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.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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