by C.J. Darlington
Matt Bronleewe Interview
love for people to realize that history is very exciting, very meaningful
... If we don't know our history, we don't know our future."
-- Matt Bronleewe
Matt Bronleewe is a recognized producer, songwriter and author. A former member of the band Jars of Clay, he has earned numerous awards producing and co-writing albums that have sold a combined total of over 20 million copies. His songs have recently been recorded by Disney pop sensations Aly & AJ, American Idol finalist Kimberley Locke, and more. Bronleewe has worked with Grammy Award-winning artists such as Michael W. Smith, International pop singer Natalie Imbruglia and Heroes star Hayden Panettiere.
Bronleewe currently resides in Brentwood, Tenn., with his wife and three children. He continues to write and produce music, and he also volunteers through his church to help disadvantaged youth in the community. Bronleewe enjoys reading, taste-testing good food and watching sports, as well as indulging his interests in art, architecture, design and science.
C.J.: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Matt: I’ve always been an avid reader. I think it started long before I was aware of it in terms of the desire to write. I read Lord of the Rings and all the Narnia Chronicles growing up, and I loved adventurous stories and real world stories. I’m a big fan of Roosevelt and learning more about him. I think it was that combination of adventure and history that finally led me to trying my hand at writing myself. It’s hard to imagine an author who isn’t also an avid reader, someone who really enjoys books. I love books. The beginning of Illuminated was a really simple concept. I wanted to write a book that was about a book.
We’ve heard there is an interesting story behind the story of Illuminated and your publication journey. Would you share that with us?
I’ve been involved in music for over a decade now. I have gotten to meet some really great people in town, including Charlie Peacock. For people who live in Nashville, he’s a wondrous guru, a magical thinker who seems to always have the answers. I tapped his shoulder to have some coffee and talk about music. At the end of that time together I mentioned I was starting to do some writing, and out of curiosity I asked him, “What steps would I need to take in order to land a book deal?” He thought about it for a moment, and we talked a little more about it. I thought that was the end of it. At about midnight that same day I got an email that had been passed around, started by Charlie, to lots of different people. He had put in there a short bio of me and said, “Here are some people I think you should hook up with.” He instigated the entire adventure for me. That put me in touch with a guy named Don Pape who ended up becoming my agent. Then through another series of events, I ended up with Thomas Nelson.
Almost simultaneously, I was working on a song for Ted Dekker’s book The Martyr’s Song. It was a song I was producing for Todd Agnew. Ted and I got to spend a little time together; we were having coffee at a place called Fidos here in Nashville. I started talking about the story I was working on. Ted stopped me in mid-sentence. He was like, “Dude, you’ve got to be with Nelson. You’ve got to be in the same place I am. You’d love the people. They’re really progressive. They totally get it.” A few weeks later he introduced me to Allen Arnold, the publisher for the fiction division of Thomas Nelson. That, coupled with my agent’s relationship with Allen Arnold, eventually led to the deal.
Where did you first get the idea to write Illuminated?
It started with the simple concept of a book about a book. I wanted to write about people who love books, bibliophiles. That led me to an even greater question---“What is the most desirable book in the world? What’s the rarest book I can think of?” I found the Gutenberg Bible because of that. It’s estimated worth, were it to go to auction today, is 100 million dollars. That’s phenomenal. I really couldn’t comprehend that a book could be worth that much money. I asked myself, “What is it about this book that is so monumentally important that it would bring that kind of value?” I found out that the Gutenberg Bible is celebrating its 550th birthday this year. It literally changed the course of history. When Gutenberg put together his movable type press, and with it created this Bible, he made it entirely possible for the common man to have a Bible in his home. Until that point, that had never been possible. Also, through this printing machine, he allowed for the common man to get his thoughts sent all over the world. So there was this explosion of thoughts. I equated it to the birth of the internet. Right now the internet is focused on entertainment, with YouTube and stuff like that, but I think we could end up eventually seeing the same type of thing we saw with Gutenberg and his movable type printing press. He made it possible for the Renaissance and the Reformation to happen. Perhaps years from now we might see another renaissance and another reformation coming from the internet.
