Our interview today is with Will Lutwick the author of Dodging Machetes: How I Survived Forbidden Love, Bad Behavior, and the Peace Corps in Fiji that Kirkus Reviews calls “…his beautifully written memoir… Off-the-charts hysterical. An unabashed, candid memoir that continually entertains and educates.”
Will Lutwick, a quirky misfit, gets an MBA at 22, but soon realizes he and the American corporate world are a horrid mismatch. He joins the Peace Corps and is sent to the Fiji Islands, the quintessential tropical paradise. Will finds himself attracted to prohibited pulchritude when Rani Gupta, a beautiful, rebellious 20-year-old from a traditional Hindu family, begins working in his office. Dating is taboo in Fiji’s large Indian community, and an interracial couple would be unprecedented. But Rani and Will soon discover their mutual attraction impossible to resist. Their liaison is clandestine, but word gets out, and a cultural firestorm engulfs Rani’s community. The two lovers are under constant threat of attack, and violence ensues. Will must confront his personal demons about courage and commitment, while Rani is treated like a pariah by her people. Will the besieged lovers stay together, or will a hostile world tear them apart?
In between the dramatic scenes, this seriocomic memoir is savvy and often hilarious. Lutwick deliciously skewers his own behavior and satirizes the people, practices, and protocols he encounters in Fiji and in backstory about his youth.
Interview with Will Lutwick:
1. What was unique about the setting of the memoir and how did it enhance or take away from the story?
The story takes place in Fiji, long before it became a celebrity vacation destination and the source of fashionable imported water. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer there from 1968-70. Fiji was an isolated, idyllic country, at least on the surface. That was a time of great social upheaval back in the States and throughout the world. Fiji was on the cusp of becoming an independent nation after almost a hundred years of British rule and would go through its own version of social upheaval. The central plot of Dodging Machetes is about the at-first secret, forbidden love affair between me and a beautiful Indian girl at a time when Indians were the majority race in Fiji. And the native Fijians generally were not happy about being outnumbered. So the setting, like the plot, begins with calm on the surface and impending upheaval just beneath it as the stakes continually get higher. I think the plot and the setting complement each other and the book is more interesting for it.
2. What specific themes did you emphasize throughout the memoir? What are you trying to get across to the reader?
I primarily want to tell a compelling story and let the readers come to their own conclusions about the meaning. That said, the protagonist (me) does grapple with issues about courage, commitment, racial strife, and integrity. There is a fair amount of back-story to my youth where I find those same issues challenging me.
Unlike most fictional stories about star-crossed lovers that become romantic soap operas, Dodging Machetes pulls no punches and is a case study of the unexpected, extreme complications that can happen as a result of a relationship that totally breaks all precedent in a rigid society. Yet, it ultimately shows why pursuing such changes in the face of powerful adversity can still be the right thing to do. This was a personal story of two people who just wanted to be together, who weren’t out to disrupt the status quo, but I think it resonates with other movements for social change, and hopefully made it easier for the next couple to go down that path.
3. Do the characters seem real and believable? Can you relate to their predicaments?
Well I should hope that the characters seem real and believable, because they are definitely real. Some of what they have to cope with may seem incredulous by today’s more open standards, but of course there are still parts of the world where old prejudices and structures are built into the society and good luck to anyone who violates those written and unwritten rules. I think Dodging Machetes speaks out to younger people today who may not be aware that it wasn’t that long ago that much of our own country was legally segregated. My relationship with Rani would have been technically illegal in my home state of Virginia only a couple of years before she and I first started being together. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court declared that laws prohibiting interracial sex and marriage were unconstitutional and there were plenty of state laws on the books saying just that, at the time.
I think most Americans can personally relate to the predicaments we went through because we just wanted to be together in a society that was deeply ingrained not to accept that. Dodging Machetes is not only a classic forbidden love story, it is also a classic tale of people fighting for their basic rights. Who doesn’t like a story, like that? And knowing that all of it actually happened makes it that much more meaningful.
And I also use a lot of humor to make the characters empathetic to the reader. Although the central plot is often dead serious, there is plenty of comic relief and satire in between the more dramatic scenes. Balancing drama and humor can be difficult, but the readers tell me that it works well.
4. How do characters change or evolve throughout the course of the story?
Since we’re talking about characters, I’ll discuss mine in the third person. Will has to confront his personal issues about courage. He was bullied quite a lot in his youth in ways that were particularly humiliating. There are scenes that describe that in the book. But he also ultimately triumphs over the bullies. And his understanding of what true courage is evolves from willingness to fight back when attacked to putting one’s butt on the line for what he thinks is right, no matter the consequences. Rani is a fiercely independent young woman who is willing to take on her world, but when violence hits home and she becomes a pariah, she has to come to terms with the fact that we couldn’t win by physically fighting the thousands who wished us ill. So we both evolve from different places into a policy of Ghandian-like non-violent disobedience to fight for our rights.
