Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Richard Lewis

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

December 26, 2004 dawned bright over the calm Indian Ocean. At 7:59 a. m. a local time, deep in the sunless depths one hundred miles off the west coast of Sumatra, an ocean bed fault ruptured for hundreds of miles. An area of seafloor the size of California sprang up as much as twenty-five feet, shoving upward several dozen cubic miles of ocean. This created a powerful series of waves that in the deep ocean traveled as fast as a jet plane, barely disturbing the surface with their two-foot ripples. When the wave train reached coastal areas, it slowed down. With all that volume of displaced water racing in to increasingly shallow water, some of the waves grew to enormous size. Aceh, in northern Indonesia, was the first landmass to be hit, approximately twenty minutes after the quake; it was estimated that the tallest of the waves that struck was a hundred feet high.

Richard Lewis was born in Indonesia and went to boarding school in Java and Malaysia. He presently lives in Bali, Indonesia. His father was born in Brooklyn New York. His mother, who was born in Tibet, came to the U.S when she was eleven. His parents returned to Indonesia as American missionaries. Lewis attended college in Illinois and was headed for a PhD in Marine biology when he decided it was not the right career path for him. Instead he completed an English Teaching degree that allowed him to get a job in a refugee camp in Indonesia. Later he worked as a manager for several export companies in Bali. Until three years ago, most of Lewis' free time was spent searching the archipelago for surf, only writing now and again. Lewis says, "Now I'm writing full time, and, to the horror of my old surfing buddies, take more pleasure in turning an original phrase than in getting tubed."

Richard Lewis is the author of The Flame Tree, Simon and Schuster, 2004; the YA novelThe Killing Sea: A Novel of the Tsunami, Simon and Schuster, 2007; and a soon to be released YA novel The Demon Queen,Simon and Schuster, 2008. Other writing accomplishments include a 2nd place finish in one of the AsiaWeek's short story contests; 3rd place in the Writer's Digest 2001 Short Story Contest (the story was published in an anthology and led directly to his getting an agent.) and a short story Six Elogs Deep, originally published in Lynx Eye, won an honorable mention in the 2005 Pushcart Prize.

The Killing Sea: A Novel of the Tsunamiis in bookstores around the world and has been optioned by Fox 2000 and Scott Free.

Lewis is married and has four children.


EG     The tsunami of December 26, 2004, that was the inspiration for your YA novelThe Killing Sea ravaged Aceh, Indonesia as well as communities in Thailand and India and other countries across the area was one of the worst natural disasters in years. I read the 9.0 earthquake that was the cause of the tsunami was the most powerful quake in the area in 40 years. Where were you at the moment the quake happened—and/or the tsunami? Did you notice or feel anything different in the atmosphere?

RL     I've noticed in some reviews that the reviewers stated that the author survived the tsunami, which was not true—I was at home in Bali, some thousands of miles away (LA to Chicago, approx) when it occurred. I didn't hear of it until the news started trickling in the day after. But talking to the survivors, there was nothing to indicate either the earthquake or the tsunami. After the quake, the sea receded, and the people thought this was something amazing, even flocking down to the beach. Interestingly, on the nearby island of Simelue, there was a folk tradition of running to the hills if the ocean receded because a big flood would happen, and this folklore (obviously the result of some previous tsunami) saved many lives, as the islanders did just that.

EG     In The Killing Sea, the animals seemed to know an earth event was on its way:

A loud trumpet broke the jungle's morning quiet. Sarah spun and caught sight of two adult elephants and a juvenile running up a ravine on their stumpy legs. Monkeys began screeching, racing through treetops to higher ground. Across the bay, hundreds of birds exploded out of the jungle. All kinds of birds, small black swallows, big white storky ones, green parrots, all squawking and chirping and cawing."

Is this fiction or did this that actually happen?

RL     That was just fictional license. Nobody I talked to in Aceh said the animals were acting funny before the quake.

EG     Had you experienced natural disasters before?

RL     A volcanic eruption in 1963 near our home in Bali, although we were just on the outskirts of the danger zone. Poison gas, lahar (hot mud flows, not lava), killed most of the victims.

EG     That was close! Was there any flooding in Bali from the tsunami?

RL     No but sailors at sea around Bali, and even as far south as Western Australia, reported strange currents and flows.

EG     What was your first reaction to the devastation in Aceh when you went there as an aid worker?

RL     I flew to Medan, a city close to Aceh, several days after the tsunami with only a cell phone number given to me by a friend already on the ground in Aceh. The number turned out to be the contact for Samaritan's Purse, a Christian relief organization I'd never heard of before, headed by Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son.

I was in the "second wave" of first line relief aid workers, so we'd already heard reports and seen photos and were prepared, but nothing really prepares you for the sheer scale of devastation. Maybe just one town leveled, bad as that would be, would be more absorbable, but mile after mile after mile (hundreds of miles) of coastline just torn apart, villages obliterated, meeting survivors who were the three or four left out of a village of 100 fisherfolk (and these 3 or 4 would have been the fishermen out at sea when the tsunami struck—you couldn't call them lucky, because they told me they really had no reason to live anymore).

