In this episode, Belinda Pollard, Donita Bundy and Alison Joy interview pastor and author Donny Abbott about his book inspired by Rembrandt’s painting, Christ in the Storm. Donny shares his process, and the disappointments and blessings of writing and publishing.
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In conversation in this episode:
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, writing coach, accredited editor with qualifications in theology, writing and publishing blogger at smallbluedog.com, and Gracewriters founder
- Donita Bundy, writing teacher, preacher and author of the Armour of Light urban fantasy series.
- Alison Joy, romance author, former early childhood teacher and mother of 4 adult children.
- Donny Abbott, pastor and author of Christian non-fiction and children’s books.
Topics covered in this episode:
- How Donny was inspired to write by Rembrandt’s famous painting, and the series to come.
- Repurposing Vacation Bible School materials into a children’s picture book.
- The difficulty of breaking into publishing as a new author in the current climate.
- The disappointments, challenges and blessings of the writing process.
Click the image to buy on Amazon, or find other options at Donny’s website.
Please use the sharing buttons at top and bottom of this post to share on social media or directly with Christian writers you know.
Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters Podcast – Christian Writers Changing Popular Culture. Hit subscribe on your favourite podcast player so you never miss an episode and find show notes, useful links and a full transcript at gracewriters.com.
Welcome to today’s podcast, with pastor and author, Donny Abbott – a storyteller who crafts words to teach and entertain while provoking imagination and faith.
I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and writing coach with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. I blog for writers at smallbluedog.com and you can find links to all my blogs, books and online courses at belindapollard.com.
Alison Joy: Hi, I’m Alison Young. I’m a former early childhood teacher. I live in south-east Queensland and I have four adult children and I write romance under the pen name, Alison Joy. You can find all my information at alisonjoywriter.com.
Donita Bundy: Hi, I’m Donita Bundy. For the past 20 years, I’ve been using my theology degree to underpin my preaching and more recently, to inspire my urban-fantasy series, Armour of Light. You can find out more about that, me and my other projects at donitabundy.com.
Alison Joy: Donny Abbott has been in ministry for over 25 years. He has a master’s degree in Pastoral Studies and a Bachelor of Science in Organisational Leadership. He’s married with three sons and a full-time pastor at Timberline Church in Fort Collins, Colorado.
We invited him to talk about his writing journey and in particular his book, Christ in the Storm: Keeping Faith in the Face of the Unknown.
Welcome to the podcast, Donny.
Donny Abbott: Ladies, thank you so much for having me.
Donita Bundy: It is a pleasure to be able to spend this time and have a chat with you, Donny but, first of all, to help listeners get a better understanding of who you are and where you sit in the writerly world, we were wondering if you’d be willing to undergo the rapid-fire five?
Donny Abbott: Sure! Bring it on.
Donita Bundy: Okay. First of all, who is your target audience?
Donny Abbott: My target audience is definitely for Christians and, I would say, mostly for middle-aged Christians. So have a little bit of season behind them. I found that they’re the folks who’ve been most attracted to this book.
Donita Bundy: What would you say is your main genre?
Donny Abbott: Christian non-fiction, for sure.
Donita Bundy: What is your optimum time for writing?
Donny Abbott: Usually between four and six am and after then it’s all downhill from there!
You know, the house is up and moving at that time so, between the hours of four and six it’s quiet and dark and just me alone with my thoughts and the Lord prompting me to write.
Donita Bundy: And where would be your favourite place to write?
Donny Abbott: It’s in my office at my house. A couple of years ago, I came to church on a Sunday morning and when I came back this one day, it was actually this time about five years ago, my office had been completely remodelled by my wife and my oldest son. They had painted it and they had provided me with a brand new computer and a nice leather sofa. They did it up great, so thanks to my wife and my oldest kiddo!
Donita Bundy: That’s cool! And can you let us know how you got into writing in the first place?
Donny Abbott: Well, I’ve always been a writer even going back when I was a kid, I enjoyed creative writing a whole lot and I’ve always been a writer. I’ve written our vacation bible schools and being a pastor, I write out my sermons. I’ve done that for decades, actually.
In 2017 I went through a life plan with a colleague pastor of mine, his name is Jeff Lucas. He is a very well known author from the UK and he took me through a life plan and at that point I had three different writing projects that were all in various stages of completion and Christ in the Storm, was one of them. Stanley the Claustrophobic Miner, my children’s picture book, was another and then a baseball screenplay.
So, I had all of them, I just could not get past the finish line and through that two-day Lifeplan, Jeff really unearthed some things in me that by the end of day two, he’s like, “Donny, you need to get these projects finished.”