5. In what ways do the events in the books reveal evidence of your world view?
I believe at the highest level in an ethical world where people should do the ethical thing, and although sometimes it is hard to discern what that might be in every situation, you still should strive to find it and then embrace it. At the same time, I’m also a pragmatist, so I realized we could not defeat our adversaries physically as we were grossly outnumbered. I believe that public service to others in need is a good and necessary thing, and that was reflected by my role as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the book. We live on a small planet and we have to take care of it and each other. I believe that racial separation and racial hatred are wrong and I was unwilling to let it stop what Rani and I were doing.
6. Did certain parts of the book make you uncomfortable? If so, why did you feel that way? Did this lead to a new understanding or awareness of some aspect of your life you might not have thought about before?
I went through a lot of internal turmoil while writing Dodging Machetes. Because it was my book and others I wrote about couldn’t defend themselves in it, I always felt I needed to be tougher on myself than them. So the result is a lot of self-deprecation and some embarrassing personal details about myself. I tried to be fair to every person I wrote about, including those who have passed on. Family members are the toughest to deal with in memoirs, partially because you probably still have them in your life, but also because they are the hardest identities to protect. I made it a policy to hide character identities, unless they specifically told me to use their names. But with relatives, that’s tougher, because you only have one set of parents, and in my case only one sibling. Everyone who knows them will know who you are writing about. But the great thing is that all the members of my family that have read Dodging Machetes have totally embraced the memoir.
The person portrayed in the book who was the toughest to confront was the star of the show, the woman I call Rani in the book. What we went through was very difficult for her as it would have been for anyone. I don’t want to go into too many details as that will reveal too much about the book’s plot, but Rani did cooperate with me on the book. She was and is a courageous persion.
About myself, I learned that I still had the courage to see this book through despite lots of reasons and behavioral patterns that worked against my continuing—so I’m proud of conquering those personal demons and persevering till the project was completed.
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?
Thankfully we live in a cyber age where it is easy to quickly find information, some of it even factual, about virtually any subject. I have a short section in Dodging Machetes on Fijian history as it related to how the various peoples came to be there. In the four decades since the story took place, the estimated time of arrival of the first people in Fiji had been set back almost three thousand years from what I was taught, to about 3,500 years ago. And the first inhabitants were now Polynesians, not Melanesians, the dominant racial strain of the current-day natives. But the most interesting thing I found was that Fiji’s natives, despite their looking very much like sub-Sahara Africans and having language similarities with East Africans, have been proven by DNA to be further removed from Africans than they are from any other major racial group. So looks do deceive. But then again, in another forty years the prevailing wisdom may change again. So though I have the utmost respect for science and history, some of the so-called facts do evolve over time.
9. What is your method for writing a book? Are you character/story builder or an outliner or some other method?
I believe the best memoirs, like novels, follow traditional story patterns, such as those delineated by Robert McKee in his classic writing book, Story. Luckily, Dodging Machetes’ central plot, Rani and Will’s romance, follows almost perfectly the dramatic pattern of the classic star-crossed lovers plot. So I was lucky to have a well-structured story where I could be the protagonist in it. The story took place almost forty years before I began writing the book. I didn’t have journals or many other personal documents from my years in Fiji. So there were some blanks I had to fill in and some dialogue to write. And as the central themes of the plot began to take shape, I decided to include some back-story from my childhood which nicely tied in with, how I ended up as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji. Additionally, the central plot brought together many of the issues I had struggled with in my youth, such as courage and commitment, testing me every step of the way. So the overall structure was a matter of weaving all those scenes and themes together in a way that compels the reader to keep reading. Many readers have indicated in their reviews and to me personally that once they started reading Dodging Machetes, it was almost impossible to stop until they had read the whole book. So however I put it together—and it took me almost three years of writing—it seems to have worked.
10. Is there anything that has happened since the book came out a couple of months ago that you want to share?
Well, I don’t know if I should admit this, but I have tried to defy the experts on successful book promotion, although that’s mainly because I had little choice. I was so caught up in getting the book perfectly written and presented and then one day it was for sale on Amazon. My marketing plan was just a list of to-dos. My website was still under-construction and it was being built by me, someone who knew nothing about website construction. I didn’t have a blog. I didn’t have a platform—virtually no followers. I’m certainly no celebrity, no expert in any particular field. My publishing history was very sparse. All I had going for me, and pretty much still have going for me, was the book itself. And isn’t the book itself the only thing that should matter to the readers?
So to those reading this interview, I say this: I was lucky to have a great story happen in my life, and I have written a compelling book about it called Dodging Machetes. I know it’s a wonderful book, not because I say it is, but because others do. Kirkus, the world’s toughest book reviewers, wrote this about Dodging Machetes, “In his beautifully written memoir . . . he relays these memories with neither bitterness nor self-serving pity–just a good dose of humor and intelligence . . . He shares thoughtful insight into Fiji’s exotic history and society . . . Off-the-charts hysterical. An unabashed, candid memoir that continually entertains and educates.“
Other professional reviews are just as flattering to Dodging Machetes and you can read highlights from all of them on its Amazon page.
My reader reviews on Amazon are averaging an unbelievable 4.95 stars. Many of the reviews say the book is “addictive” and crying out to be made into a movie.
Thanks, Digital Book Today for being willing to interview me and thank you for reading this interview.