What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
Both Bruno and Michael are the absolute opposite of 9-to-5 kind of people. When you think about growing older and getting stuck in these troughs of life from which you can’t escape, you don’t think of someone like Bruno or Michael. But both, in their extraordinary lives, got a little stuck on tracks from which they couldn’t escape.
Bruno’s story is tragic. What’s a guy to do who just wants to live with hunter-gatherers in the jungle when there are no more hunter-gatherers to live with? He couldn’t go back home and live in Switzerland. Michael is very American in so many ways. He lives in Bali and has satellite TV and loves football. But he can’t go home either, and he lives in this weird netherworld.
Michael isn’t super-reflective about his own life, and in some ways he’s the more successful of the two; I don’t mean monetarily, but just in navigating life. But he’s in his 70s, and I think he’s looking at life and wondering what he did and what he achieved, like we all do.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
My sympathies changed as I wrote the book. Bruno is this Jesus-like figure. He moved people because he was so authentic, dedicated, single-minded and pure. But that purity was also a selfish purity. He alienated the people closest to him. When you’re pure and there’s no compromise, there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to turn if things don’t work. Despite all his incredible work — and it was selfless, the miles traveled and the hunger strikes — he failed in saving any of the forest and he ended up dead. As sad as the Penan situation is now, there are Penan who are becoming educated, who want more modern lives and yet retain an essence of their Penan-ness. But that was unacceptable to Bruno.
Michael was the buccaneer going out into the world for pure adventure, but he ended up mostly content. Who is the better person? In the end, I feel an incredible admiration for Bruno, but I also think he was kind of nuts. A main theme of the book is that the saint-like figure is maybe not that saintly; and the person who on the surface is more of a sinner isn’t really at all, and that life is complicated.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
My parents. My mother loved fiction and my father loved old-school journalism. They wanted to be writers, but they couldn’t. I mean, they could write a nice letter, but my dad tried a couple of times to write a book and he couldn’t finish anything. There was a seed planted for me: I got all that love of writing and literature from them, but I also wanted to leap beyond them and show them that it could be done.
Persuade someone to read “The Last Wild Men of Borneo” in 50 words or less.
It’s a wild ride. On the one hand, it’s this rip-roaring tale of arrests and smuggling, but it also explores stereotypes of how we view indigenous people. It leaves you with some heavy thoughts and questions that will shake up your world.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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