Interview by Tamarra Kaida
Tamarra: The Flame Tree is set in Java and addresses religious/political conflicts between Muslims and Christians as experienced by the main character Isaac, who is the 12-year-old son of American Baptist Missionary doctors. Your biographical notes state that you are the son of Christian missionary parents and you grew up in Indonesia. What aspects of the book are based on your personal experiences of Muslim /Christian tensions?
Richard: Well, my parents were missionaries in Bali that is a Hindu island but I went to an American boarding school in Java. When I was a child the same age as my character Isaac there were no religious tensions per se, the tensions were political. It was when Suharto was in power and the communists were trying to take control.. When Suharto fell from power I had the thought “ what if a young Christian kid gets caught up in the political upheaval. I didn’t start out to deal with religious tensions. I didn’t per se want to write about Muslim /Christian issues I just wanted to tell a good story about a kid who gets caught up in the events of the day. And what I put in regarding religious tensions came from the time I went to university in the states and realized that Americans knew very little about Islam. I started writing this novel in 1998. I don’t know if that answers your question.
Tamarra: What personal experiences of growing up in Indonesia find there way into the novel?
Richard: Well, it would have been my boarding school experiences going to an American school in the middle of a Muslin community. And when you left the grounds of the school you went out and played with your Muslim friends. My personal experiences did not have religious tensions. I put that in later as a writer. It was part of my fictive world. I personally had no personal experience of Muslim/ Christian issues when I was a child. That would have come later in life as an adult.
Tamarra: this is your first novel and Simon and Shuster’s “Young Adult” editor picked it up. It is a powerful book and hardly what I remember reading as a teenager. Did you write for a teen or adult audience?
Richard: You picked up on something important. I wrote the book as an adult novel and my agent sent it off to 15 editors and they sent it back with compliments. It was just after 9/11 and they all felt uncomfortable with it. Then one day my agent was having lunch with an editorial director and mentioned my novel and the editor read it loved it and said we would love to buy it. But cut out the sub plots and focus only on the 12-year-old boy.
And that’s what I did I had to cut other issues that focused on Isaac’s sister and abortion issues. I cut a lot from the first draft. But what remained after I focused on Issac. I did not write down for a young adult audience that’s why it still reads very much like an adult novel. In fact I have gotten most of my feed back from adult readers.
Tamarra: But since the book will be marketed to a young Adult readership. What do you hope teenagers will get out of the book?
Richard: First of all, I hope they will get an appreciation of a different culture. And a realization that people around the world share the same concerns for life, which for example, an American kid might think that a Muslim kid in Indonesia is a totally alien being but he isn’t. Actually the humanity they share is far greater then the differences. But when a kid reads a novel I want him to read a good story. I want to write a good story.
Tamarra: oh they will get that. It is a very compelling story.
Richard: Second of all, everybody shares a common humanity even if there are differences in turns of religion. And third, I hope they will get an understanding of Islam as a religion. I hope they realize that people who practice another belief are not that different than I am or they are. That’s what I hope.
Tamarra: Both Muslims and Christians can be criticized for their proselytizing fervor. In The Flame Tree you concentrate on the Muslim conversion rituals. How have Muslims and Christians responded to this book?
Richard: You know, I was really nervous when the book came out. I thought that my community, the Christian community would be dead set against it. But for the most part they have been very supportive. As far as Muslims, I haven’t had any Muslims actually sit down and give it a good reading. I think that they only read a short way and decide the book could be about Muslim bashing which I never intended I use a stereotype and turn it around on it’s head. I think that if Muslims read the entire book they will be pleasantly surprised.
Tamara: What do your parents think of the book?
Richard: My father passed away before I even had a first draft five years ago. My mother read it and thinks it is a powerful story. She tells all her friends about it. My family has read it and they all love it.
Tamarra: So they are supportive but you have not received much feed back from Muslims?
Richard: I have received no feedback from Muslims. That may change when the book is marketed here in Indonesia. There will be a book launch in Jakarta on April 7th. So this interview is quite timely.
