BookBrowse Interviews Richard Lewis, author of The Flame Tree
What led you to write The Flame Tree?
There's two parts to this. One is the story idea itself, which plopped into
my head in 1998 when I cut short a surf trip to Indonesia's outer islands
because of riots in major cities. What if, I thought, an American boy became
caught up in the riots? That was the seed for this particular novel.
Also, I'd gone to university in the States, and I'd long been aware of a
general lack of awareness of Islam as a religion. I wanted to address some
basics misconceptions that Americans, and in particular those of my own
Christian evangelical background, had of Islam. The attacks of September 11
underscored, to me, the importance of this.
You do a great job of showing how the the Muslim and Christian religions
are more similar than they are different and you also expose some of the
weaknesses in both - to the point that I imagine that you've been criticized by
both camps. What has been the reaction to The Flame Tree?
In the novel, I don't address geopolitical issues so much as I do the
religious ones. Both Christianity and Islam have historically been proselytizing
religions, and that proselytizing element still strongly remains, and adds to a
common mistrust. If this is so, how can these two religions co-exist in peace
and mutual tolerance? That's a core issue I examine, and I hope readers would as
well. I can't say I present any pat answer, except to stress the importance of
at least understanding the other, of recognizing as you say the tremendous
similarities the religions share, of realizing that in both religions there are
not only hypocrites and fanatics but also men and women who truly seek God, and
of attempting some sort of honest dialogue.
The reaction has been mostly favorable, although I've been criticized by a
few for a negative portrayal of both Islam and Christianity. The novel was
basically completed before the September 11 attacks, but I revised to include
that tragedy. Some readers have criticized this as too self-serving, but since
novel addresses Christian-Muslim tensions, in the form of a friendship between
an American son of Christian doctors and a Muslim village boy, how could I NOT
include 9/11? It didn't take much revision to add that horrible tragedy into the
narrative, including a scene drawn from real events, of Indonesian Muslims
throughout the country expressing their sorrow and sympathy.
Your biography mentions that you grew up in Indonesia as the son of
missionaries; where did you live and what was it like living there?
My parents worked in Bali, a Hindu island among a predominantly Muslim
country, but I went to boarding school in Java. I'm what psychologists call a
"third culture kid" (although I'm no longer a kid exactly): neither of
one culture or the other, but a mix of both. The older I get, the more I
appreciate the unique life I had - playing with friends in the temple's banyan
tree, running with Javanese friends after kites fallen from a kite-fighting
battle (and tearing my shirt on barbed wire-one Javanese mother who saw this
happen scolded me no end for being so careless)-and going surfing at a
beautiful, deserted beach. In terms of my writing career, there were no TV or
theatres at that time, so I read and read and read--tourist left-behinds,
encyclopedias, my father's Bible theology texts (Fox's Book of Martyres
is an exceptionally thrilling work for young boys). I believe I'm a writer in
part because I had read so much.
Your main character, Isaac, is the son of Christian missionaries. How much
of his character and life autobiographical?
Even though little of the novel is autobiographical, I did draw on, or should
I say extrapolate from, my own self at that age. For example, like Isaac, I was
fascinated at an early age with Lord of the Flies, and I was pretty much
questioning why I had to believe what I was told to believe. But much of Isaac
is unique to him and not me. I got to know him as I put him in predicaments and
watched what he did--and what he did was derived partly from my own common sense
understanding of human nature, and partly from an author's direct purpose of
"I want/need him to do such and think thus", and partly from the
mystery of a character coming to independent life and leading the writer.
After a few years in college in the USA you returned to live in Indonesia.
Are you a missionary, like your parents?
No, although I am a practicing Christian. I worked with a refugee
organization for several years, where I met my Indonesian wife. We moved to Bali
and set up an export business.
How does Indonesia today compare with the country you knew as a child?
Ah, nostalgia. Rapid urbanization and globalization has definitely made life
here more crowded, hectic, polluted, and stressful. That is why I love to travel
to remote outer islands, where the pace and simplicity of life is much as I
remember as a child. Also, the surf is way less crowded!
Most readers will know little about Indonesia, and most of what they do
know from recent reporting is fairly negative; what would you like people to
know about Indonesia and its people?
Isn't it funny how bad events make the headlines. What I tell people is that
you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time anywhere in the world.
Indonesians are friendly and warm and welcoming. It's a huge country, and apart
from some remote hotspots such as Aceh, it's a wonderful, ethnically diverse
place to visit. In general, you are as safe here as you would be in America.
Is The Flame Tree available in any other countries other than the US?
Is it available in Indonesia?
A UK edition is available in Commonwealth countries, and will soon be
available in Indonesia.
Did you intend The Flame Tree to be targeted at teen readers?
The novel was written for adults, and my agent marketed it as adult
"literary commercial" (as he termed it). The adult houses passed, with
compliments. A few months later, my agent was having lunch with the editorial
director of Simon & Schuster Children's Division over another project, and
mentions my novel. The editor said sure, send it along, and voila, he loved it.
It's interesting that a young adult house took a chance on something pretty
controversial (Muslim-Christian tensions) that the adult houses passed on. My
editor asked me to cut out a major sub-plot that involved adult themes, but
other than that, the novel is much as I'd written it.
Copyright BookBrowse LLC, 2004.