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Interview With Peter Lewis, Author of "Treehouse Chronicles"
Reader Views is pleased to join us, Peter Lewis, author of The Treehouse Chronicles. Welcome Peter!
Erin: Peter, you have a book here that is very different from the rest. Tell us more about it.
Peter: “The Treehouse Chronicles” is a story about people, the joy of working together and the wonders of the natural world, all centered around a dream that kids of all ages have – to create a giant treehouse with Filled with strange contraptions, secret locks, furniture made of trees, and drawbridges activated by gravity and falling boulders. It’s a hardcover, large-format book filled with photographs, sketches, and watercolors. But it’s not just big and pretty: it has a wonderful message—it’s a book written with heart on the coffee table.
It’s the story of what happens when the big guys decide to be kids again and they have the tools and the wood. I call this book my “Masters Thesis in Irony” because it explores the ups and downs (pun intended) of living a dream that on some days seems like the greatest adventure in the world and on others Biggest mistake I’ve ever made. I kept a diary during construction, and the 1,400 pages I amassed form the core of the book: from day 1, when inspiration struck, to day 1,028, when I sprayed the last bit of shellac on the last stair tread. This is the story of ordinary people embarking on a great journey without leaving home.
Erin: What inspired you to publish this book?
Peter: I’ve written a lot of books, and this is my first (and won’t be my last) book on whimsy. I publish this book because people need to know that childhood never really has to end, and that being an adult is about more than going to meetings, paying bills, picking up kids for soccer and answering emails. While chronologically I was in my 40s when I built the treehouse, I felt like I was about 12 the whole time – and I was having the time of my life.
Erin: Tell us about yourself and how The Treehouse Chronicles reflects on your own life.
Peter: I grew up in a family that valued imagination, creativity, and hard work. My parents discouraged me from thinking outside the box—they told me they weren’t sure there were boxes. (My 80-year-old father builds boats.) This idea of pushing, learning, and experimenting has been with me my whole life. But we’re not just idle dreamers – there’s a practical side as well. When I was little, my mother said to me, “Dreams need feet, Peter. They’re no good if they get stuck in your ears.” She meant that the “doing” part of a dream is more important than the “thinking” part More importantly – she (and my dad) wanted results. (It’s okay if the dream is stupid—as long as you get it done.)
Erin: You are lucky to have such an optimistic parent. They seem to be ahead of their time as you grow up. Did you appreciate their encouragement while you were growing up?
Peter: In most respects, my parents and my early years were pretty traditional: two parents, two kids, dogs, a house in the suburbs (luckily surrounded by forests and swamps). My dad was a mechanical engineer; my mom was home most of the time, but worked a little. Typical 1960s. My parents were different – though I’m not sure “ahead of their time” describes them. I’m certainly grateful that they set me free to experience a creative life. To be sure, we had rules, but my parents weren’t afraid to say “yes” whenever I wanted to try something. They let me keep snakes in my room (and in my pocket); I was allowed to climb on roofs (and trees) since I was about six years old; tools and lumber were everywhere for me to experiment; playing in the swamp behind the house considered normal. My parents told me I could do anything. I trust them.
Erin: Do you have any children? If so, would you give the same encouragement your parents gave you?
Peter: I have two children. No, I didn’t encourage them like a parent – I gave them more. My typical response to “Daddy, can I?” is yes! ’ I only say no when something is really dangerous or immoral or will hurt others. Most parents answer no to their children. They seem weird to friends and neighbors (or both). I think it’s pathetic. Lest you think our home is a mess, let me assure you it’s not. Both of my kids are respectful, studious, Well-behaved and driven to succeed in life.They are encouraged to learn the value of initiative and hard work, and they know where life’s true boundaries lie.
My son is a junior at a prestigious engineering school and will likely go on to do a masters degree in nuclear engineering (he wants to work in marine construction). He is my best friend and when I grow up I want to be like him. My daughter is tall and sweet, reads a few books a week, and is getting ready to help me renovate our barn just in time for her new horse. She’s only 13, so she’s not sure what she wants to be when she grows up (note I didn’t say “when she grows up”), but she’s already talking about college. (By the way, both kids are homeschooled – all thanks to my wife, Karen.) Karen is the mainstay of the family. She’s German and very down-to-earth. Without her, we would be completely out of control. She doesn’t climb trees or carry snakes in her pocket, but she does cheer us on. Occasionally she’ll say “no” and when she does it’s always a good thing (so we don’t have to go to the ER). She was amazing and the love of my life.
Irene: TBR Walsh is the illustrator. Tell us a little about Mr. Walsh and how he came to be a part of your book.
Peter: Ted is my friend, business partner, craftsman and artist. He helped conceive and build the treehouse, and his artistic talents make this book truly special. He grew up in northern Massachusetts and on the coast of Maine, and his love for the arts became evident early on. Before he was four, he drew a three-dimensional cow.
“There’s something wrong with this kid,” his father said. “We have to test him.”
