops up, he says, “Hey, I’ve been writing an opera libretto,” and I’m going, “Wow, that is amazing!” Now, for those of you who don’t know, a libretto, I can’t even get my tongue around it, a libretto comes from the Italian word meaning ‘little books’.
So, it’s basically the story that goes with an opera or a musical. Normally in musicals they just call it the ‘book’, so I’m assuming that libretto is mainly just for an opera these days. But Bill, I’m so intrigued, how did you get into coming up with, do you just wake up one day and go, “Hey, I want to write a libretto.” How did you get into it?
Bill Brockmeier: I really had almost no exposure to operas until last December. My daughter came to visit me for a two week visit and she and I, neither had ever watched an opera, but she’s a writer and very creative. She’s a painter as well, and we just got talking about operas one day and she’s also a librarian, so she has access to a lot of media on the internet. And she said, “Hey, let’s watch an opera. Just check it out.” Even though we both thought they were kind of cheesy and all that. So, we watched one and after it was over, we looked at each other and said, “That was pretty amazing! It isn’t at all what I expected.”
So, over the next week or two, we watched about a half a dozen operas altogether and it really changed my understanding of what an opera was and what it could be. It’s really an incredible art form that involves all sorts of arts. And since I’ve had an interest in writing poetry, anyway, and librettos basically are some poetry, I thought, the third novel that I just started writing about that time, that story really could be the excellent basis for an opera. I liked this idea.
And I’m an oddball kind of guy. I’m always looking for something strange to do, and something I’ve never done before. So, it was just kind of a challenge to me and I thought, I’m going to look into writing a libretto. That’s kind of how I got started.
Belinda Pollard: Have you been watching more operas since then? Have you been reading opera librettos?
Bill Brockmeier: Yes, since the first of the year, I think now I’ve watched a total of 65 or 66 operas and it’s just really an amazing thing. I would encourage anybody that’s never really watched one. Watch one or two or three and they’re a really remarkable art form and it’s really for somebody who wants to write something new and fresh. Now, you think of operas as being old fashioned and they’ve kind of gone out of style, out of the popular culture for the last, probably, 80 or 90 years. But that’s really unfortunate because they are so deep in so many ways. They have so much to offer and somebody writing one today, hey, this is untapped creative ground to cover.
Belinda Pollard: Is it a bit like a screenplay? Does it include the stage directions and things or is it more just the words?
Bill Brockmeier: It’s a lot like a screenplay. If you look at one, it has dialogue set out with the characters and their words that they’re supposed to sing or speak. It has stage directions, it may even have a brief, very brief synopsis at the beginning of the whole opera, or at each act, maybe, to kind of give the flavour of what’s going on. So, yes very much like a screenplay.
Belinda Pollard: And you were telling us before you found a book on the internet.
Bill Brockmeier: I sure did. One thing about librettos, if you’re interested in writing one, is that there is almost no information out there, almost no help. If you’re going to write a novel, let me tell you, there are thousands of people that will help you learn how to write a novel. There are thousands of books that have been written about it. There are videos available. You can go to conferences, on and on and on. But for librettos, when I went after the internet to say, “Hey, I’m going to check out and see, there must be resources out there, as well, for writing libretto.” Zero, there’s really zero.
But I finally ran across a, it’s kind of like for me, the bible of librettos, 101 Opera Librettos. There is a little over 100 operas, both in the original language and translated into English. So, you can read, side by side, both versions and really get a flavour for what they are. They’re generally, as far as the actual dialogue itself is sung, there are only about 3 to 5,000 words. So, you’re taking, and you try and take a very rich story and you’re boiling it down into those few words. So, that’s, to me, is really the huge challenge of it is cut, cut, cut, cut. Boil it down into the most brief, concise version of something you can get, and make it poetic at the same time.
Alison Joy: So, Bill, in a nutshell what is your libretto about?
Bill Brockmeier: The story, it’s changed somewhat since I’m writing it now as a libretto instead of a novel. But it’s basically, it depends on who you read.
But everybody’s familiar with the story of the conversion of Shaul, or Saul is his anglicised name, or most know him as Paul. Everybody knows that story, everyone knew he was heading to Damascus as a blasphemer, as he later called himself, but after that period of time there are five places in Scripture that detail different parts of that story, and if you put them all together you find out that there are somewhere between, probably, one and three years of his life that were unaccounted for right after the conversion.
Where Paul, himself, says, “I went immediately into,” he uses the word, “Arabia,” that’s the Roman word for what now is called Nabatea, that was the kingdom just east of Judea. That’s kind of a preamble for saying the story is my fictionalised look at what he did in those three years. And I have a detailed encounter between Shaul (Paul) and Queen Shaqilath, who was the Queen of Nabatea.