You obviously have done a lot of research for this book. What would you say surprised you most?
The thing that surprised me most was how distorted the facts could become, or depending on the source, how differently history could be written. It’s been said that history is rewritten by the winners. There is a lot to that. Gutenberg’s birth date is listed as anywhere from 1390-1400. There’s a period of 5 years in his life where he seemed to simply vanish from the earth. There are so many mysterious things about him as a person. He was incredibly secretive. He pulled back from people. Because of that we don’t really know too much about him. He didn’t leave a long trail of information. As I started to dig into these images in the Gutenberg Bible, it brought to light for me the mysteriousness of the time. There was probably a lot more going on behind the scenes than maybe we realize.
What kind of reader would most enjoy this book?
I’d love to reach out to people who aren’t readers, as much as I’d love to reach out to those who are. This is a book about books, in a very adventurous way. I wanted to give a chance to the librarian who’s quiet and living a contemplative life, living in the back corner of some room, to be able to play off this adventure in their head. But I’m also a fan of Lost and 24, all these bigger thinking action vehicles. I wanted to make a thinking person’s film, but on pages. I wanted someone to be able to pick up the book and disappear into a place where they have their own adventure, but come out on the other side realizing a little more about themselves and the world around them. I want history to come alive.
Without giving too much away, what is your favorite part of Illuminated?
Some of my favorite parts don’t even have to do with Gutenberg. The parts that stand out the most are the ones that deal with the family situation. There is this broken family, it’s August and ex-wife April and their son, Charlie. I desperately wanted the three of them to get together and make things right. But they’re thrust into this horrible situation that doesn’t allow this to happen. One of my favorite scenes is with Charlie. There’s a situation where he’s under huge duress from a notorious bad guy, and he has this asthma attack and can’t breathe. Through a series of events, the bad guy’s actually forced into a situation where he has to resuscitate Charlie.
When I was writing the scene I couldn’t even breathe myself. I was so caught up with this little boy dealing with this horrible situation. It was the most vivid, alive part of the book for me and really jumped out. I thought about what if I had a kid who had asthma problems. I have three children, and my oldest, my 9 year old son, he woke up in the middle of the night one time with breathing problems. I had to rush him to the emergency room. It was so utterly scary. If I were a parent reading this book and I got to this section about a son having all these horrible breathing problems, that would be even freakier than the sections where people are running around with guns.
There’s a M. Night Shyamalan movie with Bruce Willis. His son is standing in the kitchen pointing a gun at him because he thinks his dad is a super hero, and if he shoots him he thinks it’s all gonna be okay. Bruce Willis is scared out of his mind. It’s an incredibly tense scene. What I love about it is the intense human drama that plays out. More than just the fact that there’s a gun being pointed at someone. There’s a human element, a human drama. I really wanted to bring that into Illuminated.
What was the hardest part about writing this book?
Getting the actual work done, making sure I was diligent to daily sit down and write a little bit more. There is this part of me that would love to be able to sit down and write a book, start to finish, in one sitting. This is entirely impossible. (Laughs.) I come from music, where I’ll have someone come over, and we’ll co-write a song in maybe a few hours. Book writing is just not like that. It takes so long. For me to get my head around this much longer process was tricky. I really had to put myself in marathon mode.
Music can often times be sprint mode. You do your hundred yard dash, and you’re done. With this novel writing I realized I need to be in marathon mode. I need to save up. I need to make sure I’m not giving everything away at the beginning. I need to give myself some time to let everything unfold. Being diligent to make sure I scheduled enough time over the course of the months and the year it took to do it, to make sure I got the work done. It took about a year, and all of that time I was doing research. We were still researching things as I was doing revisions with the editor. Definitely the first six months were really intense heavy research, digging up facts about Gutenberg and these underground secret societies, the Orphans and the Order of the Dragon.
How many of the details you include are fact and how many are fiction, because they all felt like fact.