He has studied art history in New England and Italy, dabbled in experimental archeology and comparing ancient languages, built a Celtic wheelhouse, and restored a 37-foot sailing). After college, he taught art history, history and architectural design at a private high school for nine years, where he slowly lost his mind. He taught wilderness and leadership skills for many years at a prestigious wilderness medical school in New Hampshire and lived with wolves in a cabin in the woods.
Irene: When you hike with your camera and journal, do you realize that your discoveries will end up in a book?
Peter: A long time ago, when I was tinkering with the treehouse design concept, it occurred to me that this would be a series of unfortunate events that many people would find amusing – I couldn’t imagine not deciding to write this book. I look for the extraordinary in things, so it was inevitable to write a book about my little adventures in hanging cabins in the air.
Erin: Most of your books are about nature. From this, I learned that you have an intimate connection with nature and the creatures within it. Tell us about your experience.
Peter: Again, this stems from my early childhood. I grew up in the woods and spent most of my free time exploring the local hills and swamps, often sneaking wildlife into my room (ant-infested logs, snakes, boulders, bird nests, beehives, turtles, leaves , live squirrels, etc.) My parents encouraged it all (except for the ants, which my mom had to vacuum up). We spent our summers on a lake deep in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, where we had to take a boat to get to our camp. I thought it was heaven and I spent most of my time fishing or getting up close and personal with frogs in the knee-high muck. I went on to get a degree in forestry and while I never worked in that industry my love for the wilderness never waned, (for example I was a professional mountain guide on and off for 20 years). I feel most at home in forests, mountains and streams.
Erin: This book is about living your dreams. In reality, whose dream is this?
Peter: It’s certainly my dream – at least in a sense, I’m the first to have a crazy idea. But, there are plenty of conspirators, and, if the project is anything to go by, it appeals to people who don’t take their lives too seriously (especially my father and son). I’d have friends call me up and say, “Hey, I’m not busy on Saturday, can I come over and help you haul the heavy log up the ladder? Okay?” So, at least in a sense, this dream of mine is Contagious, and by the time it was over, dozens of lives were enriched by it. Maybe it’s not even the concrete dream itself—the indisputable fact that we hang a three-ton house in the air—but the idea that such a thing is not only possible, but should be encouraged. I have had many readers tell me that this book inspired them to leave behind tradition and follow their dreams. I like the way it makes me feel.
Erin: As humans, one of our greatest needs is to belong — to be wanted. You met your friend’s needs. Do you believe that your dream became your friend’s reality?
Peter: I hope not. I hope this dream we share inspires my friends to get out there and do great (if alternative) things of their own. I want them to invite me over when they need help.
Erin: There is a profound message in The Treehouse Chronicles. Tell us what do you want your readers to “get”?
Peter: I may have already answered:
o Dreams need feet. They’re useless tucked between your ears.
o Childhood never has to end.
o Don’t take life too seriously (don’t worry if people think you’re crazy).
o The natural world is a wonderful place; spend more time there.
o Creativity and hard work have their own rewards.
o You don’t have to venture to some far-off corner of the world – I had my greatest adventures in my own backyard.
Erin: Why this message and not others like hiking is fun.
Peter: Because this message (described in the bullet point above) can apply to anyone, anywhere, anytime, doing anything. It is not bound by social status, economic security, or cultural conventions, nor is it limited to any one activity.
PS I’m not sure if hiking is fun; my knee hurts (unless I’m running).
Erin: Explain to us about squirrels – squirrels with attitude.
Peter: Vinny (Vincent R. Thugrat) is a red squirrel whose great-grandfather came by boat from his hometown. He is the main antagonist in the book and my arch enemy. He owns the tree (and, he thinks, the entire forest), and sees me as a trespasser and a vandal. He is loud, obnoxious, and throws cigarette butts and feces everywhere. He chews woodwork, steals insulation, parties until the wee hours, and is an all-around whiner. We fight a lot and he always wins because he is louder. I’ve often wanted to kill him, but he has bigger, murderous cousins (both named Vinny) who swing baseball bats.
Irene: Does Vinny have the same personality as anyone you know?
Peter: Danny DeVito on the sitcom Taxi.
Erin: What was your purpose in including the squirrel?
Peter: I have no choice. He threatened my family. Plus, he provides a mob-style comedic relief.
Erin: It sounds like Vinny has a deeper message than just being obnoxious. What message did he convey?
Peter: Don’t trust Vinny too much. He’s just a squirrel (and not too smart). He is made up of equal parts anxiety, opportunism and territorial claims. He gets far more pressure than he deserves. Vinny doesn’t represent some deep, repressed anger or sense of inadequacy that I have. He’s just a regular thug who we exaggerate in the book and in interviews because he makes people laugh.
Erin: Thanks Peter. I can’t help but smile thinking about the fun you had writing this book. And, needless to say, your readers get paid for it too. Is there anything else you would like readers to know about you or your book?
Peter: Making the book was just as much fun and creative as building the building – and working indoors without the heavy lifting.
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