Belinda Pollard: That’s fantastic. I love it. I love what you’ve done there, Bill, to learn a new form. You have encountered …
Bill Brockmeier: I don’t know if I’ve learnt it yet.
Belinda Pollard: Yes, but I love the process that you’ve gone through, just unpacking that, you’ve encountered the new form, you’ve been bewitched by it, you’ve loved it, quite against what you were expecting to happen. And then you have gone and deliberately experienced more and more and more of it, much like we, whatever form we’re writing, we need to be reading that form of writing, absorbing that form of writing. And you’ve gone out and you’ve found a magic book on the internet full of 101, for those of you who were listening and couldn’t see that, that is a massive book, and it’s got all of these other librettos in it.
So, you’re going through and you’re analysing, you’re reverse engineering how these people have written this thing, to work out how you’re going to write it. And this is a fantastic process and procedure and idea and method for all of us as writers. So, I’m very excited by that.
Bill Brockmeier: And I think another thing, as well as that process, is, and this covers my whole reason for getting into fiction and writing novels, because I was never interested in that either before. I think it’s really important for all of us to really consider our lives as adventures, and this time that we live on this earth is remarkable in so many different ways. It’s very grounded, it’s very difficult at times, painful at times even to the point of being horrendous at times, but that’s part of what adventure is, you never know what’s around the next corner.
And to me, I’m 70 years old, I see however many years I have left as, those are going to be rich years. What I’ve already lived have been rich, but what yet waits ahead of me, I can’t wait to get to. And I encourage anybody, who is creative in any manner, to not just stay in your zone of comfort, but to look around and to look into matters that maybe you had no interest in before. Because who knows what might be there.
Belinda Pollard: I love that you’re doing that, no matter what the age. Moses didn’t start his life’s work until he was 80, and I love that at 70 you’re saying, “I’m going to get into opera,” and it’s fabulous. I’m just so excited that you’re enjoying it so much. There is something that you’ve been involved with, a charity program, perhaps, called Hearts Need Art. Can you just tell us, in a couple of minutes, what’s that all about and how you got involved?
Bill Brockmeier: Yes, it’s much more comprehensive than when it started a few years ago. It was started by a woman who is a cancer survivor and, even though for children in cancer wards, or their hospital wards around the world, there are many programs that are available that include the arts. It can be kind of a scary process being in hospital and going through different kinds of treatment that may be painful, in themselves. So, it’s been found a long time ago that arts can really be used in a powerful way as part of the healing process. So, painting, writing, things of that sort, music, have been used for a long time for children.
But this woman found that there was zero available for adults, they’d just kind of been, left behind because let’s concentrate on the kids. Adults were adults, they can figure out what they need in life. So, she found that that was just really a crying need, so she started, I believe, with music. She was a music major in college, so they did things like having in-hospital concerts on the ward. That was very helpful. Then they also started teaching simple instruments to people, like a ukulele. They found it was very easy to give somebody a ukulele, say, “Here, this is yours and I’m going to, by the way, teach you how to play it.” And they found that really was hugely helpful to these people in the healing process.
And then over the intervening years, they’ve added other things. They’ve added visual arts, painting, sculpting, more recently writing has been added, and that’s kind of where I’ve gotten involved. I haven’t had much of an opportunity to be directly involved yet. I’ve had so many personal things happen in my life since the first of the year, and went through some back surgery myself, that I’m pretty much recovered from now.
So, I just made contact with them again last week to say, “Hey, I’m back fully and back in the saddle again and ready to go.” So, I’ll find out more once I get my hands on it and start getting into it. The details are what it’s about, but I’ll be involved in teaching people how to write their memoirs, write fiction, write poetry, just be there to hold people’s hands, if nothing else and encourage them.
Belinda Pollard: That’s fantastic.
Bill Brockmeier: So that’s what it’s about.
Alison Joy: Bill, is this program available anywhere else, or is it just mainly in the U.S.?
Bill Brockmeier: It’s just in San Antonio right now, as far as I know.
Alison Joy: Okay.
Belinda Pollard: Is it a Christian program, or just a general program?
Bill Brockmeier: It’s not Christian officially, I think they want to be totally open to all faiths enough that anybody would feel free and open. However, pretty much everybody that’s involved is a Christian believer. So, in some sense, it flies under the radar, kind of like Gracewriters, kind of like writing things for people who aren’t believers and yet you’re writing from being informed by a Christian world view.
Belinda Pollard: And it’s a form of grace, isn’t it?
Bill Brockmeier: Right. Exactly.
Belinda Pollard: Creativity – again and again, I forget that God is the Creator.
Bill Brockmeier: Exactly.