Actually, the first one that I finished was Stanley mainly because that was the one that was furthest along in completion and then shortly after was Christ in the Storm.
I thought, you know what, I’m going to take my fascination with this Rembrandt painting and I’m going to put it into book form, so that’s what I did.
Donita Bundy: Can I just quickly ask, where are you up to with the screenplay?
Donny Abbott: Yes, the screenplay, that is a whole different podcast!
You ladies did a podcast on disappointment and I really enjoyed that podcast because it’s a very pertinent topic to writers because we’re constantly facing disappointment. And when it comes to that screenplay, I started writing that in 2003 and through having three kids and moving five different times, I would put it on the shelf and then take it off again. I could never get it finished until this Lifeplan.
By the time I got it up to about 85 pages, most screenplays need to be at least 90 pages because that makes about a 90 minute movie, but by the time I got it up to 85 pages another screenwriter had already finished the same story that I was writing. It was a historical biography about a Cleveland Indian shortstop named Ray Chapman who died in an on-field incident in 1920.
Anyway, it’s a good story. His story is fascinating and my screenwriting story is heartbreaking! So, there you go!
Alison Joy: I really appreciate your book about Christ in the Storm. I read it and I loved and enjoyed it and I’m a bit of an art aficionado. So I was intrigued to learn about it and read about it and that it directly relates to Rembrandt’s Christ in a Storm painting from 1633.
Donny Abbott: Right.
Alison Joy: What is it about this painting that fascinates you and how did that lead to writing the book? What was your process?
Donny Abbott: Yes, that’s a good question. I’ve always been fascinated with this Rembrandt and the unique thing, Rembrandt was a very prolific artist. Throughout his career he painted over 300 works of art. By comparison, someone like Vermeer only painted about 34 paintings and Leonardo da Vinci painted probably no more than 20. So, Rembrandt was a very prolific artist but this painting was his only known seascape.
So, that adds some intrigue to it but then you couple that with this painting was stolen on St Patrick’s Day of 1990 in the largest unsolved art heist in history. Two bad guys were posing as Boston police officers, they came and knocked on the door at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston Massachusetts and they were speaking through a little peep-hole in the door to the two security guards inside and they said, “There’s been reports of a disturbance,” and the security guards, going against all security protocol, just opened up the door and let them in.
And the two bad guys, they promptly said, “Gentlemen, this is a robbery,” and they tied the security guards up and in the next ninety minutes, they made off with half-a-billion dollars’ worth of art, including this one and a Vermeer, several of them. There were 13 works of art that were stolen and to this day, those pieces are still missing.
That adds an additional layer of intrigue to the painting and to my book.
Alison Joy: I don’t know if people can see it but they can look it up, the painting, for themselves but there’s all different figures in the boat and you’ve gone into looking at the different figures and what they’re doing in the boat in relation to Jesus and in relation to the storm. How did you put it all together? How did it come about?
Donny Abbott: It’s really pretty easy because I put myself in the boat or I put myself in the shoes of each of those characters in the boat. One of them is cowering in fear totally paralysed, unsure of what to do and often times when we’re facing trials and tribulations we get paralysed also. That happens to all of us. What’s the right thing to do here? That’s what this guy’s thinking.
Another guy is turned completely away from Jesus. The guys at the top end of the boat, they’re fighting, they’re battening down the hatches. They’re hanging onto ropes and everything and they’re trying their hardest to get their way through the storm. They’re literally fighting for their lives and we do the same thing, right? And I think that we should. We should do whatever it takes, humanly possible, to get through whatever storm we’re facing. But then there’s also a couple of other characters who are turned and they’re facing Jesus and they’re praying to him.
It just seems it’s almost like a circle or the cycle that we all go through when facing a storm. We can resign ourselves to just giving up, we can fight it with all of our might or we can go to the Creator, himself, who has control over our storms.
The process was really just me trying to put myself in each of their shoes and feel what they were thinking and then, also, Rembrandt painted himself in the painting. It was kind of a fun thing that he liked to do in many of his paintings. He would paint himself in them and in this painting, he’s the only one of the characters on the boat who’s facing outward towards us, the viewer, and he’s holding to a rope, holding onto a hat and it’s almost like he’s saying, “Can you believe it? I’m on a boat in a storm with Jesus!” It’s kind of a cool thing.
But then I also try to find some anecdotes to just add some substance to each of the characters in each of my chapters, as well, bringing in my own personal stories. It’s really a very personal book.
Belinda Pollard: And it sort of shows how deep an impact art can have on people and I think that’s exciting for us, too, as writers because writing is an artform. God can use our creativity.
Donny Abbott: For sure.
