Andrew Elliott has lived and worked in Thailand since 1999. He studied firstly at Oxford (like Dominic and Paul) and later at Cambridge. He taught History before becoming a UK college principal for 7 years. In Thailand he has worked as an international school headmaster, represented British universities and undertaken education consultancy work.

An active member of the Siam Society, Andrew finds Thai culture an enduring fascination. "I think the fact that Thailand largely escaped Western colonisation enabled it to retain more of its original traditions, artefacts and practices culturally intact than other Southeastern Asian countries did," he comments. "This had important consequences not just in terms of preserving buildings and art forms - important though these are - but also in maintaining the integrity of Thai cultural psychology. The ways in which Thai people think and act are determined by a unique set of factors not always intelligible or even necessarliy apparent to outsiders, and long may this continue: the planet thrives on diversity and and originality. I work in education, and I've been on the receiving as well as the dispensing end of this by learning about Thailand and also about myself since I came to live here in 1999."

Andrew has visited many of the scenes depicted in The Otters and the Jackal, such as Bangkok, the eastern seaboard and the lush jungle on the Cambodian border. His favourite venue is the northern capital, Chiang Mai, which he's visited 33 times.

"It's a charming city, nestled between majestic, mist-wreathed mountains. Its centre's still enclosed by what's left of a 13th century city wall, moats and gates that symbolise a human body. This is appropriate in all sorts of ways: I've always found Chiang Mai not just alive and organic but also a place with its own distinctive biological rhythm. Life there proceeds at a more leisurely and dignified pace than Bangkok's rather frenetic tempo."

It was in Chiang Mai that Andrew learned about the vibrant tradition of northern Thai shamanism and magic which features crucially in The Otters and the Jackal. "Thai religion's an eclectic continuum which transcends mutually exclusive western categories and is woven into the fabric of daily life in ways that often defy our occidental notions. It's only westerners who try to analyse it into sharply defined compartments labelled 'Buddhism', 'Brahminism' and so on, because in the West you can't be a Christian and a Moslem (or anything else, for that matter) at the same time. In Thailand and other parts of Asia, people quite comfortably follow Buddhist, Hindu, Daoist and animistic practices on different occasions without discerning any contradictions."

Is this what makes religion a central aspect of The Otters and the Jackal? 

"I've always loved mystery / adventure novels with a religious context. I was mesmerised by Eco's The Name of the Rose when this appeared in 1980 and read it several times. I think religion gives an extra dimension to such works by providing a channel whereby universal human themes, such as love, morality, ethics, politics etc, can be woven into the story's backdrop as well as colouring characters, conflicts, scenes and symbols in significant ways."

Andrew's other favourite fiction authors are Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair and Paulo Coelho.

Interview with Andrew Elliott                                      

Q: Why did you write The Otters and the Jackal?

A: Initially as a form of therapy and diversion (in the seventeenth century sense of ‘amusement’), I suppose. I've always enjoyed writing, and this novel provided welcome relief from the stresses and strains of my daytime jobs as a director and headmaster.

Subsequently, as the novel grew and its characters and contents evolved, I began to appreciate the possibilities for using a literary medium to explore and convey various ideas and suggestions in a non-didactic way. And towards the end, the novel became a sort of bridge between my personal experience of Thailand and various philosophical theories I’ve tentatively come to hold.

Q: Does it contain any particular message for readers?

A: It's not intended to impose any dogmatic conclusions onto every person who reads it, but it does aspire to raise and - very tentatively - to suggest answers to various questions about whether wisdom's only attained through suffering, whether (and, if so, how) travel broadens the mind, the extent to which seeing the world through rose-tinted spectacles distorts uncomfortable realities, whether principles have to be just modified or completely abandoned when starry-eyed idealists come down to earth with a bump, how far principles and cynicism determine how politics is driven and so on.

Q: Why is all this so important?

A: All these questions are significant: they're considered by most people at some stage in their lives, and novels - precisely because they're less ostensibly didactic than academic texts - can sometimes help in framing answers.

Q: You’ve described The Otters and the Jackal as a ‘decoding novel’. Why do you think this genre is important?

A: The immediate answer must lie in the extraordinary publishing success of Dan Brown's novels, The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol, which decode the arcane symbolism associated respectively with Opus Dei and the Freemasons but more generally with the Catholic Church and Christianity in general, linking them to sinister plots and conspiracy theories.

Q: Has Dan Brown struck some kind of chord with a postmodern readership by exploring these ideas in a literary context?

A: I don’t think this is just to do with postmodernism: fascination with little understood religious symbolism is a well established literary interest which has a fairly long pedigree.

Q: So is Brown’s popularity more to do with popular fascination with high-level conspiracy theories?

A: Partly. A lot of people seem intrigued by the idea of unmasking fictional cabals (interwoven with tantalising real-life elements) and want to read books which set out to decipher mysterious signs and rituals associated with religious practices we all glimpse but usually fail to grasp the full significance of.