Tamarra: Most Western readers are fairly ignorant about the Islamic Faith. As one of those readers, I especially liked reading The Flame Tree because I felt I was learning about Islam as well as following a suspenseful story. The circumcision scene is well written and disturbing. There are undercurrents of castration anxiety. Have you ever witnessed a Muslim circumsion ceremony? Why did you choose to include it in the abduction scenes rather then just leave it a kidnapping?
Richard: Well that is a tough one. Let’s look at it from the perspective of a fiction writer who is trying to orchestrate events in the novel using craft techniques. I needed something that would be very compelling. And to me it seemed the way to go. You know, to build up the constant threat, the ongoing threat, of what is going to happen to this boy? I couldn’t just settle for a normal kidnapping. The boy would just be released. No that would be very anti climactic.
Have I ever witnessed a circumcision? Yes, I have. It is really a very joyous holiday. Very celebratory in the novel I turn that on it’s head. I never intended to write a shocking scene. It just grew out of the story organically. Things just got worse and worse for the main character. And it does show the bad side of fanaticisms that can occur on both sides in Christianity and Islam. That’s probably my best answer. But, I want to add that I talked to people and researched extensively about Islam and Muslim beliefs .I contrasted Christianity and Islam but I also show how very similar they are. If you sat in a Mosque and listen to a sermon and understood what was being said you would swear you were sitting in a church. It is quite remarkable. IT is the same thing in terms of the Bible and the Koran. What the (Inman?) and the preacher will preach is really very similar. I try to show this in the book. Through the dialogs between Isaac and his Islamic teacher.
Tamarra: Yes, I thought that was an excellent approach as Isaacs asks the questions most thoughtful kids would ask and Mr. Suherman is a wise and patient idealist/ teacher a complex character that I would have found intimidating and compelling if I met him in real life.
Richard: I tried to show good and bad characters that were Christians and Muslims. I tried to show that the bad side of Islam does not stem from Islam but rather from the dark side of human nature. I tried to show life as it is and there are bad people on both sides of the fence. As a writer I wrote to the reality of how things are in the world. A careful reader will see this and understand that many bad things are being done in the name of religion. As a writer I want to tell a compelling story with believable characters and present issues that are important today.
Tamarra: What do you think is stronger in you the Christian or the writer?
Richard: Oh, that is a good question! You know, I think a good writer is someone who not only uses writing to explore a worldview but also his own worldview and his attitudes towards it. I am a practicing Christian, go to church and all that but that does not mean that it is an uncritical belief. I use my writing as a way to explore my faith.
Tamarra: What did you get from writing this book in terms of your own faith?
Richard: The Flame Tree? (Long pause while thinking) I think in my heart of hearts I wanted to make things, as they should be. …Where people dialog with each other rather then shout at each other. I wanted to show Muslims as people of Faith, an equal amount of faith as many Christians do. They are trying to find a way to live a good life, trying to find a moral way, trying to be good people. . They are searching for a way to live life.
Tamarra: For me, forgiveness and compassion are the books moral lessons rather than a particular Faith being proved right or wrong. Did you deliberately take a humanist position rather then a religious one? Or do they over lap for you?
Richard: Oh, I think they defiantly overlap. You know forgiveness is probably one of the most important lessons we can learn from the Bible. But I definitely did not want to write a religious novel. I wanted to show Christianity warts and all. . The same is true with Islam. I tried to show that as well.
Tamarra: What part of the book was easiest to write and what parts caused personal problems and growth?
Richard: Well, I had no problem writing the novel the first draft was one thousand four hundred pages. I just wrote and wrote. It was the second draft where I had to write the sermon in the mosque. I had to get in the clerics head to writ it from a Muslim perspective and that I did by talking to Muslims and running the words by them. It was a difficult scene to write from a technical and a moral stand. I wanted to be true to what Islam really believes and teaches.
Tamarra: Who were these Muslims?
