Richard Lewis Q&A

Richard Lewis is the author of The Flame Tree a novel published by Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing. Shortly after its publication Lewis contacted me to see if I was interested in reviewing it. Intrigued by its subject matter I said yes. I am glad I did as it was one of the best books I read last year. While technically The Flame Tree is a young adult novel, that in no way limits its power. Here is a description I wrote for a National Review “Books in Brief” section (12/31/04 Issue):

This poignant novel tells the story of Isaac Williams, a 12-year-old living in Wonobo, Indonesia, with his missionary-doctor parents. Ugly events intrude on Isaac’s idyllic world when Muslim extremists begin to agitate following the events of 9/11. As the violence escalates Isaac is estranged from his best friend, separated from his parents, and taken hostage.

The book simultaneously reveals the ugly side of humanity and illuminates the power of faith and tolerance. Lewis avoids the temptation to paint all Muslims as evil or tragically mistaken: There are cruel and violent Muslims involved in Isaac’s captivity, but there are also those with compassion and wisdom. Forced to learn about the Islamic faith, Isaac is able to catch a glimpse of the devotion of the truly faithful. He recognizes that Christians and Muslims alike have extremists but they also share a devotion to God.

But Lewis doesn’t try to paint a simple picture of sentimental tolerance that papers over differences and slopes toward relativism or moral equivalence. Instead, the characters must come to terms with their own faith; they must decide what they believe and how they are going to act. In this book’s vision, tolerance comes not from rejecting absolutes but from valuing human beings as God’s creations; and from a humility that realizes that some things are beyond our understanding.

Don’t be fooled by its “young adult” label; The Flame Tree is a gripping and thought-provoking novel about faith and friendship in an age of conflict.

As soon as I had finished reading I started working on an email interview, but life kept intruding. Months later I have finally managed to send Richard some questions and he has graciously answered them. I think this is a great example of the potential of blogs. Here is an author halfway around the world promoting his book in the states simply by emailing me and asking if I would be interested in his book. On to the questions . . .

When did you start writing The Flame Tree (FT)?

In 1998. At that time Indonesia was going through severe crisis, with riots in the major cities, and this idea plopped down into my head, what if an American boy gets accidentally caught up in the riots? That was the seed from which The Flame Tree grew.

Did the events of 9/11 impact or shape your writing?

I had a finished draft of The Flame Tree when 9/11 happened. Since the novel addresses Christian/Muslim themes, it seemed only natural to revise to include such a watershed moment as a backdrop to the novel.

Was it originally intended as a young adult novel?

I wrote it and my agent marketed it as an adult novel, but it was Simon and Schuster Young Adult who offered a contract. They were quite taken with the central 12-yr-old characters. They asked me to edit out several subplots and focus on the boys, but other than that, left the novel alone. I’ve found that as many adults as teenagers are reading and enjoying the novel.

What would you say was the hardest part of the process (from initial writing to publication)?

Finding the real story in the bloated first draft, which was 1400 pages long.

Is FT in any way biographical? For example, what goes into Isaac’s – or other characters – perspective on life, faith, friendship, etc.?

No, it’s not autobiographical except that I did draw on my experience as a young boarding student in an American boarding school in Java, who played with friends from the village. And, of course, my faith as a Christian.

In this way, was it hard to keep your personal views from intruding on the characters or the story?

Well, in some ways, the story *is* my personal view, for example that some issues require dialogue instead of shouting. But I did work extra hard to make sure my portrayal of Islam was fair and accurate. And no, presenting some villains as Muslims does not stereotype Islam any more than showing Christian bigotry stereotypes Christianity. For one thing, that’s how reality is, and for another, the evil that man does comes from the darkness that is in each of us, and not from a religious doctrines.

What kind of challenges does having a twelve-year old main character wrestling with so many adult issues in daunting circumstance present? What are the benefits?

My main goal was to write a damn good, compelling story. But yes, the challenge was to present a believable child who nonetheless represents all of us, no matter our age. As a writer, though, I had the advantage of stripping away his comfortable world. Disaster and tragedy can make a character grow up quick.

Is there a moral to the story? What do you hope readers come away with after having read FT?

Forgiveness is a big theme. I also hope readers get a sense that people who are not like us are still people very much like us, with same hopes and fears and dreams. Our shared humanity is greater than our differences.

Do you read reviews? If so, what has been the response in general?

I do read reviews, which have been mostly very positive. The few negative reviews mostly have condemned me for being politically incorrect, which exasperates instead of disappoints me.

Do you see blogs or other online forums impacting publishing, book promotion, etc.? If so, how?

Absolutely. Living in Indonesia, I don’t have much of a chance to do traditional pr work, but the internet allowed me to contact bloggers and online forums, which have been invaluable in getting word out.

Have you always seen yourself as a writer? What type of career background did you bring to writing?

I’ve always been a writer. Growing up without TV or theaters, which Indonesia didn’t have at the time, I read whatever I could get my hands on, and the natural consequence of that was a desire to write stories. My college education was in science, which helped expand my horizon of knowledge, always beneficial to a writer

You site writing workshops in your acknowledgments, what did you gain from these groups?

The workshop I am a member of,, has been invaluable in helping me shape my craft. Not only that, a writer often times has tunnel vision on a story, and feedback from other minds is invaluable in realizing how others see it, what expectations you raised in them that you did or did not meet.

Do you see yourself as American/Western? As Indonesian? Or neither?

I’m what psychologists call a “third culture kid” (even though I’m middle aged). Between cultures.

What kind of challenges does living in Indonesia present to an aspiring author? Are you tempted to return to the states?

Indonesia is home, despite the sense of isolation for an English language writer (especially since I live on a small island), so I doubt I would voluntarily return to the States to live. Visits are nice. My kids have yet to see snow.

Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences with the tsunami and its aftermath?

I went to West Aceh shortly after the tsunami, when everything was still ground zero, to help with immediate relief work. Media images, even video, don’t do justice to the scale of the damage. I didn’t meet a single person who hadn’t lost a family member. But even so, the Acehnese are among the most generous and hospitable people I’ve ever meet – what little they had, they shared.

What’s next? Can you tell us about your next project?

A novel about the tsunami, involving an Achenese boy and an American girl (she with her young brother) caught up in the disaster, separated from family. Simon and Schuster bought this untitled novel based on a proposal, and I’m under deadline now to submit a final draft by October.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).