The amazing thing to me was finding those facts. It’s a work of fiction. I won’t sit here and tell you that everything I put in the book was real. I’d love to leave a certain element for the reader to decide. But a great many of the things historically that are exposed in Illuminated are entirely real, including these two secret societies. It’s funny, I’ve already seen a couple reviews where people say, “Wow, wasn’t that imaginative of him to come up with the Order of the Dragon and the Orphans.” (Laughs.) I wish I could reach out to them and say, “That wasn’t something I made up! The Orphans were entirely real, and the Order of the Dragon was entirely real.” The scary thing to me was discovering how real they were and what they were up to in Gutenberg’s time. Pretty incredible stuff.
What’s the message you want readers to take away from this book?
First of all, I’d love for people to realize that history is very exciting, very meaningful. Things that happened hundreds of years ago changed the world forever and continue to change it today. If we don’t know our history, we don’t know our future. For us to be able to dig into the past and learn about the events that were happening then, to learn about the people who were living then, will give us a greater insight into what the future holds.
In tandem with that, in Illuminated there is this family drama. I want people to think about their families, the relationships in their lives. In the story there are these intense situations which force the characters to learn more about each other. I’d love for people to be able to put down Illuminated, look at their children or family, and think how incredible these people are and ask themselves, “What can I do to enrich these relationships?”
How does your faith come into play in your writing?
Up until Gutenberg’s time people were forced to go to their local church or authority to read the Bible. Gutenberg gave people the ability to have their own copy of the Bible. Not that it happened overnight, but over the next centuries. We’re 550 years later, and we have multiple copies on our shelves. If we were to lose one it’s not a big deal. You walk down to the bookstore and you have twelve million versions in twelve million colors. It’s just not a big deal. We’ve lost the sense of importance the Bible carried with it. You see it play out in a very big way at that time in history.
When the Bible was able to be in the hands of the common man, that was one of the prime instigators of the Reformation a hundred years later. Martin Luther looked back and he was actually quoted talking about the man who was the founding member of this group called the Orphans that I talk about in Illuminated. It was all about the power going out of the hands of a few into the hands of the common man. We’ve lost a little of that sense of importance of the Bible and what that means to our faith to be able to open up the Word of God and read it.
What author or books have had the most influence on you as a writer?
Some of my favorite authors right now are considered pretty progressive writers (Dave Eggars for example). To me they’re highly inventive. They’re true literature people, studiers of the written word, people who are pushing it to the next place. For me, writing in the thriller genre, I still want to push things. I’m really a beginner writer, but I want to bring something new to the table. That’s what I’m hoping to do over the course of time---infuse the thriller genre specifically with something new, with something exciting. That’s what you see Phillip K. Dick did that for science fiction years ago. Richard Matheson did that for horror years ago. Michael Chabon just came out with a book that is one part detective story and another part high literature. It’s really exciting for me to see that things are being shaken up. It’s something you see in music all the time, this kind of cross-pollination of ideas. But it’s rarer to see in books.
Where is your favorite place to write?
My favorite place to write is in a few different coffee shops here in Nashville. Sometimes I’ll slip on headphones to hold the noise a bit. I love the energy in a coffee shop. I love overhearing peoples’ conversations. People who know that know not to sit near me. (Laughs.) I’m always amazed that people will sit down and have these frank discussions about their lives, sharing quite lurid details about things going on. Overhearing those things can be really inspiring. (Laughs.) I find that being around people, characters, people who come in wearing a purple shirt and a pink tie and a top hat---I want to take note of them. Watching characters like that and thinking about what makes people tick inspire me too. I really wanted every character in Illuminated to have a reason for being who they are. Even if they’re a side character who appears for a paragraph. I wanted readers to feel that even if it was someone who wasn’t like them, a really quirky character, they could understand where they’re coming from. So, the coffee shop is my favorite place to be. And the coffee doesn’t hurt either!
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started writing?
I wish I would have known how consumed I would become by the stories and the characters. It’s something that is inescapable. If I’m in the shower or I’m driving down the street, if there is a spare moment of time, it immediately goes back to the story. It might be a story I’m currently working on, or it maybe one I won’t write until years from now. I’ve always been obsessive, but now that I have this great outlet for it, this amazing place where I can actually sit and write a story and watch it appear on a shelf, it’s so dangerous for me! (Laughs.) I find my thoughts consumed with that. If I’d known that going in . . . it would have been a scary proposition to realize this obsessive part of me would be fed so readily.