Belinda Pollard: It’s quite encouraging, isn’t it to see how much richness can come from just an experience of looking at a pretty remarkable work of art.
Donny Abbott: My hope is that this will be book one in a three, maybe four, book series on different works of art. We’ll see what happens with that!
Donita Bundy: That’s a great idea.
Donny Abbott: I’ve just got to start writing!
Alison Joy: I am so intrigued! I can’t wait for the next book.
Donny Abbott: I started working on my next book last November and I wrote my introduction, I wrote my chapter one, I sent it off to my editor and she made her edits and sent it back to me and for two weeks I would open up her edits and I would close it. I finally called her and I said, “I don’t want to write.”
In 2021 I had published, Christ in the Storm and my kid’s picture book, so it was a really challenging year when it came to writing and getting these books out there and it cost a lot of money and amounts of time. I just could not go forward with the second book and I haven’t written in a year, that book.
Belinda Pollard: You said you wrote a chapter and sent it to your editor. Is that how you did it last time? Is that the way you like to work?
Donny Abbott: It is. Yes. Some people, they write the whole manuscript and then send it off but I did it in chapters and I found out that worked pretty good for me.
Belinda Pollard: It’s not working this time though.
Donny Abbott: It’s not!
Belinda Pollard: So, I’m wondering if what you need to do is regain the joy of your manuscript and of the artwork and of just getting in there and just enjoying it. Not thinking about what the editor’s going to think. Not thinking about whether it’s good enough to publish. Not thinking about all the other things that have happened that have gone on around your book and around the publishing process and about all the various rejections and disappointments that happen in the process of writing and just getting into that love of what you write. This particular thing that’s been given to you to write, not to someone else, to you.
Donny Abbott: Yes.
Belinda Pollard: And just wallow in God’s grace, in the beauty of the art and just enjoy writing.
Donita Bundy: And the painting.
Belinda Pollard: Imagine no one’s going to read it. It’s just between you and God.
Donny Abbott: It’s a good word, Belinda. Thank you for that encouragement.
That’s what I need to get. I am encouraged in the last, probably, four to six weeks I’ve been feeling more like what you’re suggesting. I’m hoping to get there again.
Belinda Pollard: Don’t feel shame about it though either because the pandemic affected a lot of writers and it’s not over yet. Some people found it good because they could go into their cave and just write and get away from the world.
Donny Abbott: Right.
Belinda Pollard: But a lot of writers have been really stymied and blocked throughout this time because of the beehive in their head of all the things that are going on.
Don’t feel any shame about that or anything like that. I couldn’t write. I’ve got a book that’s been on hold for a couple of years! We can sit in the naughty corner together! But I’m getting back into it now.
Donny Abbott: Thank you for that. I appreciate it.
Alison Joy: So, the last two years, as we all know, the last couple of years has been a tremendous storm in the whole world, I mean, more than normal. What is the big takeaway that you would like readers to get from your book?
Donny Abbott: The big takeaway, it’s really simple, is that from reading the passage in Scripture in Matthew chapter 8, as well as just looking at the Rembrandt painting, is that Christ is with us in all of our storms. And many times, I don’t know if you feel like this, but I feel like when I’m facing a storm, I feel like God has abandoned me but this painting and scripture reminds us, “No. God is with us in the storms.” That’s the big takeaway.
Why even have storms, right? Why? Why did Jesus take his 12 buddies when they pushed off, Jesus knew what they were going to sail into. The guys didn’t but Jesus knew that He had to take them through that storm to increase their faith in Him. And I think that’s the same thing with us and the storms that we face is that they are meant to hone our faith in God.
Belinda Pollard: Very true.
Donny Abbott: They’re not easy!
Belinda Pollard: How was it getting your book published? Was that easy and fun or was that a storm?
Donny Abbott: I go back to your podcast on disappointment because it’s such a pertinent topic to writers because we’re constantly facing disappointment after disappointment.
I went to a Christian Writer’s conference at Estes Park, Colorado. I pitched my manuscript to probably 20 different agents and publishing houses and one guy, one agent, you know, you make your elevator pitch and I’m pitching it to him and I knew immediately that I had him because he was leaning forward. Right there he said, “I want it. I want to represent you.”
He became my agent and he pitched it to 40 different publishers and received 40 different rejections! In fact, the first publishing house he pitched it to, the buyer was a gal, when she was growing up, as a young kid, that painting hung in the living room of her house and in her publishing office it was right across from her desk hanging on the wall. So, she loved that painting but she said, “You know what, I just can’t buy it. It won’t sell to my audience.” So, that was disappointing and then you would tack on another 39 rejections.
