Our interview today is with Tim Merriman and Lisa Brochu authors of The Leopard Tree (4.9 stars, 48 reviews). Before we get to the interview a brief book description: Three orphans from Kenya stow away on an airplane to embark on a desperate quest to meet the Secretary General of the United Nations in New York City and deliver a message they hope will help millions of homeless and hurting children in Africa. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz becomes their guidebook as they journey alone across the United States. The trio–one with HIV, one blind amputee, and one who hasn’t spoken for years after watching her family slaughtered–find themselves embroiled in a situation beyond their imaginations as they get close to meeting their goal.
Author Interview with Lisa and Tim
Tim Merriman and Lisa Brochu wrote The Leopard Tree in 2007 and self-published it. It won the Best Young Adult Novel with the 2008 Writer’s Digest International Self-published Contest and a 2008 EVVY Award in General Fiction with Colorado Independent Publisher’s Association. This interview with the authors shares their backstory in developing the novel. They have written eight other non-fiction books and children’s fiction stories, published by other publishers..
1. What was unique about the setting of the book and how did it enhance the story?
The story begins in Kenya in an orphanage and moves to the United States as three orphans travel to the United Nations office using The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as their guidebook. The unique setting of East African orphanages operated by religious groups has become way too common as HIV and AIDS leaves no one else to raise youngsters. Grandparents with few financial or medical resources often must take on the responsibility of raising grandchildren, but what happens if grandmother dies, as Mamere does at the start of The Leopard Tree?
2. What specific themes did you emphasize throughout the novel?
This book is the story of a quest fueled by the desire to make a difference in the world. Everyone can make a difference in whatever way he or she can.
What do you think you are trying to get across to the reader?
We wanted to put a face on the challenges faced by children in nations where civil unrest, disease, and starvation take an enormous toll. We hope that readers will be able to see the world through the eyes of the children and understand the profound sophistication that arises with living in their conditions. They may lack resources but their wits and ingenuity illustrate that anyone can overcome adversity and make a difference if they are willing to take on the challenge.
3. Do the characters represent someone you know?
We have spent a considerable amount of time in Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi so the voices of Daudi, Masozi and Ramla are the voices of children we have met there who have faced some of these same challenges. Their problems could not be more real. More than 18 million East African children live in orphanages and that usually means they have no family members of any kind left who can care for them.
4. How do characters change or evolve throughout the course of the story? What events trigger such changes?
Our characters begin to see the bigger world of the United States and New York City on their journey. They face the frustrations of being told “no access” to the United Nations, a place they presumed would have an open door. The Secretary General is the “Wizard of Oz” to them. In their view, he should be available and willing to solve the problems faced by children everywhere once the situation is brought to his attention. But Daudi grows more and more ill without any medication as they travel, creating tension as they also try to run from the one person who might help them due to a misunderstanding of her motives. They see their mission as greater than their personal needs and struggle to accomplish what they can in the time that they have. A good dose of reality therapy helps the children see that the world is more complicated than they thought, but that with perseverance, belief, and some help along the way, a great deal can still be accomplished.
5. In what ways do the events in the books reveal evidence of your own world view?
People in developed nations for the most part have been born into privilege, whether wealthy or not. We have access to medical care, plenty to eat, and no wars in the back yard. We have options that children in rural Africa lack. Malaria, HIV/AIDS, hunger, and the ravages of war . Our view is that each of us should assume some responsibility for helping those who cannot help themselves, in whatever way makes the most sense. For some, that may be financial help, but for others, it may be putting whatever talents and training you have toward making the world a better place.
6. Do certain parts of the book make readers uncomfortable? If so, why did you want them to feel that way?
The book is intended to create empathy balanced by discomfort, the awareness that all is not right and may not be put right easily. We learn little when everything is easy and given to us. Understanding and awareness grow from deep thought and life’s realities can be unsettling. But Daudi speaks for us in suggesting that awareness is the first step in creating positive action.
7. Was there a basis for your story? A previous experience? Something else?
We watched President Clinton on a television special interviewing young people from Africa about HIV and AIDS. We had met kids just like them and we cried as we listened to their experiences. The normal adolescent explorations into sex and relationships have become deadly for many kids. Traditional lifestyles in rural communities based on polygamy, superstition, poverty, and a lack of health care all play a role in compounding the problem. We wanted to write about all of this in a way that would bring the reader toward understanding as a willing observer, not just shocked from what happens but growing in empathy as the dangers are revealed.
8. What research did you have to perform to back up your story? Any research which really opened your eyes or gave you new respect for a topic or profession?
We began personally funding an HIV program in Malawi at about the time we became interested in writing the book. We had educators on the ground in one of the world’s poorest nations sharing their stories with us. We also read all the material we could find about the various topics touched on in the book, but valued most the visits and conversations with African people on our journeys there and with others who have worked and taught there.
9. What is your method for writing a book? A certain amount of hours every day? A certain routine? Are you a character/story builder or an outliner or some other method?
We write as a couple and pass an outline back and forth when we start to build the story. Then one of us drafts while the other refines and improves the narratives. We discuss plot points as we go and often role-play the characters with each other to achieve a conversational tone with dialogue. We tend to write more easily in early morning and early evening, but also spend quite a bit of time on airplanes and in hotel rooms and consequently find ourselves with blocks of time to edit and polish our work.
10. How do you get past writers block or distractions like the internet?
We’ve never really suffered from writers block. Our bigger problem is starting too many writing projects and then finding the time to finish them. Our outline file is full of ideas and opening chapters. Our first nine books were produced while working full-time professional jobs and it was sometimes difficult to find time or inspiration to write after a full day at another job. Now we are focusing more on our writing careers and are finding
that we need to force ourselves to be distracted occasionally to think through the next bits of the story. But of course, if the interruptions are too frequent it is hard to stay immersed in the story. It simply requires a balancing act, like any other job.
11. Favorite book from childhood.
That’s easy for Tim to answer – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew Mysteries, Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian Series and Tarzan books. It’s a long list. For Lisa, it’s not so easy – as a voracious reader even when young, almost anything that was currently in my hands was my favorite.
12. What’s on your desk? Can you see your desk? Describe what you see when you look around.
We write at a desk, on the couch, in a reclining chair on laptops, in airplanes, in hotel rooms, and even outside. But in our official home office, we have a desk that stays reasonably tidy and a recliner and trade off between the two. Both face a picture window that looks out to a wooded area where deer frequently browse. Hummingbirds come to the feeder, a raccoon mom and baby walked by in broad daylight today and Blue, our Australian cattle dog, asks to be let out often. It’s a comfortable space with just the right amount of distractions.
Get your copy of The Leopard Tree on Amazon.