Q: Why do readers find these things so enticing?

A: Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that we often find ourselves surrounded by images, symbols and signs we don't understand but wonder about the significance of. So, naturally, we ask ourselves why fountains in English cities are adorned with statues of imposing winged lions, why churches are bedecked with fearsome and unchristian-looking gargoyles and what mythical fauna motifs we see on heraldic coats of arms, badges, crests and shields really mean. And when an author writes a novel that links these things to conspiracies and plots, it satisfies a need to understand as well as the desire to be entertained and stimulated.

Thai people do tend to understand historical meanings more than Westerners do. They've retained a sense of mythology. Perhaps because of the enduring Hindu/Brahmanical influence on Thai culture, which is very important and extremely potent.

Q: How do these factors attract readers towards literature about religious mystery?

A: In a sense, this type of book empowers people by helping them understand the meaning or multiple meanings behind or beneath things they might encounter every day but not fully appreciate. Demystifcation's essentially a democratic process which enables ordinary people to make sense of the extraordinary influences that have helped shape their history, cultures, lives, choices and even destinies.

Q: Is this popular interest in religious mystery confined to fiction?

A: No, it’s also been addressed by history and archaeology. In 1968, Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods? was published and soon became an international bestseller. Its success is explained by its sub-title: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past.

Q: What exactly did it say?

A: Von Daniken was extremely well read and drew on a wealth of archaeological, ethnographic, artistic and technological sources. He argued that various ancient civilisations were far more advanced than had been supposed and that their sophisticated technologies had been bestowed by extraterrestrial visitors whose appearances explained references in ancient theological works (including the Old Testament) to gods and angels.

Q: Why was this so revolutionary?

A: Well, he thus offered twentieth-century readers what appeared to be scientific evidence as a key to unlocking what were presented as otherwise inexplicable phenomena which confounded the conventional view that ancient civilisations were essentially backward and barbaric while modern ones were inherently advanced and progressive. In essence, he built a bridge between the supernatural and the everyday, which is what a lot of readers of fiction and non-fiction are seeking.

Q: Was this just an isolated instance of non-fiction exploring these theories?

A: No, and even von Daniken's conviction for fraud in 1970 didn't undermine the popularity of the idea that non-fiction books could unlock religious and spiritual mysteries. Two of Colin Wilson's best-known works spring to mind here - The Occult: A History (1971) and Mysteries (1978). Both popularised explorations of supernatural and occult (or 'hidden') planes which interact with our day-to-day empirical lives in ways we'd not appreciated previously.

Q: And were Wilson’s books taken seriously outside the world of science fiction?

A: Well, Wilson already had an established reputation after his literary debut with The Outsider (1956); after the stellar success this won, virtually anything he wrote thereafter could be assured of a readership. But I think he approached occult matters in an intelligent way – one that wasn’t sensationalistic but rather sought to extend what radical and especially Jungian fringes in psychology were already taking an official interest in.

Q: How did that raise popular interest in mystery deciphering?

A: By alerting readers to a rich tradition of magic (or - to use the spelling preferred by its most notorious twentieth-century practitioner, Aleister Crowley - magick) through which changes in the material world could supposedly be effected by the will, Wilson suggested that we all have a hierarchy of selves contained within us. The higher echelons, which have a collective as well as a personal aspect, are accessed via a series of keys, which also enable age-old esoterica to be demystified.

Q: Does this tie in with The Otters and the Jackal?

A: Indirectly, I suppose it does, in the sense that the novel's two narrators (one western, the other Thai) both experience supernatural phenomena at critical junctures and react in ways that both reflect and transcend their respective cultures' perceptions of these things. So via these two characters - Paul and Jo - we as readers enter a world of real-life mysteries, lost or hidden, and it's up to us to decide what role the 'magical' occurrences really play.  

Q: Does that mean western readers aren't obliged to turn to eastern mysticism for spiritual answers? We have our own tradition too.

A: A lot of westerners disillusioned by the spiritual vacuum left my mainstream Christianity turn rather glibly to oriental traditions for enlightenment, which they interpret in different ways (some rather superficial). A couple of decades ago, London bookshops' shelves were groaning under the weight of tomes with titles like How to Achieve Nirvana in 10 Simple Lessons Without Having to Give Up your BMW! So perhaps another element in The Otters and the Jackal is that while eastern religions may be philosophically better grounded than establishment Christianity, they're just as vulnerable to manipulation and abuse.

Q: But The Otters and the Jackal's not solely concerned with religion, is it?

A: No, definitely not! It's about the relationships between innocence and experience, between principled and unprincipled conduct, between true and false friendship, between official propaganda and harsh realities and how the same physical terrain can be perceived in radically different ways by observers with different cultural backgrounds and conditioning. It's also an adventure story involving love, sex, violence, power and death, so there's much more to it than just philosophy and religion!

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