So, after a year, my agent and I, we both agreed to part ways because he just said it’s really hard for an unknown, brand new author to get a publishing deal. So, he encouraged me to self-publish which is what I did and he’s like, “Donny, the publishing industry has completely changed in the last five to ten years where about half of all books that are on the market are self-published.”
Of course, that’s good and bad because anybody can publish anything. I’m really proud of my book. It’s gone through two editors. I had a beta-readers’ group and three of those folks were published authors themselves so, I feel like my final product is a very good product that I’m very, very proud of.
Belinda Pollard: That’s fantastic. Well done for finding your way through that storm.
Donny Abbott: Well, it was a two year process. From writing it to actually having it on the market, it was two years.
As you ladies know, it’s not for the faint of heart!
Belinda Pollard: Yes! So, you’ve also got the children’s book, haven’t you? Tell us a little bit about that one and how that one came about.
Donny Abbott: Yes. Let me pull one out. This is Stanley the Claustrophobic Miner. Stanley, he was a character that I wrote for vacation bible school 25 years ago and I thought, “You know what, I’m going to turn him into a book.” So, I wrote the text to Stanley.
The gist of the story is that he’s a young kid who wants to grow up and be like his dad who is a miner. One day his dad wakes him up and says, “Let’s go into the mine,” and Stanley goes into the mine only to quickly discover that’s he’s claustrophobic. But to help him deal with his claustrophobia he sings a song. He remembers what his mum said about mirrors. How mirrors make rooms look larger so Stanley goes and gets a whole bunch of mirrors and ties them to his body and it works. So, the mine gets larger. It’s kind of a cute story.
Donita Bundy: Donny, the Gracewriters slogan is Christian Writers Changing Popular Culture. What is your reaction to this?
Donny Abbott: Well, I just feel like Christian writing is more needed today than ever. God’s voice has to be heard because there’s so much in the secular world that wants to dismiss God and dismiss people of God and yet, we’re the ones that hold to the truth of God’s Word and how we can convey that musically, in literature and different forms of literature, through acting. Any of the arts.
I think the Christian voice just needs to be heard and is so essential to be heard today as ever before.
Donita Bundy: I’ve noticed through your book, there is a strong theme of identity right from the start with Peter being recalled. As you said earlier, you put yourself in each of the characters in the boat and you identified with each of those.
You wrote in the chapter on fear:
To overcome fear, you had to identify yourself with Christ and allow Him to help you. You had to change your thinking about who I am, about whose I am. I belong to Christ alone.
Have you found the challenge of writing this book and producing it has altered your identity or deepened your identity in Christ?
Donny Abbott: That’s a good question. In that particular chapter, it’s probably my most personal chapter because I mention in there my fear. I watched the movie, The Exorcist, as a young kid, I was probably 12 years old, totally scarred me. That film had such an impact on me that as I became a young adult, like 23 – 25 years old, it got so debilitating when I was living alone that I was constantly fearful of demonic things. It was just really not a good time in my life.
What helped me through that time was just really remembering. You asked the question of identity. I am a child of God. Jesus died for me. So just personalising what Christ did for me helped me to overcome those fears. How did my identity change in writing this book? I think it really deepened my identity in who I am as a child of God.
Donita Bundy: And would you say that the challenge of writing has increased or deepened your faith in God?
Donny Abbott: I think when you’re in the writing process, it can feel like getting to this point, having a finished book, is like light years away, right. But the key is just to keep at it.
I believe that God is faithful to all of us as we sit in front of our computers and write. If God has put something on your heart to write, then we just got to do it. You’ve got to show up every day and write. Make it happen.
Belinda Pollard: Where can people find you online?
Donny Abbott: So, I have a website donnyabbott.com.
Belinda Pollard: How about I pray for you, Donny?
Donny Abbott: Thank you, Belinda.
Belinda Pollard: Heavenly Father, we thank you for Donny and for the inspiration that you’ve given him to work on these books, to see something different in the artworks, to bring something out of it that’s a bit special and a bit unique and that will help and encourage other believers out there in the world.
We pray for Donny as he wrestles with writer’s block and the difficulties and challenges of being able to keep moving with his writing. And we pray also for all the other Gracewriters out there who are feeling the same sorts of things.
We pray that you will open the doors at the right time. We pray that you will help them all to rest in you and to know that you are far more kind to us than we often are to ourselves. And we pray that at the right time you will give them that inspiration and the words and the freedom to sit down and start really enjoying their writing again.
And we ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen
Donita Bundy: Amen.
Alison Joy: Amen.
Donny Abbott: Amen.
Belinda Pollard: Donny Abbott, thanks so much for joining us on the podcast today. Thank you, Alison Joy and Donita Bundy. I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you next time on the Gracewriters podcast.
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