EG     What is it like for the survivors of the tsunami in Aceh today?

RL     Redevelopment continues strong, and certainly the peace accord between the former rebels and the government is one big silver lining. There is still a lot of what would be called post traumatic syndrome, but I do think the strong religious belief of the Acehnese, their Muslim faith, has helped them cope with the tragedy in ways that a more secular society might not have available to them. This is just personal opinion, based on anecdote. Although grief is grief, you know. That's a cultural, human constant, I reckon.

EG     Did working with a team that helped rebuild Aceh change you in any way?

RL     It makes one realize that one is just a disaster away from a total and incomprehensible change of life. Also, in Bali, the Acehnese had a reputation of being fierce and dangerous, but nothing could have been further from the truth—so it helped me understand more than ever that perceptions are not reality.

EG     In what way were the Acehnese supposed to be fierce and dangerous?

RL     I would imagine in much the same way that the Apache Indians had such a reputation in the American Westerns I read as a boy. Myth combined with historical fact. During the Dutch colonial days at the turn of the century, Acehnese fighters with swords carried out suicide attacks against the armed Dutch.

EG     You write mostly young adult books. For those who do not know, what ages are your readers?

RL     My publisher targets my audience as ten to teens. I haven't consciously written these YA to, say, "10 to 12 years old" or, "high schoolers." I just write the story with an age appropriate main character.

EG     Are any of your children in the YA reading group?

RL     I have four kids, ages 10-18. No one has read my first two novels. Don't ask (actually, this is fairly typical of children of YA writers). However, my 12 year old daughter picked up an advanced reader's copy of The Demon Queen, said "whoa" when she saw the cover (very scary), and read it overnight. So there's hope.

EG     I have to commend you for the way you wrote The Killing Sea making the plight of the two English children surviving the loss of their parents when the tsunami hit and tossed them all from their sailboat a compassionate and enthralling fast-paced adventure that doesn't hold back from the horror of what happened or the misery following the tsunami, but shows it in a way that a young adult audience can handle. Ruslan, the Indonesian young man, searching for his missing father added even more emotional fuel to the fire of this story. You know that expression, You told me more than I need to know? Well, the book told just what I needed to know to understand the emotions of Rulsan and Sarah Bedford and Peter Bedford, the English children/ vacationers caught in the tsunami and what they were going through. Was it hard to choose how to handle this intense story for a young adult audience or does writing for YA come easily to you, no matter what the subject?

RL     There's no way you can sugarcoat a disaster like that and be true to the experiences of the survivors whom I talked to. I wanted my readers to understand that was a real tragedy. But on the other hand, I really made an effort to avoid the melodrama—just a stark journalist kind of reporting is more than enough.

Writing YA comes easily in the sense that I'm basically a storyteller, and kids love stories. You adjust the ages of the main characters and keep an eye on the word count—my publisher doesn't like manuscripts more than, oh, 70,000 words. So that cuts a lot of what you can do with the story. But writing YA comes just as hard as any other writing, too.

EG     cuts a lot of what you can do with the story Is that hard to do when rewriting, letting go of "good ideas" or story lines you like?

RL     Yes. Yet as a writer you have to listen to your editor, and realize that he has a certain vision for the targeted audience —in this, young readers—and he wanted a real page turner, a disaster-adventure story at pretty much fast-forward speed.

EG     What is the hardest thing you find about writing novels?

RL     A colleague of mine, quoting Neil Gaiman, says, "You never learn to write a novel, you only learn to write the novel you're working on." In other words, the hardest thing about writing a novel is writing the thing, the whole whole long, complicated process of trying to fashion something that is more than the sum of its parts.

EG     Underlying the main story in The Killing Sea, the search for lost parents after the tsunami, was the secondary story about the political climate in Aceh. Besides the characters having to wade though unfriendly terrain, they had to be careful. There were rebels in the countryside and the rebels were interested in Ruslan. Here is an excerpt from the book where Ruslan is interrogated.

"The commandant exhaled another cloud of smoke and then lunged across the table, smashing Ruslan on the cheek, with his clenched fist. The blow sent Ruslan sprawling to the floor, where he lay stunned. He heard, as if from a great distance, the commandant laughing and telling one of his men to take Ruslan away and guard him until morning"

What is this all about in terms of today's political reality in Indonesia?

RL     In a way, Indonesia is an artificial country made up of thousands of islands and ethnic groups that were under Dutch colonial rule. Over the decades, the Aceh region resisted the centralized government with a rebel insurgency. This insurgency was a large part of my first draft, which had rebels and rebel camps and an intelligence officer after Ruslan. My editor wanted the novel streamlined, and so most of this was cut, and the portion you've mentioned was a vestigial element. I couldn't not mention the rebels and the military in the novel, as they were a big deal in the actual aftermath of the tsunami. Presently, as a result of the tsunami, a peace deal has been brokered and still continues.

