Richard Lewis is an avid surfer who also happens to have a book contract and a recently published novel. He lives on an island in Indonesia and, interestingly enough, has never met face to face with any of his publishers or peers. He’s content to stay in his tropical paradise with his wife and live the ‘California Dreamin’’ lifestyle, with bouts of writing, of course, in between (and during) his obligatory surfing junkets. I caught up with him through the miracle of e-mail, a dozen time zones and half a world away.
Steven Hansen: It's been about a year since Simon and Schuster published your novel The Flame Tree. Has your life as you knew it before having a novel published been altered?
Richard Lewis: (Actually, it's been seven months) No. I'm still as pre-famous as I ever was. And just as poor. Living overseas on a tropical island adds to the sense of distance, that my novel "happened over there somewhere."
SH: Your parents were missionaries in Bali, right? You grew up there and in Java, then came to the States for your college education. Did you ever think about staying in the States?
RL: No, I never did think of staying on in the States. A good part of that was I grew up as a surfer, and wanted to get back to Indonesia's waves. Plus some people just have a yearning for home, and Indonesia was home to me, although I could have settled happily enough in the US if circumstances had forced me too.
SH: I'll bet your favorite guitarist is Dick Dale, right? You have said elsewhere that your childhood was filled with reading and more reading. How'd such a bookworm get turned onto surfing?
RL: I grew up without television and without music -- I never knew who the Beach Boys were until I got to boarding high school. I read for my entertainment, but I also loved the beach, and figured out how to body surf on my own. I didn't know there was such a sport as surfing, with boards, until I saw my first surfer riding a wave at Kuta Beach (in Bali) in 1970. Blew me away. He let me examine his board and next day I went to a carpenter's shop and had the carpenter round the end of a ten foot plank of teak and nail a curved fin in the bottom -- not exactly foam and fiberglass and weighed a ton, but it was my first board.
SH: And then, how'd such a surfer dude get turned onto writing?
RL: A direct function of my reading. I read for enjoyment from a young age and it simply seemed natural to me to try to write entertaining stories of my own (and I always had an active imagination). The first story I recall writing was when I was six, about a yawn that traveled around the world to return to the first yawner, a small boy in Bali.
If I hadn't been such a reader, I'm not sure I'd be a writer today.
SH: Is there such a thing as 'surf philosophy'? And, if there is, can you sum it up for me?
RL: Some surfers get all mystical about it, others (those macho big wave riders) get testosteronic, others like the physical fitness it provides, and some just like playing in water. I myself like surfing alone or with a couple good friends and have spent a considerable amount of time and money to get waves to myself in the archipelago. Hard to do these days--surfing is such a hugely popular sport, travelers with surfboards go to the remotest places.
SH: I read somewhere that you once 'solved a minor plot puzzle while getting tumbled around by a big wave.' Do you remember what novel or story this incident pertains too? And how'd you solve the puzzle?
RL: That was for an online contest for a 1200 word max story that had to be written in 24 hours based [on] a cue given via e-mail at the start of the 24 hours. I wrote for about two hours, got stuck, went surfing, got caught by a big wave, worried about my loose watch while getting tumbled, and then realized my character in the story, a young girl on a train, was actually a pickpocket who nabs a gold Rolex on a subway train by asking the wearer for the time.
SH: That's called kismet or something isn't it? Great story of a story. And speaking of contests and kismet, you were noticed (and later picked up) by an agent because of your 3rd place finish in the 2001 Writer's Digest short story competition. Now that you are concentrating on writing novels, do you still enter short story competitions, or have they served their purpose already, in your case?
RL: I do have the sense that contests have served their purpose for me, especially since most charge an entry fee. Since then I've submitted a few short stories to various publications, online and print.
SH: You told another interviewer that one of the core issues explored in your novel The Flame Tree is if/and how Christianity and Islam can co-exist in peace. You went on to say you didn't really present any pat answer. But isn't the fact you are a light skinned Christian actually residing in the most populace Muslim nation a real object lesson of sorts in regards to that ‘coexistence’ thing? It's not like you run around with a turban on or attend mosque 5 times a day to blend in, right?
RL: I've found (here in Indonesia) that the ordinary, everyday folk of different religions and ethnicity have no trouble living together in a community. The trouble usually arises when an outside agitator comes in. A lot of the conflict here in Indonesia is provoked (and by both sides), by people who claim to have the truth.
And what I meant by co-existing in peace is more aimed to the religious leaders, those who feel they have the exclusive answer to faith. If a pastor or an imam preaches a sermon against the sins of the other, which he feel he is divinely anointed to preach, well, how does that help? But on the other hand, do I have a right to censor your faith according to what I think your faith should be? Hard question, that's why I say there's no real pat answer, at least for me.
SH: There are those artists and so-called artists who look askance at the Christian faith. Have you ever felt discriminated against? And how do you deal with this form of bigotry? Or am I just fishing for controversy here where none exists?
RL: No, I've not personally experienced that, at least in connection with me as a writer. I imagine if I'd been in the States doing readings from my novel, etc, I would have faced such questions and or discrimination. I've thought a lot about my own Christian faith and can hold my own. Nicely, of course.
SH: You're too damn nice, Richard. OK. Enough attempted muck raking on my part. Have you ever gotten mail, e-mail or a phone call (or any other form of modern communication) from somebody who thought you were Richard Lewis, the comedian?
RL: One [time] I phoned my agent. His new assistant answered. I said, "This is Richard Lewis."
He hesitated a beat and then said, "The comedian?"
"Nah," I said, "just one of Scott's writers."
Other than that, no confusion. I know of the other Richard, but have never seen or heard him. I'm sure he's never heard of me, either.
SH: Hey. You never know.
Your new novel is called The Banyan Tree, is that correct? What's your deal with trees? Are you planning a series? And what's this one about? It's another novel marketed for 'young adults'?
RL: I wrote another one called The Banyan Tree, yes, which my agent has.
But that's not my next one from Simon & Schuster. I spent a couple weeks in Aceh immediately after the tsunami, and had an idea for a story. I wrote up three chapters and a synopsis, sent it off to Scott, who passed it on to S&S, and the next day my editor made me an offer. SO I'm working on that now.
BTW, S&S sat on The Banyan Tree (set in Bali, with a half-Balinese/half-American teenager as protagonist) and then passed with compliments--good for schools and libraries but not the market they wanted. And then they make a one-day turn around offer on an unwritten novel about the tsunami. That's the publishing world these days.
SH: In the interview I alluded to earlier, you said Aceh was a dangerous place. I'm assuming this major disaster has made those who were once at odds put aside there differences?
RL: That points out how a place can be so misunderstood, and the power of the media to distort things. Before I went to Aceh, that's what I thought, and my Balinese friends told me not to go, that the Acehnese were dangerous and bloodthirsty.
Nothing could have been further from the truth--the danger is getting caught in a firefight between the rebels and military. They are a proud people, and you certainly wouldn't get away with insulting them, but with the pride is also a heartwarming hospitality.
SH: Are you going surfing today? What kind of board will you be using? Has your choice of boards changed over the years? And, lastly, what's the biggest shark you've seen swimming inside your wave?
RL: No surfing today. Small. I ride bigger boards now, don't have the reflexes of my youth. I've seen small reefs sharks and in some deep reef passes have felt spooked enough to get out of the water, but it’s the shark you don't see that nails you. But mostly I don't worry about sharks.