Belinda Pollard: Every bit of creativity that comes from us, comes from Him. And part of the image of God that resides in us as human beings, made in His image, is our creativity. It’s wonderful.
Bill Brockmeier: And I’ve really found that in people that are involved in creativity, in general, painters, writers, whatever it might be, often those, and I’m thinking even back before I was a believer, some 40 years ago, I still had a creative bent back then. But I was not a believer and I couldn’t even imagine that there would be people that would be heavily involved in creative activity who were Christian believers. I just couldn’t even believe that that was a possibility, however, now that I’m on the other side, I really see the opportunity of openings with people who are creative individuals who don’t know anything about the Truth.
And I think they can be so open to the Truth from just having kind of the same language, you can talk about creative things and really get them involved in what you’re talking about and then begin to talk just about what you mentioned, that there is a Holy God who is the ultimate Creator. He is more creative than we can ever even imagine, far beyond our greatest imagination. And yet, guess what, I know Him, I know Him personally, so I think that’s an opportunity that all of us as writers, whatever kind of creator we might be. I think we can have that kind of conversation with people who aren’t yet believers.
Alison Joy: Gracewriters slogan is Christians changing popular culture. How does that challenge you?
Bill Brockmeier: I would say, in general, guess what, I can’t change pop culture but on the other hand I fellowship with a local group called, Hillside Fellowship. It’s a local church body, and one motto that we all had just totally latched onto, in the last couple of years, is I can’t change pop culture, I can’t change my neighbourhood even, but you know what, Jesus changes everything.
And because he’s my Lord, because he’s my elder brother, because he’s my friend, he can do things through me that are totally impossible for me. So, I have no personal hopes of changing the culture, but I know if I follow Him and am faithful to whatever path he that he has before me, I’ll see amazing things happen.
Alison Joy: So how does your faith impact how and what you write?
Bill Brockmeier: To me, I would probably answer it differently now than I would have, maybe, 20 or so years ago. But I would say now, it’s a matter of my faith informing what I write. The Lord has put a foundation in me and has put truth in me, and though I don’t perfectly understand all of that and can’t perfectly express all of that, nevertheless, my life and the way I view things, the way I write is hugely informed by Him. It’s informed by His written Word, it’s informed by the way I’ve seen Him work throughout my life for those 40 years.
There’s a countless number of experiences in my life that have clearly been touched by Him, and all those things, in one way or another, come to bear on what I write. I would say that the second novel that I wrote was really much about my own life. Though the circumstances that I actually wrote about were very, very different, and this was also set in the Kingdom of Nabatea in the first century, it’s called The Stonecutter. So, it’s a totally different culture, totally different time but really, I found myself in all sorts of ways, coming out in the protagonist to that novel.
Belinda Pollard: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Bill. Donita, did you have any other questions for Bill?
Donita Bundy: No. Just that, like Alison was saying, really excited to hear more of Bill’s experience with the Hearts Need Art and I have to acknowledge with my time working with refugees and migrants, the healing power of enabling people to tell their story and the gift that that is to enable someone’s voice to share their perspective, their experiences and how transformative that is and the ability, or the help that is in healing, internally, emotionally, spiritually and physically. So, just I personally want to thank you again, Bill, for joining us and I really look forward to reading the libretto, if not listening to your libretto.
Bill Brockmeier: I’ve got to find a composer first.
Donita Bundy: Okay. And again, really interested to hear more about the program in San Antonio and look forward to hearing how that works out and you being involved in the writing part, that’s incredibly exciting work. Really encouraged that you were able to come and share with us today and your faith, as well, very inspiring, so thank you.
Alison Joy: Yes.
Bill Brockmeier: Thank you for having me. I enjoyed it.
Belinda Pollard: How about I pray for Bill and for Gracewriters generally before we finish.
Heavenly Father, we thank you for this opportunity for us to meet today and to discuss these things and to hear such exciting things about what you are doing through your people around the world. What you are doing through the creativity that you gave us as your children, and what you are achieving, how you are changing lives, changing hearts, changing futures for people in so many interesting, unusual, strange, organic, inspiring ways. So, we thank you for it, Lord, and we pray for all of the Gracewriters out there that you will encourage them, that you will show them the adventure of their life, the adventure of their faith, and the adventure of the creativity that you have blessed them with. And we commit it all to you, in the name of Jesus.
Bill Brockmeier: Amen.
Belinda Pollard: Thank you Bill Brockmeier, Alison Joy and Donita Bundy. I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you at the next Gracewriters podcast.
Thank you for joining us today at the Gracewriters podcast – Christian writers changing popular culture. Subscribe to the blog to receive an invitation to our monthly catch-up on Zoom and to our free private online forum where members discuss topics that effect Christian writers. Connect with us at gracewriters.com. We’d love to see you there.