EG     Was it first-hand intimacy with the physical landscape of the country that allowed you to write such visceral images of the terrain the kids were walking, climbing, and crawling though? I felt like I needed a shower at moments when reading the book when the characters were covered in dirt or mud.

RL     I tromped pretty much through the countryside I described for little bits at a time, and I certainly saw it from the air, since I was flown to various survivor camps in helicopters, seaplanes landing in rivers, and small aircraft that landed on straight roads that weren't wrecked by the tsunami.

EG     Do you think you will ever write an adult novel?

RL     Actually I consider myself an adult author more than a YA author. I became a YA writer by chance and accident, when my first novel The Flame Tree was written for and sold to adult houses. It features a 12-year-old protagonist caught up in Muslim-Christian tensions in a town in Java. The adult houses passed, too close to 9-11 at the time, but the editorial boss at S&S YA read it and loved it and asked me to cut out a very adult themed subplot. I've just finished the last of a 2 novel contract with them, and am starting to write an adult novel.

EG     . What do you do in Bali besides writing?

RL     I learned basic html to build the site myself as a form of procrastination from writing the daily fiction quota—actually, in college in the early 70s I took to computers and computer programming like a dog to a light post, was actually advised to get into the field, and if I had stuck with it, I don't think I'd be a poorly paid writer today. At any rate, when I'm not writing, I usually get off this island to another even smaller island to go surfing. If my wife permits. She's a successful businesswoman. As you know, behind every well-fed writer is usually the primary breadwinner.

EG     It sounds like your wife keeps you on track. Do you mind me asking what type of business your wife is in?

RL     Export, mostly garments.

EG     It seems you have a love of the sea and/or the outdoors in general. Do you think it is because you have been around the ocean since birth? Does anyone else in your family share this love of the sea and or surfing?

RL     During school vacations (that is, when I wasn't in boarding school) I was either reading books or at the beach. The ocean's been a part of my life since I was a kid. I always wanted to explore what was around the next point, see if I could find a new wave to surf. My kids, on the other hand, can take the beach or leave it.

EG     Was the surfing good after the tsunami?

RL     Best surf is during the southern hemisphere winter, when we get winter swells from off Antarctica. I would think tsunami waves wouldn't' be surfable, because the wave is very fast and powerful—it's not a wave on the ocean surface, like a wind-generated wave, but is a wave that reaches down to the ocean floor and has huge volume and energy.

EG     I know you have another book coming out in the spring of 2008. What is the subject of that book and is it a YA book?

RL     The Demon Queen is being released June 08. In it, an American girl and her anthropologist mother (who studied witchcraft in Bali) return to a small Illinois college town after the death of her father. Her life there becomes intertwined with a foster boy with a mysterious past. This one is quite a departure from the realism of my first two novels, as it involves the supernatural and is being marketed by S&S as horror.

S&S contracted me to write two more YA novels after The Killing Sea. I submitted various story ideas, and the editors chose this one.

EG     Now for some Bali questions. I don't often get to talk to someone who lives in Bali and I am curious about the arts and culture.

"Artistically Bali is a melting pot of cultures and traditions. The Balinese have a natural capacity for absorbing different cultural elements to blend them with their own to produce dynamic new hybrids. Over the years Bali has been the recipient of numerous influences, Chinese, Buddhist, Indian, Hindu, Javanese and most recently, Western. For centuries artists and craftsmen in Bali worked under the patronage of the priests and ruling classes, decorating palaces and temples. The artists themselves were anonymous, never signing their work and usually living close together in artists' 'villages'." *

Do you have any favorite pieces of Balinese art in your home?

RL     We have pieces from all over the archipelago, but a favorite of mine is a painting done many, many years ago in typical Balinese line drawing style by a Balinese master, although not a typical Balinese scene, as it is his interpretation of Jesus at the well.

EG     What is it you like about the picture?

RL     In part because it displays the tolerance and respect of the Balinese for others. "Oh, you're a Christian? Here's something you might like."

EG     Favorite Balinese food?

RL     Not Balinese. My favorite food-recipe: one can mushroom condensed soup, one can tuna, curry powder. Combine the soup (don't add water) with the tuna and bring to a simmer. Add curry to taste. Serve with rice. I ate this a lot at college, closest and easiest thing to make that reminded me of that time.

EG     Favorite Balinese flora or fauna?

RL     Let me turn the question around. A lot of stories set in the tropics mention the sultry scent of night blooming jasmine. I personally can't stand the smell. As for what I like, frangipani trees are really beautiful. So are bougainvillea, but the latter plant will choke you to death if you don't keep trimming it.

EG     What's the weather like in Bali today?

RL     Stinking hot. October-March is the so-called wet season, when we get rains and high humidity. If you plan a trip, the best time of year is June-September.

EG     I found this quote on your website, "To be honest, I don't like talking about myself. I'd rather talk about you. Or cloud birds." I thank you for letting me ask you questions. I look forward to reading your new novels.


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