Richard: People in The States, which I contacted by Internet and I ran scenes by them. They were a great help.
Tamarra: You have been in Ache doing relief work for Tsunami victims. In what ways is this affecting the writer side of your nature?
Richard: You know I was holed up in my office and my world was shrinking down to the world of the imagination and when this tragedy happened I really wanted to help and in an odd way it helped Richard Lewis the person more then Richard the writer. It reconnected me. I am glad I got up the gumption to go because many Balinese friends thought it would be dangerous to go that the people in Ache are fanatics. They will kill you as soon as look at you!
Nothing could be further from the truth they were the most gracious, hospitable people I ever met. Even in the midst of a disaster, very generous, outgoing and giving of them.
And from the writers side of it, Simon and Shuster have put me under contract to write a book based on events in the Tsunami so that is what I am working on right now.
Tamarra: What kind of relief work were you doing there?
Richard: Oh, I was working with an NGO. Helping distribute a product that helped purify water. It’s a powder that you put in the water, which cleans it after the muck settles to the bottom. And then it chlorinates it and you have drinking water in thirty minutes. And I just talked to people and listened to their stories. Then I worked on rebuilding homes. The scale of the disaster is unbelievable. . You can’t really understand from the news.
It was interesting to see that they did not blame God. Through out my time there I did not see one Muslim whose faith had been shaken. They did not say” why me”? They did not embrace a rationalist position that says a disaster of this magnitude makes one question the existence of God all together. There was none of that. They did not doubt God.
Tamarra: How about you?
Richard: Me personally?
Tamara: Well, you know, you as a Christian?
Richard: Yes, you do stop and think of these questions because it would be silly to say you don’t because these are hard questions I can’t sit here and answer why. Or say it is God’s will or God’s punishment. No. A lot of it is just that the earth is a dangerous place. I think it is because we our selves are responsible. Look we are overpopulating, over polluting over using natural resources. We live in danger zones. We don’t do enough to protect our own people. We need early warning systems. This is mankind’s own fault. I’m not giving a glib answer. It’s just that there is more to this then just saying, “How can god allow this"? We have to ask, “How could we allow this to happen too”? We have to take responsibility.
Tamarra: Identity is an important psychological issue emerging in our current Global culture. Do you consider yourself an American or an Indonesian or a hybrid of both?
Richard: Hybrid. Yea, Actually I found out while doing research for this book that there is what is called “Third culture kids”. They are children who like me are from one culture but grew up in another culture. There are studies done about these kids. Not necessarily children of missionaries but also children of business people who grow up in a third culture. Yea, I sort of feel in between. I’m not really American and I’m not Indonesian either.
Tamarra: How does this manifest in your life? What are the blessings of this situation?
Richard: The blessings are that you are equally at home in two cultures. Your worldview is bigger, more encompassing and able to tolerate a lot more ambiguity then someone who grew up in one particular culture. I saw this in college. Some of my mid western friends had a very narrow-minded world view which I had a very hard time relating to. That position which says that what I know is the best way, the only way, it isn’t even conscious on their part. So, I would say there are defiantly more blessings about growing up in an internationalist culture.
Let me get a little political. This is what I see as a problem in America. It is so inward looking, so insular. It causes a lot of the problems that arise in the states. Not being able to see outside ones narrow perspective.
Tamarra: That seems to be the current situation, It disturbs me deeply since America was such an welcoming country in the early There is a long and important conversation here, Richard, and I would like to have it later. But we are running out of time and I want our readers to know how to get your book and can I direct them to your web site?
Richard: Well they can get the book from Amazon.com of course. But it will be available at bookstores in Jakarta and other places in Indonesia. My web site is
Tamarra: Thank you for your time and I think you deserve great success with this book. I found it a great reading experience and I learned a lot about Islam. I am also grateful to have had the opportunity to talk with you. You have dispelled a Christian missionary stereotype that I wasn’t aware I had and you did it by being real. I think this is another reason you are a good writer. Thank you.