Tell us about the Illuminated soundtrack?
Joy Williams Yetton sings the title theme on my MySpace page. I had produced her last record, and I gave her a call and asked if she’d be interested in collaborating on a song to accompany the book. Also, I’m good friends with a programmer who does a lot of keyboard work and string arrangements from New Jersey. (He goes by the code name of Thump Monk.) He was able to compose 9 more tracks that accompany the book. We would go back and forth with ideas. I’d say, “Hey, I’d like to develop a theme for the character of August.” He would come up with some ideas. I’d say, “Let’s change this; let’s try this.” So it was very much a collaborative effort. I really wanted something that would match the tone, the feel of the book. Part of it is available at www.mattbronleewe.com. There will also be information there about where people can hear the other tracks.
Is there a sequel coming?
My mind’s already wrapped around the next four books and beyond. The next one is called House of Wolves. I’m currently writing it right now. I’m really, really excited about it. We’re going to see August, April, and their son Charlie in a whole new adventure.
I really wanted Illuminated to stand alone, and I want House of Wolves to stand alone too. If you pick up House of Wolves, you won’t have to know anything that happened in Illuminated. Kind of like Indiana Jones in that it’s the same character, but a brand new adventure. I didn’t want the frustrations that seem to surround Lost or other shows, where if you miss the first five minutes, you’re not sure what’s going on. House of Wolves is centered around another very important book in history and another secret society, a whole new adventure. I think it’s going to blow peoples’ minds. I’m also developing a young adult series for Charlie, the youngest character in Illuminated. He’s going to have his own set of adventures.
Has there ever been a really low point in your writing career? How did you get out of it?
People who’ve already written ten books know how to get through once they hit a hard place, but I’ve realized I’m still a beginning writer. I definitely had times during the writing of Illuminated where I was beating my head against a wall, trying to figure out if this is the right way, what are people gonna think about this, am I making a horrible decision, are people gonna freak out? Not knowing who the audience is changes things a little bit. I’m so excited about getting this book out there and starting to interact with people who’ve read it. Understanding who I’m writing for is really going to help me as I continue to develop as a writer. There were so many times where I just felt like a guy in a room. I kept thinking, “Why do people even care?” Getting the story out there, and having people get that sense of adventure and excitement---to be able to talk with people who’ve read it is invigorating.
What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?
People look at how I’m involved in the arts and assume I’ve grown up in a metropolitan area, but I grew up on a farm in Kansas, a million miles away from the entertainment industry. I drove trucks and combines. I know more about farming than I do about the entertainment industry.
My parents were incredibly enriching and well read people, enjoyers of the arts. They instilled that in me. But I always find it surprises people that I grew up on a farm.
There’s only so much radio you can listen to you when you’re driving a tractor all day. Eventually I turned it off. I realized the other day that I probably came up with every book idea I needed within those empty hours. My mind was just rolling. Little stories, little ideas would creep into my head, and I would jot things down. Every book idea I’ll need from here to kingdom come came from there.
Another thing . . . before my dad took over the family farm operation, he flew helicopters and Leer jets. At a very young age (I think I was seven) we were taking a flight from Kansas to southern Texas. My Dad said, “Matt, do you want to take the wheel?” I flew at the tender age of 7. Until my mother threw up in the back seat.
You’re in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?
I’m ordering an iced, Venti, 2%, one Sweet’n Low latte.
Three things always found in your refrigerator:
A gallon of milk. A loaf of bread, and a stick of butter.
What’s currently in your ipod or cd player?
I’ve been listening to the new Ryan Adams cd, Easy Tiger.
Anything else you’d like to share with TitleTrakk.com readers?
We’re really excited around here about www.mattbronleewe.com and the book. They’ve both just launched. My MySpace page will take on the look of the website, too. Get this---Thomas Nelson just told us that orders have been so strong that I can’t even get my own copy right now! They actually delayed my personal copies of the book a number of weeks because they can’t get enough out to stores.
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.